EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Leigh Robb, Curator of Versus Rodin

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: AGSA

What: Versus Rodin: Bodies across space and time

Where: Art Gallery of South Australia

When: 4 March – 2 July 2017

How much: Adult $18, concession $16, member $14, student $10, child $8

Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor behind the iconic Thinker, was one of the most influential artists of the modern age. The Art Gallery of South Australia’s current major exhibition, Versus Rodin: Bodies across space and time, brings together the Gallery’s impressive collection of Rodin sculptures, Rodin works from other collections, and existing and newly-commissioned works from Australian and international artists to mark the centenary of Rodin’s death in 1917. Collage writer Matilda Handsley-Davis caught up with AGSA’s curator of contemporary art, Leigh Robb, to chat about the exhibition and upcoming events at AGSA.

Curator Leigh Robb at the Versus Rodin media call. Photo credit: Rachel Wong

Matilda Handsley-Davis: Leigh Robb, thank you for talking to Collage! What inspired the Versus Rodin exhibition, and has your understanding of Rodin’s work and legacy changed as you were working on it?

Leigh Robb: I think there’s a whole lot of wonderful ‘eclipses’ that have happened at this point, given that 2017 is the centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin. So, worldwide, museums and galleries who have significant holdings of his works are doing commemorative exhibitions. The Art Gallery of South Australia has the largest collection of bronze sculptures in the Southern Hemisphere, twenty bronze sculptures by Rodin, which makes it a collection that’s larger than that of the the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and also the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

MHD: Wow.

Matilda Handsley-Davis at the Versus Rodin media call. Photo credit: Rachel Wong.

LR: That’s such a coup for the Art Gallery of South Australia. It’s an extraordinary story of great minds and intentions and ambitions coming together in 1996, when William Bowmore, an extraordinary Australian collector and philanthropist, offered his twenty bronzes and one drawing to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Ron Radford was the Director at the time, and it was offered for acquisition, so significant funds had to be raised to be able to purchase such a huge body of work, which was done together with the dual forces of the Gallery’s Foundation of individual Donors and the state government at the time. So what’s really exciting is to come to that collection of Rodin’s at this moment in time and to reconsider the impact his work has had, not only on sculptors but artists in general, and the sort of resonances that we can see sometimes directly, sometime indirectly, and more latent.

But coming back to your question about the legacy and how it’s affected an understanding of Rodin, it’s such a joy, having studied art history many, many years ago, to go back, and research and really get to know the sculptures and the stories and the history around those works in detail, such a privilege and such an exciting opportunity to get to know them – we re-photographed all of them for the publication, from lots of different angles, and I think Rodin was the master of changing perspective on things with his expressive and gestural approach to the body. I think those ideas of looking at things from different angles or how he studied his models from different angles or how he worked in his studio which was filled with various busts and figures and partial figures and wings and fragments of bodies. So I think the way the exhibition has unfolded is really in keeping with his radical way of working at the turn of the century.

And so the Gallery has really made a name for itself in delivering trans-historic and quite curatorially ambitious exhibitions, both in its permanent collection and its temporary exhibitions, so it was a chance to really take that to another level as well, drawing on the collection but also working with major lenders of international works around the country, borrowing from galleries and then commissioning Australian artists, giving them a platform to make new work right now. So that’s some of the backdrop to the exhibition.

Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: Rachel Wong.

MHD: So you started with the Rodin works – and how did you decide whom to commission?

LR: Well, we look for the artists who have been most ambitious in how they approach the representation of the body. It is predominantly a sculptural exhibition but also looking at the extraordinary work of Anne Ferran, Scenes of the Death of Nature – the way she’s approached the fold or looking at the Parthenon or the frieze or the classical body or the classical composition of multiple bodies in space – it’s so sculptural the way she’s approached it, so there are all these beautiful resonances across mediums as well, across photography, painting, printmaking, which is a very physical activity as well, and into some video and installations as well. It runs the gamut of the variety of mediums and ways and techniques and processes of working.

We really wanted to bring these Australian artists at different points of their career in conversation with international artists, and it was an amazing occasion to bring international artists, many of whom have never been seen in Australia as well, from Seth Price and Thomas Houseago, to Huma Bhabha and others like Alison Saar – there’s actually a huge list of artists who haven’t been shown in Australia to any great extent, so it’s a real privilege to be able to borrow works like that and show them in Adelaide. So I think it’s a truly international show.

Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: Rachel Wong.

Looking to how you choose artists, you still have to create some parameters, otherwise it could just be any person. Already I think I was getting very carried away and overexuberant with the possibilities drawing from the collection here, which is so strong! It’s such a treat to be able to go in and find a major Dennis Oppenheim from 1984 and bring out works which were first shown as new commissions for Adelaide Biennials, and to show the Anne Ferran and to show works by Bill Henson, to discover wonderful Frank Auerbachs in the collection, and Mike Parr… The international and Australian collection here at the Gallery is just so rich and to be able to bring them together in a different way, both for the contemporary works, but also to show the Rodins in a different light, is key to the thinking behind it.

