Versus RodinMarch 24, 2017
For public art museums these are dark times. As costs keep escalating and governments grow reluctant to provide necessary funds it becomes ever more urgent to work out what audiences actually want. Then comes the difficult balancing act between revenue-raisers and those shows that are part of a gallery’s wider responsibilities to our history and culture.
When put under pressure our major institutions have adopted contrasting strategies. The National Gallery of Victoria has created a program jam-packed with exhibitions of all descriptions, while the Art Gallery of NSW has adopted a minimal approach: cutting back on shows, publications, openings, and so on. The results are pretty clear, with Melbourne enjoying record attendances and Sydney in the doldrums. Is it too late to repair the damage?
The Art Gallery of South Australia has a much lower profile than its eastern states counterparts, but the second-biggest permanent collection in Australia after the NGV. It also has a woefully small allocation of government funds, which means it has to find innovative ways to generate shows and attract audiences. Over the past few years the AGSA has been consistently inventive and gathered positive responses. For the exhibition, Versus Rodin: Bodies Across Time and Space, it has stepped up another level.
This year is the centenary of the great sculptor’s death at the age of 77, and the AGSA is well endowed with his works thanks to multiple bequests by Bill Bowmore. It would have been a simple matter to do a small Rodin survey utilising the collection and a few judicious loans, but curator, Leigh Robb, adopted a far more ambitious course. The Rodin holdings have been surrounded by modern and contemporary works by more than 60 artists, both international and Australian, plus a few antiquities.
Another significant innovation with this show is the curator’s willingness to borrow from leading private collectors, including Naomi Milgrom, Judith Nielson, Danny and Lisa Goldberg, Julian and Stephanie Grose, Dick Quan, Steven and Alisa Nasteski, Clinton Ng and Damian Vassallis, to name only those that receive special acknowledgment in the catalogue.
I recently interviewed one of those collectors, Danny Goldberg, who believes audiences everywhere are eager to see more contemporary art. To this end he is ready and willing to share his collection with the art museums of Australia, but has met with a cautious response to his proposals. Goldberg was so delighted with the Versus Rodin concept he suggested further works to the curator and bought them for the show.
Few collectors would go so far, but it suggests public galleries should take stock of their current predicament and look for ways to work more closely with the private sector. There has always been a legitimate fear that such collaborations would compromise a gallery’s integrity but this may be the only way to keep up with the art of our time.
One danger is that, with the exception of venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, major institutions cannot become overly fixated on the here-and-now to the exclusion of everything else. This is where Versus Rodin succeeds so well in using the art of the past to illuminate the art of the present, and vice versa.
In the case of Rodin it’s hard to imagine an artist in any place or time that was more fixated on the human body. The treatment of this subject has gone through many metamorphoses in the century following his death, and Versus Rodin explores these permutations in a series of rooms in which the French master’s work acts like a nucleus around which the more recent pieces spin like satellites.
It’s not a perfect show by any means but it’s an exhilarating one. The influence of David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art is detectable, but Robb and her colleagues have provided a clear focus for all those startling juxtapositions of past and present.
Within that focus they have allowed themselves the freedom to experiment. The basic aim has been to chart the differences in the way artists have approached the human body in relation to social, cultural and technical developments. For instance, Rodin never had the option of making a video-sculpture like Bill Viola, or a digitally manipulated photograph. Neither could he have anticipated the influence of surrealism, performance art, feminism, and our latter-day openness to sexual and cultural diversity.
The sub-themes of the show – the classical body, the fragmented body, the social body, the erotic body, the emotional body, the mind body, and the contemporary body – are blurred at the edges and permit a good deal of crossover. Neither is there anything very precise about the curators’ choices, as one might substitute any number of alternative works without denting the conceptual framework.
The thrill of the exhibition lies in the surprising affinities, the complements and contrasts, that occur between diverse items. Robb calls it a “dialogue” but also allows for elements of competition and rivalry. She might have gone further and identified a sense of parody in some works – occasionally the cynical variety that seeks to tear down what it cannot hope to match.
This is the only way I can interpret a piece such as Sarah Lucas’s Realidad (2013), a seated figure whose limbs have been made from cotton-filled stockings then cast in bronze. It’s a refutation of Rodin’s heroic, sexualised, heavily-muscled figures. Lucas seems to be saying that most bodies are merely floppy. She is thumbing her nose at both Rodin and the tradition of anatomically idealised bodies, from the Greeks to Michelangelo to Canova.
The problem is, it’s so much easier to make a floppy figure than a muscular one. Likewise, it’s more convenient to fiddle with an image on a computer screen than to cast a life-size figure in plaster.
While some works, such as Anthony Gormley’s architectonic figures, feel like genuine extensions of Rodin’s aesthetic, the majority of pieces pale by comparison. There is such rude vitality in Rodin’s bronzes, from large-scale figures such as Pierre de Wissant (1886-87) from the Burghers of Calais grouping, to the smallest maquettes, that the sculptor is like a majestic oak towering over a plantation of ornamental scrubs.
To fully appreciate Rodin’s originality we have to look at it in historical context. A tiny sculpture such as Iris, study with head (1891), is outrageously explicit – a female figure missing an arm, but with her legs spread wide. In one gesture Rodin has exploded the decorum one associates with the neo-classical marble nude.
Rodin’s willingness to cast the body in fragments, or even to stitch figures together from pieces of other sculptures, as in The Inner Voice (c.1894) is another revolutionary manoeuvre. If this seems less striking to us than it did to his contemporaries it may be because the story of Dr. Frankenstein putting together his monster from bits of stolen corpses has become so well-established in our popular culture.
The Romans would knock the head off a statue of a dead emperor and add a new one, but this was only because it was more economical than sculpting an entirely new figure. Rodin combined body parts as a way of deriving a new expressiveness from the figure. It’s a way of using the material forms of the body to strive for a metaphysical effect.
As Richard Beresford writes, in an excellent catalogue introduction, Rodin’s willingness to explore new forms and techniques did not undermine his respect for tradition. He saw himself as an heir to Michelangelo, and probably felt licensed to distort the figure for expressive ends as the great Florentine had done. His competition with Michelangelo was purposeful and constructive. Can we say the same about all the contributors to this show?
One of the seductive aspects of Versus Rodin is that it invites us to examine the spirit in which contemporary artists have responded to the challenge of a legendary precursor. Each viewer will form their own ideas as to who has added something unique to the way we visualise the body. To see how well Rodin withstands this assault on all fronts is like watching a Hollywood action hero fighting off dozens of assailants. By the end of the show he stands taller than ever.
Versus Rodin: Bodies Across Space and Time
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide,
until 2 July
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 25th March, 2017.