A perfect pairing? Review of Rodin and Greek Art at the British Museum

Our youngest Student Ambassador Liv Sample writes a review of the British Museum’s latest exhibition:

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the artist whose most famous pieces “The Kiss” and “The Thinker” are known the world over, first visited the British Museum in 1881. He became immediately enraptured by the Parthenon Sculptures (aka the “Elgin Marbles”) and over the following two decades, returned to London eleven times to admire and sketch these artefacts. They inspired him to collect both ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and display them in his home in Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, and he became fond of creating headless and limbless sculptures of his own to mimic the marbles of the Parthenon.


Rodin was certainly in awe of Pheidias, (480-430BCE), the Athenian architect and sculptor, who under the direction of Pericles, is thought to be responsible for statues of the goddess Athena on the Acropolis (and the chryselephantine version of the goddess inside the Parthenon, one of the case studies in Dr Caroline Vout’s fascinating lecture to the Association last year). And of course, Pheidias is also thought to be the artist behind the exquisite marble carvings on the pediments, metopes and friezes of the Parthenon.

Fragments of these sculptures were removed from the face of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin more than two centuries ago, and to this day are displayed in the British Museum, but they are highly controversial. The museum’s position is firm, some might say rigid: the sculptures belong in Bloomsbury, where millions can visit and be inspired by these pieces of art.

And one of those millions had been the great Rodin. This might have been one of the underlying reasons for this exhibition – “Rodin and the art of Ancient Greece” – which was held between April and July at the Museum. But the art itself had attracted fantastic reviews in the press, with the promise of bronze, marble, stone and plaster sculptures of divinities, mythical creatures, animals and humans galore, and so I decided to visit London in July, and take a look for myself.


My sister and I at the exhibition

Reading the museum website beforehand, I was both astonished and delighted to see that the British Museum was actually encouraging you to take and share your own pictures of the exhibition. Let’s hope that practice continues, as it can only encourage people, particularly those attached to their phone like me, to visit the museum.

Right from the start of the exhibition, the Rodin and Pheidias comparisons were made, with a plaster cast of “the Kiss”, gleaming white and smooth (and a complete misnomer as the two lovers’ lips are not actually touching) next to the reclining and headless goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon. The idea of the curators was to show sensuality in both pieces. This irritated me. The male figure in the Kiss seems to be in a dominating pose with his hand clamped down on his lady friend’s thigh a bit too firmly for my liking- I would never want to be kissed like that! The captions under the goddesses suggested their clothing was the equivalent of a wet T shirt competition and that was equally disturbing – Ancient Greeks would not have been thinking about their deities in that way and neither should we.


However, there was a saving grace to all this. The goddesses had been taken down from elevated plinths in their usual gloomy space, and were now displayed at eye level in a huge room filled with natural light. The extraordinary carving of every fold and curve, could be appreciated as never before. And the British Museum pulled it back for me at that point.


I had never noticed before the brilliantly carved thumbnail of the centaur pressing hard against the Adam’s apple of his Lapith opponent, until I stood no more than a foot away from this most famous of metopes. Waiting around the corner, the river god Illissos originally from the West pediment, waited for me, lying casually on the floor so I could walk around him, whilst admiring his pumped physique, and the deeply carved muscular grooves of his back.


But back to Rodin, and a plaster, full size version of “The Thinker” which together with ‘the Kiss’ defines him to many. It is of course a powerful piece, with the suggestion in the caption below that our thinker, due to his odd posture, is in fact more likely to be in mourning. But once again, I simply couldn’t see the connection with any of the Parthenon sculptures around him, and apart from him being naked, suggesting he was an ancient heroic figure, he wasn’t for my money posing any serious competition to Illissos or even the Lapiths and centaurs.

Then across the room I saw Pallas Athena, patron deity of sculpture, and perhaps the only one that might help me see both the talents of Rodin and the connection between his work and the Parthenon marbles.


The beautiful face of this Rodin sculpture belonged to Mariana Russell, wife of the painter John Peter Russell. Mariana’s elegant features in creamy marble contrast with her roughened gown and hair, which represents the Acropolis from which the Parthenon springs out. Rodin obviously knew his Greek myths – Athena was born from the head of her father Zeus, and here she is in reverse giving birth to the building with which she has been associated for millennia. It is cleverly done and I think Pheidias would have approved.

On this particular trip to the British Museum, I was not alone. My sister Beatrice who is as attached to her sketchbook as I am to my phone, came along too. And unlike my first experience of the Parthenon sculptures, where all I got out of my day was a sore neck and strained eyes, Bea was able to experience them at height level and in full light.

Rodin stated these fragmented marbles to be “the greatest works of art on earth”. Their ability to persuade an eight year old to kneel in front of them and draw for a full afternoon suggests he might have been right.