The Antique and the Fragment
Auguste Rodin, Iris, c. 1890–91 Bronze, 84 x 85 x 40 cm.
As a student Rodin drew from classical casts and visited the Louvre but his real interest in ancient art was awakened by what he saw in the British Museum. In 1881, and on subsequent visits, he drew from the Parthenon reliefs, Egyptian sculpture and the Assyrian friezes from Ninevah. With sufficient wealth, he began collecting objects from classical antiquity, gathering them together at his home, the Villa des Brillants, in Meudon. However, he warned artists that the Antique was not for beginners: ‘If you want to teach someone sculpture, set him face to face with Nature, and when he excels at working from Life, you can say to him: “Now see how it was done in Antiquity”.’ In Rodin’s opinion it was done ‘as exquisitely soft as the last hour of night before the dawn.’
In Rodin’s sculpture Iris, wrote Arthur Symons, ‘all the force of the muscle palpitates in this strenuous flesh, the whole splendour of her sex, unveiled, palpitates to the air, the messenger of the gods, bringing some divine message, pauses in flight, an embodied inspiration.’ This is a sculpture often displayed in the round, the change of orientation transforming a figure modelled lying down into a headless, armless body hurling through space, pivoting on its sex. There are frequent references to dancers as Rodin’s point of departure, and to his enthusiasm for the various forms of cancan, Chahut and acrobatic troupes in fashion around 1890. His admiration for antique fragments is also well known, but nothing predicts his way of pulling, twisting and ripping clay, especially in the representation of female genitals. Iris is sometimes described as an abstract sign for carnal energy, but most artists and critics agree with opinions such as those of William Tucker that Rodin’s central theme is still the figure, its dual nature ‘as invented and representational structure’.