Warm for the human form, from Rodin’s bronzes to stone slabs

Since the beginning of art as we know it, the human body has been central to artistic concerns.

Classical sculpture set the bar very high in exploring the representation of bodies, and the history of the medium over the past millennium reflects this heritage.

However, by the end of the 19th century, although other artforms were breaking away from classical naturalism, sculpture was becoming moribund and restricted to forms of monumentalism.

And then along came Auguste Rodin. Here is the genius of Rodin: that he was able to blend past mastery with avant-garde artistry. In so doing, he practically single-handedly laid the ground for a century of innovation.

It is this heritage that has inspired Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, the latest mini-blockbuster to come out of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

The exhibition displays artworks referencing human bodies from 65 (mostly living) Australian and international artists in discrete groups that range across seven related themes, all of which can claim lineage back to Rodin’s oeuvre.

To make this point explicit the curator, Leigh Robb, has dispersed throughout the exhibition the Gallery’s collection of Rodin’s work, the most comprehensive in the Southern Hemisphere.

As the title implies, the exhibition has been conceived of as accommodating both an homage to Rodin and a celebration of his particular obsession – the human body.

It’s a highly diverse collection. Of particular interest are four works by the very prolific and successful British sculptor, Antony Gormley, who makes no bones about the significance of Rodin’s contribution to sculpting the figure. He’s quoted in a brochure accompanying the exhibition,In this exhibition Rodin is credited as the source, indeed the Ur sorcerer, of bodily representations as they have evolved over the past century. Simultaneously, Versus Rodin is predominantly an exhibition of contemporary art, with a curatorial tug of the forelock in the direction of the French master.

Bodies as art objects

It’s this engaging duality which sets this exhibition apart from the postmodern obsession with the body. Here, the human form is not the site of psychoanalysis, political discourse or even sexual speculation: bodies are explored as art objects in and of themselves.

Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time. Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017
The curators have closely read Rodin’s influences, methods and outcomes, selecting works that provide contemporary counterpoints and contrasts with his extraordinary expressive qualities.

The potential pitfalls of such an exercise are manifold, especially given the size of the supporting cast of artworks. A more risk averse curator might have gone for a sparser effect, selecting fewer works with a less contemporary flavour.

Such sheer variety runs the risk of obscuring the exhibition’s intent, but the exhibition is arranged in a series of galleries, each with its own discrete orientation – the classical body; the fragmented body; the erotic body, and so on. The gathering of works under these particular headings, in association with Rodin’s sculptural meditations on the human form, creates a coherent organising principle.

Ben Leslie’s chainsawed and chopped timber sections with protruding steel reinforcing, have an association with the sculptural detritus evident in photographs of Rodin’s studio. In one particular instance the materiality of Leslie’s Joint Study echoes the truncated brutality of Rodin’s Walking Man.

In the context of this rich juxtaposition of artworks such comparisons occur spontaneously, although, it would be fair to say that many of these artists would never have considered the possibility of a Rodinesque thread running through their work. But Leigh Robb’s curatorial premise is that all artists, post Rodin, who work or have worked with the body, as a fundamental point of reference, have an affinity of kind with the French master.

Robb is also the inaugural curator of contemporary art at AGSA, and in this capacity she has delivered on three counts. She has successfully rehabilitated the Gallery’s collection of an early modernist artist, who, while greatly important in France, has never really been of more than academic interest in Australia.

She has delivered a fascinating collection of mostly contemporary artefacts, which, like the works of Rodin, have their inspiration in the human form. In some places it could be argued she’s drawn something of a long bow, but that’s her prerogative and she has taken full artistic licence and run with it.

She has also placed the works of local, emerging artists alongside of the likes of Anthony Gormley, Louise Bourgeois and Bill Viola and by so doing has nailed down a precedent that should never be forgotten.

