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A Tale of Two Exhibitions: Auguste Rodin, Gwen John, and the Torsos of Antiquity

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 4 June 2018

By Sarah Gibbs

What do you get when you combine a French sculptor, an English painter, and a bunch of statues that lost their heads (literally) on the journey from antiquity to the twentieth century? Amazing exhibitions at the British Museum, which just opened the show Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, and the UCL Art Museum, where visitors can enjoy Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918!

Left: Auguste Rodin (British Museum / Musée Rodin; Jean de Calan); right: Gwen John. Self-Portrait, 1900 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

The British Museum’s exhibition examines the profound influence on the artist’s work of classical sculpture, in particular, the Parthenon figures in the British Museum. Of Pheidias, the ancient sculptor responsible for the Parthenon’s adornment, as well as the giant statue of the goddess Athena that resided within, Rodin declared in 1911: “No artist will ever surpass [him]… 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’s purpose-built antiquities museum at Meudon (British Museum / Musée Rodin; Jean de Calan)

In homage to the works of antiquity, Rodin removed the heads and extremities from many of his own sculptures. In so doing, he created a new sub-genre of art: the headless, limbless torso (because beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder—of abdominals). Among the photographs included in the British Museum’s displays is an image of Gwen John, an English painter and Rodin’s lover, and a featured artist in another local exhibition.

While the UCL Art Museum’s Prize & Prejudice doesn’t include any paintings of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy emerging from the lake at Pemberley, it is an in-depth examination of the work of the female artists who swept the Slade School’s annual prizes in 1918. Among the portraits, drapery studies, and drawings from life is a composition by Gwen John, a student at the Slade between 1895 and 1898. John’s piece includes a figure sketch after Raphael and the exhibit’s accompanying text notes that: “Like her peers she would have been encouraged to visit the Print Room at the British Museum in order to closely examine the [Old Masters’] originals in person.”

Drawing from casts of headless, limbless classical torsos was also part of the Slade students’ training. Perhaps John and Rodin passed one another in the British Museum’s hallowed halls before they met in France in 1904.

The British Museum and the UCL Art Museum’s exhibitions are a beautiful double feature for any art lover with a free afternoon in Bloomsbury. Rodin diverged from classical models in his desire to show the sculpting process—tool marks and rough edges remain on his works—and in his interest in pieces which appeared unfinished. Likewise, Prize & Prejudice’s drawings and paintings are artefacts of art in progress: the efforts of practitioners honing their craft and learning from the masters who preceded them.

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece; until 29 July 2018 (British Museum)

Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918; until 8 June 2018 (UCL Art Museum)

 

Sources:

British Museum. Rodin & the Art of Ancient Greece. 2018. London. http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/rodin-1.aspx

Langdale, Cecily. “John, Gwendolen Mary [Gwen], (1876–1939).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37610

UCL Art Museum. Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918. 2018. London.