Rodin — photographed by Gertrude Kasebier.
ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO
We cannot fathom his mysterious head,
Through the veiled eyes no flickering ray is sent;
But from his torso gleaming light is shed
As from a candelabrum; inward bent
His glance there glows and lingers. Otherwise
The round breast would not blind you with its grace,
Nor could the soft-curved circle of the thighs
Steal to the arc whence issues a new race.
Nor could this stark and stunted stone display
Vibrance beneath the shoulders’ heavy bar,
Nor shine like fur upon a beast of prey,
Nor break forth from its lines like a great star —
Each spot is like an eye that fixed on you
With kindling magic makes you live anew.
Rainer Maria Rilke.
Rendered into English by Jessie Lemont.
Rodin has pronounced Rilke’s essay the supreme interpretation of his work. A few years ago the sculptor expressed to the translators the wish that some day the book might be placed before the English-speaking public. The appreciation was published originally as one of a series of Art Monographs under the editorship of the late Richard Muther.
To estimate and interpret the work of an artist is to be creatively just to him. For this reason there are fewer critics than there are artists, and criticism with but few exceptions is almost invariably negligible and futile.
The strongest and most procreant contact is that which takes place between two creative minds. This book of Rilke on Rodin is the fruit of such a contact. It ripened on the tree of a great friendship for the master. For a number of years Rilke lived close to Rodin at 77 rue de Varenne, in the old mansion surrounded by a beautiful park which was subsequently dedicated to France by the artist and is now the Musée de Rodin. Here the young poet shared the life of the aged sculptor and his most silent hours.
Rodin felt that Rilke approached his sculptures from the same imaginative sphere whence his own creative impulse sprang; he knew that in the pellucid and illuminating realm of the poetic his works found their spiritual home as their material manifestation partook of the atmosphere when placed under the open sky, given wholly to the sun and wind and rain.
“Writers work through words — Sculptors through matter” — Pomponius Gauricus in his essay, “De Sculptura” (about 1504).
“The hero is he who is immovably centred.” — Emerson.
Rodin was solitary before fame came to him and afterward he became, perhaps, still more solitary. For fame is ultimately but the summary of all misunderstandings that crystallize about a new name.
Rodin’s message and its significance are little understood by the many men who gathered about him. It would be a long and weary task to enlighten them; nor is this necessary, for they assembled about the name, not about the work, — a work that has grown far beyond this name’s sound and limitations, and that has become nameless as a plain is nameless or a sea that has a name but on the map, in books, and to men, but which is, in reality, but distance, movement and depth.
The work that is to be spoken of in these pages developed through long years. It has grown like a forest and has not lost one hour. One walks among these thousand forms overwhelmed with the imagination and the craftsmanship which they represent, and involuntarily one looks for the two hands out of which this world has risen. One thinks of how small man’s hands are, how soon they tire, and how little time is given them to move. And one longs to see these hands that have lived like a hundred hands; like a nation of hands that rose before sunrise for the accomplishment of this work. One asks for the man who directs these hands. Who is this man?
He is a man rich in years; and his life is one that cannot be related. It began and still continues; stretches out deeply into a great age, and to us, it seems as though it had passed many hundreds of years ago. It perhaps had a childhood; a childhood in poverty — dark, groping and uncertain. And maybe it possesses this childhood still, for, says St. Augustine somewhere, whither should it have gone? It holds, perchance, all its past hours, the hours of expectation and abandonment, the hours of doubt and the long hours of need. It is a life that has lost nothing and has forgotten nothing; a life that has absorbed all things as it passed, for only out of such a life as this, we believe, could have risen such fulness and abundance of work; only such a life as this, in which everything is simultaneous and awake, in which nothing passes unnoticed, could remain young and strong and rise again and again to high creations. Perchance the time will come when someone will picture this life, its details, its episodes and its conflicts. Someone will tell a story of a child that often forgot to eat because it seemed more important to him to carve inferior wood with a cheap knife, and someone will relate some event of the days of early manhood that contained promise of future greatness — one of those incidents that are intimate and prophetic.
