‘Moore Rodin’ and ‘Bacon and Rodin in Dialogue’

Auguste Rodin's ‘Iris, Messenger of the Gods’

Definitive, irrefutable, ubiquitous – but impossible to love: these have been common responses for the past half-century to both Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore. What a bold, counter-intuitive move of the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green, then, to display their works together in the UK’s first joint show of the two founders of 20th-century sculpture.

The juxtaposition enlivens and de-familiarises both artists. Moore’s weighty forms, whether minute and figurative, such as the 13cm trio “Family Group: Broken” in the gallery here, or monumental and severely abstracted, as in the 7-metre bronze “Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae” standing under trees on Perry Green’s lawns, are grounded, static, timeless.

By contrast, Rodin’s figures articulate movement, the physicality of the body, the gestures and emotions of a fleeting moment: the anguished, larger-than-life-size citizens walking to their presumed deaths in “Monument to the Burghers of Calais”, on exceptional loan from Westminster and looking spectacular, outlined against nothing but sky in this rural setting; the springy, upward-heaving “Walking Man”, with its surface undulations and play of light and shadow enhancing the impression of motion.

This imaginative display, spread indoors and outdoors across the 70-acre Hertfordshire estate that was Moore’s home, is much more than a drama of opposites. Both sculptors share a humanist impulse. Each represents the human body by contorting, twisting, condensing, fragmenting. In Rodin’s “Cybele” and Moore’s “Seated Woman”, the extremities of the figures are eliminated to concentrate on the single truncated form, pared down to a simplicity recalling Egyptian statuary and the erosion of architectural monuments, which interested both artists. Moore’s “Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped” recalls Rodin’s portrait “Balzac” in the theatrical manipulation of drapery. The sense of taut skin-over-bone in Rodin’s “Jean d’Aire, Monumental Nude” is echoed in the tense abstraction of Moore’s giant “The Arch”.

Rodin’s ‘Cybele’ (1905 model)

Rodin and Moore were born 60 years apart – in 1840 and 1898 respectively – and when the younger artist initially visited Paris after the first world war, he avoided the museum that had just opened, following Rodin’s death in 1917, to celebrate the French sculptor. The modernist mantra of truth to materials insisted that 20th-century sculpture work against Rodin’s narrative impulse: for Moore, stone was not to be made to look like flesh but to retain its own integrity and vitality.

Thus Moore’s thrill at the immediacy of carving, inspired by pre-Columbian and African sculptures, compared with Rodin’s more pictorially directed modelling. A fascinating display here, curated by the artist’s daughter Mary Moore, places Moore’s collection of non-western sculptures against Rodin’s collection of mostly classical pieces.

Revolution, though, usually turns out to be evolution. Moore admitted, in a 1966 interview reprinted in the exhibition catalogue, that “if you like something tremendously you may react and think you’re against it, but inside you can’t get away from it. This is what happened to me over Rodin ... The greatness of Rodin [is] that he could identify himself and feel so strongly about the human body. He believed it was the basis of all sculpture ... out of the body he could make these marvellous sculptural rhythms. He talks about sculpture being the art of the hole and the bump.”

But Moore is not just Rodin plus cubism. There are differences in sensibility which transcend epoch, and these are brought out in the drawings. Rodin’s graphite and watercolour sketches – “Recumbent Female Nude in Profile”, “Seated Female Nude Holding One Foot”, “Bathsheba” – are sinuous, exuding eroticism. Moore’s angular charcoal depictions, such as “Reclining Woman in a Setting”, show a response to the female form that casts holes and bumps as maternal, not sexual. Nothing in his oeuvre has the palpable sensuality of the best Rodin loans here, such as the Fitzwilliam Museum’s “Torso of a Young Woman with Arched Back”.

Moore’s ‘Seated Woman’ (1975) at Perry Green

Sex, suffering, the radical representation of movement were surely the aspects of Rodin that attracted Francis Bacon. A wonderful small show at Ordovas gallery in London, Movement and Gravity: Bacon and Rodin in Dialogue, groups Rodin’s most flagrantly erotic sculpture, the headless acrobatic female figure with a bare exposed crotch, “Iris, Messenger of the Gods”, plus two associated works, “Iris, Study with Head” and “Iris, Large Head”, with three paintings by Bacon executed between 1959 and 1967, when he was engrossed in looking at Rodin.

The splayed limbs and exposed genitals of the first, “Lying Figure”, is particularly redolent of “Iris”, and it shows how Rodin informed Bacon’s reconfigurations of the body on different levels. There is the dynamic disposition and exaggeration of the limbs; the fractured form; the way Rodin’s animated surfaces present a transitional action as many movements, repeated in the vigour of Bacon’s brushstrokes.

The third, most intriguing and unusual, of the Ordovas paintings, “Three studies from the Human Body”, goes from Freud back to Oedipus. Here are the three ages of man as suggested by the riddle of the sphinx – a creature on four legs, then two, then three (with a stick). Suspended in a black void, Bacon’s trio of gyrating figures defy gravity: one, young and acrobatic, clings monkey-like to a beam; the second crouches, about to rise in a violent spasm, in a cross between a foetal and kneeling position; the third has his leg in a splint.

The superb scholarly catalogue traces the sources: the infant to a Paris Match photograph of a French boy on the Ivory Coast who “joue au singe”; the adult to a merged portrait of Bacon and his brutal/pathetic lover George Dyer; the old man to a radiography manual. Each individual is alienated from the others, as Rodin’s narrative force and unity is replaced by a sense – evoking Greek tragedy? – of meaninglessness and horror.

So in both these shows we watch two great artists taking what they need from a third: art history at its most vivid, personal and compelling.

‘Moore Rodin’, Henry Moore Foundation, March 29-October 27, www.henry-moore.org;

‘Movement and Gravity: Bacon and Rodin in Dialogue’, Ordovas, London, to April 6. www.ordovasart.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.