Rilke on visual art: An executive summary

Cezanne - Mme Cezanne in Red ArmchairIn Shimer’s fine arts class, we typically do a unit on Cézanne that includes a selection of Rilke’s letters written after a particularly vivid encounter with an exhibition of Cézanne’s art. Out of curiosity, I picked up Rilke’s more formal study of Rodin, which was published at about the same time he was writing the Cézanne letters. Both texts are beautifully written, passionate responses to artworks that Rilke had not only studied closely, but felt deeply. In them, Rilke displays a profound sympathy for both artists as artists and as human beings. I strongly recommend you read both if you’re into that kind of thing.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that an unsympathetic reader could conclude that Rilke is, in the last analysis, simply praising both artists in exuberant terms without providing much in the way of concrete tools for thinking through the nature of Cézanne and Rodin’s particular artistic achievements.

This reading, though plausible, is in my opinion ultimately wrong. What Rilke is saying about each artist is simple and yet challenging and profound. In his letters on Cézanne, the point he returns to again and again is that Cézanne makes his paintings out of color. In his book on Rodin, he repeatedly emphasizes the fact that Rodin makes his sculptures out of planes.

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A visit to the museum: On Cézanne and tourists

The Basket of Apples

As part of our training, new faculty members at Shimer College sit in on one of the core curriculum courses that is outside our teaching comfort zone. In my case, it’s Humanities 1: Art and Music, which carries with it a membership to the Art Institute of Chicago, due to the generosity of some alumni donors. The Girlfriend and I went a couple weeks ago to check out the recently added Modern Wing, and we took the standard approach of trying to “cover” the entire area. Our favorite piece was this video installation by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, which had three videos playing simultaneously, displaying (at least at first) three angles on the same scene. Sure enough, before long Ahtila was flying through the forest.

We enjoyed our visit, but as we were walking back to the train, I wondered what we had really gotten out of our rush tour. Here is all this great art that people have devoted whole careers to studying, and we’re giving thirty seconds as a baseline to each piece, maybe stopping to look for a couple minutes if something catches our eye. The Girlfriend agreed in principle, but pointed out that neither of us knows enough about art to know which paintings are really worth spending more time with — better to cast a wide net.

The professor recommended that we go back this weekend to look at their Cézanne holdings, as we were going to discuss several of his paintings on Monday and then were reading Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne for Wednesday. I went for about an hour yesterday afternoon and managed to find a wall that had five Cézanne works, which was apparently the extent of what they’re showing currently. While I didn’t match Rilke’s record of spending two hours studying a single canvas, the amount of time I was able to spend on each painting made it a new experience for me.

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