Perhaps some such thought as that which, five hundred years ago, a monk expressed to young Michel Colombe, may have suggested itself to Rodin on one of the crossways, at the beginning of his work: “Travaille, petit, regarde tout ton saoul et le clocher à jour de Saint Pol, et les belles oeuvres des compaignons, regarde, aime le bon Dieu, et tu auras la grâce des grandes choses.” “And thou wilt have the grace of the great things.” For it was just that which Rodin was seeking: the grace of the great things.
The galleries of the Louvre revealed to the young artist radiant visions of the antique world; visions of southern skies, and of the sea, and far beyond rose heavy stone monuments, reaching over from immemorial civilizations into times not yet existent. There were stones that lay as if asleep but that held a suggestion that they would awake on some last judgment day, stones on which there was nothing mortal. There were others that bore a movement, a gesture that had remained as fresh as though it had been caught there in order to be given to some child that was passing by.
Not alone in the great works and in these monuments was this vitality alive: the unnoticed, the small, the concealed, were not less filled with this deep inward excitement, with this rich and surprising unrest of living things. Even stillness, where there was stillness, consisted of hundreds and hundreds of moments of motion that kept their equilibrium.
There were small figures, animals particularly, that moved, stretched or curled; and although a bird perched quietly, it contained the element of flight. A sky grew back of it and hung about it; the far distance was folded down on each of its feathers, and should these feathers spread out like wings, the wide expanse of them would be quite great. There was stillness in the stunted animals that stood to support the cornices of the cathedrals or cowered and cringed beneath the consoles, too inert to bear the weight; and there were dogs and squirrels, wood-peckers and lizards, tortoises, rats and snakes. At least one of each kind; these creatures seemed to have been caught in the open, in the forest and on roads, and the compulsion to live under stone tendrils, flowers and leaves must have changed them slowly into what they were now and were to remain forever. But other animals could be found that were born in this petrified environment, without remembrance of a former existence. They were entirely the natives of this erect, rising, steeply ascending world. Over skeleton-like arches they stood in their fanatic meagerness, with mouths open, like those of pigeons; shrieking, for the nearness of the bells had destroyed their hearing. They did not bear their weight where they stood, but stretched themselves and thus helped the stones to rise. The bird-like ones were perched high up on the balustrades, as though they were on the way to other climes, and wanted but to rest a few centuries and look down upon the growing city. Others in the forms of dogs were suspended horizontally from the eaves, high up in the air, ready to throw the rainwater out of their jaws that were swollen from vomiting. All had transformed and accommodated themselves to this environment; they had lost nothing of life. On the contrary, they lived more strongly and more vehemently — lived forever the fervent anu impetuous life of the time that had created them.
And whosoever saw these figures felt that they were not born out of a whim nor out of a playful attempt to find forms unheard of before. Necessity had created them. Out of the fear of invisible doomsdays of a hard faith men had freed themselves by these visible things; from uncertainty men had taken refuge in this reality. They sought God no more by inventing images of Him or by trying to conceive the Much-too-far-One; but they evinced their piety by carrying all fear and poverty, all anxiety and all pleading of the lowly into His house. This was better than to paint; for painting was a delusion, a beautiful and skillful deception. Men were longing for the more real and simple. Thus originated the strange sculpture of the cathedrals, this! cross-breed of the heavy laden and of the animals.
As the young artist looked from the plastic art of the Middle Ages, back to the Antique, and again beyond the Antique into the beginnings of untold pasts, did it not seem as though the human soul had longed again and again through the bright and dark periods of history, for this art which expressed more than word and painting, more than picture and symbol; this art which is the humble materialization of mankind’s hopes and fears?
At the end of the Renaissance there was the flowering of a great plastic art; at that time when life renewed itself, when there was a revealment of the secret of faces, and a great vital movement was in the state of growth.
And now? Had not a time come again that was urging toward this expression — this strong and impressive exposition of what was unexpressed, confused, unrevealed? The arts somehow had renewed themselves, zeal and expectation filled and animated them. But perhaps this art, the plastic art that still hesitated in the fear of a great past, was to be called upon to find that which the others sought gropingly and longingly. This art was to help a time whose misfortune was that all its conflicts lay in the invisible.
