Is old art still relevant?

By | December 21, 2016

I’ve always been an advocate for a complete education – proper understanding of your subject, its history, and appreciation of all of its aspects. From this perspective, all art historians should learn and understand the various mediums of art making. If we are critiquing and researching artworks, we should have an appreciation of the labour and the processes involved in bringing those artworks to life. The same way curators should have an understanding of art history. Isn’t it shallow to have a curator putting together a contemporary art exhibit in a vacuum – with no knowledge of the arts of the past, the influences that shape the current artists, and the transformations that art had undergone through the centuries?

The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, “Nude: art from the Tate collection,” features Auguste Rodin’s monumental sculpture ‘The Kiss’ as its crowning centre piece. It depicts the story of Francesca da Rimini and her lover, Paolo Malatesta, who was her husband’s younger brother. The tragic story of their discovery and murder by Francesca’s husband has been immortalised by Dante Alighieri in his “Inferno” and by numerous artists over the centuries. (You can check out William Dyce’s version in an earlier post.)

Rodin uses his magic of carving emotion out of stone to bring this story to life – to move the viewer – to stop us breathing for a few moments while standing before it completely awe-struck. Having been to the Musée Rodin in Paris, and walked through rooms full of his works, this one piece is monumental enough to take one’s breath away all by itself.

There are multiple versions of The Kiss. The 3.5 tonne sculpture featured in the ‘Nude: art from the Tate collection’ exhibition at AGNSW is a rare commodity to see in Australia. (I don’t even want to think about the logistics of moving such a valuable and massive object!)

Unfortunately, many times contemporary art enthusiasts brush aside old art as unimportant and even irrelevant. It is often considered as something of the past, with young audiences striving to explore new grounds and artistic concepts. ‘Old’ art is considered basically boring by students of art faculties that push contemporary practice.

Nineteenth century art actually presents a very interesting period of art. Everyone knows about Impressionism, and students often get sick of hearing about it, in turn searching for more ‘relevant’, avant-garde styles. So why is it so popular? I think, it is simply the closest period of ‘old art’ that we as audiences actually can feel a connection with. I mean, Edgar Degas is considered an Impressionist, and an old master, yet he worked with photography in his later career, and died not 100 years ago. Monet lived till 1926, and Renoir until 1919. For audiences born in the twentieth century, these artists represent a link between the old and the new. Coupled with the immense artistic productivity 19th century is known for, it makes this particular ‘old art’ hard to ignore.

So let’s go back to Rodin. Rodin is about living and breathing stone. The sculptures exhume life; it is impossible to look at his work without expecting it to move. As I made my around The Kiss during my second visit to the exhibition, I realised that I kept walking the same common direction: clockwise. Of course, immediately I tried moving in the opposite direction – also against the flow of majority of the audience. If you ever thought you’ve seen enough of an artwork, the best thing to do is change your viewer’s perspective – and open your eyes to new possibilities!

First taking in the clockwise perspective…

My gaze is consumed by the large figure of a muscular man. His elevated placement only accentuates his enormity. His presence ever more powerful as his muscular shape stands erect, stone sitting on stone. Yet his humanity is inescapable – for a third of the circle I admire his muscular back, the shadows of the ripples in his skin made all the more obvious by the twist in his spine. He is not bending – he merely twists, maintaining his verticality and allowing us to admire the strength of his frame and masculinity.

As I keep moving, I see the woman’s head emerging from behind his shoulder, his powerful demeanour softening. He is human after all! We see her reaching around to find his lips, his left hand dropping as he surrenders to the emotion. Keep going…

She bends and twists, draping around him. The bend in his neck, dropping his gaze, invites her towards him. The sense of power and protection is heightened when I notice that his hands are larger than her head. Her body leans into his, reaching up towards him. I notice the book released from the lovers’ hold – it is about to drop as they surrender to emotion. It is hard to tell which feet are whose, the couple’s limbs intertwining. Her bent knees and twisted body remind us of her vulnerability, and I find relief in seeing his muscular form encompassing her into a protective hold.

Now moving anti-clockwise

As I follow the curve of the woman’s body, her affection becomes the central focus. Instinctively I find myself twisting when she twists, and leaning with her. She bends, searching for his kiss, falling into it – yet she does not seem unbalanced. No – her lean is feminine and graceful, but determined and desirous. Her hand sneaks around his neck and his face is revealed. I know the lovers are sharing a kiss, but it’s continuously hidden from me by an endless chain of limbs. Delicate privacy in such a public moment.

Once I see the kiss, it becomes inescapable, central to the composition. It is the only thing I think about as I make my way around the statue. He gives in. His left arm has dropped the book, and is searching for to her skin. I hold my breath as the muscles in his arm tighten. The mutual twist in the lovers’ bodies unifies them, drawing me in and yet somehow keeping themselves closed off from my prying gaze. I see his right hand searching for her thigh. The bodies seem to sink slowly into their passion, intertwining into each other. There is something exquisitely romantic about this mass of emotion emerging from stone, which now seems to be driven by the female figure. He is caught in it as much as I am…


Auguste Rodin “The Kiss” (detail)


I was amazed to find such a different story conveyed by the two perspectives. And yet, I felt like there was still more to find. After three visits to the exhibition, I would happily go back to explore these 3.5 tonne of pure emotion again and again. Each time it struck me how relevant, how intelligent and how tremendously skilful this piece really is. Isn’t that something to be valued in older art? I mean, if we still get such a flurry of emotions from it, it means it is undoubtedly successful art undoubtedly relevant right now, today, in our 21st century.


4 thoughts on “Is old art still relevant?

  1. Jack Avery

    Beautiful and illuminating description, Mme G, thank you.

    Jack the Bancat (Chatdegrange,) conservateur des meubles et objets il etais un fois…

  2. L. Klepper, MFA

    What is wrong today is people who should know better writing; ‘Old’ art is considered basically boring by students of art faculties that push contemporary practice. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
    Image in the late 19th century someone writing that ‘why Rodin’ when the Greeks and the Romans had pretty much covered the nude subject.
    The article is more about your approach than it is to art students or an artists approach.

    1. HelenG Post author

      Dear L.Klepper,
      My intention was to highlight shortcomings of some approaches that I have come across. There are some institutions whose strong push for contemporary leaves some students feeling uninterested in the history of art. Indeed, there are many, many institutions that give a terrific education to their students. However, my point was about those practitioners who actually dismiss non-contemporary art as something ‘no longer relevant’.
      Art is personal and emotive. Greeks have indeed contributed to the nude subject massively, but so did many other artists since. Rodin’s ‘Kiss’ was an illustration of ONE example of an artwork that is not contemporary while being persistently relevant to audiences on many levels.


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