I rarely come away from an exhibition without some new insight. The exhibits themselves will be important but it is new ideas that will dominate and, if I am lucky, change how I think. And so it was with an exhibition at the British Museum on ‘Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece’. It jolted a long held view of mine on the relationship between the artist, the observer and the work. Once it was simple – artists were creators who gave to their work an intrinsic value which was sacrosanct. Now, with Auguste Rodin’s approach clearly set out, I discovered the extent to which value – more particularly a work’s beauty – can be as much the creation of the observer.
Rodin was fascinated by ancient Greek carvings. In his forties he would come over from France to marvel at, and be ‘rejuvenated’ by, the Museum’s collection of sculptures. He particularly liked the friezes from the Parthenon. None of them was complete, but he loved the detail. He commented that the carvings were so true to nature that they seemed to ‘live and breathe’, and through the folds of a piece of clothing or the form of a hand he would imagine what that body was feeling. Each fragment was no less a masterpiece for being incomplete.
Just as he loved larger sections, he doted over the six thousand or so smaller remnants that he collected over the years. Some were ‘no bigger than his little finger’ but had been ‘shaped by time’ and ‘would make his heart beat faster’. Each piece he saw as a work of art to be celebrated, and each touched him emotionally. Equally, each would have little resemblance to the sculptor’s original intention. The beauty perceived by Rodin could only be of his own creation.
With this standpoint, logically the more incomplete the statue, the greater the scope for imagination. In keeping with this position, Rodin later created a statue that made heavy demands on the viewer’s imagination. How else could the public evaluate Rodin’s extraordinary headless and armless ‘Walking Man’? By removing these parts from a rather dull statue of ‘Saint John the Baptist’ he caste long before he studied the carvings from ancient Greece, he produced a piece that has proved truly captivating.
The Exhibition made it clear that for Rodin, beauty, or any other artistic judgement, is very much in the eye of the beholder. But exactly how his decisions were made was never revealed. By watching my sister Sarah Campbell, a textile designer of some repute, puzzling over a work, I gained insight into this perspective too.
My new understanding came when visiting a second exhibition, this one in a tiny gallery at Two Temple Place. Here, ‘Rhythm and Reaction’ told of the influence of jazz on art. Sarah was with us and at one moment I saw her looking quizzically at a large piece of patterned textile mounted on a wall. “Surely this exhibit has been hung upside down. The designer would never have wanted it displayed like this”. The exhibition curator took Sarah’s concern seriously but did not know the answer. The curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, who had loaned the exhibit, knew of the problem but had never discovered the answer and resolved the dilemma by displaying the hanging first one way up, then the other.
The ‘upside down’ textile worried Sarah. If nothing else, we should see it as its creator intended; mounting it correctly was important for the integrity of the design and was a view the public deserved. For me, Sarah’s feeling that the exhibit needed to be true to the intention of the creator, made perfect sense.
The capacity of Rodin to see beauty where, for others it would be invisible, emphasises just how subjective beauty can be. For him, knowing the origin of the object was not important. Sarah, however, wanted to know details about the provenance of a piece in front of her before making her judgement.
In making my own judgements on matters of art I have never felt confident, but now I am happier. In making up my mind it will certainly be helpful if I can know the original artist’s intentions and the context in which the piece was created, but ultimately I am buoyed by Rodin’s position that it is me who can decide. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, but if the work is upside down surely judgements will be skewed.
The illustration to this article shows the ‘upside-down’ textile as it appeared at the ‘Rhythm and Reaction’ exhibition.