Rodin's sculpture of doomed lovers, The Kiss, commissioned by local Victorian aesthete Edward Warren, came home to the East Sussex county town of Lewes in early June. But although a local headmistress, Miss Kate Fowler-Tutt, once led a campaign to have it removed because she saw it as a risk to the morals of her pupils, teachers today find The Kiss a powerful educational resource.
A party of Year 10 GCSE art students from Priory School, a local 11-16 comprehensive, stream into the vaulted-ceilinged town hall in the centre of the town, and begin to sketch the sculpture. They are sitting cross-legged on the floor and producing creditable sketches from various angles while listening to a volunteer art teacher relate the intensely local history of this piece of work, discovered by an investigative journalist, John May.
Warren commissioned Rodin to produce one of the three versions of The Kiss, and the statue arrived in Lewes in 1904. It is believed to have stood in the entrance hall to Warren's residence, Lewes House, for 10 years, after which it left for the Assembly Room of the town hall.
The statue's risque subject matter led to a successful campaign, headed by Miss Fowler-Tutt, to have it covered up. Her case was fuelled by the presence of hundreds of young soldiers, billeted in Lewes on their way to the trenches in France. It was then given back to Warren, with the excuse that the Assembly Room was not fit to house "such a noble piece of statuary". So The Kiss was banished to a stable block until Warren's death in 1928, and eventually ended up in London's Tate Gallery.
Raven Smith, 15, appreciates the sculpture. "I think it's brilliant. Really expressive of love and that sort of thing. It doesn't seem so brash to us, but I can understand the Victorians being offended by it. It shows how Rodin was ahead of his time that we appreciate it so much now."
The ardour conveyed in the sculpture is indubitably romantic; art critic Brian Sewell called it "Rodin's sugary marble". But these teenagers find it neither shocking nor saccharine. Fifteen-year-old Rosalie Birch likes the way the two figures appear to grow out of the stone. "It's like they're not two people, they're one, because it's so flowing," she says. Leonie Cormac, also 15, finds it "simple but powerful". "It shows different shapes just using one material," she adds.
The Kiss is one of 13 Rodin works on the theme of couples embracing currently on show in Lewes. Exhibition organiser Sculptureco, which has devised the accompanying education programme, hopes to attract school groups from all over Sussex, says education director Dr Mike Turner. "We realised that we could make a contribution to both the local and national school community."
The works by Rodin are accompanied by an exhibition of historic photographs - put on by Reeves, a local photographic business whose founder faithfully documented Lewes life on glass plates - and a sculptor in residence, working in a studio near the town hall.
The Rodins on show include a rough clay "sketch", called Couple Embracing - made 20 years before The Kiss - and a bronze master cast from which other smaller models were made. These help give pupils an insight into how art comes into being. "As art teachers, we're interested in maquettes and models, which show the thought processes as well as the technical processes," says John Stratton, head of art at Priory. "These students have been working on abstract sculptures, going through the same processes, and it's nice for them to see that someone like Rodin also did that."
The themes of some of the pieces have a lurid quality accessible to children. The Kiss is based on Dante's two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, who were murdered by Francesca's husband (Paolo's brother) when he came across them embracing. Another of the works on show illustrates the story of Ugolin, who was imprisoned in the Tower of Hunger at Pisa with his two sons and two of his grandsons after being convicted of treason in 13th-century Italy. Ugolin, the last to die, is depicted starved and debased, about to eat the flesh of his children and be condemned to hell. Both the original Kiss and Ugolin and His Children were intended to form part of Rodin's grand scale work, based on Dante, The Gates of Hell.
There are also sculptures of lesbian lovers, or "pairs of females embracing" as Dr Tur-ner calls them, and a small bust of Rodin's long-term mistress Camille Claudel.
The school party from Priory moves on to the temporary studio of sculptor-in-residence John Ham. Tall and cheerful in his plaster-covered dungarees, he is making his own larger-than-life work of two male and female figures, provisionally entitled Glass Ceiling, and he shows students his maquettes for the sculpture in progress. Their questions about the final form of the work again help to reveal the processes involved in making a work of art - John Ham has departed considerably from his original idea and doesn't know exactly what form the piece will take. "I'm making decisions all the time as to what kind of surface to use," he tells the students, inviting them to come and see the finished work later in the summer.
Jenny Fox, art teacher at Priory, says the value of the visit to her pupils lies in "learning that you can go to an exhibition and sit on the floor and draw, and not feel totally inhibited. And finding out how other artists, past and present, have worked." She describes the education programme, which costs pound;1 per child, as "well-organised and brilliant".
Fifty school groups and 43,000 adults have already come to see The Kiss. Sandy Everett, deputy head of Wallands, a 400-pupil Lewes primary school, attended a teacher training evening before taking along a group of Year 5 and 6 pupils. "I felt it was important that they got an opportunity to visit," she says. "It's quite a big event as far as Lewes is concerned, but a lot of children wouldn't otherwise go."
The children learned much about scale, says Everett, who is also art co-ordinator at Wallands. "3D work tends to be marginalised in primary schools," she says. "But there has been lots of Plasticine and clay work since the visit. Some have done their own version of The Kiss with rubber and wire, making abstract versions of the idea of two people being together."
It is hard to convey the smallness of the clay "sketch" of the couple embracing, complete with Rodin's thumbprints, or the huge hands and feet of the man in The Kiss - a tribute to Michelangelo. Everett's pupils also enjoyed looking at the old photographs of Lewes High Street filled with sheep, for instance, which fitted in with their topic work on the Victorians.
And primary school pupils proved not quite so immune to the sexuality inherent in The Kiss as secondary school pupils affected to be. "Initially we had to get over the naked bodies bit," says Everett. "But now there are pictures of naked bodies all over school and nobody's turning a hair, which is great."
The exhibition runs until October 30. For further information, contact the Scupltureco bookings secretary at Lewes Town Hall, High Street, Lewes, East Sussex, BN7 2DS. Tel: 01273 484010, fax 01273 475810, e-mail: email@example.com.