There’s an image somewhere in this glossy photographic tribute of a solemn terracotta statue called The Crouching Woman. Its depiction of a squatting female figure, her head twisted to one side, right hand clasping her left ankle, has a haunting, deathly quality redolent of the petrified, blistered corpses subsumed by the lava of ancient Vesuvius.
In this picture, and a handful of others, Jennifer Gough-Cooper comes close to capturing the fragile humanity which typifies Rodin’s most accomplished work. Elsewhere, this handsome volume, for all its merits, has the feel of a posh coffee table book with grander pretensions.
The works that come off worst here are the most familiar ones. Perhaps because it’s been depicted so many times before, in Gough-Cooper’s hands The Kiss just looks like a rather battered, truncated version of an over-exposed icon. Does this photographer have anything new to say about it? From this workmanlike portrait, it appears not.
Curiously, Rodin’s other most celebrated sculpture, The Thinker, is absent. This is no bad thing, as a large version of the statue takes centre-stage at the Royal Academy’s current Rodin retrospective (with which the release of this book coincides) ensuring it is bound to be a ubiquitous feature of the accompanying media coverage.
Of the stronger photographs, a handful deserve special mention. The image of Rodin’s 1895 bronze, Iris, Messenger of the Gods, seems startlingly modern, pornographic even legs splayed wide, headless neck apparently thrown back in ecstasy (or agony). Monument to Victor Hugo, in contrast, is an eloquent exercise in light and shade, illuminating Rodin’s sage-like depiction of the great French writer while shrouding the background in a sepulchral, crypt-like darkness.
Equally impressive is the dream-like Hotel Biron, Reflected Interior, in which shafts of ghostly sunlight pierce an ornate room cluttered with statuary, yet fail to describe the detail of the fractured forms. And Madame Fenaille on a Column offers a playful conceit, as the eponymous lady gazes down imperiously on a slighter, turbaned figure in the display case below.
In his introduction, Geoff Dyer praises Gough-Cooper for bringing out the “colour” in Rodin’s famously “whiter than white” work. He has a point: at times, her photographs imbue it with a creepy flesh-like quality. In the final analysis, though, Apropos Rodin is little more than a polished souvenir for those eager to return home from the RA with a faithful reminder of the master’s genius. JM