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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea