The Art of Juxtaposition

Versus Rodin: Bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 4 March – 2 July 2017

Over many years and countless visits to the Art Gallery of SA, I’ve been aware of the Gallery’s significant collection of sculptures by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Over those years, these sculptures have occupied various locations within the Gallery and I was reminded of them when I first saw Dr Who’s adversaries, the villainous Weeping Angels, who resemble classical marble sculptures but who move about when you’re not watching them and cast their victims into another time zone. Occasionally when examining an artwork in the Gallery, I would become aware of a presence behind me, a Rodin sculpture looking over my shoulder, such as his Pierre de Wissant, monumental nude (c.1886-18), as if it had sneaked up on me. Such a profoundly moving characterisation of human anguish as Pierre de Wissant would inevitably shift my perception of whatever I was looking at.

But I saw the Rodins so often that I began to take them for granted, like old friends. It was not until the AGSA opened its absorbing exhibition Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time which acknowledges the centenary of Rodin’s death that I studied them collectively and renewed and extended my appreciation of his work. As well as assembling the Gallery’s Rodins in one show, the exhibition curator, Leigh Robb, has juxtaposed 200 works, including some commissions, by 65 mostly contemporary artists from Australia and overseas within which the Rodin sculptures are interspersed, so that the works resonate with each other and we see them all afresh. As well as celebrating Rodin, Versus Rodin demonstrates how the human body may be represented in painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and video to emphasise its emotions and inner turmoil, its self-concept and its existential crisis.

The artworks are grouped via themes including ‘The Classical Body’, ‘The Erotic Body’, ‘The Fragmented Body’, ‘The Emotional Body’ and so on. Each theme is assigned its own room and is discussed in a perceptive catalogue essay by an AGSA curator. A Rodin work in each of the rooms acts as a reference point. The innovative nature of Rodin’s work and its legacy is fully elaborated, as is the centrality of the human body throughout the history of artmaking. The inclusion of a selection of Rodin’s drawings, such as those he created for Octave Mirbeau’s novel Le Jardin des supplices (1899), is a revelation, as I had previously been unaware of them.

The first work we see, conspicuously positioned near the entry, is Xu Zhen’s Eternity (2013-2014), an array of huge figures resembling classical Greek or Roman sculptures joined neck to neck onto classical Chinese sculptures, as if the two cultural histories have been fused as a series of dysfunctionally conjoined twins. Zhen’s work may be seen as a comment on the impact of globalisation on traditional cultures, creating impossible hybrids while at the same time trying futilely to preserve those traditions. In this context, it reflects on the traditions of monumental sculpture, the replacement of stone and bronze with fibreglass and concrete, and the supplanting of classical ideals by the postmodern.

As we move through the successive themed rooms, we discover a flowing river of humanity. Rosemary Laing’s a dozen useless actions for grieving blondes #1 and #2 (2009) form a focal point for ‘The Emotional Body’, in which Rodin’s The Inner Voice (c1894, enlarged 1895-6) is positioned adjacent to Bill Viola’s slowly evolving video The Silent Sea (2002). For me and perhaps for many viewers, the most compelling room is ‘The Body Across Space and Time’, showing Rodin’s imposing Balzac draped (1897) and his Three Shades (1881-3) together with an engrossing selection of Anthony Gormley’s metal figures, Ben Leslie’s Untitled (The House of Vulture) (2016), Huma Bhabha’s Privileged Attendant (2015), Julia Robinson’s enigmatic A sprat to catch a mackerel (2017) and Ugo Rondinone’s nude (xxxxxxx) (2010). These and other works are mounted on a plinth about 1.2m high that fills most of the room, allowing viewers just a narrow passage through. The height of the plinth is similar to that of a monumental pedestal, and we look up at these imposing figures as if at monuments, but the narrow passages call to mind World War I trenches and this architectural device places us in a defensive and subordinate posture. The figures in this room may be introspective, tortured or defiant, and many appear as if they have grown from raw timber, rock or metal.

Acknowledging the body as the central element of human existence, Versus Rodin posits the aesthetics of the human body as the superordinate thematic in all visual art. Regarding the specific themes of gender and ethnicity, Leigh Robb states,

‘The exhibition allows us to see how the hard-won battles around the representation of the body have been markedly ruptured by the conceptual and performance art from the 1960s to the present day; by the ongoing arguments of feminism and the discourses associated with under-represented female practices; and by the imperative to celebrate bodies that have been “othered” or marginalised throughout history—from Aboriginal and African-American bodies, to non-white, non-heteronormative bodies.’(1)

But rather than creating rooms entitled, say, ‘the gendered body’ or ‘the coloured body’, works that prompt such consideration are interspersed throughout the exhibition using juxtaposition to make the point. For example, Tony Albert’s We can be heroes (2013), is hung in ‘The Classical Body’ room opposite a Roman sculpture, Young Athlete (after a Greek prototype) (c20 BC – 20 AD), and Pierre de Wissant. Kehinde Wiley’s After Jean Bernard Restout’s Sleep (2009), shown adjacent to Tony Albert’s work, is included because it substitutes a coloured person for the traditional white male subject while still fulfilling the conventions of European Renaissance portraiture. Ricky Maynard’s Wik Elder, Gladys (2000) is shown in ‘The Emotional Body’ room along with the Laing, Viola and other works. Implicitly, the exhibition suggests we are all equal, as bodies, though the experiences of certain bodies will be widely different.

