Rodin at the V&A
Rodin's gift to the V&A
In November 1914, the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin gave 18 of his sculptures to the V&A in honour of the French and British soldiers killed in the war. Most of the works were bronzes, but there was also one marble and one terracotta. This group of works is unique in public collections, having been personally selected and given by Rodin himself. He described it as a collection he had been making all his life. For us it provides an accurate retrospective view of the major achievements of his sculptural output.
On the 11th of November 1914 'The Times' newspaper wrote:
'The gift of sculpture which M. Rodin has made to the British Nation is a piece of generosity without parallel. Others have given precious collection of works to art to England and other nations, but this gift is all the work of the man who bestows it, and it is the work of the greatest artist living in the world. Further, he gives it as a sign of brotherhood between his people and ours, and as a token of his admiration of our soldiers. Coming as it does at this momentous crisis in the history of Europe, it will be remembered through future ages as a monument of that crisis, and of that brotherhood which M. Rodin wishes to commemorate. There are very few artists in the whole history of art who could make a gift worthy of such an occasion, but M. Rodin is one of them - one with Michelangelo and Donatello, and with the earlier masters of Greece.'
The Grosvenor House exhibition
In July 1914 there was an important exhibition of contemporary French Art (Art Français: Exposition d'art décoratif contemporain 1800-1855) at Grosvenor House in Park Lane, London. Its aim was to show France's more intellectual approach to contemporary art, in contrast to the more conventional art of that date. Rodin was the only sculptor invited to exhibit alongside major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters such as Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne. There was a large room devoted entirely to his work, and he selected the sculptures himself to represent the range and significance of his output.
A temporary home
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 presented a difficulty. Originally Rodin intended to return his work to Paris, but since this was no longer feasible other possibilities were explored. John Tweed, a British sculptor and great admirer of Rodin, soon negotiated a six-month loan exhibition with Eric Maclagan, Curator of Sculpture and Architecture, at the V&A. There was a suggestion at this early stage that in return Rodin might show his gratitude by donating one sculpture.
Maclagan's enthusiasm for Rodin's work was not shared by the then Director, Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, though he did acknowledge both Maclagan's expertise and Rodin's importance in the history of sculpture. One of Rodin's reasons for making the loan (and later the gift) was to honour British and French soldiers fighting side by side. Maclagan suggested that a notice recording this fact might be placed in the hall, along with a collecting box for the French Red Cross.
Although many of the V&A's staff had gone to serve in the war, Maclagan worked closely with Rodin to select the best location and methods of display. In September, Rodin visited the Museum to approve the placing of the pedestals in the West Hall. As the loan was installed, Maclagan's powers of diplomacy were tested. The President of the Board of Education, Joseph A. Pease, was delighted by Rodin's bronzes, but Sir Lewis Amherst Selby-Bigge thought the V&A was the wrong institution for a display of contemporary French sculpture.
A permanent solution
During this period the six-month loan arrangement was reconsidered and a more permanent solution emerged. Rodin agreed to donate this uniqe collection to the Museum. It served Rodin's ambition to be comprehensively and permanently represented in a major international collection; also the V&A's own interest in changing the direction of its collecting policies by moving away from decorative and manufacturing arts and focusing instead on fine art. Maclagan and Tweed were the prime movers, and in November 1914 the negotiations were complete.
The display was heralded in the Museum by the following notice:
PRESENTED THESE SCULPTURES
TO THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT
MUSEUM IN NOVEMBER MCMXIV
HONOURING BY A NOBLE GIFT
THE SOLDIERS OF GREAT BRITAIN
WHO AT THAT TIME IN FRANCE
BESIDE HIS OWN COUNTRY-MEN
GALLANTLY FOUGHT AND DIED
The same year Rodin, along with other leading artists, wrote publicly in protest about the destruction of art and architecture caused by the war. He also recorded that he thought his gift to the Museum and the British nation was good work for the cause of art in general and for France.