Rodin in Britain: France sends rare pieces for show

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The Independent Online

The British fell for the art of Auguste Rodin long before he achieved professional success in his native France. And that passion for his sculptures will be renewed this autumn when the first big Rodin retrospective for two decades opens at the Royal Academy in London.

Incorporating many works never exhibited outside France before, the show will include 200 pieces, mainly borrowed from the Musée Rodin in Paris and the store at Rodin's home, Meudon, on the outskirts of the French capital.

Olivier Chambard, the French cultural attaché to the UK, joked that the Royal Academy would make many enemies among French museums as the Musée Rodin rarely made such loans.

"A lot of French museums have asked for these pieces and didn't get any or many," he said. But he thought it was appropriate as "the influence of Rodin was very strong in the UK".

Fourteen out of the 18 works which Rodin himself presented to the British government in 1914, and which were presented to the Victoria and Albert Museum, will also be included in the exhibition.

The sculptor, who lived from 1840 to 1917, made his first visit to Britain in 1881 to see his friend Alphonse Legros, a French artist who, like many, had left his native country at the time of the Franco-Prussian War a decade earlier.

Rodin was introduced to the journalist William Henley, who championed his work and attracted the enthusiasm of collectors such as the Greek businessman Constantine Ionides and Lord Leighton, himself an artist and one-time president of the Royal Academy.

The following year, Rodin exhibited in the RA's Summer Exhibition and his confidence and profile grew so that he was an acknowledged success in Britain before he became established in Paris.

Catherine Lampert, the co-curator of the show, said that, following his first visit, Rodin invited his circle of critics and collectors to Paris. "They went to his studio and they were knocked out by what they saw," she said.

He was encouraged to return to the UK in 1900, where he became a society figure, with parties and visits to country homes arranged for him. He was fêted by the aristocracy and politicians, who sat for their portraits, and the founding collectors of the museums in Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow bought his work.

MaryAnne Stevens, the show's co-curator, said the exhibition would show the full range of Rodin's work, from public sculpture to smaller-scale pieces and his drawings. He was very influenced by antiquities in the British Museum and the show will include examples of pieces he collected as well as a few which he coveted but never owned.

The show will also explore his use of models and the influence of personal relationships on his work. He had several lovers through his life, including the artist Augustus John's sister, Gwen John, and the sculptor Camille Claudel. The year he died, he married Rose Beuret, his partner of more than 50 years.

His defining work, The Thinker, will form the centrepiece of the exhibition, while the courtyard of the Academy will be dominated by his monumental piece, The Gates of Hell, which will be transported on a flat-bed truck under police escort. It has never been seen in Britain before.

The Gates of Hell, which has stood outside the Kunsthaus in Zurich, Switzerland, since 1949, was originally commissioned by the French government but was not cast in Rodin's lifetime. The piece was eventually ordered by Adolf Hitler but not delivered to him.

The Royal Academy is also hoping to borrow the giant sculpture of The Burghers of Calais that stands in Embankment Gardens by the Palace of Westminster. It will just about fit into its galleries.

"Rodin", which is being sponsored by Ernst and Young, will open on 23 September and run until 1 January 2007.