There’s borrowing from the past, and there’s theft. Rodin was into the latter, says Waldemar Januszczak
In particular, he stole from Michelangelo. Pretty much every inch of this show’s irresolute journey features a telltale combination of convoluted human physiques, straining to achieve a thunderous emotional impact, that betrays the influence of the great Florentine. Sometimes it is a specific pose that has been plagiarised, as in the striding figure of the naked John the Baptist that confronts you in the first gallery, a clear theft from Michelangelo’s unsettlingly nude Risen Christ in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
Further into the proceedings, it’s the way carefully finished marble portraits emerge from crudely worked blocks of stone with that same attractive air of butterflies leaving their chrysalis that Michelangelo inadvertently pioneered in his magnificent Slaves.
Even before the show manages to get indoors and start officially, as it were, the borrowing is already shameless in those extra-large Gates of Hell, which are basically an attempt to turn the Sistine Chapel into a sculpture. Rodin’s giant doorway is always said to have been inspired by one of the most celebrated masterpieces of the Renaissance, Ghiberti’s bronze doors to the Baptistry in Florence. But the mood and rhythm of this throbbing cliff of figures is clearly derived from the Sistine interior, and in particular from Michelangelo’s stupendous fresco of The Last Judgment. It’s all here: the clutter of naked bodies, the fierce sense of descent, the appetite for extravagant poses, the feeling that hundreds of nudes are clambering all over the architecture, the disruptions in scale that cast some figures as extras and others as heroes.
Of course, there is nothing wrong in artists from one era reworking artists from another: Picasso made a brilliant career out of it. One of the main reasons Rodin is being presented as a proto-modernist here is because sampling, quotation and “appropriation” have become such common strategies in modern art. But whereas Picasso reworked his influences so radically that the originals became undetectable, Rodin’s uncomplicated thefts seem to raise real questions about his inventiveness.
At the centre of the show, there’s a disquieting room devoted to Rodin’s own collection of classical statuary. It’s disquieting because it makes clear that outrageous stealings from the classical world propelled the second half of his career just as greedy borrowings from Michelangelo drove the first half. Those superficially original “amputations” he begins churning out — the gesticulating hands, the headless torsos — turn out to be reworkings of his classical fragments. Again, it’ s not the fact that he borrowed the idea of the fragment from broken Roman remains that is disappointing, but the sheer obviousness of the theft. Where on earth has the fierce creative genius of legend disappeared to? The show is supposed to be divided into themes, loosely arranged in chronological order, that follow Rodin from his emergence in the 1870s, at the late age of 37, through a winding career that ended with his death in 1917. But with so much quotation and requotation going on, it’s difficult to follow the main threads. So skewwhiff is the show’s sense of direction that The Gates of Hell, commissioned from Rodin at the start of his career by the French government, in 1880, turns out to be the exhibition’s key work. The sculptor spent the rest of his life enlarging bits of it and transplanting them to other corners of his oeuvre. The Thinker, for instance, began life as the doomy figure of the poet Dante leaning over the top of the gates. And The Kiss made its first appearance in the earliest version, where it specifically represented Paolo and Francesca, the doomed, kissing lovers of Dante’s Inferno.
The show includes two versions of The Kiss, a small plaster and that huge white marble owned by the Tate. In fact, the Tate’s version was mechanically enlarged from the smaller plaster. You can still make out the drill holes left by the carving machine in the kissing man’s back. There’s no evidence Rodin even touched it. So all those people who criticise Damien Hirst for getting teams of people to make his sculptures or paint his dot paintings need to remember that Rodin was doing the same thing 100 years earlier.
Among the more tangible of the themes is Rodin’s close relationship with Britain. Some of his most fervent admirers were here, and a cast of his greatest work, The Burghers of Calais, stands outside the Houses of Parliament, where it tries to remind our rulers of the importance of selflessness. Some amusing photos in the show taken at various British banquets mounted in his honour make clear the extent to which high society lavished praise and appreciation on Rodin. “Any man who has had a portrait bust made by anyone else will go down in history as a ridiculous cretin,” thundered George Bernard Shaw, who duly had himself immortalised by Rodin as a human rabbit staring manically into the headlights.
With all that sampling going on, the cutting-off of heads and hands to make them free-standing, the confusing transitions from bronze to marble, the sense of a factory churning stuff out, it’s inevitable that the exhibition’s best moments come when Rodin is at his most authentic: with his original plaster casts. The big-bellied naked Balzac, the exciting plasters for the Burghers of Calais and, right at the end, a clutch of preparatory pieces for an unfinished monument to Whistler are authentic achievements. But there’s an awful lot of chaff surrounding those grains of wheat.