And indeed the lovers were interrupted and killed. All this is lost if you see it just as an anonymous smooch. The Italian subject seems at first to make and obvious link from the ancient Greeks to Rodin via Michelangelo and the French sculptor did visit Italy and greatly admired the statues by Michelangelo that he saw, especially the Prisoners, fighting their way out of their blocks of stone. And the Dying Slave in Paris was another influence.
Michelangelo himself saw many Greek statues, though some were Roman copies of Greek originals. Such as the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman copy of an earlier Greek bronze. The same is true of the Laocoon and his sons sculpture, unearthed in 1506 and believed at first to be a Greek original.
But to revert to the Greeks, Rodin never saw the Parthenon itself but was deeply influenced by the marble friezes he saw in the British Museum. And plaster casts seen in France. However, he bought into the theories of eighteenth century art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was immensely influential on European art and aesthetics.
For Winckelmann, Greek sculpture was 'pure" and white but we now know that the Parthenon friezes were coloured and closer to mediaeval effigy art than to some theoretical aesthetic of purity. Here is just one example of a restored figure, a Trojan archer,painted in the colours it would have had originally:
But Rodin wasn't copying the Greeks; he was doing something different. If you like, his marble, bronze and plaster figures were putting Greek sculpture into inverted commas, giving it a modern twist.
Influenced by Michelangelo, he practised the non finito technique, leaving his statues deliberately incomplete. And he was fascinated by fragments of classical sculpture and deliberately created "fragments" of work. These figures were not damaged by time and accident but created to be only partial.
What about the great bronze group, The Burghers of Calais? The original is of course in the eponymous city but Rodin gave permission for a limited number of copies to be made and one is familiar to Londoners from its position in Victoria Gardens on the Embankment of the Thames.
|Credit: Roman Suzuki
As with so many of Rodin's monumental pieces, this one was controversial, because the figures were too human, showing fear and reluctance. It wasn't heroic for the nineteenth century burghers five and a half centuries after the event commemorated. Rodin's is a very modern view of heroism - scarifice in full knowledge of fear and weakness.
It seems a long way from the Greeks, whether the colourless or painted art. Rodin had no referents for what his actual burghers looked like but they are far from idealised; they are real men, who we can believe are hungry, frightened and hopeless. They are Everyman and that's what makes them important. We can identify with them and wonder if we would have done what they did.
Although Rodin clearly was influenced by classical sculpture, he does make something new, of his own. His work is far from derivative, always distinctive.
(All images are Creative Commons)