The Rodin Gift to the V&A: a centenary celebration

For an event which had apparently been organised in some haste, the symposium The RodinGift to the V&A: A Centenary Celebration delivered an informative, stimulating and above all enjoyable day. One hundred years of Rodin and his legacy were rolled into seven hours of intense scholarship and debate. Held in the rather Orwellian sounding ‘Learning Centre’, the symposium consisted of formal and informal talks and lively debate in which curators, academics and sculptors exchanged knowledge and ideas with dealers, collectors and the curious.

The focus of the morning session was the gift of 18 sculptures which Rodin made to the V&A in November 1914 to honour the British soldiers fighting alongside their French allies during the First World War. Alicia Robinson, Senior Curator at the V&A, gave the first paper, an excellent account of the story behind the gift and the machinations relating to its acceptance by the Museum. Kudos to her too for insisting on retrieving John Lavery’s portrait of Rodin from storage and having it cleaned and hung with the sculptures, just as it had been in the past, in time for the symposium.

Independent curator and Rodin expert, Catherine Lampert, then discussed the relationship between the works in the collection and Baudelaire. These sculptures had been chosen by Rodin for an exhibition held at Grosvenor House in July 1914 to honour the French poet. 80 Impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings were shown, but Rodin was the only sculptor to exhibit, having a large room dedicated to his work. Many of the sculptures he exhibited, which eventually became the gift to the V&A, reflected the inspiration of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal ; an influence apparent in the Gates of Hell which he was also working on at this time. Catherine drew attention to the way in which response to Rodin’s work split society, some lionizing him while others mocked. She also noted the radical shift in Rodin’s work when he started working from real, living models. 

Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, the deeply knowledgeable Grande Dame of French Sculpture, rounded off the morning talks with her insights into Rodin’s late sculptures. Speaking of Rodin’s antipathy to restoration and the way he experimented and created sculptures from partial figures, reflecting the influence of the antiquity her talk had a tangential relevance to the exhibition she is currently curating in Geneva, Rodin. L’accident. L’aléatoire.

In the afternoon, the art critic and journalist Richard Cork spoke eloquently about Epstein’s fascination with Rodin and the hostility both faced from the British public. Epstein fared far worse than Rodin. Following a vitriolic campaign by The Evening Standard, his work on Zimbabwe House (formerly the BMA building) was deemed unsafe and summarily censored by a committee, which had the offending ‘bits’ physically removed, leaving behind ‘poignant’ relics of Epstein’s 8’ stone figures of nude men and women, entitled The Ages Of Man.

Dr. Jennifer Powell, Senior Curator from Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge then gave a paper examining the relationship between Rodin and Gaudier-Brzeska. Centring on Brzeska’s admiration for Rodin, she explored the role of movement, rhythm and dance in their work. This was an entertaining talk brimming with Jennifer’s thoughts and ideas.

Robert Bowman, sculpture dealer and sponsor of the symposium, then stepped up and explained the difference between lost wax (cire perdue) and sand casting methods, before tackling the question of Rodin’s authorized casts and giving simple clarity to this rather complex issue.

The final session of the day was all about Rodin’s legacy. The sculptor Nicola Hicks MBE spoke in a most engaging way about Rodin’s influence on her work. Chatting informally with Matilda Pye, who had once worked with her, it was soon obvious that Rodin had had a genuine impact on her approach to her subjects, in terms of both the expression of the psyche and her working practice in the freedom she gives her models.

Melissa Hamnett, sculpture curator at the V&A and the conference convenor, had a harder task in demonstrating how Rodin’s work had influenced the sculpture of Tony Cragg. Her paper, which drew fascinating visual parallels between the two sculptors’ works was based on the project for London 2012 held at the V&A, Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, entitled Tony Cragg at Exhibition Road . Cragg’s Instant, for example, expresses a fleeting moment in time in a similar way to which Rodin captured a momentary pose from a moving model. It was displayed alongside Rodin’s St. John the Baptist and echoes its ‘energy from within’. The sculptures for the project had been chosen in close discussion with Cragg and displayed alongside the V&A’s Rodin works, demonstrating where he considered there had been direct inspiration or where there was a clear dialogue, on occasion, however, this association seemed a little tenuous. 

The symposium concluded with a conversation between Richard Cork and the sculptor, Daniel Silver. This was interesting in terms of Silver’s working practice and installations, but although Cork managed to coax some perceptive observations from Silver, the pair struggled to make convincing correlations with Rodin. This was a worthwhile discussion, but it seemed to fit uneasily into this context; a minor quibble. The final session would have probably flowed better had Melissa Hamnett preceded Nicola Hicks, and Daniel Silver been omitted entirely. To have concluded the symposium with Hicks would have been to end on a positive, high note, as it was the proceedings rather lost momentum and petered out – but by that time we were all exhausted anyway!

Well done the V&A and Bowman Sculpture for holding a great symposium. 3rd Dimensionhopes that you will have the opportunity to collaborate again soon.

The symposium The Rodin Gift to the V&A: A Centenary Celebration was held on 12th July 
2014 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Main image: Auguste Rodin, Crouching Woman, c. 1891, bronze (photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum)

Aurora Corio