It’s disconcerting to find Rodin in Tate Modern. We are used to seeing him in Tate Britain down the river – The Kiss has been brought here for this new exhibition – or in the V&A. He does come within Tate Modern’s remit in period (he died in 1917) but he’s one of the earliest artists to be shown there. His representational figurative sculpture will be a different experience for visitors after the abstract and modernist art.
Yet if Rodin looks different here, that’s good – it makes us see his modernity. Herbert Read, the great critic, began his book on Modern Sculpture with Rodin. This exhibition features his works in plaster and clay and his watercolours – the only marble work here is The Kiss, and one of the few bronzes is the wonderful figure of an athlete that started his career with a useful controversy about whether it was really the cast of a man.
In focusing on works in plaster, The Making of Rodin recalls the sculptor’s own show at the Pavillon d’Alma in 1900, staged to coincide with the Universal Exhibition: a display of plaster pieces designed to suggest the great man’s studio, except without the bustle, dust and assistants.
The thing about clay, in which he chiefly worked (the casts for plaster, then bronze, were made by others) is that it’s malleable – think of your own early work in plasticine – so conveys fluidity rather than the perfection of marble or bronze. Plaster casts, made from clay models, are usually tidied up, and the seams from the mould cleaned off, but here we find works in progress too. We see the making and remaking of work – there’s a disconcerting display of what he called giblets, or assorted plaster limbs – and we can see how a head or hand from one model would be cheerfully stuck onto the body of another.
The most impressive large room has models for the great statue of Balzac, which Kenneth Clark thought the greatest sculpture since Michaelangelo, from the stout nude models of the figure to the dressing gown drenched in plaster (looking spectral, all by itself) which he draped over it to create that monumental shape. Wonderful. In the same space there’s The Thinker and its preparatory models – you can see its colossal physicality close up – down to the clenched toes.
The drawings and watercolours, many erotic, are fascinating, pretty well the opposite of physical sculpture. There’s a mastery of line and interesting abstraction here, not least because he covered figures with a coloured wash which blurred the outlines.
In some of the captions, there’s a lengthy discussion on whiteness, suggesting that Rodin shared a view of classical sculpture which equated whiteness with beauty. How about whiteness being a quality of plaster and the avoidance of colour a way of concentrating on form?
The other thing that Tate Modern has going for it is space and light; the Burghers of Calais (also available to view for free on the Victoria Embankment, where the bronze versions reside) are in a room drenched with it. All the better to see their defeated, appalled expressions. Fabulous.
The Making of Rodin is at Tate Modern from May 17 to November 21