The language of this art was the body. And this body — when had one last seen it?
Strata after strata of costumes were piled over it like an ever renewed varnish; but under this protecting crust the growing soul had changed it; and this growing soul worked breathlessly at remodeling the expression of die faces. The body had become a different one. Were it now unveiled, it would perhaps reveal the imprint of a thousand new expressions as well as the stamp of those old mysteries that, rising from the unconscious, reared their dripping heads like strange river-gods out of the singing blood. And this body could not be less beautiful than that of the Antique. It must be of a still higher beauty. For two thousand years life had held this body in its hands and had moulded it, had forged it, now listening, now hammering, night and day. The art of painting dreamed of this body, adorned it with light and illumined it with twilight, surrounded it with all softness and all delight; touched it like a petal, and in turn was swept by it as by a wave. But plastic art, to which it in truth belonged, as yet of this body knew nothing.
Here was a task as great as the world. And he who stood before it and beheld it was unknown and struggling under the necessity of earning his bread. He was quite alone and if he had been a real dreamer, he would have dreamed a beautiful and deep dream — a dream that no one would have understood — one of those long, long dreams in which a life could pass like a day. But this young man who worked in the factory at Sèvres was a dreamer whose dream rose in his hands and he began immediately its realization. He sensed where he had to begin. A quietude which was in him showed him the wise road. Here already Rodin’s deep harmony with Nature revealed itself; that harmony which the poet George Rodenbach calls an elemental power. And, indeed, it is an underlying patience in Rodin which renders him so great, a silent, superior forbearance resembling the wonderful patience and kindness of Nature that begins creation with a trifle in order to proceed silently and steadily toward abundant consummation. Rodin did not presume to create the tree in its full growth. He began with the seed beneath the earth, as it were. And this seed grew downward, sunk deep its roots and anchored them before it began to shoot upward in the form of a young sprout. This required time, time that lengthened into years. “One must not hurry,” said Rodin to the few friends who gathered about him, in answer to their urgence.
At that time the war came and Rodin went to Brussels. He modeled some figures for private houses and several of the groups on the top of the Bourse, and also the four large corner figures on the monument erected to Loos, City-mayor in the Parc d’Anvers. These were orders which he carried out conscientiously, without allowing his growing personality to speak. His real development took place outside of all this; it was compressed into the free hours of the evening and unfolded itself in the solitary stillness of the nights; and he had to bear this division of his energy for years. He possessed the quiet perseverance of men who are necessary, the strength of those for whom a great work is waiting.
While he was working on the Exchange of Brussels, he may have felt that there were no more buildings which admitted of the worth of sculpture as the cathedrals had done, those great magnets of plastic art of past times. Sculpture was a separate thing, as was the easel picture, but it did not require a wall like the picture. It did not even need a roof. It was an object that could exist for itself alone, and it was well to give it entirely the character of a complete thing about which one could walk, and which one could look at from all sides. And yet it had to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch. It had to become unimpeachable, sacrosanct, separated from chance and time through which it rose isolated and miraculous, like the face of a seer. It had to be given its own certain place, in which no arbitrariness had placed it, and it must be intercalated in the silent continuance of space and its great laws. It had to be fitted into the space that surrounded it, as into a niche; its certainty, steadiness and loftiness did not spring from its significance but from its harmonious adjustment to its environment.
Rodin knew that, first of all, sculpture depended upon an infallible knowledge of the human body. Slowly, searchingly, he had approached the surface of this body from which now a hand stretched out toward him, and the form, the gesture of this hand contained the semblance of the force within the body. The farther he progressed on this remote road, the more chance remained behind, and one law led him on to another. And ultimately it was this surface toward which his search was directed. It consisted of infinitely many movements. The play of light upon these surfaces made manifest that each of these movements was different and each significant. At this point they seemed to flow into one another; at that, to greet each other hesitatingly; at a third, to pass by each other without recognition, like strangers. There were undulations without end. There was no point at which there was not life and movement.
