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”.