The above lines written by the American feminist poet, Marge Piercy, depict Eve as a sassy heroine 'swimming against the current of time', munching on her apple where the seeds represent "freedom and the flowering of choice". I doubt whether medieval scholars would have recognised this Eve. For as with all good archetypes she is open to reinvention to suit the needs of different epochs and cultures. In Hans Memling's version, depicted in the outer right hand panel of his 1485 triptych, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, she is a sweet faced, barely pubescent girl with tiny breasts and Godiva tresses, coyly holding an apple. While in Hubert and Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece she is obviously older, more knowing and already roundly pregnant. In Masolino's fresco painted in 1425 for the Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence, she appears as a temptress, languidly leaning against the tree of knowledge beneath the blond hair and female face of the coiled snake that flickers above her head like a serpentine alter ego. This stands in contrast to Masaccio's depiction of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, on the opposite wall of the chapel, painted between 1426-27, where Eve's downcast face and heavy body seem to bear not only the weight of her own sin but the sins of ali humanity. George Frederick Watt's Eve, in the central panel of his trilogy in the Tate, breaks with tradition and does not show the serpent. Instead she is portrayed in a moment of sensuous abandon taking a fatal bite from the apple, while enjoying the heady fragrance of the blossom. For the German Symbolist painter, Franz von Stuck, his Eve, entitled Sin, painted in 1893 at the high point of continental symbolism, smiles enigmatically at the viewer, her milk white breasts and belly framed by tresses of dark hair. Wrapped around her is an enormous malevolent boa constrictor. Hooded and phallic, its presence leaves little doubt about this particular Eve's supposed lascivious decadence. Here she is depicted as dangerous and depraved, a deadly femme fatale.
Art has always acted as a mirror communicating ideas about social order through the representation of male and female sexuality. Male-constructed images of women are so embedded in Western culture that they - and our readings of them - appear quite 'natural'. For the last 2,500 years the Genesis story of Adam and Eve has coloured our views of sexual identity and influenced the way men, and particularly women, are portrayed in art. The story claims that God created man in his own likeness. He was then given dominion over everything. God is male and the story stresses man's primacy and centrality in the universe. Eve is only created (in an alternative version of the story) from his rib in a divine afterthought, as a sort of prelapsarian playmate. As with Mary within later Christian iconography, Eve became for Hebrew women a metonym signifying the essence of womanhood. But it was within Pauline theology that Eve's secondary position in the creation myth and her apparent primacy in sin were used to justify the subjugation of women within the Christian Church. As with the stories of Pandora and Clytemnestra from Pagan times and Litith (who according to Midrashic Jewish literature was Adam's first wife, who left him) what is female was seen as chthonic, an unruly force that would create disorder. These ancient myths reveal a deep seated male fear of woman's suppressed power, which if ever unleashed would overthrow the balanced harmony of Paradise bringing disease and pestilence upon the world.
In October 1881, Rodin obtained a commission from the Directorate of Fine Arts for two big statues of Adam and Eve to stand alongside his ambitious Gates of Hell. During his first trip to Italy in the spring of 1876, he had become fascinated by the work of Michelangelo. The outstretched finger of Rodin's Adam echoes that of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Adam was the first sculpture for the Gates of Hell to become an independent figure and was presented in plaster to the Salon in 1881. For his sculpture of Eve, Rodin used a brunette Italian model, probably one of a family of sisters who frequently posed for him. In an interview with the writer Dujardin-Beaumetz, he later described how he found himself daily changing the contours of his model, without quite knowing why. Later he discovered that she was pregnant. This he claimed was the reason for leaving his version of Eve unfinished.
"The gesture of the standing figure", wrote the German poet Rilke, who worked for a while as Rodin's secretary, "develops further. It withdraws into itself, it shrivels like burning paper, it becomes stronger, more concentrated, more animated. That Eve, (which) was originally to be placed over the Gates of Hell, stands", he continued, "with head sunk deeply into the shadow of the arms that draw together over the breast like those of a freezing woman. The back is rounded, the nape of the neck almost horizontal. She bends forward as though listening over her own body in which a new future begins to stir. And it is as though the gravity of this future weighed upon the senses of the woman and drew her down from the freedom of life into the deep, humble service of motherhood."1
Such an essentialist view as Rilke's is perhaps a bit much for a modern post-feminist audience, so how are we to respond today to Rodin's celebrated sculpture? Shown alongside Rodin's Eve is the work of two contemporary photographers, Nicholas Sinclair and Iraida Icaza, who have each found fresh approaches to this figure. Whilst Sinclair was moved by the protective body language and Eve's sense of shame, he was equally fascinated by the way the sculpture reflects and retains light due to the irregular modelling of the pitted and rippled surface. This he reads as expressing something of Eve's inner turmoil. For him the sculpture is ambiguous, for at certain angles he felt uncertain as to whether he was looking at a male or female torso. This intensification of the musculature for emotional effect is a trait borrowed from Michelangelo and a characteristic that Sinclair has reflected when constructing his own compositions.
Iraida Icaza's first encounter with Rodin's Eve was in a store room in the Southampton City Gallery, where the figure looked isolated and abandoned. Though struck by her vulnerability, Icaza noticed that the hands, feet and back were unusually large, giving the sculpture a masculine quality in the manner of Michelangelo's androgynous figures. Subsequently bringing the piece up into the daylight Icaza became aware of the markings and slashes on the surface of the body. Suddenly Eve's gestures that had, at first, seemed like shyness, appeared to be ones of defence and self protection. As Icaza began to take photographs on a large format camera in natural light she recognised that Eve was an archetype of the feminine - suffering and vulnerable - but that through her banishment she had grown into a fully fledged woman: potent, powerful and herself.
Within the modern world new myths and methods of subjugating women are continuously invented, particularly in places where fundamentalism reigns over individual autonomy and unregulated childbirth, rape, infantile death, poverty and warfare have to be contended with on a daily basis. For Rodin art could not be made except by 'approaching truth', but for him that truth was to be found in Nature. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are inclined to take a less Romantic view both of art and women; though there do seem to be valid and relevant readings of the withdrawn and bowed figure of Eve, ways of seeing her that can resonate with a contemporary audience. But it is not so much in the shame for her sins that we can identify but with the apparent despair of the hunched and huddled figure, the despair of women whose children are conceived and born in poverty and conflict and who have to struggle on a daily basis simply to survive in an unjust world. Rodin's Eve is any woman and Everywoman who has ever loved and been abandoned, miscarried, had an abortion or lost a child. Her ambiguity and power are affirmations of the virtues of feminine profundity and testaments to its endurance.
Rodin All about Eve at Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge from 23 September to 19 November 2006