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.

It is surprisingly difficult to grasp what this means and how it might differentiate each artist from his predecessors. After years of seeking out as many Cézanne paintings as I could find in many of the world’s greatest museums, I am beginning to understand why one would say that Cézanne, in particular, is making his paintings out of color in a way that is unique and interesting. Obviously every painting is made of color, but that element is often subordinated — to line, to perspective, to the illusion of realism, etc., etc., etc. Even the “mainstream” of Impressionism, which seems so close to making its paintings purely out of color, is actually making its paintings out of light.

Cézanne really is doing something different. What gives it away, for me, is the increasing frequency of exposed canvas in his paintings as his style matures. In many paintings, he seems to leave exposed canvas as an open seam where anyone else would have put a line — especially in a transition where the line would simultaneously unite and separate two zones of a similar color. He’s trying to do what he’s doing purely through color, and this means he can’t completely cover the canvas. He can’t quite get the colors to join up while still being true to nature. And interestingly, it is precisely this failed fidelity to nature that makes Cézanne such an inspiration to the abstract painters who followed him.

With this head start on Cézanne, I feel like I can maybe see what he’s saying about what’s distinctive about Rodin. It already helps to make sense of the way he’ll let the texture of the plaster strips show through in his bronze sculptures. It’s as though he’s saying — in the Balzac in the Art Institute of Chicago, for instance — no, of course this isn’t a real man. But it is real. Maybe it’s more real than the real man was.

In both cases, Rilke goes beyond his simple affirmation to claim that each artist’s true mastery consists in the kind of balance he achieves — always tenuous, always achieved through tremendous effort — among the elements he creates. In the Cézanne letters, the key phrase for me is when he richly describes Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair and then says, “it’s as though every part knows about all the others.” In both my sections this semester, we closely investigated the painting in light of this curious claim, and it turns out that Rilke is right. Every part really does know about all the others. You have the image that we used, so click on it, zoom in, study it. You’ll see that it’s true.

I haven’t had the time to study a Rodin piece in the same way, but I already have an intuition of what that peculiar balance among the planes might look like in the Balzac or the Walking Man — particularly the latter, where Rilke rightly emphasizes the fact that the lack of arms does not register quite as a lack. In the Adam or the Burgher of Calais, it seems harder to understand. Most difficult of all is the arresting Eve After the Fall, which is in many ways my favorite Rodin holding at the Art Institute insofar as it refuses the viewer the pleasure of female nudity which is such a staple of classical sculpture, precisely by shoving it in our face.

Perhaps Rilke’s account of each artist is non-exhaustive. I doubt he’d mind — already in the Cézanne letters, he’s anxious that his opinion about Rodin might change before he sees the manuscript to print, so he doesn’t even experience his own views as definitive. In the end, though, I would say that Rilke’s response to Cézanne and Rodin directs us much more toward the aesthetic particularity of each artist than, say, Heidegger’s reflections on van Gogh in Origin of the Work of Art.

6 Responses to “Rilke on visual art: An executive summary”

  1. Brad Says:

    Excellent post.

    The thing, too, of extraordinary value, if we dare use such a word to describe it, is that Cezanne’s color is never so much simply placed like a line — in such a way it need never be different, as though it was but waiting for the right hand to draw it — but somehow shimmers off the canvas itself, away from necessity and inevitability. There’s a complex vibration, I wonder if we might even call it “seismic,” in his use of color that rumbled through, and perhaps even shattered Rilke. Language, maybe naturally, cannot quite catch hold of color, which is why we the poets can only appeal to it in metaphor.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Cezanne definitely “shows his work” — above all in the way you describe, but also in the very frank staging of his still lifes (where you can see the box he used to get the basket at a particular angle, etc.). The contrast with a classical Renaissance painting, where every effort is devoted to making it seem that nothing could be any different, that there were never any individual brush strokes at all, is astounding.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s as though Cezanne was the first person who sought out to make a painting, rather than an image, an impression, etc. And it seems like Rilke is also saying that Rodin was the first person who sought to make a sculpture, directly.

  4. Stephen Keating Says:

    Thanks for the teaser on the Rilke, it sounds like a nice one to pick up. I somehow missed the Art Institute’s Rodin holdings and will have to remedy that next time I’m in town. Though I obviously wasn’t looking for the technique at the time, I remember being struck by Cezanne’s use of blank canvas at the Musée d’Orsay. The cardplayer is a particularly striking example: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/painting.html?no_cache=1&zoom=1&tx_damzoom_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=113863

  5. Charles R Says:

    Who is the first one who sought out to make a poem?

    Seeking out is an interesting way of saying it. Are we stumbling in the dark, punch drunk and uncaring about the light, but eager to touch and make contact? Are we fishing about in a cloud of minnows for the right one who isn’t too quick nor too dead slow nor living listing? Are we wandering into a forest of softly rotting smells for whatever dragged out the search?

    They tell us to seek and we’ll find. Or maybe I’m neither they nor we, but just another dreamer in the audience.

  6. Hugh Thomas Says:

    The formulation “a painting out of colour” suggests several questions about poetry that seem interesting. Who was the first person to make a poem out of words? (Maybe Gertrude Stein?) How about, out of sounds? Or out of sentences?


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