A battle of the gaze is on at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, pitting an old dead French man against a punky British woman.
The artists in question are Auguste Rodin, the modern master known for his sensuous, eroticised studies of the female form, and Sarah Lucas, the subversive YBA feminist, known for her androgynous pantyhose sculptures and performances with eggs.
‘In considering Rodin’s legacy as a quintessentially male artist who radically redefined the conception of the human figure in art, I wanted to introduce a contemporary female perspective that was equally profound in how it challenges conventions of representation – especially in relation to the female body,’ says curator Claudia Schmuckli of the exhibition ‘Sarah Lucas: Good Muse’, one of two major commissions organised by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco around Rodin’s work this year.
Installation view of ‘Sarah Lucas: Good Muse’ at the Legion of Honor Museum. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
It's a confrontation that brings new resonances to light, Lucas’ sardonic humour on sexuality and skin challenging Rodin’s beatified vision of women. One example is a new work by Lucas, Jubilee (2017), a 7ft-high pair of concrete-cast high-heeled boots, which faces Rodin's Gates of Hell of 100 years ago, a juxtaposition that is undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek but also aligns their differing takes on the oldest themes in art history: sex and death.
Elsewhere, if you needed proof that men and women see the latter differently, Lucas’ friends Margot, Pauline and Michele, remodelled in plaster, and her Titti Doris (2017) and Washing Machine Fried Eggs (2016) use classical fertility tropes and domestic items to reinvent the cliché female muse as a more complicated, gritty and disenchanted creature, sexual and sexualised.
‘By tapping into our complex and often anxious relationship to the naked body, especially when considered in relation to the desires of others, Lucas’ work on the one hand draws out the erotic undercurrent in Rodin’s work, often just barely veiled by biblical and mythological subject matter,’ Schmuckli explains. ‘On the other hand, it disarms the male gaze – traditionally oscillating between idolisation and objectification – which has dominated the representation of women and their bodies for centuries. Rodin, being a man of his age, being no exception.’
This is Lucas’ first museum exhibition in the US, and it marks a century since Rodin's death. While Lucas’ work might be relatively unknown to local audiences, Schmuckli is confident her messages won't be lost. ‘I am sure it will be a discovery for many, but these days Americans are certainly no strangers to the absurd and the abject.’