Rodin and Scotland: A Love Affair

Abbot Hall Art Gallery is currently showing one of Auguste Rodin’s best-known works – The Thinker is on show until 27 October. The iconic piece is on loan from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Pippa Stephenson, Curator of European Art, Glasgow Museums, explains how Scotland swooned for sculptures by the French artist:

Pippa

Auguste Rodin is a well-known and widely-appreciated artist, with exhibitions springing up worldwide, particularly in the wake of last year’s centenary since his death. However, it wasn’t always that way.

It took France, in particular, a surprisingly long time to appreciate the artist’s naturalistic and unorthodox approach to sculpture. The first public monument to the ‘Father of Modern Sculpture’ was not erected in France until 1904, indicative of the country’s reluctance to embrace his art.

Scotland, however, developed a somewhat earlier appreciation for Rodin. Examples of the artist’s work were shown at the 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition, a time when public opinion of Rodin’s reputation was still out to jury (by 1900, with the artist’s seminal exhibition in Paris, his worldwide reputation was firmly established).

In 1906, the artist received an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University. He gifted a bust, Saint George’ to Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery in return, a token of his affection for the city. Recently, letters between Rodin and Francis Newbury, the visionary founder of the internationally-famous Glasgow School of Art, have been unearthed in the archives of the GSA. These few letters confirm that the pair were in dialogue around 1901, with Rodin asking Newbury to report on how his sculptures were being received in the Glasgow International exhibition of that year.

Recognising Rodin’s importance, Glasgow Museums bought two works from that exhibition, a plaster cast of ‘Saint John the Baptist’, and a cast of the ‘Burghers of Calais’.

It was the actions of William Burrell, however, which gave Glasgow its particularly special relationship with Rodin. Burrell was the owner of a successful shipping business, and took a keen interest in art, amassing an internationally-significant collection of over 9000 objects.

The collection opened to the public in 1983, and is currently undergoing extensive renovation, due to reopen in 2020. In the course of his lifetime, Burrell bought at least 14 bronzes by the artist, all of which are in the collection today. This gives Glasgow the second largest collection of Rodin’s in the UK (after the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the recipient of 17 sculptures gifted by Rodin himself in 1914), and one of the largest worldwide in a public collection.

Burrell’s first purchase, probably ‘Fleeting Love’, was made before 1901, which he lent to the aforementioned Glasgow International Exhibition. Photographs of Sir William’s Glasgow townhouse at 8 Great Western Terrace show Rodin bronzes on display alongside medieval tapestries and Northern European Renaissance paintings.

He bought these sculptures from local dealers including Alexander Reid, as well as directly through the Musee Rodin, Paris. He collected sculptures by Rodin up until 1937, including important pieces such as ‘The Thinker’, which is part of the British Museum spotlight tour, on display at Abbot Hall Art Gallery Kendal until 27 October.

More on the exhibition at http://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodin

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Rodin and the intriguing logics of the fragment

by Barbara Vujanović

Abbot Hall is the first gallery in the country to host an amazing Spotlight Loan exploring how Auguste Rodin took inspiration from the fragments of ancient Greek and Roman statues. Barbara Vujanović, who conceived the loan, explains how it came about:  

Sometimes things in life (and work) fall into place so flawlessly and easily, like pieces of a well adjusted mosaic.

The story behind my involvement with the British Museum, and working on the exhibition Rodin: rethinking the fragment seems to be one of those examples.

In 2015, I had the pleasure to co-author the retrospective of Auguste Rodin in Zagreb. Working with my colleagues from the Musée Rodin, namely with Véronique Mattiussi, enabled me to expand my knowledge on one of the greatest modernisers of sculpture.

I am dealing with the art of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, an artist who was marked by Rodin’s art and his friendship, and I became more and more interested in their mutual passion for antique and classical art. In fact, this is the subject of my PhD research, so I was very happy to meet Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator at the British Museum and an expert on Ancient Greek sculpture, in 2015 in Zagreb, just a few months after seeing his marvellous exhibition at The British Museum, Defining beauty – the body in ancient Greek art.

At the time he was preparing the project of the exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, and our interests on antique and modern sculpture overlapped, Ian Jenkins kindly proposed me for the British Museum’s International Training Programme. The six weeks I have spent in London and in Manchester in 2016 were an incredible experience.

Working with Ian Jenkins and his colleague Celeste Farge, co-author of the aforementioned exhibition on Rodin and antique art, turned me towards a challenging subject of the antique fragmentary sculpture influence on modern artist, mostly on Auguste Rodin.

