Snowflakes Beware: Review of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

The British Museum, which traditionally uses its summer months to display a wide-ranging, easy-to-follow main exhibition focused on a topic popular with laymen both British and from abroad (cf Pompeii and Herculaneum, Ming Dynasty China and Vikings), seems to have gone a little off-piste this year. A display, I kid you not, curated by Ian Hislop (who I doubt even most British people have heard of, let alone care about his curatorial ambitions) is set to come later in the summer, hot off the tails of this, perhaps the BM’s most unashamedly elitist exhibition for several years.

Of course, given that much of my degree centred on Ancient Greek art, I am hardly one to judge. And, admittedly, to one in the inner sanctum of classical art appreciation, there was much to commend the display and interpretation of works that – through sheer overfamiliarity – too often fail to awe us to quite the degree their beauty and importance perhaps should. But even me, who has eaten, lived and breathed some of these artworks at some (examination) periods of his life, was too often left cold by an exhibition that seemed to almost revel in its own abstruseness.

Before giving examples, let me establish the basic structure of the exhibition. While it was obviously the Greek Art that caught my eye, the thematic focus was on how certain works in the British Museum’s collection, had influenced the thinking and designs of the most famous sculptor of modern times: Auguste Rodin. His ‘The Thinker’, ‘The Kiss’ and the rest of the sequence that was to form the ‘Gates of Hell’ commission were the central pieces of the first half of the display; where they sat rather lifelessly, one following another like items on a conveyer belt, with only The Kiss being afforded partial detachment from this regiment, albeit set alongside a set of pedimental sculptures from the Parthenon. We learnt quickly the central premise of the display: Rodin, despite being French and living in Paris, found not the Louvre but the BM to be a more accommodating home for his personal muses – something that I think must have struck every visitor as a little, ahem, odd.

As the display progressed, the limits of this initial theme unfortunately became more and more apparent, and the curatorial cracks unavoidable. One of Rodin’s notepads, dedicated largely to sketches of Assyrian reliefs, was pointedly opened on the only page that depicted anything grecian, while an area set aside for the display of the importance of the ‘Fragment’ in Rodin’s thinking – while theoretically fascinating – ultimately left the viewer a little befuddled as to what its actual point was. By the final stages of the exhibit, the curator had seemingly tired of attempting to bridge the gap of two and half thousand years: a large set of Rodin’s sculptures took up half the total floorspace, while it was to the wall that segments of the Parthenon frieze and Greek art in general were relegated.

In retrospect, this was probably a good decision. So often experienced purely as elements in the long continuous frieze that runs around the room of their usual display, setting sections of the Parthenon frieze apart like this makes one truly see the craftsmanship and beauty of each individual figure. Similarly, allowing the Rodin to stand alone, unencumbered by theme and excessive captioning, echoed how sculpture is generally received by the visitor and as a result, was perhaps the most accessible element in an display that, unfortunately, could rarely be called anything of the sort…

‘Lissom’ is an adjective, generally used to refer to bodies, that means thin, supple, and graceful. It comes from a contraction of lithe and some, and, according to Google’s ngram viewer, had a peculiar peak of usage in 1929, when it occurred in 0.0000082888% of texts. As this statistic perhaps demonstrates, it is not a household word. Indeed, neither me, nor my companion for the viewing (who had completed her PhD in Classical Archaeology that week), had ever heard of it when it appeared in a caption accompanying an early Rodin male youth. ‘Menagerie’, ‘conjure’ and ‘martyr’ were maybe less egregious examples of the same trend, but the basic fact is that the museum was hardly going for the common man with this one.

Nor, would it appear, were they going for the young. I mean that both in the sense of children – whose interest in what were essentially so many statues would be minimal – and the young adults, us millennials, for whom a display of an old white man’s art and how it relates to the already exceedingly problematic reception history of these archetypal Western works, seems bizarrely tin-eared. There was not even reference to the not-so-later reuse of such figures in Fascism (which might indeed have occasioned a slightly more engaged visitor experience). Instead, we were positioned to be as Rodin himself: stood, mutely, in reverential awe before these masterpieces but, unlike him, unable to sate our sensory needs by rubbing the sculptures with our shaking fingers.

For the nation’s foremost museum, its greatest tourist attraction and its most perfect educational resource, this exhibition, therefore, was an odd choice. A uni-sensory exercise in self-congratulation for those on the inside, and a succession of demoralising obstacles to those who, heaven forbid, were coming in from without. For the BM, this is a misstep, but I have no doubt that – Hislop aside – it’ll soon be back on course.

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