Rodin’s world-famous sculpture ‘The Kiss’ is currently the centre piece of the ‘Kiss and Tell’ exhibition at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. It is on temporary loan from the Tate and it is fascinating to see it spotlit at the centre of a dark, navy blue room.
The inspiration for the figural forms of ‘The Kiss’, was taken from Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and are the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Originally, the design for the two lovers, together with precursors for other renowned Rodin sculptures ‘The Thinker’ and ‘The Three Shades’, were part of a major government commission. In 1880, the French government had commissioned Rodin to create large, ornamented entrance gates for a new decorative arts museum in Paris.
The gates were to be over six metres high and were to feature forms inspired by Baudelaire’s ‘The Flowers of Evil’ as well as the ‘Divine Comedy’. The museum was not built, but Rodin repurposed some of the sculptural details to make stand alone pieces one of which became ‘Le Baiser’ the marble version of Francesca and Paolo and is known to us English speakers as ‘The Kiss’.
Also on display at the exhibition was a sketch for ‘The Three Shades’. The shades are the ghosts of dammed souls that stand at the entrance to hell and point to the sign “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. It is always thought-provoking to see the creative processes behind a finished work of art such as preparatory drawings and small-scale models. And, indeed, when discussing his work towards the end of his life, Rodin said “It’s very simple. My drawings are the key to my work”.
Another sculpture by Rodin in the exhibition shows a more formal, restrained style. This marble portrait bust of society beauty Mary Hunter, shows a polished and contained individual. I understand the societal constraints of the times, but I still think this is a chilly and detached piece especially in comparison to the vital, visceral quality of ‘The Kiss’. Mind you this could be partly due to the fact that, according to the exhibition label, the actual carving of the marble was carried out by an assistant working under Rodin’s direction.
Personally, I am not keen on this style of portrait and it feels too similar to a death mask for my taste. I much preferred another portrait head by Rodin, this time in bronze, of the popular Japanese actress, Hanako.
Apparently, Rodin, who met Hanako in 1906, was fascinated by the range of emotions the actress could portray with her face. Unfortunately due to the low light and darkness of the piece my photograph of this compelling bronze portrait does not do it justice.
Supporting the main Rodin pieces were examples of various sculptures that either influenced Rodin or works that were influenced by him or had an obvious Suffolk connection. A portrait bust by Maggi Hambling of her tutor, Bernard Reynolds, falls into the last category. The original bronze was cast in 1963 whilst Hambling was attending Ipswich Art School.
“I studied at Ipswich Art School from 1962 until 1964. For my portrait of Bernard Reynolds, I worked in clay as he toured the sculpture studio, his head always tilted towards the ceiling, in the manner of an inquisitive, exotic bird”.