Sunday, February 13

The hard struggle with his tools — Rilke and Rodin (part III)

{This is a continuation of the previous post on Rilke and Rodin;

Rodin's signature on The Thinker
As we have seen in the previous parts of this series, Rodin was a towering artist in Rilke's life and writings. The young German poet had immense respect and admiration for the elder sculptor whose works he regarded as 'strange documents of the momentary and of the unnoticeably passing'. And he was convinced that Rodin's greatness sprang from his unstinting dedication to his craft more than from any grand ideas on sculpture or art. For Rilke, Rodin's genius was the product of  'the hard struggle with his tools', of his relentless work discipline and of his insistence on direct, intense and minute observation as the starting point on the path toward finding and creating beauty.

This approach greatly influenced Rilke's own, and helped shape his cardinal notion that the currency of art was not ideas, but things, the everyday things of our world, which are here to be observed tenderly, almost feverishly. That "our task is to impress this provisional, transient earth upon ourselves so deeply, so agonizingly, and so passionately that its essence rises up again “invisibly” within us. We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible".

The arrow of artistic genius arcs from the particular to the whole, from the visible to the invisible, the mundane to the eternal. And not the other way around. "The task of all tasks is to transform what is insignificant into greatness, what is inconspicuous into radiance; to present a speck of dust in a way that shows it to be part of the whole so that one cannot see it without also instantly seeing all of the stars and the heavens’ deep coherence to which it intimately belongs".

Eternal Spring — Rodin

For Rilke this was best exemplified by Rodin, whose "art was not built upon a great idea, but upon a minute, conscientious realization, upon the attainable, upon a craft. There was no haughtiness in him. He pledged himself to a humble and difficult beauty that he could oversee, summon and direct. The other beauty, the great beauty, had to come when everything was prepared as animals come to a drinking place in the forest in the late night when nothing foreign is there.”

This idea that the devoted eye was to be trusted more than the inventive imagination is beautifully expressed in this passage from Rilke's book on Rodin (which you can read and/or download here):

L’Home au Nez Cassé — Musée Rodin
“The mask of 'The Man with the Broken Nose' was the first portrait that Rodin modeled. In this work his individual manner of portraying a face is entirely formed. One feels his admitted devotion to reality, his reverence for every line that fate has drawn, his confidence in life that creates even when it disfigures. In a kind of blind faith, he sculptured L’Home au Nez Cassé without asking who the man was who lived again in his hands. He made this mask as God created the first man, without intention of presenting anything save Life itself — immeasurable Life. But he returned to the faces of men with an ever-growing, richer and greater knowledge. He could not look upon their features without thinking of the days that had left their impress upon them, without dwelling upon the army of thoughts that worked incessantly upon a face, as though it could never be finished. From a silent and conscientious observation of life, the mature man, at first groping and experimenting, became more and more sure and audacious in his understanding and interpretation of the script with which the faces were covered. He did not give rein to his imagination, he did not invent, he did not neglect for a moment the hard struggle with his tools. It would have been easy to surmount, as if with wings, these difficulties. He walked side by side with his work over the far and distant stretches that had to be covered, like the ploughman behind his plough. While he traced the furrows he meditated over this land, the depth of it, the sky above it, the flights of the winds and the fall of the rains; considered all that existed and passed by and returned and ceased not to be. He recognized in all this the eternal, and becoming less and less perplexed by the many things, he perceived the one great thing for which grief was good, and heaviness promised maternity, and pain became beautiful."

For your daily dose of Rilke, remember to visit A Year With Rilke.


  1. I’m struck again by the act of “freezing” a moment in time in marble or bronze, and the admiration of Rilke, the thinker on things of impermanence, for this artist of the “momentary” and “unnoticeably passing”. This time it is in light of Rodin’s bringing that “army of thoughts that worked incessantly upon a face, as though it could never be finished . . . “ and finishing it, in a sense, forever in sculpture. Life experience keeps shaping a body, yet Rodin will freeze-frame it forever. So this is it that they worship: the moment.

    The mystery is how in every subsequent moment, everything changes (and nothing changes too). And so it is the artist’s and writer’s task to observe every moment . . . as new.

    Thank you.

  2. not giving his imagination rein...i like that...the more i view of his work the more awe is am in...

  3. You're giving me a new appreciation for these two masters, and a rejuvenated admiration for the craft of creation.

  4. "The other beauty, the great beauty, had to come when everything was prepared as animals come to a drinking place in the forest in the late night when nothing foreign is there." ((sigh))

    I love the notion of art built on a minute, which is a concept I try to embrace in my poetry.

  5. That such beauty comes from the hand of an artist engaged in a "hard struggle with his tools" leaves me in awe.

    Ruth's comments are perceptive and enlightening.

  6. Two masters who I have always admired.

    Today, your post reminds me of a favorite quote, as I do believe it relates to "the devoted eye:"

    "Absolute attention is prayer." Simone Weil

  7. Thanks to Maureen, and a clarification: It was Lorenzo who first observed here in his first post in this Rilke on Rodin series titled "Rilke and Rodin — Impermanence wrought in stone and metal?" . . . "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." Readers can link to it in the tag "Rilke on Rodin."

