Exhibition of the week: The Making of Rodin

For all its strengths, the show is let down by a needlessly ‘censorious’ attitude towards its subject

Auguste Rodin - The Burghers of Calais
The Burghers of Calais (1889): unforgettable

In 1899, Auguste Rodin mounted a “decidedly unconventional” exhibition in Paris, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Rodin (1840-1917) took the decision to show his works in plaster, a material hitherto considered only as a “transitional” part of the process by which a sculpture progressed from the drawing board to its finished state in bronze or marble. The artist aimed both to “emphasise the fundamental role” that plaster played in the development of his “audacious modern vision”, and to “mythologise himself as a solitary genius”; because unlike bronze cast, a work in plaster would bear the imprint of his hand. The resulting show was “a muddle of figures and fragments and maquettes”, evoking the atmosphere of the artist’s studio. It would, the curators of a new exhibition at Tate Modern argue, set the pace for sculpture in the 20th century.

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In its first exhibition to open since lockdown restrictions were relaxed, the museum sets out to replicate the thrill of Rodin’s groundbreaking display, bringing together more than 200 works, mostly in plaster. The Making of Rodin includes many of his most famous sculptures and reminds us that he was unquestionably “the most innovative sculptor” of his time.

In many ways, this is a “serious and accomplished” exhibition, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. It features a roll-call of Rodin’s “greatest hits”: several plaster versions of The Thinker (1881) and a marble of his immortal The Kiss (1901-04) are present and correct, as are less-celebrated gems such as The Age of Bronze (1876-77), an “astonishingly supple likeness of a young Belgian soldier”. Yet for all its strengths, the show is let down by a needlessly “censorious” attitude towards its subject. The curators make the mistake of judging the artist by our contemporary mores. It tells Rodin off for “appropriating” classical sculpture, which he collected. A series of “frankly erotic” studies of naked women is accompanied by a caption informing us that the relationship between artist and model was “starkly unequal”. Such “finger-wagging” is pointless and irritating: “if you don’t like the work, don’t show it”.

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Rodin - The Tragic Muse

The Tragic Muse (1894-96)

Any attempt to engage with the exhibition’s arguments is “futile”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. The curators make a series of pretentious and historically illiterate claims about Rodin’s supposed “modernity”, repeatedly insisting that “the factory-like system he employed of churning out plaster models and bronze casts” made him a direct precursor to 20th century artists like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons. In fact, this was common practice for many 19th century sculptors. The show offers precious little in the way of “biographical context” or iconographic analysis, and consequently risks misrepresenting Rodin’s art.

Yet enjoyed as a “purely aesthetic” experience, it is a pleasure from start to finish. Among the highlights are a full-scale plaster cast of The Burghers of Calais (1889), Rodin’s unforgettable monument to a group of 14th century volunteers who sacrificed themselves to the English to save their city. Better still is a “full-sized plaster model” for his extraordinary monument to Balzac, capturing the rotund novelist swathed in a vast dressing gown. “Intellectually confused” as it is, this show is undeniably “beautiful”.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (www.tate.org). Until 21 November

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