This week I’m taking a personal look at the Rodin sculptures Eve and Age of Bronze currently on display in the Entrance hall.
The works were originally bought by the Gallery in 1911. Then director of Manchester Art Gallery, Walter Butterworth, saw a cast of the Age of Bronze at the Exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers and wanted to buy it but the piece had already been sold. However, after a visit to Rodin's studio, Butterworth came away with newly commissioned casts of Age of Bronze and Eve, for the sum of £320 each (I expect they're worth considerably more than that now).
Although the two pieces have been on display before, separately and together, their current placing on the main stair plinths is a result of the recent Annie Swynnerton: Light and Hope exhibition. Rodin was a big fan apparently, so it was a good excuse to have these two works out on display again.
Eve was originally meant to be part of Rodin’s Gates of Hell work, a huge portal inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy, flanked by Adam and Eve on either side but, apparently, his model became pregnant and this sculpture for the larger work was abandoned. The Gates of Hell was never cast in Rodin's lifetime, existing only as a full-scale plaster cast in his studio until 1925, although there are now several cast versions of it around the world.
The Age of Bronze, one of Rodin’s more famous works, was first created in 1877. Originally the figure held a spear in the left hand and was entitled The Vanquished in remembrance of those who fought in the Franco-Prussian War, as Rodin himself did briefly. In response to criticism of being anti-French and criticising the French Government for going to war, Rodin eventually did away with the spear. As a result, he invested the pose with a new unforeseen ambiguity, along with its more familiar cryptic title, leaving any meaning of the piece now open to interpretation. His one-time secretary, the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke knew the piece by yet another title, The Man of Primal Times and in his monograph on Rodin described it as ‘a life-sized figure in all parts of which life was equally powerful ‘ and with an expression that showed ‘the pain of a heavy awakening, and at the same time the longing for that awakening.’
However, as the Speech Acts exhibition has shown us, placing two distinct works next to each other can alter their meaning as the works enter into a 'conversation' with each other, changing the spectator’s view of the works.
Ever since a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, when I saw Thomas J Price’s three-meter tall sculpture Network (2013), of a man in a casual pose holding his mobile phone, I’ve been jokingly telling visitors that one of Age of Bronze’s alternative titles was No Signal : a man holding a mobile phone depicting the modern angst of having all these ways of talking (call, text, messenger, What’s App, SnapChat, Twitter, Facebook, Tinder, etc.) but being unable to communicate.
Tell me you don’t see it. From the relaxed posture and open expression of Network to the tense anxiety of Age of Bronze. It’s a frustration of which we’re all aware, that we’ve all experienced at some time or another. Who hasn’t hung out the window waving their phone about as if trying to dowse an extra smidgen of signal strength? No? Just me then.
So what happened when I saw all that put in ‘conversation’ with ‘Eve’, a woman obviously in the throes of sorrow and despair, wrapped up as much in her thoughts, as in her own arms?
The two sculptures play off each other to create a new narrative, a new dynamic (at least to my mind – your mileage may vary). To me, then, it’s a very modern story; a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. He’s trying to message his new relationship and not able to get through. No bars. No signal. Aarrgh! Bloody network coverage!
‘Eve’, on the other hand, on not receiving an expected message falls into despair and introspection, believing she has been ghosted. Which, for those of you not down with the kids, is defined as when someone you love disappears or cuts off all contact without explanation - no talking. No replying to texts. Nothing.
She starts to question herself. Why hasn’t she heard from him? Was it something she said, something she did? Why hasn’t he messaged her back? Maybe he’s just not that into her? Why not? she begins to dwell on her personal anxieties; body image, self-worth. The constant stream of thoughts we have, that daily commentary running through our heads, take a negative turn, reinforcing any negative thoughts she has about herself and, as she continues to brood, she disappears down a rabbit hole of negative reinforcement. All because she didn’t receive an expected message for which there might be 101 perfectly legitimate reasons that were nothing to do with her at all.
If you spend a lot of time with your own thoughts (and for those of us in Visitors Services, it’s an occupational hazard), it can be important to realise that negative thoughts are not reality and that not all thoughts are worthy of serious attention or concern. If we pay some of them too much attention or dwell on them, like Eve, we soon begin to feel the effects of that negativity. However, if we remember that we are the thinkers of our own thoughts, we can recognise them for what they are, merely a passing thought. We can choose to just let it go, or simply tell ourselves to stop that line of thinking.
And as for Rodin’s sculptures, I, for one, hope that the figure in Age of Bronze finally gets a signal and can send his message and that on receiving it Eve’s air of gloom and despondency is dispelled.
Food for thought?