Without doubt, Robb has discovered how to display the Rodin sculptural collection to its full potential. Surrounded by their more impudent successors, the bronzes take on a new and quite wonderful glow. This in turn gives aesthetic gravitas to the more contemporary multi-media.

Conceptual Art and Photography

In the wake of Abstract Expressionism, a number of painters developed strategies that extended the life of painting while simultaneously pointing to its inevitable demise. Jasper Johns’s flags and targets were epistemological cul-de-sacs—the image they portrayed could not be separated from their material qualities, literally, as flag or target (1998.329). Like his colleague Robert Rauschenberg, Johns revived concerns of the prewar avant-garde in a postwar context, but in a more conceptually provocative manner in his fusion of two previously antithetical paradigms, that of Duchamp’s readymade with notions of abstraction and the grid from Malevich and Constructivism. Slightly later, Frank Stella created paintings from programmatic arrangements of lines that radiated outward to determine the overall shape of the canvas; all compositional and expressive decision making had been suppressed in favor of the execution of an idea. As the artist’s famous tautology went: “What you see is what you see.”

By 1962, the idea for a linguistic work of art had been proposed by artists associated with the Fluxus collective, particularly in the event-structures of George Brecht, where a simple phrase or directive (one piece was entitled and consisted of the word EXIT) could be enacted by the viewer in an infinite variety of ways. In that same year, the California painter Ed Ruscha used this principle to create the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, in which he first came up with the title, then proceeded to photograph the subject on one of his road trips from Oklahoma City (his hometown) to Los Angeles, his adopted city. The work of art was to be the book itself, simply but carefully designed, whereas the photographs inside showed no traces of aesthetic decision making at all, as if the artist had merely pointed the camera out the car window in order to fulfill the requirements of the textual phrase. In another book from 1966 entitled Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha joined together separate photographs of each structure to create a fold-out version of the street itself. With characteristic humor and elegance, Ruscha had extended Jasper Johns’s notion of the completely self-referential object into the realm of mass-produced commodities.

Ruscha’s books of photographs (1970.590.5) introduced the medium as a central aspect of Conceptual Art. Bruce Nauman’s Photograph Suite (popularly known as “Eleven Color Photographs”) of 1966 were comic enactments of puns and wordplay such as “Waxing Hot” (showing hands moving over a bright red sculpture of the word) or “Bound to Fail” (showing the roped torso of the artist from behind) that combined sculptural form, linguistic content, and photographic staging. Dan Graham’s Homes for America, published in the December 1967 issue of Arts magazine, looked at first sight like a bland sociological tract on postwar cookie-cutter housing, but was actually a sly comment on the industrial coloring and geometric structures of then-current Minimalism; like Ruscha’s books, the work was inextricably tied to its status as an article in a mass-produced and circulated publication. This idea of attaching the work of art directly to the channels of distribution and publicity that constituted its inevitable fate as a commodity reached its most pointed use by Martha Rosler for her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, in which she hijacked lifestyle magazine photography to devastating effect (2002.393).

Another example of Conceptual Art’s uniquely self-critical tendencies can be seen in the predilection for bureaucratic forms by artists such as Robert Morris and Douglas Huebler. In works like Cardfile (1962) and Document: Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal (1963), Morris avoided all traditional signifiers of the work of art; this turning away from the viewer served as a darkly effective counterbalance to the more affirmative gestures of Happening and Fluxus artists, who envisioned the total liberation of the viewer from the restrictive codes of society. Douglas Huebler (2004.51a,b) grouped his works into preestablished categories—Duration (involving the passage of time), Location (involving specific sites), and Variable (such as verifying the existence of every living person on the planet via photography), pieces consisting of typed statements combined with deadpan photographs that documented the results of the linguistic directive. Each work was a unique instance of dipping into the vast ocean of measurable data—people, places, and their transformation over time—that only highlighted the absurdity of the attempt.