  8. Both of them were such geniuses--in words and stone.

  9. I appreciate how you pull together some of Rilke's thoughts on Rodin's creative process. What I take from it, at this moment, is the need for the artist to be present to what is, to truly be IN the moment, to use what is available to them.

    It is almost as if Rilke suggests that relying upon and beginning the creative endeavor with one's imagination would be an act of interference, inauthenticity, blaspheme. Everything is there. Use it. Start with it. Shine a light upon it. IT is already everything.

  10. the notion that the devoted eye is to be trusted more than the inventive imagination is unbelievably refreshing and reassuring to hear. when i think of garcia marquez' writing, for example, i wonder how much is imagination vs. observation, or are they inextricably linked? a rich and lively imagination is rooted in keen observation?

  11. Although Rilke was a paradigm for this, I think all the really great artists observe intently and intensely the particular before creating the universal: look at Rembrandt's self-portraits, Wordsworth's daffodils, Lawrence's gentians or figs or coal trucks, Ted Hughes' animals, Whitman's litanies of individual things, and ... a million more examples.

    I think what Rilke does is attempt to spotlight the whole creative, interiorizing process (which is a human process, not just that of the so-called artist); he tries to elucidate how and why it's done, in an almost fanatically sensitive way. And of course the process is mysterious, and largely inexplicable - which is why he relies on mysticism, paradox, allusion etc.

  12. Sigh... I always learn when I come here, and leave inspired by your discoveries and sharing.

  13. Some of my always stimulating commenters have focused on how Rodin's work concentrates on the "present moment", also a central idea of Rilke's. In this sense, I think Rodin was of one mind with the Impressionist painters, who eschewed the Academy's penchant for bringing out epic moral, philosophical or historical lessons in their works, and instead worked to capture a fleeting moment (with its fleeting and ever changing light), to harvest the sublime from the quotidian. As Bonnie says, everything is already there (here!) in the present moment if lived and felt with sufficient intensity, with all our senses and imagination.

    I completely agree with Robert's observation that so many great poets, writers and artists focus on observation of the particular before and, indeed, as perhaps the only means of, bringing out the universal. This is something I need to constantly remind myself of as I tend to veer off in the wrong direction, overintellectualize everything, and begin with the ideas instead of the things. In this connection, I often think of the poet William Carlos Williams' dictum "no idea but in things".

    Rilke called this intense observation "sight work" and said it must precede the poet's "heartwork" ... but that is the subject of the next post in this series, which I am enjoying immensely, in large part because of how stimulating and rewarding it is to share what I find with all of you.

  14. So, Rodin put in the time, similar to that of a ploughman, then, and the lines of the body became like the lines of a field, to be worked, studied, beautified. I would've liked to see the world through his (and Rilkes) eyes.

    I also like the idea of being bees of the invisible, gathering the visible to worlds invisible, which is a place where I feel I am beginning to know.

  15. When I read Rilke, I have to re-read and ponder it all.I find myself loving it at the same time I am nagged by the feeling that I can't quite agree with it wholeheartedly. I feel frustratingly inarticulate about this.
    And actually I have similar feelings for Rodin, whose beautiful sculptures were so different from what preceded him: those decorative, formal figures on pedestals. I think this is because I associate Rodin with the time of the Industrial Revolution, and I hold it against him that he had a legion of staff members, students, and stone cutters at his disposal, kind of like a sculpture factory. But don't mind me; I am probably just jealous!

  16. Hi, Kerry. Interesting take on both.

    I get much the same feeling about Rilke — more than agree or disagree, partly or wholeheartedly, I find his 'meaning' often eludes me, tantalizingly close but just out of my reach. But I think this is perhaps part of his view of the world and approach to his writing, one of pondering, exploring, celebrating mystery, more than 'clarifying' it. Even his prose writing is so poetic in this sense. We rarely think of a poem as something we must agree or disagree with; rather, it moves or doesn't move us, draws us in, or leaves us flat. But with prose pieces and essays, we feel we are in the terrain of opinions and ideas and, naturally, bring our own to bear on what we read. With Rilke, however, I look at these prose pieces much as I look at his poetry.

    For example, at the end of the last passage quoted in this post, he says of Rodin: He recognized in all this the eternal, and becoming less and less perplexed by the many things, he perceived the one great thing for which grief was good, and heaviness promised maternity, and pain became beautiful. I really do not know what he 'means' by this, let alone, if I agree or disagree. Yet, I was struck by the passage, explored its possibilities, downright enjoyed the elusiveness of its meaning and, after several readings, typings and mullings, still find it strikingly beautiful.

    As for Rodin's industrial-age approach to his work, I was not aware of this and will think about it. The paramount concern of course were the results and, also, he basically lived in his studio and worked constantly, so I do not find it too objectionable. But it is an interesting point you make and I will keep it in mind as I explore his work further.

  17. I love "the currency of art was not ideas, but things, the everyday things of our world." That is the sign of a great artist. Too many artists (or poets) strive for the general, lofty ideas, when those ideas are most vividly portrayed in everyday things and moments. This is a fascinating series, Lorenzo! I appreciate how you share your passion and knowledge. It is beautiful.

  18. This all leaves me a little breathless.
    To know that I know so little,
    to know that I desire to know a great deal more.

    thank you . again.
    and again.


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