Rilke and Rodin – Contemplating a Work of Art

July Morning

“…beauty is not the result of 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  motion originate and come to an end in the thing itself.” (  Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin, p.20)

Here Rilke attempts to describe Rodin’s, Man with a Broken Nose. This sculpture leads him to contemplate how a work of art functions- how its meaning, its very sense of life, must find its origin and completion within the work itself. The work must find its inherent meaning without having a direct reference to anything beyond its immediate scope. It must unfold like a world revealed. “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.” ( Ibid.,p.21)

This complete self-absorption allows a work to convey a sense of ” living in the moment”, giving the work a “presence”- a powerful undertow. It becomes a direct reflection, as in a mirror, of our own fleeting nature. Except, that in a work of art, it takes on a quality of timelessness as well. When one contemplates a river where the water is in a state of constant flow one senses a “living” moment, transitory and immediate. But when one spends an extended time observing this river one also comes away with a timeless feeling, that this river has flowed and existed in a sense, forever. This duality embraces our own struggle to understand the world and is directly reflected in a work of art. The “living” quality of the work springs from this duality and allows the work to take on an identity independent of the creator.  The image “lives” and sings of a world that we long to know. We are drawn into this  self- enclosed world and- “… to this bending inward, to this intense listening too one’s own depth.” (Ibid.p.25)

This “self-absorption” does not mean that the work is strictly self- referential. Although it is an intimate world revealed, it must also carry an attachment to a more universal depth that is seeking form. When one dreams, one knows that it is his or her dream alone. No one else is having this dream. But one also realizes that there is a larger purpose at work in the dream. It is identifying something that needs our attention. A work of art must carry a sense of completion and must also act as a conduit between itself and the world. As Lorca would say it must have duende– a hunger, a longing, a depth that draws one inward to a recognition of the desires of one’s heart. Without duende the work will not “live”.

Color and the Use of Memory

Color, from memory
Color sketch, from memory

“How can I improve my ability to draw from memory?” a friend asked me. I told him I knew of a 19th century text on just that issue and Rodin himself studied with the author. It had been about ten years since I had looked at the text and it was really his own interest in drawing from memory that my friend brought it into the present. In fact he had his most difficult name on his lips, “do you mean Lecoq De Boisbaudran?’

“That is exactly who I mean,” I answered.  Boisbaudran wrote The Training of the Memory in Art and The Education of the Artist in the 1880’s which was eventually translated into English in 1911. When I had first encountered this text during my education at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art, I had been primarily interested in acquiring the ability to draw from memory. I had read everything in regard to Rodin early on in my artistic pursuits. Rodin said his study with Boisbaudran was one of the most formative experiences of his life and it shaped the way he was able to work from life and build on that experience through his memory of the model. It will be remembered that Rodin did not pose his models but allowed them freedom in the studio to walk, meditate and move unhindered. From these exercises, Rodin developed his ideas for his sculptures. This very practice did not originate with Rodin but with Boisbaudran’s method of training the artist.

Looking back on this text as an older and much more developed artist, I have found a new interest in it through his use of memory and color retention. As a young artist, I found that this idea seemed practically impossible to achieve. It seemed so out of reach that I scarcely remember it as being part of the course of study. But now it stands there questioning me. Is this something I have the ability to acquire? I know Henri had achieved this skill. He writes in his notebooks that he reworked some of his portraits from memory. In fact, he even began a new portrait of the model on a fresh canvas from memory- achieving a likeness as well as perfect color retention.

I have found that the use of the spectrum palette of Henri’s very useful to this end. The use of the spectrum palette involves a process of mixing pigments repeatedly to achieve the desired relationship of tones. This constant mixing and remixing joined with one’s need to compare tones aides in color memory. When I first began using this method it was very difficult and time consuming to get the proper relationships. But over time, I was able to mix more quickly as well as have an immediate sense of its proper relationship to the surrounding tones. This developed sensitivity to color relationships improved my ability to see and remember color.

Boisbaudran notes that working from the human figure, from life, aides our ability to remember. He accounts for this because one has an inherent relationship with another human being whereas an inanimate object or a landscape or an abstract shape takes less hold on our memory and therefore its shape and color is more difficult to retain. Henri’s method of working with the spectrum palette and from life increased his ability to remember. Working repeatedly in this fashion allowed him to retain a memory of color, color temperature and tone relationships. Boisbaudran has his own method of studying tones and reproducing them with exactitude, but I feel Henri’s method may in a way be closer to a broader truth about color and color relationships. With Henri, one looks at all the colors in the composition and their direct relationship to each other. There is a broad unity and harmony in this way of working and I feel in many ways easier to obtain a more exacting memory of color. One retains not only a certain tone in one’s memory but its broader relationship to the whole. And seeing the whole helps one to see the individual parts more clearly. This type of sensitivity to visual phenomena will open more avenues within the memory.

Nothing can replace working from life, but simultaneously working from memory will enable one to capture the fleeting things that we see and enjoy but always seem to be just out of our grasp. By working our memory, our awareness is increased and our sensitivity to those fleeting moments become heightened. We feel compelled through memory to capture those incidents. Sargent in many ways felt that his late mural work was his greatest achievement- the imagination joined to all those years of working from life- where the memory empowered by the imagination was given the freedom it had so long desired.