Rodin had now discovered the fundamental element of his art; as it were, the germ of his world. It was the surface, — this differently great surface, variedly accentuated, accurately measured, out of which everything must rise, — which was from this moment the subject matter of his art, the thing for which he laboured, for which he suffered and for which he was awake.
His 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.
With this awakening Rodin’s most individual work began. Not until now had all the traditional conceptions of plastic art become worthless to him. Pose, grouping, composition now meant nothing to him. He saw only innumerable living surfaces, only life. The means of expression which he had formed for himself were directed to and brought forward this aliveness.
The next task was to become master of himself and of his abundance. Rodin seized upon the life that was everywhere about him. He grasped it in its smallest details; he observed it and it followed him; he awaited it at the cross-roads where it lingered; he overtook it as it ran before him, and he found it in all places equally great, equally powerful and overwhelming. There was not one part of the human body that was insignificant or unimportant: it was alive. The life that was expressed in faces was easily readable. Life manifested in bodies was more dispersed, greater, more mysterious and more eternal. Here it did not disguise itself; it carried itself carelessly where there was carelessness and proudly with the proud. Receding from the stage of the face it had taken off its mask and concealed itself behind the scenes of garments. Here in the body Rodin found the world of his time as he had recognized the world of the Middle Ages in the cathedrals. A universe gathered about this veiled mystery — a world held together by an organism was adapted to this organism and made subject to it. Man had become church and there were thousands and thousands of churches, none similar to the other and each one alive. But the problem was to show that they were all of One God.
For years Rodin walked the roads of life searchingly and humbly as one who felt himself a beginner. No one knew of his struggles; he had no confidants and few friends. Behind the work that provided him with necessities his growing work hid itself awaiting its time. He read a great deal. At this time he might have been seen in the streets of Brussels always with a book in his hand, but perhaps this book was but a pretext for the absorption in himself, in the gigantic task that lay before him. As with all creative people the feeling of having a great work before him was an incitement, something that augmented and concentrated his forces. And if doubts or uncertainties assailed him, or he was possessed of the great impatience of those who rise, or the fear of an early death, or the threat of daily want, all these influences found in him a quiet, erect resistance, a defiance, a strength and confidence — all the not-yet-unfurled flags of a great victory.
Perhaps it was the past that in such moments came to his side, speaking in the voice of the cathedrals that he went to hear again and again. In books, too, he found many thoughts that gave him encouragement. He read for the first time Dante’s Divina Comedia. It was a revelation. The suffering bodies of another generation passed before him. He gazed into a century the garments of which had been torn off; he saw the great and never-to-be-forgotten judgment of a poet on his age. There were pictures that justified him in his ideas; when he read about the weeping feet of Nicholas the Third, he realized that there were such feet, that there was a weeping which was everywhere, over the whole of mankind, and there were tears that came from all pores.
From Dante he came to Baudelaire. Here was no judgment, no poet, who, guided by the hand of a shadow, climbed to the heavens. A man who suffered had raised his voice, had lifted it high above the heads of others as though to save them from perishing. In this poet’s verses there were passages, standing out prominently, that did not seem to have been written but moulded; words and groups of words that had melted under the glowing touch of the poet; lines that were like reliefs and sonnets that carried like columns with interlaced capitals the burden of a cumulating thought. He felt dimly that this poetic art, where it ended abruptly, bordered on the beginning of another art and that it reached out toward this other art. In Baudelaire he felt the artist who had preceded him, who had not allowed himself to be deluded by faces but who sought bodies in which life was greater, more cruel and more restless.
After having read the works of these two poets they remained always near him, his thoughts went from them and yet returned to them again. At the time when his art took form and prepared itself for expression, when life as it presented itself before him had little significance, Rodin dwelt in the books of the poets and gleaned from the past. Later, when as a creator he again touched those realms, their forms rose like memories in his own life, aching and real, and entered into his work as though into a home.