But it comes back to each work in itself, if you look at the works we have in the collection, it was really using those as anchors, and then creating these – I like to call them “duels and duets” – across space and time with other artworks. They’re really pivotal in how they focus each gallery. From there it allowed us to create a pathway around, through, and almost inside the body, looking at the classical body, the fragmented body, the erotic body, the body across space and time and in many different manifestations, through to the emotive body and the emotive power of the body, through to the mind-body space, the duality between mind and body and how that’s expressed or explored through busts and portraits and masks, and how subjectivity is unpacked in those ways, through to the mortal body and how sculpture does sort of immortalise the body, of gods, goddesses or the artists themselves. So it sort of takes you on that arc from the whole body to thinking about the body and entropy and material and physical decay, in more abstract or existential terms. That’s the journey through the exhibition.

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: AGSA

MHD: The word versus in the title really suggests to me opposition and conflict. Do you see the idea of conflict as central to the exhibition, or is that just an accident of language?

LR: Everything is totally purposeful! And when you’re creating titles for exhibitions, the titles often drive the story or interpretation. We worked with a great Adelaide-based design company called Studio Band who, when they saw grouped together these 65 artists, pitching them against Rodin, they were really good at setting up this modern typeface.

Photo credit: Rachel Wong

It is a contestational space but also an exciting one, because Rodin was incredibly radical during his time and challenged ways of working. But he was also considered a classicist and a romantic: he loved antiquity and collecting ruins and fragments. He was also a modernist in the way that he fragmented the body, but then he was hugely influenced by literature and the likes of Balzac and Dante. Many of his friends and peers were part of the literati in Paris at the time.

It’s interesting, we went to the Sebastian Smee talk yesterday [at Adelaide Writers’ Week], and I bought his book quite a few months ago which is about the art of rivalry. And it looks at these great friendships and the irreconcilable differences and the ends of friendships between Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Matisse and Picasso, Degas and Manet. He said that it’s only really because of their great similarities, or the things they had in common, that they also were such great rivals. So there is something in that and I find that there are probably more affinities than there are tensions sometimes downstairs [in the exhibition], which is really sort of wonderful to play out.

But of course there are artists like Sarah Lucas, Louise Bourgeois, Gillian Wearing, Ugo Rondinone, Cecily Brown: artists who have challenged the representation of the form by showing it in new ways or using new materials, or through appropriation or reenactment and through changing that canon and reasserting themselves in that history. So that’s always at work as well: the anxiety of influence or how you respond to your heroes – whether you kill your heroes or become them or get under their skin – in the case of Gillian Wearing in those four works where she takes on the masks or the skins of Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Claude Cahun.

Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: Rachel Wong.

MHD: In the room guide to ‘The classical body’, it makes reference to Rodin’s work “embodying the anxieties and uncertainties of a new age”, and I was wondering if you could expand a bit more on specifically what anxieties and how you see Rodin’s work relating to those.

LR: That’s a really great question, because it is really about the conditions of our time and artists working in our time but also thinking back to Rodin’s time. He was at his most prolific from the 1880s till his death in 1917: that was on the turn of the century, it was the dawn of the industrial age and the beginnings of modernism as well, and he was in Paris which was the heart of the avant-garde. I was interested in looking at the centenary as a marking-point or a coordinate for us, thinking about artists a hundred years later, the majority of whom have been making work from the 1980s through to now, 2017, and also on the cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries and the internet or digital age.

So I’m really interested in those backdrops. The things that happen at the turn of the century are often quite significant breaking points. So when we’re in a period of extraordinary global turmoil: the digital age, the image of the body is circulated more than ever before. We’re seeing ourselves a lot more, but at the same time feel quite disembodied. I think it’s interesting to see stronger figurative impulses by artists at different times, at times when we may need new stories or different ways of looking at the body. That idea of artists being a mirror of our times, as art historians we see that again and again and so when you do put things together, you are trying to say something about the art of our time as much as the art of Rodin’s time.

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: AGSA

MHD: I wanted to ask you about the Rodin watercolours, the illustrations for Le Jardin des Supplices, because I just never thought of him as a painter as well as a sculptor. Do you think the paintings should be approached differently from the sculptures, or do you see them as part of the same story?

LR: I think when  Rodin died he left nearly 8000 drawings to what would become the Musée Rodin, and he left all his bronzes and moulds and plasters to the museum. He also allowed a certain number to be cast posthumously as a means to support the museum and circulate his legacy. Quite an incredible and proto-contemporary move – incredible foresight.

But the drawings in relation to the sculptures, the way that Rodin would create sketches in clay… often if he was doing a study of a figure he would have multiple, multiple clay casts made of, say, Balzac’s face, and then he would work each slightly differently until he got to the right one, with these really quick movements. So I really think the sketch in his notebook and in paper capture the brevity and the succinctness of vision in a line, and I think it’s very much connected to the tactility and the way of working with his hands which we see in line as opposed to in clay.

