This past week, Tom and I met Aubrey in London for four days of whirlwind touring. I’ll write more about the trip later, but now, first, I want to write about the Auguste Rodin exhibition at the British Museum.
Rodin’s artwork was displayed with many of the ancient works of Greece, particularly from the Parthenon. This was fitting, since Rodin said that the ancient artists were his mentors and inspiration.
As always, Rodin’s work stunned me, as did the sculptures of the ancients. I am in awe by their ability to show the human body naked, as well as showing the human body even when draped by cloth. When drawing, an artist can define the human body first, and then drape it in clothing, but not so in stone. How is it possible for them to envision what is below the draped cloth and make it visible through the cloth’s draping? It is beyond my understanding.
My favorite of Rodin’s sculptures was there. I’m not talking about The Thinker, though that was there, or a casting of the original, always marvelous. No, I’m talking about the Burghers of Calais.
I first encountered this in a book I was editing, where I read about the siege of Calais by England’s Edward III. The city’s populace was starving and finally had to call to parley with Edward, despite their king (Philip VI of France) demanding that they hold out at all costs. In return for sparing the city, Edward demanded that six of the city’s leaders offer their lives as payment for peace. Six men, led by Eustache de Saint Pierre, stepped forward and, as commanded, filed through the city gates for execution, wearing nooses around their necks.
This is the moment Rodin captured. Six men walking voluntarily toward death, giving their lives on behalf of others.
When viewed from a distance, the six men are in a tight-knit group, in various stages of terror, grief, or submission. But as you walk around the statue, viewing from a variety of vantage points, you see that each individual man is set apart from the others, alone in his final moments, accepting death in his own way, releasing life so that others might live.
Grief and despair.
Hundred-yard stare of knowing.
And finally, the release of expectation of life.
I gasp at the power of Rodin’s mastery of emotion.
(Ultimately, Edward III’s wife compelled him not to kill the burghers, saying that their deaths would be a bad omen for their unborn child. Edward relented. (The child lived only a year.)