Friday, January 28

Rilke and Rodin — Impermanence wrought in stone and metal?

Rilke in Meudon,  Rodin's studio and residence.
Photographer: anonymous.  Museé Rodin
This post is a companion piece to the A Year With Rilke (AYWR) blog, which we have been illustrating recently with images of sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Here I wanted to offer a few quotes from and about Rainer Maria Rilke that shed some light on his relationship with the great French sculptor. No other artist in any field had a greater impact on the German poet's writing and approach to his poetry. Surely, there is a delicious irony somewhere to be carved out of the fact that the 'poet of impermanence' was most powerfully swayed by an artist whose masterpieces reach us in bronze, marble and plaster.

Rilke first approached Rodin while writing a booklength essay on the sculptor. For more on that book and details on their relationship, see the links at the AYWR blog. Rilke spent much time with Rodin and in correspondence with him and worked as his personal secretary for a year or so. And his wife, Clara Westhoff, was a sculptress and had been a student of Rodin's.

In the second letter of his highly celebrated Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote:

"If I were obliged to tell you who taught me to experience something of the essence of creativity, the depth of it and its enduring quality, there are only two names that I can name: that of Jacobsen, the very greatest of writers, and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor. No one among all artists living today compares with them."
What was the source of the famous sculptor's powerful hold on the fledgling German poet? Apart from artistic and philosophical considerations, some have seen personality factors at work here, primarily in Rilke's attraction to character traits of Rodin's that he admired and perhaps wished to emulate. Kent Nerburn, in his foreword to the New World Library edition of the Letters quoted above, writes:

Rodin, 1911. Photo: Edward J. Steichen
Please click on the photo to enlarge.
They don't get much better than this.

"Rodin was everything Rilke was not — confident, robust, sensual, an older man who was secure in his artistic identity and accomplished in his artistic voice. He was an elemental presence, with a chiseled brow, a laborer’s broad physique, and piercing eyes that seemed to see through the artifice and brittle surface of anyone on whom he chose to focus his attention. He was also a man of few words who worked with unceasing diligence, and thought, felt, and spoke not through his words but through the creations of his hands. As Rilke himself said, Rodin lived inside his art; he did not have to constantly seek it and court it from amongst the intrusive distractions of daily affairs.

Contrasted to this was Rilke, the fragile, often sickly young man of delicate sensibilities and uncertain artistic direction, who suffered long periods of artistic aridity and terrifying self-doubt. Slim, slight, easily led astray from his artistic tasks, he lived in constant fear of days when all inspiration failed him and he was left with nothing but 'dead words …corpse heavy'. How could he not stand in the presence of Rodin without seeing before him the embodiment of all he desired to be as an artist, as well as a mirror of all his own artistic deficiencies and insecurities? And, in fact, this is exactly what happened. In the person of Rodin, Rilke found the model for the artistic authority he wished to possess."

And this is how Rilke described his first meeting with Rodin in a letter to his wife Clara on September 2, 1902:

Painting by Gerolf Van de Perre. Visit this Belgian artist's
beautiful series of Rilke paintings.
". . . Yesterday, Monday afternoon at three o'clock, I was at Rodin's for the first time. Atelier 182 rue de l'Universite. I went down the Seine. He had a model, a girl. Had a little plaster object in his hand on which he was scraping about. He simply quit work, offered me a chair, and we talked. He was kind and gentle. And it seemed to me that I had always known him. That I was only seeing him again; I found him smaller, and yet more powerful, more kindly, and more noble. That forehead, the relationship it bears to his nose which rides out of it like a ship out of harbor . . . that is very remarkable. Character of stone is in that forehead and that nose. And his mouth has a speech whose ring is good, intimate, and full of youth. So also is his laugh, that embarrassed and at the same time joyful laugh of a child that has been given lovely presents. He is very dear to me. That I knew at once. We spoke of many things (as far as my queer language and his time permitted). . . . Then he went on working and begged me to inspect everything that is in the studio. That is not a little. The "hand" is there. C'est une main comme-ça (he said and made with his own so powerful a gesture of holding and shaping that one seemed to see things growing out of it)."

As this is getting fairly lengthy, and I have just learned I am making an unexpected but welcome weekend getaway to the hills, I will cut off this post here and continue in Part II in a few days. Have a nice weekend everyone ... and read your Rilke. We are enjoying it immensely and very heartened by the warm enthusiasm with which many of you have been reading, commenting and participating in the venture.


  1. Hi, Lorenzo. This is wonderful. I enjoyed reading about the differences in the two creative geniuses. I can see why Rilke would be attracted to a personality like Rodin's. Thank you for once again teaching me through your posts. I look forward to Part II.

    Have a beautiful weekend in the hills!

  2. I enjoyed this post immensely, Lorenzo, and learned much from it about the relationship between Rilke and Rodin. I too look forward to Part II; and I'm also relishing taking a small part in your and Ruth's Rilke adventure.