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: AGSA

The works that are downstairs are watercolours that were then transferred into lithographs by Auguste Clot, a master printmaker, and then turned into an unbound book which captured a series of illustrations for Le Jardin des Supplices, The Torture Garden. So it’s interesting to see how figures and forms migrate, but I think there’s the confidence of gesture that is captured in those works as well. It’s also interesting because, you know, it’s a really dark story, The Torture Garden, and where Rodin is very open about emotion and expression in other works, I find it interesting that in The Torture Garden he chose to be a lot more diffuse and there’s nothing explicit there about the relationship between desire and pain.

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: AGSA

MHD: It could have been really obscene, I guess, but it’s really – not muted, but I guess demure almost.

LR: Muted is a good word! So there’s so many different versions and different exhibitions we could have done, but it’s about tapping into these key pivotal moments in his practice that we could also borrow from collections within Australia. It was a great privilege that the National Gallery of Australia were open to lending a selection from that unbound book. I don’t think they’ve been shown in Australia, actually. And then to borrow additional Rodins from the Newcastle Art Gallery and William Bowmore: it’s nice to see that shift across media.

MHD: I thought that was really cool too, and something I wasn’t expecting. Do you have a favourite work or juxtaposition of works in the exhibition?

LR: Oh my God, there’s so many.

Marika Lucas-Edwards [AGSA Communications Manager]: It’s like having a favourite child!

LR: Yeah! I think the first gallery, ‘The classical body’, it’s a bounty of, just on an aesthetic level, these beautiful, formal pieces. So I love seeing Diana the Huntress, Scenes on the Death of Nature, and I love Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse 16 or 17 with this contemporary athlete in a basketball uniform which becomes these sort of athletic robes where he becomes a contemporary gladiator of sorts. And then to see the extraordinary Bill Henson photograph of the boy in the landscape next to the Calabrian Roman Study for a young athlete which could have been any time between 20 BC and 20 AD, to compress time in these incredible sightlines and across marble, photography, bronze and works on paper … the play between the folds and skin and the surfaces in those is really satisfying!

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: AGSA

But then, I also really love the ‘body across space and time’ gallery, which is in some ways an homage to Rodin’s studio and his way of working. Again, there’s a great diagonal where you’ve got The three shades which were to go at the top of The gates of hell, which remained unfinished and really a lifetime project of Rodin’s, and to be able to look over and see works by Antony Gormley, who has similarly tessellated and multiplied and fragmented and then reassembled the body in parts using bright steel and contemporary and industrial material, but then to make them so corporeal and so suggestive and equally emotive – it’s quite extraordinary to see that leap across time. And then to see the softness in a work by Julia Robinson, covered in soft fabrics and mixed with something like Rob McLeish, using an underwater marine material used on boats – it’s a sort of material frenzy in that gallery, but it’s also incredibly composed and I hope each work has its own space and the way that we’ve designed that maze means that you have a moment that’s discrete with each work, as well as being able to survey and look across this sort of forest of figures.

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: AGSA

MHD: I think my favourite’s – I can’t remember the name – but the one with the Greek and Buddhist statues together, near the stairs.

LR: Oh yeah, that giant thing that’s at the front! It’s hiding in plain sight. It’s an extraordinary work, and just getting that into the gallery was…

MHD: It must have been quite interesting!

Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: Rachel Wong

LR: It was! Even Channel 7 thought it was interesting, so they came and filmed it. That took a lot of people, trusted expertise and engineering, to show a work like that. It’s about 18 tonnes and very tall. But I quite like the way that you get such proximity to it because of the design of the stairs and the gallery. Coming down you can be face-to-face with them, but then as you go through the exhibition it expands and contracts with the amount of bodies and the amount of space around them so that you’re looking down or you’re looking up or sideways or backwards. So the duets are as much between Rodin and the contemporary artists and all of their works as between the artworks and the viewer.

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Installation view Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2017. Photo credit: AGSA

MHD: Well, I think that’s nearly it! Finally, what are you working on next for AGSA and what do we have to look forward to?

LR: We’re going straight into the Ramsay Art Prize! That’s opening on the 26th of May, and I think finalists are going to be announced on the 26th of April, so we’re pretty much working on that exhibition right now. That’s really exciting, because it’s a really outstanding selection of Australian artists. So that’s what’s next! Then I’m off to Venice with the Australia Council, taking around groups of supporters called the Champions, incredible individual donors who support the production and the exhibition in Venice – this year it’s Tracey Moffatt – then I’m taking a collectors’ group around a trifecta of contemporary international exhibitions this year. Going to Venice for the Biennale, to Kassel for Documenta and to Münster. That only happens every ten years, so I’m looking forward to going to see all of those amazing exhibitions with some supporters.

MHD: Excellent. Thank you so much for talking to us, Leigh Robb!

Matilda Handsley-Davis

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