Great Works: Iris, Messenger of the Gods (circa 1895), Auguste Rodin

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

We see – in fact, we almost breathlessly catch her in our waiting arms – the naked, headless, one-armed figure of the young woman, in flight in mid-air, all sweat and noise and energetic clamour. She is flying at us, about to hit us in the chest, legs wildly, almost painfully, splayed, horrifyingly athletic, and full of vaunting sexual promise. Our eyes seem to pivot about her swelling vulva. Rodin did many such sculptures, leaping, flinging, flowing, dancing. And they all share a common theme: untrammelled energy.

She is Iris, Messenger of the Gods, on an urgent mission to persuade us that sculpture has a vigorous future after all – as Rodin, who made this fragment in about 1895, so urgently believed. Too much sculpture, before and after Rodin, has seemed to embody an almost studiedly monumental lifelessness, and especially much of the sculpture which is commissioned to go on public display. Think of the ridiculous travesty which currently passes for figurative sculpture at St. Pancras International terminal, for example. Its leadenness makes a mockery of sculpture's potential to represent three-dimensional form in the round. Iris could not be more different. She could scarcely be more sculpturally alive and alight than she is in this relatively small bronze – yes, she looks and feels larger than she is. In part, that is to do with her poise and her pugnacity.

She has a provisional, untamed look about her, as if she has burst in upon us without invitation, with a shriek. We notice that before this casting in bronze – and even though the formal perfection of bronze casting tends, in part at least, to smooth these things away – she had been quite roughly, even hectically, moulded in plaster. Rodin liked to work like this, hands on, with clay or plaster.

What is more, she is not even completely herself. She is a fragment, not a whole. She is both a fragment of herself, and a fragment of a larger thing. The larger thing was to have been a monument to Victor Hugo destined for the Panthéon entitled The Apotheosis of Victor Hugo. It was never finished. So Rodin, a collagist by instinct, did something different with the piece. He left it to stand defiantly alone as a model of fearless sexual self-display. This was not uncommon with Rodin. He was forever mixing and matching up bits and pieces of sculpture from here and there at his studio in Meudon.

See how Iris's left arm seems to have been almost ripped away, by the hacking of some furious blade. The way that this fragment of an arm terminates, so jaggily, that seemingly brutish act of ripping away, adds to its dynamism, to the feeling that we are witnessing violent activity. She could be about to leap over our heads, such is her energetic mood and posture. Does this sculpture not seem, in its lack of prudishness and its fearless, full-front showiness, to have set its face against the prudishness of the 19th century? And yet it was made at the tail end of that century.

A technical matter. Consider the height at which it is displayed. This is of crucial importance too. See how it is raised up so that we confront it, body to body, just as Rodin would have wished. Rodin was very punctilious about this question of height of display. A few years ago there was an entire exhibition devoted to the subject at the Rodin Museum in Paris. The single most revelatory ensemble of figures to be seen there was The Burghers of Calais, which was raised up high on a wooden scaffolding. This is just as Rodin had originally intended – there were fading photographs to prove it. We had to look up into the faces of the burghers. And in so doing, they came alive. Their heroic struggle had the meaning of which it has been completely robbed as we see it now in Victoria Tower Gardens, where the burghers stand on a low plinth, unenergised, lacking in purposefulness, robbed of meaning.

What then are the multiple meanings of this flighty pagan messenger? She represents the sudden onrush of artistic creativity, how it strikes the artist unawares. As with creation itself, one moment there is nothing, and then there is something. The way this female presence is almost brutally thrust into our faces also puts us in mind of Gustave Courbet's great, long-suppressed erotic masterpiece, The Origin of the World, which had been painted 30 years earlier. These are both images of the genetrix, so potent, so unstoppably vital.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was the most important sculptor of the 19th century. His works range from portraits of the most celebrated men of his day – including Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac – through major public commissions, to many small-scale works of dancers in movement, which are amongst his most expressive works.

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital