Sunday, February 6

Rilke and Rodin (part II)

Rodin and statue of The Hand of God - Edward Steichen, 1907

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

Today, I will include one single passage from Rainer Maria Rilke's book-essay, Rilke on Rodin. It is long, but the writing is so beautiful that I trust it will be well worth your attention and momentary surrender here. I hope that after reading it you will feel, like me, that your view of Rodin's masterworks is forever changed and charged with new energy. Rilke's discussion of Rodin's treatment of wholeness/incompleteness, his rendering of hands, the central importance of the points of contacts between figures in the group sculptures as the flash points of his craft and genius is superb. It begins with his discussion of La Méditation (The Meditation), also known as Voix Intérieure (Inner Voice).

Voix Intérieure — Musée Rodin, Paris
“Never was human body assembled to such an extent about its inner self, so bent by its own soul and yet upheld by the elastic strength of its blood. The neck, bent sidewise on the lowered body, rises and stretches and holds the listening head over the distant roar of life; this is so impressively and strongly conceived that one does not remember a more gripping gesture or one of deeper meaning. It is striking that the arms are lacking. Rodin must have considered these arms as too facile a solution of his task, as something that did not belong to that body which desired to be enwrapped within itself without the aid of aught external. When one looks upon this figure one thinks of Duse in a drama of d’Annunzio’s, when she is painfully abandoned and tries to embrace without arms and to hold without hands. This scene, in which her body has learned a caressing that reaches beyond it, belongs to the unforgettable moments in her acting. It conveys the impression that the arms are something superfluous, an adornment, a thing of the rich, something immoderate that one can throw off in order to become quite poor. She appeared in this moment as though she had forfeited something unimportant, rather like someone who gives away his cup in order to drink out of the brook.

The same completeness is conveyed in all the armless statues of Rodin; nothing necessary is lacking. One stands before them as before something whole. The feeling of incompleteness does not rise from the mere aspect of a thing, but from the assumption of a narrow-minded pedantry, which says that arms are a necessary part of the body and that a body without arms cannot be perfect. It was not long since the rebellion arose against the cutting off of trees from the edge of pictures by the Impressionists. Custom rapidly accepted this impression. With regard to the painter, at least, came the understanding and the belief that an artistic whole need not necessarily coincide with the complete thing, that new values, proportions and balances may originate within the pictures. In the art of sculpture, also, it is left to the artist to make out of many things one thing, and from the smallest part of a thing an entirety.

Mighty Hand
There are among the works of Rodin hands, single, small hands which, without belonging to a body, are alive. Hands that rise, irritated and in wrath; hands whose five bristling fingers seem to bark like the five jaws of a dog of Hell. Hands that walk, sleeping hands, and hands that are awakening; criminal hands, tainted with hereditary disease; and hands that are tired and will do no more, and have lain down in some corner like sick animals that know no one can help them. But hands are a complicated organism, a delta into which many divergent streams of life rush together in order to pour themselves into the great storm of action. There is a history of hands; they have their own culture, their particular beauty; one concedes to them the right of their own development, their own needs, feelings, caprices and tendernesses. Rodin, knowing through the education which he has given himself that the entire body consists of scenes of life, of a life that may become in every detail individual and great, has the power to give to any part of his vibrating surface the independence of a whole. As the human body is to Rodin an entirety only as long as a common action stirs all of its parts and forces, so on the other hand portions of different bodies that cling to one another from an inner necessity merge into one organism. A hand laid on another’s shoulder or thigh does not any more belong to the body from which it came — from this body and from the object which it touches or seizes something new originates, a new thing that has no name and belongs to no one.

The Kiss
This comprehension is the foundation of the grouping of figures by Rodin; from it springs that coherence of the figures, that concentration of the forms, that quality of clinging together. He does not proceed to work from figures that embrace one another. He has no models which he arranges and places together; he starts with the points of the strongest contact as being the culminating points of the work. There where something new arises, he begins and devotes all the capacity of his chisel to the mysterious phenomenon that accompanies the growth of a new thing. He works, as it were, by the light of the flame that flashes out from those points of contact, and sees only those parts of the body that are thus illuminated.

The spell of the great group of the girl and the man that is named “The Kiss” lies in this understanding distribution of life. In this group waves flow through the bodies, a shuddering ripple, a thrill of strength, and a presaging of beauty. This is the reason why one beholds everywhere on these bodies the ecstasy of this kiss. It is like a sun that rises and floods all with its light.

L’Éternelle Idole

Still more marvelous is that other kiss “L’Éternelle Idole”. The material texture of this creation encloses a living impulse as a wall encloses a garden. One of the copies of this marble is in the possession of Eugène Carrière, and in the silent twilight of his house this stone pulsates like a spring in which there is an eternal motion, a rising and falling, a mysterious stir of an elemental force. A girl kneels, her beautiful body is softly bent backward, her right arm is stretched behind her. Her hand has gropingly found her foot. In these three lines which shut her in from the outer world her life lies enclosed with its secret. The stone beneath her lifts her up as she kneels there. And suddenly, in the attitude into which the young girl has fallen from idleness, or reverie, or solitude, one recognizes an ancient, sacred symbol, a posture like that into which the goddess of distant cruel cults had sunk. The head of this woman bends somewhat forward; with an expression of indulgence, majesty and forbearance, she looks down as from the height of a still night upon the man who sinks his face into her bosom as though into many blossoms. He, too, kneels, but deeper, deep in the stone. His hands lie behind him like worthless and empty things. The right hand is open; one sees into it. From this group radiates a mysterious greatness. One does not dare to give it one meaning, it has thousands. Thoughts glide over it like shadows, new meanings arise like riddles and unfold into clear significance. Something of the mood of a Purgatorio lives within this work. A heaven is near that has not yet been reached, a hell is near that has not yet been forgotten. Here, too, all splendor flashes from the contact of the two bodies and from the contact of the woman with herself.”

