24 May 2014

Rilke's Rodin

 “Suddenly, out of all the green in the park,
something, one knows not what, has gone;
one feels it approaching the window then
and notes its silence,  Imploring and stark.

Out of the grove stirs the song of the plover,
and oe thinks of Saint Jerome in his cell,
wo much does the loneliness seem to wash over
this voice of fervor, which the sudden spell

of rain will answer.  Salon walls that beguiled
as with pictures have now withdrawn from us,
as if they were not to hear what we say.

The sun-faded tapestries mirror the dubious
light of afternoons, that same light today
in which one grew so frightened as a child.
 - Before the Summer Rain from New Poems (1907) by Rainer Maria Rilke,(translated from the German by Joseph Cadora, Port Townsend , Washington, Copper Canyon Press: 2014.

From Chantilly.in June, 1906, only weeks after his dismissal from the studio of Auguste Rodin, the titan of French sculpture,  and still stinging from the rejection, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote Before the Rain. Rilke chose a window at the Chateau de Chantilly, originally constructed in the 1560s, as the vantage point for a poem describing an impending storm, perhaps wishing to distance himself from the storm of emotions that accompanied his exile from Rodin.  Images of walls receding, taking with them happy memories, and the inspired linking of a bird and a saintly hermit are exquisite bearers of his pain.

It was not only to do a study that I came to be with you – it was to ask you, how must one live?” - R.M.R.

Rilke (1875-1926) had come to Paris in the summer of 1902 for the expressed purpose of writing about Rodin.  A penurious but finicky young man, the German native spent his first weeks haunting the stacks at the Bibliotheque Nationale.  He needed a lucrative commission badly, but he was poorly prepared for it, speaking French haltingly and with few of the skills of a scholar.  When Rilke presented himself to Rodin's on September 1, he brought a gift of his poems. which the non-German speaking Rodin could not read.  He had prepared his way with a letter the previous month, described by William Gass as being “baited with the sort of fulsome praise you believe only when it is said of yourself...”
After that first luncheon,  Madame Rodin graciously invited the thin young poet to return  “anytime you're in the neighborhood.”   
The next day in a letter to his wife, the painter Clara Westoff,  Rilke wrote, “...it seemed to me that I had always known him.  I was only seeing him again; I found him smaller, and yet more powerful, more kindly, and more noble.” The day after that Rilke took the train to surburban Meudon, where Rodin had his studio at the villa des Brillants.  Walking along a path between rows of chestnut trees, Rilke finally sees what he had dreamed of:  “a little red and yellow house stands – before a miracle – before a garden of stone and plaster figures.”

To gain access to Rodin, Rilke offered the artist his services as secretary and lecturer, or to put it in our terms, publicist.  Rilke's French was slow to begin with and never got up to speed and clerical tasks bored him.  His admiration was nothing like the self-forgetful devotion of Eric Fenby, amanuensis  to the moody British composer Frederic Delius.  Apparently annoyed beyond endurance, Rodin fired his young assistant on May 10, 1906, “like a thieving servant,”  Rilke reported indignantly to Clara. 
During Rilke's time at Meudon, Rodin began a new affair with the young British artist Gwen John.  The relationship followed a template Rodin had perfected through repetition:  a young female artist comes to Paris; finds that she needs to support her studies by modeling; she is flattered when the great man singles her out and shows interest in her work.
Rilke's observations about the erotic hothouse in Rodin's studio strain credulity. Too romantic and self-involved, Rilke's Rodin was a product of hero worship, not factual informed art criticism.  Rilke even managed a feminist gloss on the sexual roundelay.  “ ..here the woman is no longer an animal who submits or is overpowered.  She is too awake and animated by desire, as if they had both joined forces to search for their souls.”  This, in reference to The Gates of Hell, no less.

 In a letter to his new love Lou-Andreas Salome, written during the summer of 1903, Rilke described  Rodin's studio in terms that could apply to Rilke’s own situation.
They were living, living on nothing, on dust, on soot, and on the filth of their surfaces, and what falls from the teeth of dogs,on any senselessly broken thing that anyone might still buy for some inexplicable purpose.  Oh what kind of world is that!  Pieces, pieces of people, parts of animals, leftovers of things that have been, and everything still agitated, as though driven about helter-skelter in an eerie wind, carried and carrying, falling and overtaking each other as they fall.”

Nevertheless, Rilke's version of Rodin retains its fascination for anyone interested in either writer or artist.  A similar project for a monograph on the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1862-1916) fell by the wayside.  Speculating about the reasons why has been a parlor game for art historians, writing in their own terms, not Rilke's.  My hunch is that just as Hammershoi's work is elusive, it and its reticent creator also eluded Rilke.

For further reading:  Auguste Rodin by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from the German by Daniel Slager, New York, Archipelago Books: 2004 (1903)

1. unidentified photogrpaher - Rainer Maria Rilke at Rodin's in Meudon, c. 1902-06,  Musee Rdoin, Paris.
2. unidentified photographer - Rodin's studio at Place de l'Alma with from left to right - Eve - Balzac - Pallas - Muse tragique - Victor Hugo,  no date given, Grand Palais, Paris.
3. Lyn Stern - untitled photograph, 1982, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


christian said...

Thanks - the Rilke-Rodin relationship is fascinating to me. Didn't Rilke's wife model and work for Rodin at some time, and perhaps also was his mistress? Or am I getting that mixed up with somebody else?

Jane said...

Christian, you've got me on this one. I don't know. Rose Beuret, Camille Claudel, Gwen John, Adele Abruzzezzi. There were many more, to be sure, but you'd need a scorecard.