Titans of sculpture’s natural splendour

A pairing of key works by Rodin and Moore points to their shared fascination with organic forms, writes Alexander Massouras

March 28, 2013

Moore Rodin
Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green, Hertfordshire
29 March- October
Compton Verney, Warwickshire
15 February-31 August 2014

Observant passers-by may have noticed the recent disappearance of Auguste Rodin’s 1889 sculpture The Burghers of Calais from its usual position outside the Houses of Parliament. To many, the absence of this monument to nobility in leadership may seem fitting, a gesture equivalent - perhaps - to the famous concealment of the United Nations’ tapestry version of Picasso’s Guernica when the invasion of Iraq was being debated in 2003.

But the immediate cause is not the onset of political self-awareness in Westminster. It is an exhibition at the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green, Hertfordshire, exploring the relationship between the work of Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Rodin (1840-1917). There, The Burghers of Calais can be seen afresh, in the landscape and on a plinth about four feet lower than in Westminster, offering the viewer opportunities for an unusually close look. It is the first time that such a large selection of Rodin’s work, brought together from collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge as well as the Musée Rodin in Paris, has been shown at the same time in a British landscape setting.

Exhibitions comparing artists are a departure for the Henry Moore Foundation, although to some extent the landscape has always been another “artist”, even in the foundation’s solo shows. And the landscape is important here, too, surrounding the Rodin-Moore dialogue with nature, a concept critical to both artists’ work.

Moore’s organic sculptures exude a preoccupation with nature; so too did his accumulations of skulls, pebbles and pieces of flint. Rodin’s engagement with nature, mediated through the human form, is less obvious to the eye, but his writing makes the point more explicitly. For example, his 1904 essay on the lessons of the antique elevated nature above classical art; the former, Rodin argued, was the well from which antique art drew its power.

Moore and Rodin are inescapably very different artists. A paradigmatic Moore is born of carving, a process in which volume is excavated from mass, while Rodin’s sculptures are mostly moulded, a method of creating shape from the inside out. At Perry Green, these distinctions occasionally falter. Rodin’s The Young Mother is a plaster cast in which the figures are seen to emerge from the block of plaster as if carved, like Michelangelo’s dying slaves from their marble, yet it also betrays its casting process by retaining the joins of its assembly. Nearby is Moore’s Mother and Child: Mould, where the armature for an earlier cast is itself cast in bronze, becoming the primary sculpture.

Exchanges between pieces such as these make this a very thoughtful and lucid exhibition: the comparison reveals the contours of each artist’s practice, and illuminates unexpected aspects of their work. It also affords comparisons within each artist’s work. A particularly playful juxtaposition is set up between Rodin’s Walking Man, Large Torso, exhibited inside the gallery, and his Walking Man, on a Column, which can simultaneously be seen through a window, in the field outside. Early visitors to the exhibition may even see Walking Man, on a Column standing among gambolling lambs.

Moore and Rodin were born 58 years apart, and a danger of comparing two artists with such a temporal relationship is the propensity to frame art history as a relay race, in which one artist hands on the baton to the next. Or, to use a metaphor more fitting for this exhibition, where one sculptor becomes the plinth on which the other stands. We can perhaps blame this narrative rut on Giorgio Vasari and his organic paradigm for progressive development in art history.

Yet this exhibition reveals, among other things, that a progressive narrative doesn’t work. Because an artist’s work continues to shift through time and attracts various interpretations, it is simply too amorphous to be a foundation for subsequent art in any clear, historical sense. Similarities between the two artists’ identities - despite their different nations and centuries - likewise undermine the sense of a historical progression between them. This is a little ironic for two artists in some ways so preoccupied with narrative ideas, as Rodin was through his interest in the novel and Moore through his interest in origins.

One leaves the exhibition with a strong sense of the parallels between them, both in their biographies and the positions they adopted or acquired within their respective nations. Both Rodin and Moore were titans who emerged from comparatively humble beginnings. Each had a colossal output in both scale and quantity, as well as a propensity to take younger artists under his wing, most famously Camille Claudel and Anthony Caro, respectively. And each assumed a quasi-ambassadorial role as his reputation grew.

These roles were at first principally domestic. Moore was a mainstay of the Festival of Britain in 1951, commissioned to provide a large bronze sculpture, Reclining Figure: Festival, and he was given a major retrospective at Tate the same year. Rodin was similarly significant during the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, albeit through organising an exhibition of his own. But their role as figureheads was also broader: Rodin’s presidency of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers helped to secure his reputation internationally. Moore was strenuously promoted overseas by the British Council, functioning both as a cultural substitute for political power while the British Empire imploded and as an emblem for British values during the Cold War.

The flattening of time implied by this comparison of Moore and Rodin as artists is also evident in one of the most fascinating vignettes of the exhibition at Perry Green: a discussion of Moore and Rodin as collectors. For both artists, interest in the formal qualities of objects appeared to eclipse an interest in their history. We see this in Rodin’s strange, irreverent appropriation of classical ceramics as vessels on which to mount small plaster figures, and in Moore’s omnivorous approach to sculpture from various periods and geographies. Moore collected African, Oceanian and Mexican as well as Greek, Roman, medieval and modern European sculpture, and displayed them together. Among his collection were four sculptures and three drawings by Rodin. Rodin’s collection was both classically oriented and pathologically vast: the Musée Rodin inventory of his antiquities lists more than 6,000 objects.

This collecting impulse frames Moore and Rodin as museums unto themselves, a characteristic consistent with their institutional legacies and the continued preservation of their working spaces. At Perry Green, traces of Moore’s working practice remain: for instance in a glass house where tools and splashes of plaster sit around sculptures that in this habitat look like vast mushrooms. A working atmosphere also pervades the foundation’s exhibitions: the exterior sculptures are often shown low, and on relatively ad hoc plinths made from breeze blocks, lending the work a pleasing informality. Perry Green is nonetheless Moore’s studio, and the ease with which his work sits here - the landscape particularly complementing the organic, elemental qualities of his sculpture - shows that he is very much on home turf. Moore Rodin is a chance to see excellent work thoughtfully assembled to create arresting comparisons. When the sun shines, the exhibition will look glorious.

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