ACT News


Rodin: Burghers' sorrow is NGA's gain

Back when I was a little tacker playing for the Dunedoo four-stone sevens, television was something that happened to other people, usually our cousins. The only time I ever saw the flickering images was on a visit to their place.

The one real positive of growing up with no hot water, an outdoor dunny 200 yards (say 190 metres) away, a party-line phone and only the radio as your connection with the outside world was that it encouraged you to read.

By the time I was 14 I had worn the ink off the pages of the school library's weatherbeaten volumes of The Lord of the Rings.

One of my other favourite books was David Weiss's Naked Came I, a slightly fictionalised biography of Rodin.

While the schoolboy in me was initially drawn to the (for central western NSW in 1970) lurid photographs of The Kiss and other works, I was soon captured by Weiss's passion for his subject and his word pictures of The Gates of Hell, Monument to Balzac and The Burghers of Calais.

Paris, France, seemed so far away from the navel of my world I assumed I would never get closer to these masterpieces than the heavily screened and grainy images in the Readers' Digest Condensed version of the book in my possession and some dodgy and off-kilter four-colour separations in an art book in the school library.


Decades passed and my dream of experiencing the full reality of Rodin's talent made manifest in adamantine bronze withered and died.

Imagine my surprise therefore when, a few years ago, I rounded a corner on my way to a do at the National Gallery and came face to face with some old friends.

It was the Burghers, still wearing their manacles and chains and on their way to what they knew would be painful and humiliating deaths.

The Burghers of Calais, for those who came in late, were the six leading townspeople of the French port when it was being besieged by Edward III of England in 1347 during the 100 Years War.

After a year of starvation and plague the residents finally accepted a peace offer that was generous by the standards of the day (and even by the standards of much of the 20th century - remember Lidice).

If they sent their six leading citizens out with the keys of the city, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, with manacles on their hands and nooses around their necks the little Pommy bastard wouldn't put Calais to the sword. The six voluntarily acceded to their fate and, under the leadership of Eustace de Saint Pierre, shuffled forth.

National Gallery curator, Lucina Ward, says it is Rodin's decision to portray the moment when the men are moving out that makes the work truly great. Previous depictions had a cast of thousands - King Edward III, his pregnant wife, Philippa, courtiers and retainers and probably a choir of angels as well.

Rodin's version is down to earth and human. These men know they are going to their deaths. They are sacrificing their lives so friends and relatives may live. The guys don't have to like it, however, and that shows.

Given the French government is fiercely protective of how many authorised castings of Rodin's work can be produced, we are blessed to have these in Canberra.

Ms Ward, who has a mighty enthusiasm for the sculptor's work, says the gallery's collection of four of the main figures (out of six), two full sized figure studies, a smaller figure study and a small maquette is unique in the Southern Hemisphere.

And the Burghers? Edward spared them. Philippa interceded on their behalf, saying killing the men would be ''a bad omen'' for their unborn child.