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”.

Rilke and the Purpose of Art


As an artist, I am familiar with that nagging question that every artist must ask themselves- what is the purpose of my art and why do I do it? Many writers have probed this question- Tolstoy wrote a book called, What is the meaning of Art ?; Emerson dealt with it in his essay on Nature; Solzhenitsyn confronted it in his Nobel Prize essay, A World Split Apart; Dostoevsky touched upon it in his address before the Pushkin Memorial; Gaston Bachelard touches upon it when he explores the phenomenology of the imagination; and it shows up in countless other works by Baudelaire, Delacroix, Robert Creeley, Walt Whitman and Rainer Marie Rilke. It is entirely unavoidable. One is compelled to ask this question. In a sense a painter or visual artist works this out by what they choose to depict and the method used. Monet was intrigued by the momentary flashes of life that came before his eyes. He chose to paint landscapes with a broken sense of color and lack of outline to convey this feeling of transience.  Much hinges on finding the inherent meaning of one’s work and committing oneself to it- letting it become the raison d’être of one’s being.

Rainer Marie Rilke explores the purpose of poetry as well as art. I first fell in love with his writing through his biography of Augustus Rodin. It took me years to find an English translation in a used bookstore. In Rodin, who was working on the Gates of Hell at the time, he found the perfect counterpart to himself- both tireless craftsmen seeking to transform the living vitality of existence into works of art.  In Rodin, Rilke describes Rodin’s Balzac, Victor Hugo and The Burgers of Calais as work “…not to beautify or give characteristic expression, but to separate the lasting from the transitory, to sit in judgement, to be just.”  The process of transformation from the visible to its inner equivalents was the greatest thing this world had to offer (Lemont) and Rilke observed it quite clearly in the work of Rodin.

In Rilke’s, Elegies, he expresses the purpose of his work, “… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being… It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, “invisibly”, inside us.” Again he says,” … oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing.” ( Elegies) To take the visible world and allow it to dwell inside of us and then to transform that world and those things in the most intense way and re-imagine them again is the work of the artist. The image becomes the process whereby the visible world finds its equivalent within our being. In this way the transient visible world is re-imagined through the artist and becomes a transformative force. Rilke, like Emerson, expresses the transcendent nature of all things. Emerson in his essay Nature states the purpose of, “… visual art: striking the viewer so deeply, with such authority, the merely personal is obliterated. Something like an archetypal self is evoked.”

It is easy to ignore the incredible Beauty of all things. “The purpose of art is to express the good, the true and the beautiful” as Dostoevsky expressed it. But Solzhenitsyn believed that possibly only beauty will remain.  The artist’s job is to praise and declare again the inherent value of all things and to say it again with intensity.

“O tell us, Poet, what you do? – I praise.

But the dark, the deadly, the desperate ways,

How do you endure them- how bear them?-

I praise.

Padraic Colum, Rilke, 1945