Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece

In a major new exhibition, the British Museum will explore the influence of the ancient Greek masters on the art of Rodin.


City Countdown is looking forward to the new Rodin and the Art of  Ancient Greece exhibition.

“If I have seen further than others, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This phrase was famously uttered by the 17th century scientist Isaac Newton to qualify his dazzling achievements in classical mechanics.

Newton intuitively understood that no matter how incredible his achievements, they were only really possible because of the likes of Aristotle and Galileo. To the father of gravitation, these men were like giants with Newton himself a mere mortal desperately clambering onto their backs.

Rodin was to 19th century sculpture what Isaac Newton had been to science two centuries earlier. The artist was quite rightly venerated for single handedly redefining the medium, elevating it from its early 19th century subservience to church and state into a dynamic and daring medium capable of expressing the physiological and psychological states of its subjects. What is less well known are the many influences that shaped the young French maestro’s artistic vision.

All this is about to change however with the imminent opening of a fascinating new exhibition about the artist. The show will trace the origins of Rodin’s artistic vision to the dusty foothills of ancient Greece and in particular to the work of a small band of Greek sculptors.

It’s true that the British Museum held a special place in the French artist’s heart. He visited the institution so often that he sometimes joked that it felt as if he ‘haunted’ the place. Indeed he spent so much time there that he would often stay right across the road, in the small and unfussy surroundings of the Thackeray Hotel.

However, it was actually on his very first visit to the museum that Rodin made the discovery that would change the nature of his work forever. What Rodin saw that day would influence his thinking for the rest of his life and force him to rethink his ideas of what constituted good sculpture.

What could possibly have such a dramatic effect on the young maestro, you ask? Well, it’s simple. Rodin discovered the Parthenon sculptures. The sculptures had been a cause of contention almost from the moment they were acquired by the British Museum. This was in large part due to the controversial way in which they arrived in England.

Indeed Lord Byron was so offended by the role of Lord Bath that he likened the process of acquiring the works to an act of vandalism and looting.

However if Rodin was aware of the circumstances behind the work’s acquisition he certainly did not acknowledge it. Besides, the artist was far too mesmerized by the work itself. The sculptures had suffered thousands of years of damage and neglect but for Rodin, this weathering only seemed to increase the work’s authenticity and beauty. The French artist even began to remove the heads and limbs from his own works to achieve a similar look!

The craftsman behind the work was thought to be the ancient Greek sculptor Pheidias. Rodin came to idolise him. “No artist will ever surpass Pheidias” he said. “The greatest of the sculptors, who appeared at the time when the entire human dream could be contained in the pediment of a temple, will never be equalled”.

Rodin began to scour markets for fragments of antique marble. He collected it by the crate load. Limbless torsos, chipped headed, disembodied arms, he wanted it all. He even began to hope that some of the fragments might be the work of his idol Pheidias.

Rodin also began to display his creations side by side with the work of the ancient masters. In this way, he could directly compare his artistry with that of his idols.
For this exhibition, the British Museum have sought to recreate that arrangement.

The curators of the new show have strived to place Rodin’s work in context, selecting to display the artist alongside a number of his principal influences. These couplings highlight more clearly than ever the pull of the ancient world on the revolutionary French artist. In addition, for the first time ever, Rodin’s work will be exhibited alongside the Parthenon sculptures he loved so much.

Ironically Rodin never travelled to Greece. All he knew of the Pheidias and the Parthenon came from the British Museum. However, in this case it proved enough. Rodin was already standing on the shoulders of the giants.

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece opens at the British Museum on the 26th of April and runs until the 29 July 2018.

More information about the event can be found here.

If you’d like information on other great art events in London, please click here.


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