Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My Burghers of Calais

Standing outside The Royal Academy, a woman beside me asked 'What is it?'

Staring up at the small, disfigured and contorted bodies and formidable melting doors in front of me I stammered, 'I think it's The Gates of Hell'. I sort of knew it was, but I couldn't really be sure it was in front of me. I was meant to have an overwhelming reaction to it, but in the bright sunshine of the dazzling courtyard of the Academy, it looked a bit too pure, and not molten enough to be truly terrifying. With people wrapped up in their woollen coats and cashmere scarves hugging and kissing eachother hello before turning back to the cast in serious contemplation it looked rather sanitised.

The Royal Academy's Rodin exhibition is, like The Gates of Hell, rather overwhelming in its scale and ambition. You drift from room to room passing iconic sculpture after iconic sculpture, not really able to comprehend exactly what you are seeing. This is partly because Rodin's impact on sculpture is so far-reaching that his work is so familiar, and partly because there is so much to see that, like in any extensive exhibition, you get a bit bored and tired and desensitized.

Fortunately a school party of, I think, 9-10 year olds, were being guided through the exhibiton, split into small groups of two or three students and taken through all the major works in the Academy by their teachers. They weren't standing earnestly stroking their chins, considering the merits of bronze over marble or terracota, or musing about the successful translation of the aims of Impressionism into three-dimensional forms. They were shrieking and pointing at Balzac's big fat paunch and the profusion of visible genitalia. They were gasping at their guide's sensational account of the discovery of the adulterous Paulo and Francesca and shuddering at tales of their torment in Hell. They weren't pacing around The Kiss in silent reverence, but stewing over the fate awaiting these two people snogging and anxiously asking 'But, Miss, if he didn't carve it, why is it a Rodin?' They dismissed the 'big' marble Kiss as a bit of a cheat, and 'showing off', but stood patiently around the smaller terracota version, nodding excitedly at tall tales of murder and adultery, before asking why such a horrible story would have made such a pretty sculpture.

The Burghers of Calais is my favourite sculpture of all time. Fortunately I can see it any time I like in Victoria Tower Gardens, where it is happily ignored in favour of the Houses of Parliament. I love it because I think it distils all aspects of what makes us human into six truly individualised figures. It takes a story of selfless sacrifice, and instead of glorifying its subjects, and in particular the richest, most prolific person involved, Eustache de Saint Pierre, as requested by the Mayor of Calais, places the six men on an equal level with their viewers and each other. Arriving at the sculpture from any angle you see different aspects and characteristics of each figure, some in apparently stoic mediatation, some in complete anguish. I won't even try to break down what makes The Burghers of Calais so powerful - it would become a rather redundant paragraph harping on about big feet and hands. But what I will say, is that standing by the sculpture, eavesdropping on the school parties, I got excited about it all over again.

The children were fascinated by the fact that on approaching the sculpture, some of the figures were partially obscured by each other, and that to really see the work, you had to quite literally, walk around the entire thing and meet each one on their own terms. All of the children I listened to focused immediately on the two figures on the far right if you approach the sculpture head on. They were mystified by the calm but clearly plaintive expression on the figure in the foreground (Jean d'Aire), a mix of defiant determination and solemn resignation on his face. He was clearly very brave.

They all instinctively ran around him to the man behind him, face shielded, hands pressed against his skull in utter despair (Andrieu d'Andres). He obviously didn't want to be anybody's hero anymore and he didn't want to die. One boy said that he looked like he was asking 'Why?'. His friend piped up; 'Or, why me?'

They all thought Pierre de Wiessant (far left, arm outstretched) looked sad, like he had been crying or maybe praying. One remarked how, if you stand in front of Pierre, he looks rather like Andrieu, only not as desperate, as if he's realised crying won't do him any good because it's too late now.

They appreciated the figure behind him with arms outstretched and mouth open (Jean de Fiennes) and his apparent kind attempts to comfort his friends. He was a nice man. Jacques de Wiessant looked 'scared' and 'not sure' about what was going to happen. As a figure he seemed to naturally fade into the background, and as if he was trying to block out the others around him.

They thought the sculpture's almost central figure, Eustache de Saint-Pierre looked tired and old. One girl said she thought he looked ready to die.

And all they all noticed they were carrying big keys. And that they had big hands and big feet. Most of them agreed with Rodin that it would have been much more boring if all the figures had been placed in a pyramid formation, or, as one girl put it, they might have looked like cheerleaders. Which would not have been very good.

Whenever people ask me, 'what's your favourite book / song / film / painting / building?' etc, I wheel out some treasured old reliable, rarely pausing to question if this is actually true anymore. I finally revised my favourite song ever about a year ago, and my favourite book two years ago. The painting hasn't changed for six years, but then I haven't ever seen it for real. My favourite building changes every time I see Battersea Power Station before settling back into lovely wobbly Casa Battlo. My favourite film really needs some work as I think I have about thirty films that I regularly tell people are in my top 10.

The Burghers of Calais
has been my favourite sculpture for six years now. And perhaps for the first time in a good four years, on Monday I looked at it properly again. It’s still my favourite sculpture – but now I remember why.


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