Therefore, when I was invited to conceive a Spotlight Loan exhibition, with the help of my dear mentors, Ian and Celeste, I was naturally driven to the question of fragments.

Not only was it one of the themes of the Rodin exhibition at The British Museum, but also the very nature of the Spotlight Loan programme, which is based on the selection of just a small number of objects, turned me toward the intriguing logics of the fragment.

How one part or an object invokes another one, how one fragment can change our perception of the whole? I was thrilled to make the selection for this exhibition, but what excites me even more, is the anticipation of other fragments, pieces of the mosaic which will be added at Abbot Hall Art Gallery.

Barbara Vujanović by Rodin's The Thinker
Barbara Vujanović by Rodin’s The Thinker

I am very keen to learn about Rodin’s influences on Elisabeth Frink’s art. I believe that we, the curators, can provide the best projects once we understand we are all part of this large mosaic of knowledge, passion for art, culture and history.

I am looking forward to seeing those other pieces of the mosaic in Kendal, and I am hoping they will lead us towards some new experiences and discoveries.

Barbara Vujanović, Senior Curator, The Ivan Meštrović Museums – Meštrović Atelier, Zagreb.

Auguste Rodin: rethinking the Fragment, is now open until 27 October. https://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodin

Elisabeth Frink Fragility and Power, runs until 29 September. https://www.abbothall.org.uk/elisabethfrink

Barbara Vujanović will visit Abbot Hall on 27 September and give a talk: Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker: revolutionising modern art. To book https://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodinandhisinfluences.

Image: Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1880-81, The Burrell Collection © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Frink’s work: an unflinching expression of the human condition

By Jo Baring, Director of The Ingram Collection

Dame Elisabeth Frink is one of Britain’s best known artists of the twentieth century, producing over 400 sculptures during the course of her career.

Frink grew up in Suffolk during the Second World War, and famously witnessed bombers fighting in the skies above her, or returning to the base in flames. These images stayed with her, and in her work she explored the close and complex connection between heroism and failure.

One of her central pre-occupations was an investigation into what it means to be human. She asked herself fundamental questions concerning human behaviour.  She said that her concern was “not that mankind is any worse that it was; it is just that it is as bad as it was”.

Frink was drawn to the idea of the male as a flawed and vulnerable hero and, when depicting the human figure, she nearly always chose the male. Her work explored human strength, struggle, aggression, fragility and vulnerability.  She saw her work as an unflinching expression of the human condition. Her art was ambitious – it was not simply to look ‘nice or pretty’.

“Nearly all people have a private world. I escape into my studio and put my fantasies into solid form, into sculptural form. I have an ambition to be a good sculptor. I think one has to be ambitious. I want to be able to give the idea, the crystallisation, the satisfactory sculptural form without it being mere forms which look nice. I want it to have an impact on people who look at it without it being dramatic or melodramatic.”

Elisabeth Frink, Riace III sculpture
Elisabeth Frink, ‘Riace III’, 1986 in Abbot Hall Art Gallery. Courtesy of The Ingram Collection of Modern British Art.

One of the most powerful examples of this ambition is Riace III, lent by the Ingram Collection to Elisabeth Frink: Fragility and Power. Frink was fascinated by the discovery of some fifth-century BC Greek bronze sculptures in the sea off Calabria in Southern Italy in the 1970s and she later saw them on display in Florence. She wanted to make new versions of these sinister warriors, finding their ‘thuggishness’ inspiring: “Thuggishness is a bit of a pre-occupation with me. It all hinges on my humanitarian sentiments…making new versions seemed like a marvellous idea, one that I really wanted to tackle.”

Her modern versions of the Riace Warriors are potent & alert vessels of muscle and sinew. There is also a fundamental ambivalence to the figures – they are clearly about to bust into movement, but which direction? They are also neither obvious forces of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ – rather they are humans, with all the associated complexity of character and motive.

Because Frink worked resolutely in the figurative tradition and stuck to the qualities of bronze when other contemporary sculptors were investigating new materials, such as painted steel and aluminium, she has certainly been critically overlooked in the past.

But there has recently been a long-overdue reappraisal of her work, culminating in a number of recent exhibitions. Fragility and Power at Abbot Hall is an important and timely exploration of a celebrated creative output.

See Elisabeth Frink: Fragility and Power at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal until 29 September 2018. More information at www.abbothall.org.uk/elisabethfrink 

My friend Elisabeth Frink – up there with the greatest

By Sophie Ryder

Liz used to drop her son Lin at my house in Richmond on a Friday night to play loud music with my brother up in the attic. They were best friends and both went to Chelsea Art School.