When visiting the AGSA, I have always been entranced by Frank Auerbach’s Head of Helen Gillespie III (1965) and seeing it again in ‘The Mind Body’ room opposite Rodin busts and Mike Parr’s Head on a Plate #1-36 (1996) casts it in a new light—we look beyond the evolutionary trajectory of painting that Auerbach explored and see more clearly how he conveys the inner being of his sitter.

The exhibition was activated by the Australian Dance Theatre in their performance of Doppelganger, in which the performers wore masks to make them resemble the lead dancer, thus considering the fragility or elusiveness of personal identity. Alison Currie performed with objects made by her sister Bridget Currie for her Object for slugs (2016), dwelling on the physical body in space. The exhibits in Versus Rodin span 2000 years, demonstrating how the aesthetics of the body have evolved from the idealised depictions typical of Greek and Roman antiquity to the body as a site of narrative and politics. This is a dense and demanding exhibition, but long and careful consideration is amply rewarded.

Ultimately, the exhibition is a celebration of Rodin’s art and an evaluation of his pivotal role in the evolution of sculpture and its transition from classicism to modernism and then to postmodernism. Versus Rodin celebrates great art, implicitly refuting the idea that there can no longer be any such thing. It celebrates a great artist, distinguishing the capabilities that such an artist must demonstrate, including extensive historical knowledge, consummate mastery of tools and materials and a profound understanding of the human condition. In positioning Rodin’s work with that of many other artists, Versus Rodin makes clear Rodin’s achievements, but does so without diminishing the work of the other artists. Instead, it provides greater insights into the visual languages and devices employed by artists to convey psychological and emotional states. This is a highly successful curatorial model that extends the principle now well-established at AGSA of juxtaposing works from different eras and in contrasting media to illuminate particular themes and precipitate a deeper understanding of how artworks function.

(1) Leigh Robb, ‘Curatorial Preface’, in Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Penelope Curtin and Tony Magnusson (eds), Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2017, p. 33.

 

 

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Tim Silver, Australia, born 1974, Untitled (Oneirophrenia) (Blue) #5, 2016, Sydney, pure white concrete, marble dust and pigment, 38.5 x 24.0 x 26.0 cm, © Tim Silver, courtesy of the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Auguste Rodin, France, 1840–1917, Pierre de Wissant, monumental nude, c.1886–87 (Coubertin Foundry, cast 1985), Paris, bronze, 215.0 x 100.0 x 60.0 cm, William Bowmore AO OBE Collection. Gift of the South Australian Government, assisted by the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 1996, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Auguste Rodin, France, 1840–1917, The Inner Voice, c.1894, enlarged 1895–96, (Coubertin Foundry, cast 1982), Paris, bronze, 146.0 x 76.0 x 45.0 cm, William Bowmore AO OBE Collection. Gift of the South Australian Government, assisted by the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 1996, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Sui Jianguo, China, born 1956, The Blind #14, 2014, bronze, 90 x 30 x 40 cm, Private collection, Sydney, © Sui Jianguo, courtesy L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, California. 
 

Fredrik Nilsen

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Guy Maestri, Australia, born 1974, Xerox no. ll, 2016, painted bronze, concrete, 56.0 x 17.0 x 17.0 cm, © Guy Maestri, courtesy Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Auguste Rodin, France, 1840–1917, Andrieu d’Andres, head of the reductionwith fragments of the hand, c.1885, (E. Godard Foundry, cast 1985), Paris, bronze, 4.0 x 6.4 x 6.8 cm, William Bowmore AO OBE Collection. Gift of the South Australian Government, assisted by the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 1996, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Frank Auerbach, Britain, born 1931, Head of Helen Gillespie III, 1965, Camden Town, London, oil on canvas on board, 74.9 x 61.0 cm, Gift of the Contemporary Art Society, London 1969, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Auguste Rodin, France, 1840–1917, Kneeling Man, 1889, (G. Rudier Foundry, cast 1985), Paris, bronze, 11.0 x 33.5 x 12.5 cm, William Bowmore AO OBE Collection. Gift of the South Australian Government, assisted by the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 1996, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Sarah Lucas, Britain, born 1962, Realidad, 2013, cast bronze, bricks, 44.0 x 43.0 x 57.0 cm, Private collection, © Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Cecily Brown, Britain, born 1969, Boy with a Cat, 2015, oil, pastel on linen, 109.2 x 165.1 cm, Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg, Sydney, © Cecily Brown, courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Alison Saar, United States of America, born 1956, Silted Brow, 2016, wood, acrylic, tar silt, 18.4 x 68.6 x 19.1 cm, Private collection, Sydney, © Alison Saar, courtesy of L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, California.
 

Jeff McLane

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017

Art Gallery of South Australia

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017

Art Gallery of South Australia

Chris Reid has been a freelance writer on contemporary art and music for over 20 years, in parallel with a career in educational administration. He has a master’s degree in art history and briefly taught that subject. He is currently Chair of the Academic Board at Adelaide Central School of Art and is program manager for the Flinders University lunch hour concert series.

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