Dr Natasha Ruiz-Gómez reviews Rodin - In Private Hands at Bowman Sculpture

The terms ‘original’ and ‘copy’ as they relate to bronze sculpture can be challenging to explain to the uninitiated. Even a brief elucidation has to touch upon ideas of originality, authenticity and ownership, while including discussions of media, reproducibility and editions, to name a few of the potentially thorny issues involved. The exhibition Rodin – In Private Hands at Bowman Sculpture coolly unpacked these terms for visitors, as well as past and future collectors, using the rich oeuvre of French artist Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).

The work of Rodin, the first modern sculptor, has been at the heart of the debate between originality and reproducibility before in a contentious dialogue, well known in academic circles, between the post-structuralist art historian Rosalind Krauss and Rodin scholar and curator Albert E. Elsen. Their argument was prompted by the inclusion of a recent bronze cast of Rodin’s Gates of Hell (1880-1917), a sculpture that was left unfinished in plaster at the time of the artist’s death, in the important exhibition Rodin Rediscovered curated by Elsen for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1981. Bowman Sculpture tackled the issues head on in a large text panel that greeted visitors to the exhibition, which effectively explicated the differences between life casts, posthumous casts and (post-1952) museum casts, while also attempting to legitimise the sale of posthumous casts to collectors. This formed the backdrop to the impressive collection of both well-known and more obscure sculptures by the celebrated artist.

The exhibition occupied two floors and included sculptures that ranged from early works, such as the stunning terracotta Vase of the Titans created while Rodin was working with Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse at the Sèvres porcelain factory, to the late abstracted dancers. The three extraordinary studies of the Pas-de-deuxalone were worth a visit to the exhibition. They not only exemplified Rodin’s experiments with the easy reproducibility of sculpted bodies, but they also demonstrated how the rhythmic cadences that result from manipulating their orientation vary their expressive capacity.

A close viewing of one of the Pas-de-Deuxsurprisingly revealed deep red tones, rising to the surface in various spots. These sanguinary highlights were but one of the array of patinas brought together in this exhibition, which highlighted for this visitor one of the difficulties with the relationship between authorial intent, originality and the casting process. Rodin was famously uninterested in his sculptures once they had left his atelier, often leaving decisions on patination to his foundries. Ben Hunter from the gallery noted that a sculpture’s patina could metamorphose at the hands of the collector him or herself; in the exhibition’s sensuous Danaïde, one can see the smooth, glossy trail of the previous owner’s slow caresses across its surface where a light brown patina has emerged.

The downstairs gallery showcased a sickly green-looking Triumphant Youthand a sepia-toned Eve. These patinas inflect the readings of these sculptures in surprising ways. The mouldy colour of the Triumphant Youth, for instance, suggested decay and created a more powerful image of vanitas. Here as elsewhere curatorial decisions made for an interesting dialogue between sculptures. Next to Triumphant Youth was Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière, allowing one to compare the subtle changes Rodin made to the elderly figure shared by both sculptures. And the youthful and placid pair of Brother and Sister, exhibited on the other side of Triumphant Youth, seemed to hark back nostalgically to an almost Edenic past. Inexplicably, however, pairs of Eternal Spring and The Kiss were displayed on different floors, squandering an opportunity for another instructive juxtaposition.

The lavishly illustrated catalogue (not reviewed here) includes Rodin sculptures sold by the gallery in the last five years, many of which were not on display in the exhibition. It is available as a free PDF download from the gallery’s website . It is worth noting that Krauss and Elsen’s exchange is not mentioned in the 272 page catalogue.

This exhibition was touted on Bowman Sculpture’s website as ‘the largest group of Rodin bronzes exhibited in the UK since the Royal Academy’s Rodin exhibition of 2007’. But more important than the size of the show is the way that it illuminated certain key yet under-studied elements of both Rodin’s oeuvre and bronze casting in the twentieth century.

Rodin – In Private Hands
was at Bowman Sculpture
6, Duke Street St. James’s, 
London SW1Y 6BN
1 May – 31 July 2014

Main image: installation view, Rodin in Private Hands, Bowman Sculpture (photo: Bowman Sculpture)

Aurora Corio