On Kawara’s work represents perhaps the purest strain of Conceptualism, in that he most fully and consistently erased the boundary separating art production and everyday life. His most famous project is his Today series (begun 1966), paintings that consist solely of the date on which they were made, in the language of the city in which they were painted, against a monochrome background; each painting had to be completed by midnight of the day it commemorated or it was destroyed. In these seminal works, process, form, and content become one, reconciling existentialist notions of present-ness with a Zen-like erasure of self through meditative, repetitive acts. He also created a series of “autobiographical” works that chart the daily events and rituals so carefully excised from the Today paintings, including I GOT UP, I READ, I WENT, I MET, and telegrams responding to professional inquiries that read simply I AM STILL ALIVE. Tracing his passage through the ubiquitous, yet usually invisible, systems of measurement (map, calendar, clock) and communication (postcard, telegram) that structure everyday life, the artist accumulates abstracted signs of his own presence—an archive of the self—to test the limits of self-expression within the structures of modern society.

Roman architecture

Roman architecture was unlike anything that had come before. The Persians, Egyptians, Greeks and Etruscans all had monumental architecture. The grandeur of their buildings, though, was largely external. Buildings were designed to be impressive when viewed from outside because their architects all had to rely on building in a post-and-lintel system, which means that they used two upright posts, like columns, with a horizontal block, known as a lintel, laid flat across the top. A good example is this ancient Greek Temple in Paestum, Italy.

Since lintels are heavy, the interior spaces of buildings could only be limited in size. Much of the interior space had to be devoted to supporting heavy loads.

Roman architecture differed fundamentally from this tradition because of the discovery, experimentation and exploitation of concrete, arches and vaulting (a good example of this is the Pantheon, c. 125 C.E.). Thanks to these innovations, from the first century C.E. Romans were able to create interior spaces that had previously been unheard of. Romans became increasingly concerned with shaping interior space rather than filling it with structural supports. As a result, the inside of Roman buildings were as impressive as their exteriors.

Materials, Methods and Innovations

Long before concrete made its appearance on the building scene in Rome, the Romans utilized a volcanic stone native to Italy called tufa to construct their buildings. Although tufa never went out of use, travertine began to be utilized in the late 2nd century B.C.E. because it was more durable. Also, its off-white color made it an acceptable substitute for marble.

Marble was slow to catch on in Rome during the Republican period since it was seen as an extravagance, but after the reign of Augustus (31 B.C.E. – 14 C.E.), marble became quite fashionable. Augustus had famously claimed in his funerary inscription, known as the Res Gestae, that he “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble” referring to his ambitious building campaigns.
Roman concrete (opus caementicium), was developed early in the 2nd c. BCE. The use of mortar as a bonding agent in ashlar masonry wasn’t new in the ancient world; mortar was a combination of sand, lime and water in proper proportions. The major contribution the Romans made to the mortar recipe was the introduction of volcanic Italian sand (also known as “pozzolana”). The Roman builders who used pozzolana rather than ordinary sand noticed that their mortar was incredibly strong and durable. It also had the ability to set underwater. Brick and tile were commonly plastered over the concrete since it was not considered very pretty on its own, but concrete’s structural possibilities were far more important. The invention of opus caementicium initiated the Roman architectural revolution, allowing for builders to be much more creative with their designs. Since concrete takes the shape of the mold or frame it is poured into, buildings began to take on ever more fluid and creative shapes.

The Romans also exploited the opportunities afforded to architects by the innovation of the true arch (as opposed to a corbeled arch where stones are laid so that they move slightly in toward the center as they move higher). A true arch is composed of wedge-shaped blocks (typically of a durable stone), called voussoirs, with a key stone in the center holding them into place. In a true arch, weight is transferred from one voussoir down to the next, from the top of the arch to ground level, creating a sturdy building tool. True arches can span greater distances than a simple post-and-lintel. The use of concrete, combined with the employment of true arches allowed for vaults and domes to be built, creating expansive and breathtaking interior spaces.