Review by Corinna Lotz
American artist Jasper Johns, best known for his American flags and tin cans, is not someone you would connect with Auguste Rodin. And yet Johns once said something totally relevant to Tate Modern’s current The Making of Rodin display.
“Any broken representation of the human physique is touching in some way; it’s upsetting or provokes reactions that one can’t quite account for. Maybe because one’s image of one’s own body is disturbed by it.” ( John Yau in Hyperallergic)
After a year and a half of lockdowns, viewing disembodied faces on our smartphones and screens, our sense of what it means to have a physical body has become more immediate and important. The sense of touch has become almost alien. Looking at the work of an artist who only ever worked from female and male bodies speaks to us with a new meaning and urgency.
The Making of Rodin thus can also be a kind of “remaking” of how we see ourselves.
For assembled in the large galleries overlooking the Thames and facing St Paul’s are innumerable studies of the human body, many of them incomplete, broken off, floating in space.
It’s amazing to see the study for The Burghers of Calais, which Rodin wanted mounted high up outside the Houses of Parliament as a citizens’ reproach to the state, instead of low down in the gardens where they now stand.
Most are in plaster, the most friable fragile of materials. I don’t envy the museum workers who had to pack these for transport from Rodin’s former studios in France. Other pieces are in clay and still others virtually float away in watercolour on paper.
We feel so strongly the direct imprint of the artist’s hand. And yet, this is only made possible by a whole range of techniques and processes. What was previously deliberately hidden – the making of a thing – now becomes part of the message. The medium and the message are entangled and inseparable. The fragment is negated into a new whole.
In a prose-poetry stream of consciousness, sculptor-installation artist Phyllida Barlow captures the energy that Rodin breathed into the various materials at his disposal. In the stunningly beautiful exhibition book, she writes:
“What kind of energy did Rodin exploit? is it aggressive? is it perverse? Is there a chaotic confusion between desire and power? Is there sexual naivety? Is there a compulsive sexual craving driven by unsatiated desire?”
Barlow goes on to speak of a “very public exposure /from a very private endeavour”.
The inclusion of two heads of Rodin’s lover, sculptor Camille Claudel conveys such intense vulnerability but also strength, that they are heart-breaking. A disembodied hand touches her head lightly; in the second, her fingers play on her closed lips, saying… speaking – mute and yet so eloquent.
By audaciously placing his plaster works on display at the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris, Rodin broke definitively with any view of monumental sculpture as only permanent, cast in bronze, static.
The Tate installation emulates this approach, thus giving an insight into the way Rodin transformed dumb materials into vehicles for the human intellect and emotions ranging from anguish to heroism to lust. “Disturbed looking” indeed.
The Making of Rodin is at Tate Modern until 21 November. The exhibition book, edited by Nabil Abdel Nabi, Chloé Ariot and Achim Borchardt-Hume, is £40, hardback with 150 colour illustrations.