‘Versus Rodin’ is a welcome counterpoint to the current overworked vogue for immersive installations which set out to either subdue or seduce the passive intellect by sensory overload – as, for instance, in the aural and visual bombardment of Del Kathryn Barton’s ‘Red’, also at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). The exhibition invites a more detached contemplative stance from the viewer through aesthetic engagement with ‘duels and duets’ between Rodin and contemporary art in terms of representation of the human body. It is a rare, invigorating pleasure to meander through a show that has been conceived as a highly structured and aesthetically coherent figurative landscape. Bronze sculptures by Rodin dominate the exhibition, interspersed with an impressive 200 sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints and photographs by noted international and Australian artists, including some who have not previously been seen in Australia.
‘Versus Rodin’ (until 2 July) is the first major curatorial project by AGSA’s inaugural Curator of Contemporary Art Leigh Robb. She has picked up and run with a key tenet of AGSA exhibitions under Director Nick Mitzevich: namely that the contemporary is seen in dialogue with the past across time and across cultures. With considerable curatorial finesse and rigour, Robb has succeeded in reconceptualising AGSA’s substantial collection of Rodin sculptures, revealing their contemporaneity through influences on such diverse artists as Antony Gormley and Ugo Rondinone, while at the same time establishing their key role as exemplars of a burgeoning Parisian modernism.
Rondinone’s cast wax nude (2010), Louise Bourgeois’s series of lithographs, and a major painting, Boy with a Cat (2015) by British artist Cecily Brown, are all memorable. It is good, too, to revisit AGSA’s great Frank Auerbach painting, Head of Helen Gillespie III (1965), with its heavily impasto paintwork looking rejuvenated since I last saw it in storage a few years ago. Adelaide artist Julia Robinson’s exquisitely weird sculptures imbued with darkly ambivalent sexuality unequivocally justify her place in this company of peers.
But if it’s a contest, as the title ‘Versus Rodin’ implies, then Rodin wins hands down. Through sheer power and presence, his sculptures from the late nineteenth century vanquish the field of twenty-first century figuration. This is not simply a question of scale, though many of the Rodin sculptures exude a towering physicality. Two of his intimate erotic sculptures of women, Flying figure (1890–91) and Iris, study with head (1891), are equally riveting.
Margot Osborne, Adelaide