Large Left Hand of a Pianist, bronze
The passage is taken from the 1919 English translation of the book (translated by Jessie Lamont and Hans Trausil), available for download at the Internet Archive site here.

Remember to read your Rilke every day at the A Year With Rilke blog.

Left Hand (26), plaster


  1. 1919! Can't even imagine what "Victorian" America thought! Beautiful - it leaves one speechless. Well, not Rilke - I will let him speak for me, I guess. I am fascinated to see more of Rodin's work. I will have to google and try to find books ... or do you have any to recommend. Since I will never own a Rodin sculpture - hey wait a minute! ... hey, what do you know! I DO. "The Thinking Man". LOL Well, I will have to look for others in the stores now. But a nice, big "coffee table" book would still be nice.

  2. Your timing is pretty good. I had just put my book down, reading this very passage, and you have posted this as if to illustrate it. How strange your text looks without my red scribbles all over the pages!

    I have thousands of things to say.

    Just this, for now. On these pages I was struck with the juxtaposition of these studies. First the armless woman -- she doesn't need arms to be perfect, then the hands -- the independence of the whole, then the beautiful lovers in Eternal Springtime -- who don't need their arms/hands to explore each other. To embrace without arms, to hold without hands . . .

    These artistic concepts are embedded in Rilke's writings -- holding without grasping, praising without intrusion on solitude, longing for something that lies within as much as it lies ahead.

    It is wonderful to see the images alongside the text.

  3. My trip through Europe as a 19 year old art student was spent haunting museums and great works of architecture for these types of work. My favorite sculptors? Bernini and Rodin. There was something elemental in their work. I fell in love with Bernini in Rome and Rodin in Paris.

    "The Kiss" was not, however, a favorite. Perhaps over-exposed in the Seventies, I thought it a saccharine image. Rilke's view brings it alive and makes it more earthy like Michelangelo. His chisel marks at the base of his statuary are reminiscent of the great Master.

    Thanks for a lovely post.

  4. Marvelous post, Lorenzo. It brings back so many memories of being in the Rodin Museum in Paris for the first time. Hands, to me, are among the greatest gifts we've been endowed with.

  5. Beautiful post, Lorenzo, thoughtful and generous.

  6. wow. these works are margaret i am off to look for more...even the hands speak volumes...really enjoyed this lorenzo...

  7. I am quiet. I feel like I've been blown upon into stillness, not by Rilke as much as by the work itself and Rilke's awe.

    These lines spoke the most to me, "It conveys the impression that the arms are something superfluous, an adornment, a thing of the rich, something immoderate that one can throw off in order to become quite poor." I wonder then how much of ourselves is superfluous. What might I throw off?

    And, "it is left to the artist to make out of many things one thing, and from the smallest part of a thing an entirety." From this I wonder how characters come to life, stories. What is significant, and what is not?

    And, "The right hand is open; one sees into it. From this group radiates a mysterious greatness. One does not dare to give it one meaning, it has thousands." And so it is that sometimes, just sometimes, I sit before a poem and ask no questions, I stand before a sculpture quiet.

    Wonderful again, Lorenzo. And thank you.


  8. Lorenzo,

    Has anyone ever mentioned they are stunned by the beauty you find and expose. This was really worth reading. And the art.... Oh, the art.

  9. phew lorenzo - there's a journey through the mind of a man well beyond his own mind and into something much greater: "from this group radiates a mysterious greatness. one does not dare to give it one meaning, it has thousands. thoughts glide over it like shadows, new meanings arise like riddles and unfold into clear significance." truly exceptional!! steven

  10. Lorenzo, thank you for further illuminating what I'd admired before, but, in Rilke's words, "is like a sun that rises and floods all with its light."

    Voix Intérieure and The Kiss are my favorites, but Rilke, hand in hand with Rodin? They teach volumes.

  11. Reading this while having Rodin's forms placed beside Rilke's reflections is like a taste of grace. To cite Rilke, "One does not dare to give it one meaning, it has thousands."

    With this reading (I will return for more), I leave with the joy of thinking of 'points of contact'. As Rilke says these points of contact exist not only as we reach out, but also when we dare to reach within. I will be conscious of my points of contact today and know that awareness will surely offer 'new values, proportions, balances ... pulsations ...'

    I will revisit and linger with this inspired post Lorenzo. To that end I will bookmark it ... and treasure it.

    Forever in your debt, dear Lorenzo.

  12. Thank you, Lorenzo! This is just what I needed to read this morning. It is wonderful. I am especially interested in the hands. "Mighty Hands" moves me. Hands are the first things I tend to notice about people. Hands tell endless stories--even stories we might try to hide. And I LOVE what you have written about hands to accompany the pictures. Again, I enter your site in anticipation and leave with knowledge. Big applause!

  13. How absolutely stunning and valuable. The translation is fabulous. Thank you, Lorenzo. xxxJenne'

  14. Wow, Lorenzo! What a gift to share this with the rest of us. As I read this piece, I found my mind bouncing back and forth from Rilke to Rodin, each a consummate artist, one working in words and the other in bronze, both capturing the essence of what it is to be human. To bear witness to such talent, such visionary art, is simply overwhelming.

    I greatly admire Rodin's work and I am fortunate to have access to a great deal of it, both in Washington and Philadelphia. How great it would be to go the the museums and sculpture gardens with Rilke, to see what he sees, to hear what he hears, to witness how an open heart can be totally transformed by art.

  15. Shuddering ripple, a thrill of strength, and a presaging of beauty is exactly how it feels to stand before a Rodin.


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