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Interview with Alexandra Gerstein, curator of ‘Rodin and Dance: the Essence of Movement’

Dr Alexandra Gerstein, curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Courtauld Gallery, has curated the new exhibition ‘Rodin and Dance: the Essence of Movement’ in collaboration with the Musée Rodin, Paris. The display focusses on Auguste Rodin’s (1840-1917) intimate research and production around dance moves. Although the master’s workshop was extremely popular and prolific at the turn of the twentieth century, a significant part of his oeuvre consisted of drawings and small scale sculptures which were made as experimental drafts to capture expressive movements and acrobatic poses. In fact, Rodin seems to have been obsessed with the Royal Cambodian dance troupe when they visited Paris and was also close to great dancers of the time such as Loïe Fuller (1862-1928) and Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). While many of the dance drawings were exhibited during his lifetime, the sculptures were seen only by his very closest circle of friends and supporters. They may be considered his last major project, reflecting how the final years of his life were a period of playful experimentation.

Dr Alexandra Gurstein, previously educated at the Ecole du Louvre, Paris and the Courtauld Institute, London, tells us more about Rodin’s intriguing passion and her experience as a curator at the Courtauld Gallery.

The exhibition is remarkable as ‘the first major exhibition to explore Rodin’s fascination with dance’. What was the original inspiration that led to this take on Rodin’s work?

The original inspiration was the fact that in the Courtauld's collection we have two bronze 'Mouvements de danse' and a bronze ‘Nijinsky’, representing one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the Ballets Russes. They were all cast posthumously by the Musée Rodin and bequeathed to the Courtauld by the Cork Street dealer (and former ballerina) Lillian Browse.

While you were researching for the exhibition, was there anything you came across that surprised you? For example, artworks you were not familiar with, or interesting facts about Rodin himself?

The moulds for the ‘Mouvements de danse’! I had no idea we would find these. Also, and in the same technical vein, the moulds for the plaster casts of arms of dancers - perhaps Javanese dancers. These were not cast by Rodin as they are in fact casts of life casts (i.e. casts of casts made directly from the arm of a live model).  Seeing the same plaster arms in the collection of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris was also very surprising. Rodin must have had the moulds made because he admired the gestures represented by these plasters but the professors of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts would have acquired the casts for different reasons - because they showed an arm in an extreme position. 

Are there any pieces that you are particularly fond of in the exhibition?

I love the sculptures that can be turned around and placed in various different positions, and still work, like ‘Mouvement B’ (with or without a head!). I also have always been captivated by the intensity of the little ‘Nijinsky’. It is just so unlike anything else and so recognisable despite its tiny size.  I also am particularly fond of some of the exquisite watercolours such as the drawings after Cambodian dancers.

To what extent do you think Rodin was influenced in his research on movement by the Ballets Russes and other dancers, such as Loïe Fuller, who came to Paris in these years?

The short answer is 'a lot'. But it's complicated because he never simply transcribed these things onto paper or sculpture. He internalised, understood and responded artistically to these new styles of dance that liberated the body and offered new forms of expression.

Do you think Rodin's use of small-scale statuettes to embody dance moves is representative of how people considered dancers and dance at the time? Can this be related to a need of appropriation of the dancer's body for their viewer or owner? 

In terms of scale, actually the size of the ‘Mouvements de danse’ would not be considered small: it was often Rodin’s starting point for working on a sculpture which could then develop into a larger work. And he did in fact enlarge one of the figures (Mouvement A).

I don't know if I'd call it appropriation but it's interesting how de-personalised most of Rodin's drawings of dancers are and how he reused the same head for all the little sculptural figures, which he differentiated only through variation of hairstyle. The body itself was the focus of his attention, and he examined it without sentimentality or an overt narrative (even though some drawings are associated with a theme he called the ‘creation of woman’.) By scrutinising the body in motion, and, specifically, the dancer in her flow of movements as she limbered and prepared for various poses, Rodin seemed to be working towards an expression of something almost disembodied - the movement of bodies in space. Of course there is a context for his interest in dance, both literary and artistic – whether in the ballet dancers observed by Degas or Forain, the music hall performers Toulouse-Lautrec painted or the acrobats of Kees van Dongen and most famously Picasso. Symbolist literature is full of dancers as femmes fatales and they are often a figure of misogynistic disdain, so in that domain, yes, the dancer’s body was very much available for ‘appropriation’. But with Rodin, his relationship to his models is different; he did not look upon them from above as specimens of the lower classes. At the same time, he was a celebrity in his late years and people – men, women, bourgeois women too – flocked to his studio wanting to pose for him.

