One look at Medusa would turn flesh to stone. Auguste Rodin was sort of the opposite, dedicating his life and radical art instead to somehow turning stone into living, breathing, rippling flesh. His revolutionary sculptures feel quiveringly close to bursting alive and writhing with movement.
He was far from the first to manage that anthropomorphic feat, though. Thousands of years before Augie picked up a chisel, the ancient Greeks were Frankensteining marble to life like nobody’s business. The British Museum’s Parthenon marbles are the most exquisite of the lot – proper wonders of the world – and they were a huge inspiration to Rodin. So here, the BM’s whacked work by the French master next to the ancient sculptures that he was obsessed with. Most shows that put ancient perfection next to modern radicalism do a disservice to both. But this is a gorgeously put together exhibition.
It starts on a high: a plaster version of ‘The Kiss’ sits next to two reclining Greek goddesses draped in robes that seem to drip and cascade. The fluidity of the marble trickles into the gooeyness of the kiss, a work that feels like it’s slurping up out of solid rock.
‘The Thinker’, huge and imposing, comes next, contemplating the ancient river god Ilissos. A falling torso nearby echoes the shape of the god Hermes, a dying hybrid creature mirrors a combatting Greek centaur. Rodin’s ancient inspiration is clear and constant.
But whereas the Parthenon marbles are idealised visions of human figures, Rodin’s work is explosively exaggerated. The hands on his ‘Burghers of Calais’ are huge meaty hocks, the poses of his nudes are twisted and extreme, his figures too big, his features too pronounced. Where the Parthenon marbles are damaged by time, Rodin rips his own sculptures’ heads and hands off, finding beauty in disintegration. Rodin flexes his muscles incessantly, pushing and pulling at the fabric of sculpture, creating thousands of stone revolutions.
But the show does churn up a lot of questions about authenticity, authorship – how big of a role did Rodin’s assistants actually play in creating his work? – and most of all about whether or not the British Museum should even still have the Parthenon marbles. It’s a big, awkward debate that doesn’t get properly addressed. A huge marble elephant in the room.
None of that takes away from how beautiful the work on show is, though. The whole thing feels like jolts of electricity coursing through time: a spark of brilliance in ancient Greece rippling and crackling into the hands of Rodin thousands of years later. Or maybe it’s an age-old heartbeat, pumping blood through history and bringing everything around you to life.