Rodin & Degas: Impressionist sculpture

A new exhibition at the Holburne Museum brings together major sculptures by two towering figures of modern art, Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas. The show focuses on the artists’ representation of the human body and their expression of its energy. Gianna Scavo compares the work of the two artists and the power of their sculptural expression.

In the early 1890s, British painter Walter Sickert paid a visit to the studio of an artist who influenced his work – he recalls how the artist “turned the statuette slowly to show me the successive silhouettes thrown on a white sheet by the light of a candle.” The artist was Edgar Degas, renowned French impressionist painter and sculptor, known for his most favourite subject matter of dancers. It comes as no surprise that Degas was interested in this play of light and movement, as we witness a similar effect in his oil paintings and pastels – the delicate tulle skirts almost seem to flutter before our eyes.

When we think of figurative sculpture, we may not immediately think of movement, of fluidity or dynamism, but perhaps longevity – life-sized expressions of memory and power. Sculpture is often perceived as concrete and unchanging, but the evolution of modern art represented a break from this austerity. Principles that pushed the creative boundaries of art, such as those of Impressionism, a movement defined by rapid brushwork and capturing the way that light interacted with a moment in time, were also being applied to the sculptural medium. Materials so solid, such as bronze, marble and wax, combined with principles so freeing, generated a powerful energy, and one that you can witness in The Holburne Museum’s major exhibition, Rodin & Degas: Impressionist Sculpture, focusing on how these two pioneering artists captured the vitality of the human body. The dynamism of this exhibition is generated by the juxtaposition of two renowned artists who explored similar subject matter while maintaining highly contrasting methods of working. “Rodin and Degas are two of the leading figures of modern European sculpture”, says Sylvie Broussine, Assistant Curator at The Holburne Museum, “This exhibition offers the opportunity to view some of their most exciting and important works, and explore their individual, yet equally ground-breaking approaches to the depiction of the human form.”

“Materials so solid, such as bronze, marble and wax, combined with principles so freeing, generated a powerful energy”

The uniqueness of Edgar Degas’ sculptures lies in the fact that for him, sculpting was an intimate and private practice. He had doubted his sculptural work, and was hesitant to cast his pieces in more permanent materials and publicly display them, with the exception of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, which was exhibited during an impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1881, and was met with criticism. While most artists use sketching as a way to capture the essence of an idea, Degas would sculpt with wax, clay, plastiline, and even incorporated materials such as cork and rope.

It wasn’t until his death in 1917 that over 150 sculptures were recovered from his studio, and it was decided among his heirs that a series of 72 posthumous bronze casts would be authorised. Due to the experimental and concealed nature of his sculptures, or so he thought, these pieces communicate an immediacy and transience not often seen in three-dimensional work – a privileged glimpse into the artist’s mind, the unraveling of an idea as swift as pencil on paper, but fully fleshed in bronze.

You can witness this first hand in Degas’s Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Foot, an exhibition highlight that depicts a female nude holding a rather strenuous pose. She balances on her left leg and her left arm is also raised while her torso twists, allowing her to inspect the sole of her right foot. Ironically, it took months of model sittings in order to depict such a fleeting moment. The roughly textured surface of this sculpture is perhaps its most breathtaking element, showing visible traces of the artist’s sculptural process. Look closely enough, and you can see fingerprints and indentations, along with scratches and strokes of brushes. This abstracted and almost rugged surface allows the piece to interact with the light as it sweeps over the surface, a quality reminiscent of Impressionist painting that gives her a fluidity and sense of movement as she balances, rendering both a figure – and an idea – on the precipice.

Above: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Edgar Degas, 1922, UEA 2, Sainsbury Centre

Unlike Degas, Auguste Rodin’s practice was more public, and many of the works in the exhibition derive from commissions. While Rodin did not take part in Impressionist exhibitions, his utilisation of the effects of light create a natural association. Drawing on the artistic principles of Renaissance sculpture, and reworking them with his fresh, expressive techniques, Rodin’s work possesses a raw emotionalism, humanity and inner life. When roaming the exhibition, keep an eye out for Rodin’s Eve, who unlike Degas’ dancer, is painfully aware of our gaze, as she contorts her body and shrouds her face in shame. Her anguished, contrite disposition is wonderfully juxtaposed by the courageous, confrontational Iris, Messenger of the Gods, initially intended to be part of a monument for Victor Hugo, depicting a body in full flight with her legs stretched open. Acrobatic, carnal and simply splendorous, this radical work is yet another powerful example of Rodin’s portrayal of both emotional and physical energy. Though different in subject matter, these works are equally radical, illustrating Rodin’s ability to depict the body on the verge of the extreme. What unites Degas and Rodin is their sensitivity and creative response to the energy that our bodies possess, whether in a state of stillness or movement. Encountering their works, both individually and in conversation with one another, prompts us to reflect on the ways in which we inhabit our own bodies, seeing a bit of ourselves in Degas’ Little Dancer, both vulnerable yet dignified, or perhaps in Rodin’s Iris, audacious and unashamed.

Sculpture can be a difficult medium to interpret, and we are perhaps not accustomed to engaging with three-dimensional works in the same way that we confront other artistic mediums. Sylvie Broussine encourages us to take the same inquisitive and playful shadow puppet approach that Degas did in his studio. As you witness how these artists explored and interpreted the human body, don’t be hesitant to involve your own in the viewing process. Sculpture gives us this unique art-viewing experience, far from the approach of engaging with paintings and works on paper. So engage with these works from every aspect and angle, and don’t be afraid to circle around them, following their curves and lines – ask yourself, where is the sculpture naturally guiding us? How does the texture of each surface create patterns of light and shadow, contributing to their sense of movement? How is each artist’s unique modelling hand seen in the various surfaces and textures? Rodin is quoted as saying “The sculptor must learn to reproduce the surface, which means all that vibrates on the surface, soul, love, passion, life… sculpture is thus the art of hollows and mounds, not of smoothness, or even polished planes.” When visiting each work, meditate on how the intricacies of their surfaces, their materiality, contribute to their expressional force.

You can practice looking at and interpreting sculpture with some of the treasures found in The Holburne Museum’s permanent collection, some of which even influenced Rodin, especially that which represented classical subject matter. Visit the Davidson Ballroom Gallery to see Crouching Venus, a bronze sculpture that was cast and finished by Antonio Susini from a model by the Florentine sculptor Giambologna in around 1600. Her twisted and dynamic stance invite us into her orbit, and if you look closely enough, you may spot an inventory mark on her shoulder, hinting at an exciting bit of provenance, as she was part of the French Royal collection until the Revolution in 1789. You can also find a collection of bronze Italian Renaissance statuettes, symbols of luxury often displayed in the studies of wealthy homes and which took inspiration from Roman antiquity. Be sure not to miss Diana and Endymion, an exquisitely detailed marble sculpture by Giuseppe Plura that was executed in 1752 after the artist had set up a studio in Bath, which depicts an allegory of eternal youth and beauty.

Rodin & Degas: Impressionist Sculpture is on view at the Holburne Museum from 24 September until 8 January 2023;