Rodin, first and foremost

Clare Heath on “Moore Rodin”, the Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green, Hertfordshire, until 27 October


Rodin's Burghers Of Calais

Set within the sculpture park of Henry Moore’s 50 acre-estate in rural Hertfordshire, this exhibition brings together Moore’s sculptures with works by Auguste Rodin. To my mind, the Frenchman comes out on top.

Seeing Rodin’s majestic Burghers of Calais, 1889, cast 1908, transported from its site outside the Houses of Parliament to Moore’s self-landscaped grounds gives an opportunity to reconsider this work. Positioned on a plinth just above eye level it is possible to see clearly each figure’s melancholic expression, tense neck and anguished hand, a strong example of Rodin's emotional realism, going further and further from conventional classicism. His fragments—exemplified by The Walking Man on a Column, 1900, lacking arms and head—took sculpture even further from its established role, claiming forms for their own sake.

Moore, born 58 years after Rodin, looked to non-Western art as an alternative to the academic traditions of classical and Renaissance art. It is interesting that, when he first went to Paris in the early 1920s, he avoided the Musée Rodin, preferring to spend time at the Musée de l’Homme. In contrast to Rodin, who set off on a pilgrimage to Italy on the 400th anniversary of Michelangelo’s birth, intent on learning secrets from the master, Moore spent the first two months of his travel grant avoiding Michelangelo.

While the exhibition does not pit Moore against Rodin, aiming instead to explore possible dialogues between them, it is difficult not to find Moore’s range of forms homogenous and relatively facile when compared with his forebear. Moore’s figurative Upright Motive No. 9, 1979, when compared, for example, with Rodin’s psychologically compelling Eve, 1881, looks stiff and decorative, more a sterile chess piece surmounting an obelisk. One reason for this is quite simple: whereas Moore was a carver, Rodin was a modeller, manipulating clay with his fingers, creating complex, and at times deeply pocketed surfaces. But there is more to it than that. The physical and intellectual force of the human subject is somehow effortlessly captured by Rodin and deliberately rebuffed by Moore.

Successful exchanges, such as the tautness and resilience of Moore’s pelvis-shaped The Arch in Spring, 1963-69, echoed by Rodin’s unclothed realisation of skin over bone witnessed in Jean d'Aire, 1887, cast 1987, converse coherently. Others, such as Moore’s corpulent Seated Woman, 1958-59, when compared with Rodin’s Cybele, 1905, cast 1981, heighten awareness of the artists' contrasting attitudes toward materials. Where Moore is preoccupied with solidifying flesh, Rodin manipulates bronze to emulate the suppleness and fluidity of the human body. Although a justification for their twinning is valiantly argued in the catalogue by Anita Feldman, head of collections and exhibitions at the Henry Moore Foundation, Moore would be better understood juxtaposed with Brancusi, Maillol or with his progeny Anthony Caro.

In later years, Moore refused to acknowledge his indebtedness to his Modern peers, preferring, paradoxically, given his early years, to endow his reputation with gravitas by claiming for himself a more classical past, citing his affinity with Michelangelo. What the exhibition shows, however, is that it is Rodin, not Moore, who has the stronger claim; the hands of Adam, 1881, cast 1972, could only have derived from the painter of the Sistine Chapel.

Clare Heath is writing about Italian Fascist aesthetics for her PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 05:37:00 GMT

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