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“The Age of Bronze”, 1877, by Auguste Rodin, sandcast before 1916 © Musée Rodin

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece at the British Museum shows how that initial encounter — the first of 15 trips he made to London and to the museum, where he spent so much time he claimed he “haunted” it — manifested itself in his work. The exhibition pairs some 100 of Rodin’s works, among them his own plaster copy of The Kiss and sketches of the Parthenon sculptures he made on headed notepaper from the Thackeray hotel across the road from the museum, with a dozen of the originals that inspired them.

Perhaps the most striking example of the Parthenon effect can be seen in two before and after works. The first is his St John the Baptist, started in 1877 and showing the naked preacher striding, talking and gesticulating. It was modelled from an Italian peasant named Pignatelli, a “rough, hairy man”, said Rodin, who “expressed violence in his bearing . . . yet also the mystical character of his race”. He made the work larger than life size because he was still smarting from the accusation that rather than sculpt a previous work, The Age of Bronze, he had simply taken a cast from the model. The second work, The Walking Man, was made in 1899-1900 using studies for the legs and torso of St John. These he reassembled, marginally out of true and critically without head or arms.

The resulting sculpture was no longer identifiable as the saint but, drawing directly from the headlessness of many of the Parthenon sculptures, became both a modern work in which Rodin distanced himself from the Salon tradition of high finish and completion and antique in its brokenness, as if it had just been excavated. The sculptor’s response to the critics who did not understand its roughness was heartfelt: “Those people . . . Don’t they think that an artist has to apply himself to giving as much expression to a hand or a torso as to a face? And that he is logical and far more of an artist to exhibit an arm rather than a ‘bust’ arbitrarily deprived by tradition of its arms, legs and abdomen? Expression and proportion are the goals. Modelling is the means: it’s through modelling that flesh lives, vibrates, struggles and suffers.” In the exhibition, The Walking Man is placed alongside the headless and armless figure of a goddess from the east pediment of the Parthenon. It is a pairing not necessarily of straight borrowings but of correspondences.
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