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“Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade”, from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Kiss, meanwhile, is shown next to the figures of two reclining goddesses, diaphanously draped and sensuously intertwined. The coupling demonstrates both how Rodin adapted the lesson of harmoniously combining two figures and also of giving them life, even in stillness. The Age of Bronze, a standing, naked youth with his arm raised to his head, is paired with a block from the north frieze in which Pheidias showed a near-identical figure in bas relief. “No artist will ever surpass Pheidias,” said Rodin, but that didn’t stop him getting close to trying.

Rodin’s earliest inspiration had been the Italian Renaissance but the 1881 visit showed him that an even earlier style could point the way forward for modern sculpture. It also spurred him to collect some 6,000 antiquities which eventually necessitated their own museum. He did not view his collection as inert but would display pieces to visitors by lamplight to demonstrate the way the modelling reacted to different light. What he was about was making such things modern: if Pheidias was, in his eyes, the sculptor of “the entire human dream” of his time, Rodin wanted his own work to have a similar potency. And as a man with an uneasy relationship with the 19th-century art world he was unembarrassed to express his devotion to the fountainhead: “I love the sculptures of ancient Greece,” he said. “They have been and remain my masters.”

Underlying this enlightening exhibition too is a subtle propagandist message. In the face of Greek demands to return the Elgin Marbles the British Museum is demonstrating not just its stated position “that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries” but that the specific pairing of the museum and the statues has itself added significantly to that shared heritage.
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