Ancient Rome casts new light on Rodin’s sculpture
Europe Letter: an exhibition in Arles highlights the influence of ancient art on the sculptor
Rodin’s The Thinker. The French sculptor constantly reworked and assimilated the forms and aesthetics of ancient Greek and Roman art. Photograph: Karl Weatherly/Getty
Provence – the name evokes images of endless lavender fields, sleepy farmhouses and pools of golden light, scenes that inspired generations of painters. But the landscape of this southern French province is also full of visible reminders of the area’s Roman past.
Amphitheatres, viaducts and Roman arenas are scattered around the towns and cities of Provence, vestiges of a mighty empire that stretched from northern England to the Sahara.
Southern Gaul, as it was then known, was one of the first areas of Roman occupation, conquered between 120 and 50 BC. The town of Arles soon became an important centre of Roman civilisation. Located 50 miles north of Marseille on the banks of the river Rhone, it was identified by Julius Caesar as an important trading centre, and flourished throughout the Roman period, acting as a base from which emperors conducted many of their campaigns during the fourth and fifth centuries.
The area’s links with the Roman past were celebrated this summer at an exhibition at the Museum of Antiquity in Arles.
Rodin: the Light of Antiquity explores how classical art and statuary influenced the celebrated French sculptor.
The exhibition of more than 300 sculptures, drawings and items amassed by Rodin himself provides a fresh look at the sculptor best known for works such as The Thinker and The Kiss.
The decision to house the exhibition in Arles’s Museum of Antiquity is insightful, offering a fresh context in which to view his work. Located just next to the site of the ancient Roman circus, the museum itself is packed with an exceptional collection of Roman artefacts. Fragments of ancient monuments and objects from daily life, including remarkably well-conserved sarcophagi and sculptures, open the window to Arles’s Roman past. These include a colossal marble statue of the emperor Augustus and a marble bust of Aphrodite unearthed at the nearby Roman theatre, as well as a remarkable bust of Julius Caesar, discovered embedded in the river bed by divers in the 1990s.
The juxtaposition of the museum’s own collection with Rodin’s works – many of which were transported from the Musée Rodin in Paris – opens up fascinating connections.
Rodin was captivated by the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome. As a modern exponent of the tradition of nude sculpture, the artist constantly reworked and assimilated the forms and aesthetics of ancient Greek and Roman art.
As a young artist, he spent hours observing the Louvre’s Renaissance and classical art collections. He discovered the work of Michelangelo in earnest during a visit to Italy in the 1870s.
By the 1890s, Rodin was collecting works of antiquity, building up a formidable collection of sculptures, artefacts and fragments of classical sculpture in his studio.
The exhibition traces this lifelong dialogue between modernity and antiquity that characterised Rodin’s work. He was interested in the fragmentary form of much of ancient statuary. The broken form in which much Roman art passed down through the centuries was a source of inspiration for Rodin. The “unfinished” work became a hallmark of his oeuvre. This is evident in his early work, Man with the Broken Nose, an unconventional sculpture of a man with a flattened nose and a section of his head missing, after part of the clay model fell off during the modelling process.
The theme is continued in The Walking Man – the bronze, life-size statue of a man, without head or arms, in forward motion, was to become one of his best known works.
Other works on show include the celebrated The Age of Bronze, a life-size nude of a man with head tilted back and arm raised. The work has heavy echoes of Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave, but is marked by Rodin’s idiosyncratic naturalistic style and emphasis on movement and texture.
The exhibition also explores the role of the female muse in Rodin’s work, and his complex relationship with women. His lover Camille Clauder was a model for much of his work, and Rodin explored ideas of female sexuality and physicality in his numerous depictions of the female form.
The influence of Venus-Aphrodite is highlighted by the exhibition. The artist’s 1912 book To the Venus de Milo is a tribute to the famous classical statue in the Louvre, while his studio was littered with pieces of classical female nude statues and sculptures.
Through its innovative use of space and context, the exhibition succeeds in casting a new light on Rodin’s works.
Rodin’s extensive sculptures can also be seen at the Musée Rodin in Paris. Set in the 18th-century Hotel Biron and surrounding grounds in Paris, it remains one of Europe’s best museums.