Cutouts before Matisse: Rodin’s Dancers

Warming our cockles this winter is a characteristically thought-provoking exhibition at the Courtauld of Rodin’s most intimate and dynamic drawings of dancers. ‘The Essence of Movement’ focuses upon the acrobatic movers and shakers that frequented Rodin’s studio, from Paris’s finest to Royal Cambodian troupes. Strangely though, it is a surprise and a delight to discover a few of Rodin’s cut-outs on display: card silhouettes carefully incised to recreate the agile movements of the human body as preparation for a watercolour wash or pencil drawing.

Not only are these cut-outs a revelation that confirm Rodin’s reputation for the unlikely and freewheeling style: they are also bizarrely nearly 50 years before Matisse made the cut-out sexy.

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Restricted to his wheelchair and aided by the irreplaceable Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse turned to the cut-out in his old age as a way of accessing pure colour without an intermediary palette or paint pot. Meanwhile Rodin used the physicality of the cut-out to get to grips with the contours of the body. Sculpting the figure with his scissors on 80 occasions, Rodin played with the arrangement of these pieces. By placing hip to hip, tip toe to bended back Rodin created a new composition in the much the same way that he fused together disparate fragments of plaster cast.

It all began in 1900 when the 60 year-old Rodin, fast entering the celebrated mature period of his career with ‘The Gates of Hell’ and ‘The Burghers of Calais’ commissions behind him, took his most pleasing drawings and cut them to pieces. Scattered silhouettes built upon the floor of his studio at the Hotel Biron before being used to create something entirely new. Layering these cut-outs in various positions Rodin traced the outline onto a new sheet of paper where he could apply washes of colour, delighting in the new woven limbs of multiple bodies melded into a harmonious whole.

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Strangely enough this technique became a 20th century fad when Matisse stormed the world stage. The idea of replacing brushes and pencils with a pair of scissors was echoed by Matisse’s great rival Picasso and the Cubist papier collés in the interwar period to deconstruct the third dimension while Hans Arp’s torn-up papers formed the starting point of his Constellations in the 1930s.

As often seems the case in the history of art, the story is incomplete and Rodin’s dazzling cut-outs sweep into the canon to throw all previous theories out the window. Far from the polished finish of academic sculpture, this exhibition reveals why Rodin was a trailblazer in the way that he took the body completely apart and stuck it back together again.