Anything Elgin (or Parthenon) marbles is such clickbait for me! Of course, the above title draw my attention when I saw it. The premise? The Marbles are icons of global culture and their place in the canon of Western art is as much due to nineteenth and twentieth-century responses to them, made possible by Britain's curatorship.

It's a long article and not all is relevant. I'm going to cut and paste. The first chapter of the exhibition catalogue charts the sorry tale of the Parthenon and its sculptures post-antiquity, victims of neglect and disaster both natural and man-made, and how the umming and ahhing of parliamentarians nearly forced Elgin to sell his collection to France. The inference is, to put it plainly, that without the custodianship of the museum’s curators and trustees over the last two centuries, this exhibition and others like it would not have been possible. Arguably, it still wouldn’t be possible if the sculptures had been returned to Greece in recent years.

The curators and trustees of the British Museum have a point. Physically the sculptures can never be returned to the Parthenon, only to a museum nearby, so why not keep them where they can be seen by considerably more visitors in any case. Moreover, they have become more than a piece of modern Greece’s heritage. They are now icons of global culture, international symbols of what human beings can achieve in all their god-like serenity. Their place in the canon of Western art is as much due to 19th and 20th-century responses to them, and Rodin here is only one example, as it is to their status as precious fragments of olden times.

Rodin loved these sculptures. “No artist will ever surpass Pheidias,” he said. “The greatest of the sculptors, who appeared at the time when the entire human dream could be contained in the pediment of a temple, will never be equalled.”

Rodin first saw the marbles in 1881. He had heard stories, but here was the thing itself, battered, bruised and broken it’s true, but shining with naturalistic detail and tour-de-force beauty nonetheless. It inspired him. For instance, Rodin’s men are all muscle and bone, toes curling, big burley builders’ hands pressing the flesh or dragging their half-formed limbs through some sort of primeval bronze ooze. He copied and copied and distilled and recast them, for their sake as much as for his own work. He may not have lived up to their example, but he championed their vision of what is possible. 

What is more interesting is the way the exhibition can be interpreted as a (doubtless intentional) attempt by the British Museum to plead their rightful ownership of the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’. It was because they were on display in the British Museum that artists like Rodin, who never visited Greece (few did) were able to see and appreciate them.

What do you think about the views portrayed in this article? Does it negate the need to bring the marbles back to Greece? Does it solidify your opinion that they should stay where they are?