I went to the big Rodin exhibition at the Royal Academy today. It offered one of the simplest of art pleasures – looking at striking objects. His work has real presence, and not just because it’s made out of big lumps of bronze or marble. Their status as representational work seemed less important than the sheer physicality of them.
That’s not entirely true, of course – you can’t separate it out in that way and pretend that they’d somehow be just as effective if they were abstracts. I’m not sure the claim would even mean anything. So what do I mean? I guess there’s a kind of impersonality to them. Whereas a painting is to some extent experienced as a window onto another reality, this work never had that kind of illusionistic quality; they are experienced much more directly as art-objects. Some of that is the medium, some of it is his style.
Much of the work in the show was fairly familiar — a lot of the exhibition is built around The Burghers of Calais, The Kiss, The Thinker and The Gates Of Hell. I didn’t realise he’s done quite so many sculptures of nekkid girls embracing each other, though. They all had different titles — The Earth and Moon, or whatever — but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that he just got a bit of a kick out of doing them. There were also various erotic drawings he’d done that featured girls prominently displaying their lady-bits, so I don’t think I’m jumping to any outrageous conclusions.
It made me think how few famous sculptors there are, especially since some of the most famous artists of the Renaissance (Bernini, Michelangelo) were sculptors. Between the Renaissance and abstraction, Rodin is almost the only really big-name sculptor I can think of, compared to the dozens of painters I could come up with at a moments notice. I guess the great ages of sculpture tend to be when it’s much in demand for architectural dressing; Greek temples and medieval and Renaissance churches seem to have been thick with the stuff. But still, that’s not really an adequate explanation. Even with sculpture relatively out of fashion, there were many thousands of statues, monuments, tombs and so on put up in the C17th – C19th, but somehow none of the sculptors managed to carve out a place in the public consciousness. Which I guess makes Rodin all the more exceptional.