Modern forms of human figure hark back to ancient past

If Cezanne is considered to have paved the way for modern art in painting, then Rodin is the pioneering figure in the development of sculpture. His influence has been immense and his sculptures, even by contemporary standards, are strikingly engaging. It is therefore appropriate that the innovative vision of Auguste Rodin marks the beginning of the thread that runs through the exhibition «Six Leading Sculptors and the Human Figure.» Held at the National Gallery in Athens and organized in cooperation with the Cultural Olympiad, the exhibition – one of the most impressive held in Athens on the occasion of the Olympics – highlights some of the most important moments in sculpture from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Rodin, Bourdelle and Maillol are treated as the progenitors of modern art, as the great figures of sculpture that led into the kind of abstraction subsequently attained by another three inspirational sculptors: Brancusi, Giacometti and Moore. This is an exhibition with various angles. It shows the distinctive contribution that each of the six sculptors brought to the art of their times, focuses on the human figure as a subject in sculpture, and, as a subtext running throughout, attempts to show the connection that the work of all six sculptors had with ancient Greek sculpture. Greek ancient art’s anthropocentrism and the values of humanism reinterpreted through a modern, innovative visual language is, to a varying degree, to be found in the work of all the artists. Of the six, only Maillol and Moore had visited Greece. Aristide Maillol’s notes, from his 1908 journey to Greece, reveal the strong impression that the Parthenon and ancient Olympia made on him. His sculptures of female nude figures that make up the bulk of his art have a solemnity and calm repose that can be termed «classical.» But the rounded, broadly modelled forms and a feel for the voluptuous point to Maillol’s modern style. For Moore, ancient Greek art was simply added to a long list of inspirations by distant civilizations, including that of Mexico. In his writings, one reads about his admiration for Cycladic art; the smooth finish of his work and broad surfaces echo something of this Neolithic style. The exhibition at the National Gallery includes a number of Moore’s sculptures (a large, separate retrospective of Moore is on at the National Gallery’s sculpture gallery in Goudi) that show the artist’s distinctive depiction of the human figure. Among them is the «King and Queen» from 1952, the first piece that Moore made specifically for an open space. There are also a large number of Moore’s typical reclining figures, a theme which prevailed in his art during the 1930s. Although a contemporary of Moore, the Swiss-born Giacometti gave the human figure a completely different sculptural form, lacking the former’s strong sense of mass and solidity. His gaunt, elongated figures with the agitated surfaces that emerged in the second half of the 1940s are the most typical examples of his style. Several of them are included in the exhibition. So is the unusual, «Tete qui regarde,» essentially a squarish slab of marble smoothly carved on part of its surface to denote abstract facial characteristics. The piece is said to exemplify Giacometti’s interest in ancient Cycladic art, which, as in Moore’s case, was one of a long list of past inspirations. However, it was Constantin Brancusi who went the furthest in reducing natural forms or the human body to the uttermost abstract simplicity. Brancusi, who believed that truth lay not in external form but in the essence of things, is the most minimalist of all the six sculptors shown in the exhibition. The story of Brancusi’s involvement with the US customs authorities in 1926, who attempted to tax him on one of his works because they thought that it was raw material rather than a sculpted piece is an amusing example of the artist’s distinctive visual language and daringly innovative style. Among his works shown in the exhibition is «Promethee» and «Muse Endormie,» both typical of his ovoid-like shapes, as well as «Princesse X» from 1915, a work that caused much controversy at the time it was made. More than 40 years earlier, another great innovator, the pioneering Auguste Rodin, had caused a sensation with his work «The Age of Bronze.» This sculpture of a male nude, which is one of the exhibition’s highlights, was treated in a naturalistic way that shocked the idealizing conventions of the time and Rodin was accused of casting it from a real model. Instead of description, Rodin opted for expression. The rippling surfaces of his sculptures and the ways that they play on light and shadow suggest that Rodin was less interested in the literal depiction of the human body than in the energy that imbued it. «The human body always expresses the spirit it contains, for anyone who knows how to see,» he wrote. Rodin placed the conventions of sculpture in a new, modern context. He sculpted figures taken from Greek mythology but stripped them of their literary context or allegorical content to put across a modern message. Rodin’s interest in mythology reflects a broader fascination with Greek antiquity. He actually created an entire collection of Greek antiquities. The exhibition includes several pieces from this collection. It also puts on display a large number of drawings that Rodin made, inspired by ancient Greek vase painting. Emile Bourdelle, who worked as Rodin’s main assistant, was, like him, also interested in mythology. His large sculptures, many of them placed in the National Gallery’s front courtyard, are renditions of mythic figures: for example, the impressive Heracles holding his bow. There are also parts from the reliefs that Bourdelle made for the Champs Elysees Theater in 1912. Again, the themes are taken from Greek mythology while the frieze-like arrangement recalls ancient Greek architecture. Ancient Greek art seemed to have exerted some kind of influence on each of the six sculptors in the exhibition. The context and the nuances of this influence are, of course, different in each case and one should be wary of making broad, and possibly false, assumptions. The Athens National Gallery exhibition is an opportunity to probe into this question. It also presents a rare occasion to see up close some of the greatest milestones in the history of European sculpture. «Six Leading Sculptors and the Human Figure» is on at the National Gallery (50 Vassileos Constantinou, 210.723.5937) to September 30.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.