In an April 1910 interview, Auguste Rodin griped: “Recently I have taken to isolating limbs, the torso. Why am I blamed for it? Why is the head allowed and not portions of the body? Every part of the human figure is expressive.” One hundred and thirty-three years his junior, Rachel Kneebone shares this sentiment. Just shy of 40 years old, Kneebone is a contemporary British sculptor who uses porcelain to construct sumptuous scenes of contorted bodies and limbs. In Rachel Kneebone: Regarding Rodin at the Brooklyn Museum, the pairing of the two sculptors’ meticulously wrought forms, simultaneously grotesque and beautiful, reveals a preoccupation with sexuality, death, and sin.
On ViewBrooklyn Museum
January 27 – August 12, 2012
Curator Catherine Morris invited Kneebone to select 15 works by Rodin from the museum’s collection to display alongside eight of Kneebone’s own, all made between 2008 and 2011, in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. A staple of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, for the first time Rodin occupies the rather young Sackler Center. “Feminist” is an unlikely attribution for an artist known for tumultuous affairs (lover and fellow sculptor Camille Claudel was driven to insanity) and for work that treats the female body as an object. Placing Rodin’s sculptures alongside Kneebone’s may not exculpate him, but it does allow us to consider him anew as a forebear for women artists.
Rodin’s blackened bronzes starkly contrast with Kneebone’s ivory porcelain. While many of Rodin’s works were cast long after his death, existing as one of several editions, each Kneebone sculpture is unique. Her scenes are generally small in scale, measuring up to two or three feet across and populated by humanoids no larger than Lladró figurines. The use of porcelain is irreverent; she creates fragile tableaux of tangled (mostly female) bodies, but often places the scene atop a block of unworked ceramic. Kneebone allows the porcelain to fracture in the kiln, creating unpredictable fissures and imperfections that enhance the sculptures’ tragic grandeur.
Rodin, too, was known for his unorthodox approach to sculpting. In Rodin’s “Fallen Angel” (ca. 1900), one figure lies lifelessly supine while another crouches over it in mourning. Rodin worked the sculpture in such a way that the forms seem to emerge straight from the unmolded clay, so that it becomes difficult to tell where one figure—or the ground—ends, and the other begins.
Kneebone takes corporeal fusion a few steps further. Her bodies lie in orgiastic heaps, but these are no longer humans; they are mutants. In the place of shoulders and arms sprouts a third, flailing leg. In “Mine heart is turned within me” (2010), a woman’s head is replaced with a vulva, labia outstretched like a mouth wailing in agony.
In other instances, both artists sever body parts from the person. Rodin’s “Large Left Hand”(before 1912) lies in a case like an anatomical specimen. In Kneebone’s “For Beauty’s nothing but beginning of Terror we’re just able to bear”(2011), amputated Barbie-like limbs dangle from porcelain tiers, matter-of-factly morbid like pork legs hanging in a butcher shop. Whether fusing bodies or reducing them to individual parts, both artists toe the line between carnal pleasure and death.
The tension between sex and death is most evident in the exhibition’s centerpiece: Kneebone’s “The Descent”(2008), measuring almost 11 ½ feet in diameter, is colossal compared to her usual work. Just as Rodin did in his chef-d’oeuvre “Gates of Hell”(1880–1917, not on view), Kneebone interprets Dante’s Inferno. Hundreds of tiny mutant figures perch on the rim of an oversized circular basin, many leaning forward to catch a glimpse inside, a few hesitantly hanging back, while others stand with knees bent, ready to take the plunge. These hybrids have human bottoms and legs but, from the waist up, take on one of two forms representing each sex. Women transform into a wrinkly and pinched squash blossom, a motif evident in other works. The others (who, with their phallic genitalia, are the only recognizable male figures in Kneebone’s work) wear swaths of ribbon wrapped up from the torso to where a head would be, only instead we see a pair of oblong globes—eyes, perhaps, or testicles—that peer below. We’re invited to step onto a ledge on which the basin rests, and it is only then, elevated, that we see the horrors that engross the mutant army. An abyss plunges four feet deep, its concentric tiers strewn with bodies writhing in a hellish orgy. Some figures desperately attempt to climb toward the basin’s rim, only to be dragged down by porcelain vines and scattered limbs, caught between eternal torture and forbidden ecstasy.
Kneebone’s preoccupation with death is fitting, considering her engagement with history. Dead histories, dead cultures, dead men like Rodin infiltrate her work. Her medium of choice, porcelain, is a craft that began with Han Dynasty China and came of age in Europe in the 18th century. Her titles often contain literary references: “For Beauty’s nothing but beginning of Terror we’re just able to bear”is a line from The Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, whose day jobs included, it just so happens, a stint as Rodin’s secretary. This same sculpture also alludes to ancient Rome, taking on the form of a triumphal column, an architectural form signifying not just victory in war but the carnage that goes with it. Engagement with history is inescapable, Kneebone seems to say. Just as we build novel sentences out of a lexicon of familiar words, so she molds new forms from the history she knows.