I had a crush on Lin for years but was never allowed into their den as I was seven years younger than my brother. Lin was so good looking and a lot of Liz’s work was based on him. He was an incredibly talented comic strip illustrator as well as a musician.

When my brother died age 23, I was keen to keep in touch with his friends so I asked if I could go and see Lin in Dorset. It became a regular weekend trip and it was such a special time for me.

It was great to see Liz at work in her studio, an artist who was doing what she wanted to do and was so successful. Liz was very unassuming but at the same time had a special aura.

Apart from her obvious striking head of white curly hair, she was very well-spoken but was not a chatty person, she almost came across as shy. Liz chose her words carefully but I think it was just that she liked to observe people more than to talk, I also think that in later life it actually hurt her to speak because of her illness.

One Saturday morning when Liz went to the market to buy food, I stayed behind to clean the AGA which was caked in oil. Liz came back and was thrilled to see her ‘new’ cooker!

She unpacked a beautiful hand-painted, colourful ceramic bowl that she had bought from a local ceramicist – for £80! And then proceeded to pour the fruit from brown paper bags into it.

There was this beautiful handmade bowl, a work of art, which she immediately turned into something useful by filling it with fruit. I was so impressed and thought to myself that I would like to be able to afford to buy beautiful objects one day.

Like me, Liz worked around the clock but family time was precious. She was so close to her husband Alex and son from a previous marriage, Lin. Alex was also an inspiration for Liz, he was a big strong man. He once walked into the kitchen with his dressing gown, picked me up, threw me over his shoulder, took me outside and threw me in the swimming pool. I was never quite sure why!

Liz made very traditional country food, she was a good cook, lots of casseroles and dishes she could put in the AGA and go back to work.

Liz, Lin and I would go for country walks together with our dogs. One of her big dogs and my lurcher had a fight one day and Lin showed me how to separate big dogs from a fight without getting bitten.

Their dog got his ear bitten and I was so embarrassed and worried for years that the next sculpture of the dog would have a chunk missing out of its ear.

When I finished at the Royal Academy of Arts, age 20, (I was just 17 when I started) Liz told me not to bother going back into education for another three years.

She said: “What do you want to go back to school for? You know what you want to do, and you are already doing it. You don’t follow the trends and you don’t do what your tutors tell you to do anyway, so what’s the point?

“You can just find somewhere to work and start your life.”

Liz put me forward for a residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where I worked for three months, I had such a lovely time and was so grateful to her for putting me forward, as I had no idea she was doing so.

One of my biggest regrets was that Liz had planned to take me with her for Sunday lunch with Henry Moore and then he died two weeks before we were due to go.

At the time I was working at the sculpture park residency on a one and a half times life-size horse and so I called it SON OF YORK after Henry Moore who was born in York.

Liz was actually a visiting tutor at the RA schools for the sculpture students but I was on a painting course so she didn’t tutor me.

She must have used the printmaking facilities at the school because one day I found a huge Goggle Head screen print in the skip with a black cross through it and I rolled it up and kept it for years.

After Liz died I had a ceremonial burning of the print as I didn’t want to show it to anyone since it was a reject of hers.

Picture of Elisabeth Frink and Sophie Ryder
Photo © Sophie Ryder : Harry Scott

After Liz’s untimely death I went to stay with Lin and his family. I walked into the studio and it was eerie, the doors were open and blowing in the wind. Otherwise, the studio was exactly as Liz had left it.

I told Lin he should turn it into a museum to celebrate her life. He said people had asked him but he didn’t feel ready. I felt so sorry for him, they were so close, I really felt his sadness.

Recently a mutual client ours asked my advice on the patination of a Frink horse, I was so pleased to be able to give my opinion and to help restore her War Horse back to its former glory.

I remember once hearing a Radio 4 Woman’s Hour interview with Liz and she seemed a bit disappointed that she was overlooked in the new world of sculpture residencies in sculpture parks.

My conclusion for this was that she was an older, commercially successful figurative artist who made traditional bronzes, they probably couldn’t see a way she could work in a more disposable material and also probably thought that she may not be interested given that she was so recognised.

She was often asked to choose people for competitions, shows and residencies and also judge things.

It’s wonderful that she is being recognised now more than ever for the amazing artist she was. Her work is here to stay, she is up there with the greatest.

She was a wonderful strong woman, mother and artist. Such an inspiration.

Sophie Ryder is an artist: www.sophieryder.com

See the exhibition Elisabeth Frink: Fragility and Power at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal until 29 September 2018. More information at http://www.abbothall.org.uk/elisabethfrink

Image © Sophie Ryder : Harry Scott