The news wires have been buzzing over the past eighteen months as pressure mounts on the world’s so-called ‘universal museums’ to return objects acquired during the colonial era. Even French president Emanuel Macron has stepped into the fray, vowing to return French museum collections of ethnographic material to their African countries of origin.
Barely a day goes by without the Museum Security Network delivering into our inboxes further reports of these increasingly toxic culture wars.
The British Museum is not immune from this pressure thanks to its continuing retention of the Parthenon Marbles, looted from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1812.
One way the British Museum tries to deflect attention from the Marbles controversy is to build exhibitions around them that seek to sever them from their original connection to the Parthenon. This is the barely submerged subtext to its current show entitled ‘Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece.’
It’s a beautiful exhibition that throws fresh light on the French sculptor’s work and I do not wish to be mealy-mouthed about it. But I have issues. The title could just as easily have been: ‘Rodin and the Parthenon Marbles,’ but perhaps that would have been too blunt and provocative, so a subtler strategy was deployed.
The captions accompanying each object in the show strain to build stylistic connections between Rodin’s work and the London Marbles, many of which are instructive, some of which are tenuous.
The adjoining text to Rodin’s The Kiss includes the phrase: “The two figures melt into one another…” while the caption on the immediately adjacent sculpture of two goddesses from the East Pediment of the Parthenon reads: “The figures seem to melt into each other…” subtly inferring that Rodin borrowed some quality of figural “melt” from the Marbles he’d viewed in London. That's stretching it.
Other panel texts have been phrased in such a way as to reinforce the British Museum’s frequently cited assertion that the Parthenon Marbles should no longer be seen as architectural elements but rather as autonomous works of art. This serves to foreclose attempts to connect them to the Parthenon which is a key plank of the Greek case for return. Describing Rodin’s approach to the Gates of Hell, the text reads: “Like the Parthenon sculptures, many of Rodin’s figures began life as architectural elements. When removed from their architectural setting they became works of art in their own right.”
We hardly need reminding that Pheidias’s Parthenon sculptures are, and have always been, “works of art.” Their function as part of a building does not make them any less so. Divorcing them from their prior function on the Parthenon wilfully erases aspects of their original meaning and their significance to the city of Athens. The more perceptive visitors to the exhibition will see this for what it is: a deliberate misinterpretation designed to reinforce the British Museum’s claim to ownership of the Marbles.
Oddly enough this strategy runs counter to the approach the museum has taken to displaying elsewhere in the museum the caryatid that Elgin removed from the so-called Porch of the Maidens on the Erechtheion (right). Here the figure supports a section of architrave, which reminds us of the connections the ancient Greeks sought to emphasise between architecture and the human body and which are also key to a proper understanding of the Parthenon Marbles. Yet the BM continues to conceptually separate the Marbles from their original function. This amounts to the erasure of historical memory.
Such rhetorical nudges can be detected throughout the Rodin show. The text accompanying the Horse of Selene from the East Pediment offers another instance of institutional bias. In the exhibition it has been plonked on top of a clumsily-constructed chipboard plinth, entirely erasing its contiguous relationship to the other pedimental sculptures.
The horse’s head was designed to peep from the acute angle of the pediment, its formal shape echoing the surrounding architectural geometry. Deflecting attention from that original function allows the British Museum to suggest that, “Rodin would have appreciated Pheidias’s daring omission of the horse’s body.” There was nothing daring about it. The Horse of Selene was designed for a specific purpose that precluded any more of its body being represented and Rodin would have appreciated that.
Elsewhere it was surprising to read the text accompanying the torso of the messenger god Hermes (figure H from the west pediment), which states: “This unprepossessing ruin from the Parthenon sculptures tends to be overlooked, but seen through Rodin’s eyes it is reinvigorated.”
An unprepossessing ruin? We do not need Rodin’s eyes to see the beauty of this object (left). Despite its time-worn condition it remains alive with dynamic energy and sculptural power. Moreover our understanding and appreciation of it would be enhanced still further were it to be conceptually reconnected with Pheidias’s original scheme (or, better still, physically reconnected with it in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens). The British Museum, however, seems to view it as little more than an ugly ruin to be deployed in comparative exhibitions, a key function of which is evidently to counter the majority public opinion in favour of the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens.
The exhibition includes many of Rodin’s exquisite drawings of the Parthenon friezes and pediments that make clear the extent to which he was inspired by the Marbles. But Rodin’s love of Greek art was not limited to what he saw in London and certainly not limited to the Marbles.
On one of his visits to the UK he met the American aesthete and collector Edward Perry Warren, then domicile in Lewes, East Sussex. Warren commissioned a version of The Kiss from Rodin (now in the Tate), specifying that the genitals of the man were to be clearly represented. Warren was at that time the owner of the so-called Chios Head (now in Boston) (below right), which Rodin coveted. He made many strenuous appeals to Warren to exchange it for one or two examples of his own work and even offered to return it to Warren’s ownership after his death.
A broader selection of Greek works might have been adduced in support of Rodin’s passion for the antique, but the exhibition was clearly designed to fulfil another more urgent purpose: to keep the Parthenon Marbles in London.
Exhibitions are expensive things to mount and so it’s understandable that the British Museum will, where possible, construct exhibitions around its own collections. But the Parthenon Marbles are not just any old collection. They are arguably the most contested and controversial objects in world culture, at the centre of an increasing divisive global debate. So while the Rodin exhibition offers another welcome opportunity to see a comprehensive selection of his work, and indeed to see it in a fresh context, let us not overlook the other motive here. It is as much about the Marbles as about Rodin.
One wall panel quotes Rodin thus: “It’s the artist who tells the truth and the photographer who lies.”
And it’s the museum that occasionally misleads?