Gormley and Rodin Go Head to Head

PARIS — Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) was the great giant of 19th-century French sculpture. Not only did he make a good living from his bronze works, but they enabled him to buy a beautiful 17th-century hôtel particulier (not a hotel, but rather a palatial townhouse) on the chic Rue de Varenne, in which to live and work. The Hôtel Biron is now the Musée Rodin, and its vast gardens and rooms have been host to some of Rodin’s most famous statues and models since his death.

The English sculptor Antony Gormley, born in 1950, has been influenced by Rodin all his life, so the Parisian museum seemed a logical place to hold a retrospective on his work. For Critical Mass, the works of Rodin and Gormley are interspersed throughout the interior and exterior, except for the modern space reserved for temporary exhibitions, where Gormley reigns supreme. Visiting the museum is like entering two parallel worlds that never quite intersect, and the dialogue desired between Rodin and his admirer has some strange effects and provokes some strange thoughts. 

Installation view of Antony Gormley, Critical Mass II (1995) at the Musée Rodin, Paris

Gormley’s work focuses on the space taken up by the human body and the shapes it can make. His material is principally cast iron and the figures are intentionally depersonalised and somewhat reminiscent of the line drawings of people in airplane magazine pockets, showing what to do in case of a fire, a drop in air pressure, or a crash. He cast 60 statues in iron, five each in 12 “fundamental positions unique to the human body,” including standing, sitting, crouching, and lying down. In the temporary exhibition space some of these figures are piled up in a heap, others suspended from the ceiling, and still others are scattered around the space, creating a sometimes comic interaction between them. The neutrality of the figures makes them into the “everyperson,” while in the white gallery of temporary exhibitions there is a surely intentional whiff of the madhouse. In the gardens, a set of these sculptures leads toward Rodin’s figure-laden Gates of Hell; this is the most successful interaction between the two artists.

Inside the Hôtel Biron, the dialogue becomes more of a devastating boxing match in which Rodin delivers a knockout every time. Here Gormley’s figures are small and light, often made of a metal lattice and placed within the rooms based on their size, which results in a fun “find the Gormley” game. When Rodin was commissioned to make a statue of the writer Honoré Balzac, his work in 1891 produced outrage, one critic asserting that no human body could occupy the space within the volume of the dressing gown in which Rodin dressed his subject. Rodin laughed, knowing he could take a hammer and smash the gown to reveal the nude bronze body of the author beneath. The same result would not occur with Gormley, to his detriment. Under Rodin’s surfaces are real, credible forms, whereas Gormley’s are all surface. You could crack them open like a chocolate Easter bunny and find nothing inside. Though intentional, because Gormley’s figures are abstractions, the ultimate emptiness of his forms deprives the viewer of the satisfaction that even a minor Rodin provides. 

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Installation view of Antony Gormley, Critical Mass II (1995) at the Musée Rodin, Paris
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Installation view of Antony Gormley: Critical Mass at the Musée Rodin, Paris. Left: Auguste Rosin, “Motherly Love” (c. 1873); right: Antony Gormley, sculpture from Small Blockworks series (2013–20)
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Installation view of Antony Gormley, Critical Mass II (1995) at the Musée Rodin, Paris
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Auguste Rodin, “Balzac” (1897)

Antony Gormley: Critical Mass continues at the Musée Rodin through March 3. The exhibition was curated by the artist.

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