At last, after years of solitary labor he made the attempt at a step forward with one of his creations. It was a question put before the public. The public answered negatively. And Rodin retired once more for thirteen years. These were the years during which he, still unknown, matured to a master and became the absolute ruler of his own medium, ever working, ever thinking, ever experimenting, uninfluenced by the age that did not participate in him. Perhaps the fact that his entire development had taken place in this undisturbed tranquility gave him later, when men disputed over the value of his work, that powerful certainty. At the moment when they began to doubt him, he doubted himself no longer, all uncertainty lay behind him. His fate depended no more upon the acclamation or the criticism of the people; it was decided at the time they thought to crush it with mockery and hostility. During the period of his growth no strange voice sounded, no praise bewildered, no blame disturbed him.
As Parsifal grew so his art grew in purity alone with itself and with a great eternal Nature. Only his work spoke to him. It spoke to him in the morning when he awakened, and at even it sounded in his hands like an instrument that has been laid away. Hence his work was so invincible. For it came to the world ripe, it did not appear as something unfinished that begged for justification. It came as a reality that had wrought itself into existence, a reality which is, which one must acknowledge.
Like a monarch who, hearing that a city is to be built in his kingdom, meditates whether it would be well to grant the privilege, and hesitates; and finally goes forth to see the place and finds there a great powerful city which is finished, which stands as though from eternity with walls, towers and gates, so the world came when ultimately called to the completed work of Rodin.
This period of Rodin’s maturescence is limited by two works. At its beginning stands the head of “The Man with the Broken Nose,” at its end the figure of “The Man of the Primal Age.” “L’Homme au Nez Cassé” was refused by the Salon in the year of 1864. One comprehends this rejection, for one feels that in this work Rodin’s art was mature, certain and perfected. With the inconsiderateness of a great confession it contradicted the requirements of academic beauty which were still the dominating standard.
In vain Rude had given his Goddess of Rebellion on the top of the triumphal gate of the Place de L’Étoile that wild gesture and that far-reaching cry. In vain Barye had created his supple animals; and The Dance by Carpeaux was merely an object of mockery until finally it became so accustomed a sight that it was passed by unnoticed.
The plastic art that was pursued was still that based upon models, poses and allegories; it held to the superficial, cheap and comfortable metier that was satisfied with the more or less skillful repetition of some sanctified appeal. In this environment the head of “The Man with the Broken Nose” should have roused the storm that did not break out until the occasion of the exhibition of some later works of Rodin. But probably it was returned almost unexamined as the work of some one unknown.
Rodin’s motive in modeling this head, the head of an ageing, ugly man, whose broken nose even helped to emphasize the tortured expression of the face, must have been the fulness of life that was cumulated in these features. There were no symmetrical planes in this face at all, nothing repeated itself, no spot remained empty, dumb or indifferent. This face had not been touched by life, it had been permeated through and through with it as though an inexorable hand had thrust it into fate and held it there as in the whirlpool of a washing, gnawing torrent.
When one holds and turns this mask in the hand, one is surprised at the continuous change of profiles, none of which is incidental, imagined or indefinite. There is on this head no line, no exaggeration, no contour that Rodin has not seen and willed. One feels that some of these wrinkles came early, others later, that between this and that deep furrow lie years, terrible years. One knows that some of the marks on this face were engraved slowly, hesitatingly, that others were traced gently and afterwards drawn in strongly by some habit or thought that came again and again; one recognizes sharp lines that must have been cut in one night, as though picked by a bird in the worn forehead of a sleepless man.
All these impressions are encompassed in the hard and intense life that rises out of this one face. As one lays down this mask one seems to stand on the height of a tower and to look down upon the erring roads over which many nations have wandered. And as one lifts it up again it becomes a thing that one must call beautiful for the sake of its perfection. But this beauty is not the result of the incomparable technique alone. It rises from the feeling of balance and equilibrium in all these moving surfaces, from the knowledge that all these moments of emotion originate and come to an end in the thing itself. If one is gripped by the many-voiced tortures of this face, immediately afterwards there comes the feeling that no accusation proceeds from it. It does not plead to the world; it seems to carry its justice within itself, to hold the reconciliation of all its contradictions and to possess a forbearance great enough for all its burden.