Were there any borrowed works that were particularly difficult to acquire for the duration of the show? Could you describe your experience of collaborating with the Musée Rodin, Paris.

The drawings, and especially the cut-outs, without a doubt! They are so often requested for exhibitions because they are so beautiful and modern and quite a surprise in relation to the Rodin we all think we know, and the Musée Rodin in Paris has by far the largest group of drawings of any public or private collection (upwards of 7000 drawings, of which about 5000 are from the late years). The exhibition is a collaboration with the Musée Rodin, and that is manifest at first sight by the fact that they lent us, with incredible generosity, the entire series of ‘Mouvements de danse’, and several pieces from storage that have never been shown before, including the newly-discovered moulds used to make the figures. But the collaboration was much more than that. The curators, conservators, registrars and archivists, as well as the librarians, photographic rights managers and marketing staff all put so much time and effort into this project, contributing to the catalogue and advising along the way. It was a fantastic opportunity – for them too– to bring together material and expertise from across the museum.

For those who have visited and enjoyed the exhibition, are there any Rodin artworks around London, or works of a similar theme that you would recommend?

 I would say to go to the V&A and in their sculpture gallery, you cannot miss the group of bronzes by Rodin, which he gave to the British as a gesture of friendship at the start of World War I. In particular, look at the hulking figure of the ‘Crouched Woman’, and the striding figure of ‘St John the Baptist’. These are powerful works that speak to the same idea of expressing movement in sculpture. The earlier Age of Bronze shows Rodin’s mastery in depicting the human body.

As a student body of prospective curators, it would be fascinating to know what some of the challenges you faced while putting on the exhibition.

The first challenge for me was a personal one in the writing of the catalogue: how to live up to the standard of scholarship that already existed on Rodin and yet also say something new? After that, the challenges had to do with the display mainly, and also with finding a sympathetic and not off-putting way of explaining the technical aspects of the making of the sculpture. I wanted to retain this as a driving element of the exhibition – so visitors could understand why the figures look the way they do – but at the same time I didn’t want it to dominate. I am proud of the solutions we found, and when I say we I really mean ‘we’ because it was teamwork. An exhibition like this one, with such a variety of works (sculpture, archival material of various kinds, and light-sensitive material such as drawings and photographs, ephemera…), can only work if it’s a collaboration with experts in the adjacent fields of design, mount-making and graphic design. We worked together at every step of the way, making mock-ups and drawings of every part of the installation.

In a similar vein, do you have any advice for young aspiring curators? Was there anything in your own education or training that you think have been particularly helpful for your career?

I’d say try to understand how art is made; I would have loved to have done more of that as a student, and I think it’s an essential way into the subject. Look at installations when you visit an exhibition and ask questions about lighting, labelling, order of the exhibits – trying to understand the rationale from a practical as well as an intellectual perspective.

And lastly, we would like to ask about any highlights from the permanent collection. Are there any under appreciated gems, or perhaps works in storage or conservation that you are fond of? 

I am very fond of our collection of Islamic metalwork, most of which is on view in ‘Room 1’, the medieval and early renaissance gallery. The most beautiful and exquisitely made example in our collection – which counts as among the most extraordinary pieces of the kind anywhere – is the metal ‘bag’, made in Mosul, Northern Iraq, around 1300, probably for a high-ranking noblewoman. Its specific purpose remains obscure but the decoration on the outside, and especially on the lid, speaks of a highly elaborate court culture in which the metal bag itself must have played an important role.

The Exhibition ‘Rodin and Dance: the Essence of Movement’ is open to the public in the Courtauld Gallery until 22 January 2017. Courtauld students can enjoy it for free and will find the exhibition catalogue in the student library.

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