  3. nice...two rather brilliant minds...enjoy your trip this weekend...

  4. Fascinating post. I visited a large traveling exhibit of Rodin's work in Akron a few years ago. It was all I could do to keep from reaching out to touch the cool, smooth bronzes. He was a genius. (as was Rilke)

  5. Wonderful post, Lorenzo. I love the thought of impermanence in bronze and stone.

    Have a splendid weekend.

  6. This is so grand. You've highlighted very interesting aspects of the two men. Their physiques! I had never thought of comparing them, and there it is. Rilke's description of Rodin's face is delightful, and feels as if he, Rilke, is the sculptor, getting inside the harbor of that face. Then the tender admiration that is so clear in the letter to Clara, it really touches me.

    Your observation that Rilke, the poet of the invisible and impermanent, was smitten by this artist whose work is in stone and bronze, is wonderfully uplifting.

    You already know that the portrait by Steichen just about did me in. I almost can't look at it! Strangely and deeply powerful in every way. I love the Van de Perre too, whose work I've just begun to discover through this blog project with you.

    Beautiful gleanings, Lorenzo. I have been looking forward to this, and now I will relish anticipation of the next installment even more.

    Enjoy the hills!

  7. Tess, why didn't you just reach out and touch?!! You're the Lady of the Manor for heaven's sake - what could they possibly do to you?!!

    Lorenzo, I want to escape to the hills too! This piece is so wonderful, I was sad when it came to an end, but at least there is Part II to look forward to.
    I think Rilke would have completely understood my own personal bouts of hell on this journey, after all, could any book be more soothing than Letters to a Young Poet?!
    And yet, I am learning that awful truth, that cliche, that without health, one imagines a darkening, a dimming of the spirit.
    I hope it is not really so, for me. But this life of faith takes every ounce of spirit, does it not?

  8. This was great, Lorenzo. Every piece of information helps in the understanding of Rilke. Rodin, of course, also sounds tremendously interesting. Have a great trip and a lovely weekend!

  9. Lorenzo, thank you, thank you. The pleasure you take in creating this blog community is shared by many. Your discussion of the relationship between Rodin and Rilke is very helpful. I look forward to part two.

    Meanwhile, I hope your weekend getaway is grand.

  10. i love both, rilke and rodin.... i love your posts!!!

  11. thank you.
    I wonder sometimes where I would be without this learning , this wonder,
    this connection to .

    and that photo, I did click on it. oh my.

    enjoy your trip , Lorenzo. savour .

    as I do your blog.

  12. what an interesting post! I am looking forward to reading part II! Thank you so much! Both artists are marvellous and great!
    Have a very beautiful week-end!

  13. lorenzo i am so grateful for the unpacking of these lives and especially for the prospect of a deepening of my experience of both rilke and rodin through you. both have hovered on the fringe of my knowledge for a very long time and it is only recently that rilke has moved closer to the centre and of course with the brilliant work you and ruth are undertaking with rumi and rilke, well it's like christmas every day! enjoy your time in the hills. steven

  14. A fascinating lesson in Art History... thanks for the journey.


  15. PS - I didn't mean to shout... Sorry. Shhhhh

  16. How wonderful to have the letters to back up the work of the man, letters so much more intimate than essays or poems. The work itself is a maze, the man moreso. And his relationship with his women, perplexes me. I have to continually remind myself that these were different times. This too must have imprinted on his choices, the structure of society for poets, artists. It is all terribly fascinating, and as I am rather a lazy learner, it is wonderful what you offer us, these smaller excerpts through which to learn.

    Hope your weekend retreat was inspiring.


  17. Oh this is wonderful, Lorenzo! I love the juxtaposition of the photograph of Rilke that comes first, with the later drawing of Rodin. Wow. And all those lovely elegant words in between (both R's and yours). I look forward to Part II. Thank you.

    And I trust you had a fabulous weekend in the hills!

  18. Lorenzo, I enjoyed this insight to Rilke & Rodin. Rilke has always stood as a giant of a man of words to me; despite his slight stature, he resonates in depth. (Ironic, isn't it?)

    Enjoy the hills, amigo mio.

  19. what a fascinating relationship. it seems rodin could hold many in his spell, and i couldn't help but think of his affair with camille claudel as i read about his pull over the young german poet. artists make strange - and exceptionally creative - bedfellows in more ways than one.

    enjoy your getaway~

  20. Wonderful post, Lorenzo. Another intriguing individual: Rodin and Rilke. Wow. I love Rilke's description of him. Thank you for sharing this.

  21. sí, Rilke...
    pensando en rilke y en cómo me gusta rodin. he visto sus obras en zaragoza y en madrid. cuando fui a parís hace un millón de años, todos los museos cerrados, huelga...

    thank you for your posts!

  22. Fantastic post..I was fortunate to touch 'kiss' by Rodin in Tate and Rilke is my constant medication to live longer.
    Life with Rodin and Rilke is so powerfully beautiful.


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