Rilke’s description of Rodin sheds light on the profound psychic connection between the two great artists, both masters of giving visible life to the invisible.Literature
The following is an excerpt from The Mantle's edition of Auguste Rodin, from the introduction by William Gass (The Tunnel, Omensetter’s Luck, and Reading Rilke). Gass received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, a Lannan Lifetime Achievement award, the Pen-Nabokov Prize, and a gold medal for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
We can pretend to know precisely. At three o'clock on the Monday afternoon of September 1, 1902, bearing the appropriate petitions of entry, although he had arranged his visit in advance, the twenty-six-year-old poet Rainer Maria Rilke appeared on the stoop of Auguste Rodin's Paris studio, and was given an uncustomary gentle and courteous reception.
Of course Rilke had written Rodin a month before to warn of his impending arrival. It was a letter baited with the sort of fulsome praise you believe only when it is said of yourself, and it must have been an additional pleasure for Rodin to be admired by a stranger so young, as well as someone with a commission to write of the sculptor and the sculptor's work as handsomely as, in his correspondence, he already had. Rilke was enthusiasm in a shabby suit, but Rodin, who paid little mind to social appearances except when he was mixing with potential clients, was willing to set aside some time for a chat while suffering the foreigner's fledgling French without complaint. He could not have realized that he was going to be the victim of a role reversal, because it was the artist who would play the sitter for a change.
Rilke had arrived with an anticipatory portrait well advanced, and his tireless pen immediately began making mental corrections. "...it seemed to me that I had always known him," he wrote his wife, Clara, the following day. "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."
Released to explore the studio and its holy objects, Rilke discovers, almost immediately, a hand: "C'est une main comme-ça," Rodin says, gesturing so impressively with his own broad blunt peasant hands with their plaster white fingers and blackened nails that Rilke fancies he sees things and creatures growing out of them. In Rilke's steamy state of mind Rodin's every word rises in the air, so that when he points to two entwined figures and says: "c'est une création ça, une création..." the poet believes, he reports to Clara, that the word création "had loosed itself, redeemed itself from all language... was alone in the world." Everything small has so much bigness in it, he exclaims to his page.
Rilke tries to take everything in as if there will not be a next day, but there is a next day, and at nine he is on the train to Meudon, a twenty-minute ride to transformation. The town clings to a hillside from whose crest the Seine can be seen snaking its way to Paris. He walks up a "steep dirty village street" to Rodin's villa called des Brillants, which the sculptor had bought in 1895.
Rilke describes the journey to Clara with the sort of detail one saves for wonders of the world: over a bridge – no voilà yet – down a road – no voilà yet – past a modest inn – no voilà yet – now through a door in the villa wall that opens on a gravel path lined with chestnut trees – still no voilà – until he rounds a corner of the "little red-yellow house and stands" – voilà now! – "before a miracle – before a garden of stone and plaster figures."
Rodin had transported the Pavillion de l'Alma, in which he had exhibited his work in Paris in 1900, to the small park surrounding his house where there were already several studios set aside for cutting stone and firing clay. The pavilion was a heavily glassed light-filled hall full of plaster figures in ghostly confabulation, and it also contained huge glass cases crammed with fragments from the design of the Gates of Hell. "There it lies," Rilke writes, already composing his monograph:
...yard upon yard, only fragments, one beside the other. Figures the size of my hand and larger... but only pieces, hardly one that is whole: often only a piece of arm, a piece of leg, as they happen to go along beside each other, and the piece of body that belongs right near them... Each of these bits is of such an eminent, striking unity, so possible by itself, so not at all needing completion, that one forgets they are only parts, and often parts of different bodies that cling to each other so passionately there.
Rilke had brought a sheaf of his poems, which Rodin dutifully fingered, although he could only admire (as Rilke imagines) their pose upon the page; otherwise he left Rilke to roam about the place examining its treasures. The poet poured out upon these figurines and fragments a bladder full of enthusiasm as was his pre-Paris habit ("each a feeling, each a bit of love, devotion, kindness"); but the city's unyielding and indifferent face and the sculptor's dedicated work habits would teach the poet to see his surroundings as they were in themselves and not simply allow his glance to fall like sunshine on surfaces where it could admire its own reflection and its glitter.
Then it was lunchtime. And the first lesson, en plein air. They sat five at a trestle. No one was introduced. There was a tired looking, nervous, and distracted lady whom Rilke assumed was Madame Rodin. There was a Frenchman notable for a red nose, and "a very sweet little girl of about ten" who sat just across from him. Rodin, dressed for the city, is impatient for his meal. Madame replies with a torrent of apparent grievance. Rilke begins to observe – regarde! regarde! is the new command – and sees Madame giving forks, plates, glasses little pushes that disarray the table as if the meal were already over.
"The scene was not painful, only sad," he writes. The Master continues to complain as calmly as a lawyer until a rather dirty person arrives to distribute the food and insist that Rilke partake of dishes he did not desire. The poet should have been hungry, he was on his uppers, but he was also finicky to a fault, vegan of a sort, a fancied sign of his ethereal nature. Rodin rattled on agreeably. Rilke spoke of his art colony days in Worpswede and of the painters he met there, few of whom Rodin had heard of, although that would not have surprised the poet had he realized that his acquaintances, his friends, were nobodies. And as a poet, he was invisible in this space.
Because it was full of blazing plaster casts in a pavilion that gathered light as if it were fruit. "My eyes are hurting me, my hands too," he wrote to his wife. Madame Rodin was gracious after lunch, inviting him back, as we say, "anytime you're in the neighborhood," little realizing, I imagine, that for Rilke that would be tomorrow.
And so ended the second day.
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