When Rodin created this mask he had before him a man who sat quiet with a calm face. But the face was that of a living person and when he searched through it he saw that it was as full of motion, as full of unrest as the dashing of waves. In the course of the lines there was movement; there was movement in the contours of the surfaces; shadows stirred as in sleep and light seemed to softly touch the forehead. Nothing possessed rest, not even death; for decay, too, meant movement, dead matter still subject to life. Nature is all motion and an art that wished to give a faithful! and conscientious interpretation of life could not make rest, that did not exist, its ideal. In reality the Antique did not hold such an ideal. One has only to think of the Nike. This piece of sculpture has not only brought down to us the movement of a beautiful maiden who goes to meet her lover, but it is at the same time an eternal picture of Hellenic wind in all its sweep and splendour. There was no quiet even in the stones of still older civilizations. The hieratically retained gesture of very ancient cults contained an unrest of living surfaces like water within a vessel. There were currents in the taciturn gods that were sitting; and those that were standing commanded with a gesture that sprang like a fountain out from the stone and fell back again causing many ripples.
This was not movement that opposed the intrinsic character of the sculpture. Only the movement that does not complete itself within the thing, that is not kept in balance by other movements, is that which exceeds beyond the boundaries of sculpture. The plastic work of art resembles those cities of olden times where the life was spent entirely within the walls. The inhabitants did not cease to breathe, their life ran on; but nothing urged them beyond the limits of the walls that surrounded them, nothing pointed beyond the gates and no expectation opened a vista to the outer world. However great the movement of a sculpture may be, though it spring out of infinite distances, even from the depths of the sky, it must return to itself, the great circle must complete itself, the circle of solitude that encloses a work of art. This was the law which, unwritten, lived in the sculptures of times gone by. Rodin recognized it; he knew that that which gave distinction to a plastic work of art was its complete self-absorption. It must not demand nor expect aught from outside, it should refer to nothing that lay beyond it, see nothing that was not within itself; its environment must lie within its own boundaries. The sculptor Leonardo has given to Gioconda that unapproachableness, that movement that turns inward, that look which one cannot catch or meet. Probably his Francesco Sforza contained the same element, it carried a gesture which was like a proud envoy of state who returned after a completed commission.
During the long years that passed between the mask of “The Man with the Broken Nose” and the figure of “The Man of Primal Times” many silent developments took place in Rodin. New relations connected him more closely with the past of the art of sculpture, and the greatness of this past, which has been a restriction to so many, to him had become the wing that carried him. For if he received during that time an encouragement and confirmation of that which he wished and sought, it came to him from the art of the antique world and from the dim mystery of the cathedrals. Men did not speak to him. Stones spoke. “The Man with the Broken Nose” had revealed how Rodin sought his way through a face. “The Man of Primal Times” proved his unlimited supremacy over the body. “Souverain tailleur d’ymaiges” — this title, which the masters of the Middle Ages bestowed on one another without envy and with serious valuation, should belong to him.
Here was a life-sized figure in all parts of which life was equally powerful and seemed to have been elevated everywhere to the same height of expression. That which was expressed in the face, that pain of a heavy awakening, and at the same time the longing for that awakening, was written on the smallest part of this body. Every part was a mouth that spoke a language of its own. The most critical eye could not discover a spot on this figure that was the less alive, less definite and clear. It was as though strength rose into the veins of this man from the depths of the earth. This figure was like a silhouette of a tree that has the storms of March still before it and trembles because the fruit and fulness of its summer lives no more in its roots, but is slowly rising to the trunk about which the great winds will tear.
The figure is significant in still another sense. It indicates in the work of Rodin the birth of gesture. That gesture which grew and developed to such greatness and power, here bursts forth like a spring that softly ripples over this body. It awakens in the darkness of primal times and in its growth seems to flow through the breadth of this work as though reaching out from by-gone centuries to those that are to come. Hesitatingly it unfolds itself in the lifted arms. These arms are still so heavy that the hand of one rests upon the top of the head. But this hand is roused from its sleep, it concentrates itself quite high on the top of the brain where it lies solitary. It prepares for the work of centuries, a work that has no measure and no end. And the right foot stands expectant with a first step.