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
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence