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Nov 2006 Journal

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Arts Notes (review)

Rodin's sensuality as a sculptor is self-evident, but for all the romance of his famous Kiss, in which the embracing lovers emerge seamlessly from the rough stone plinth, the sculptor also demonstrates a darker, more introspective talent. Balzac, John the Baptist and the Burghers of Calais reflect the emotional depth which indicates how his monumental public works not only broke with tradition, but introduced a more naturalistic humanity.

Rodin, at the Royal Academy of Arts until January 2007, shows how, after he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1882, British collectors boosted his reputation well before Paris. In fact, his earliest artistic ambitions were thwarted by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts - which rejected him three times - but eventually his career soared with commissions for several municipal monuments, beginning with the Gates of Hell, clearly influenced by Dante's Inferno. It is here that you can see the convoluted shapes and graceful muscularity which are Michaelangelo's inspiration.

The exhibition shows several maquettes and models for this work, as well as busts of the parvenues, celebrities and society beauties of his day. The likeness of Lady Sackville and proto-interior decorator Eve Fairfax are fashioned with the delicacy which proves Rodin's love of beauty. Some he renders in a glittering granite within the marble. He was also interested in Javanese and modern dancers, inspired by Nijinsky. Less known perhaps is Rodin's near-obsession with Greek and Assyrian antiquities, of which he built up a personal collection, some inspired by his drawings of the Parthenon Frieze at the British Museum. The goddess head known as the Warren Head, which he longed for but failed to acquire, has a stunning simplicity, a perfect symmetry of feature which you can see has inspired some of these society commissions.

His monument to Victor Hugo shows the writer in deep contemplation on the rocks of Guernsey during his exile there. Perhaps most significant is his rotunda of the six Burghers of Calais, which commemorates their 1347 protest to the English king, Edward 111, on behalf of besieged fellow citizens. Rodin rejects the conventional pyramidal style by presenting them each in strikingly different attitudes. It is so effective that they appear to be moving on a slow roundabout. Two free-standing works, The Age of Bronze and St John the Baptist, also indicate this courageous break with tradition, since each is shown with a flawed humanity.

Simeon Solomon - described by fellow Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones as 'the greatest artist of us all' - is celebrated in Ben Uri's current exhibition, Love Revealed, until November 26. He was vindicated as a genius, but his tragic life ended in a Victorian workhouse in 1905. Solomon's early work drew on his Jewish heritage and later incorporated a mysticism which influenced Symbolism in Britain and Europe. Some of those early drawings feature biblical stories, and one of his most beautiful works is his painting of a rabbi carrying the scrolls of the Law. By contrast, his dramatic depiction of Roman women watching a gladiatorial combat shows their mixed emotions in striking detail.
Gloria Tessler

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