Rilke and Rodin: Final Parting – William H. Gass

August 9, 2012

G. B. Shaw by Rodin 1906

October was filled with Rilke’s work on the essay, but now Clara had arrived in Paris and had her studio in the same apartment building as his, according to an arrangement he had finally worked out with his conscience. Their economic circumstances remained dire; the couple’s dislike of Paris, now shared, increased; they endured their separate loneliness through the gray city’s winter, living on roots and water, or so it seemed. The essay at last concluded, Rilke came down with the first of several bouts of flu and a gloom that obscured the upper half of the Eiffel Tower. By March, he was ready’ to return to his itinerant ways, and fled for Italy, the first of many` nations in which he would find refuge.

It would be three years to the month of his first meeting with Rodin before Rilke would return to Paris and Meudon, this time as an invited guest. The master had read Rilke’s monograph by this’ time, since it now extolled him in French, and he welcomed the poet as a trusted friend and fellow artist. The visitor was well’ housed, with a nice view of the valley. Rilke offered to help with some of Rodin’s overwhelming paperwork and was soon hired on, as it were, full-time. Often he, Rodin, and Rose Beuret would rise early’ to visit the city or enjoy Versailles, and once they dared Chartres in the dead of winter, where terrible winds, because they were envious of such grandeur, Rodin said, tormented the towers. (Some details; have been taken from Ruth Butler’s Rodin: The Shape of Genius. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.)

Rilke seeped into the role of Rodin’s secretary, a position he wanted because it cushioned him in Meudon, because he was paid, because the work was expected to be undemanding; yet a position he did not want because it confined him to Meudon, his French might be inadequate, because it put him below stairs in Rodin’s service when he had his own fish to hook and fry — the poet as ambitious as the sculptor.

Rilke planned a lecture tour on behalf of Rodin, a project that would take him to Dresden late in October (the talk becomes part 2 of the Rodin book), but the response to his first appearance disappointed him because, although there were “six hundred people,” they were “not the right ones.” Then in Prague he twice performed for a small crowd of mystified officials and sleepy old ladies whom he imagined were more concerned with the digestion of their dinners. When Rilke asks, a few paragraphs into his text, “Are you listening?” is the question entirely rhetorical? Worse than their inattention, his take wasn’t covering costs. In Berlin, there were visits and readings before he repeated his Rodin lecture a final time — on this occasion with some success. (Freedman, pp. 233, 242.)

Spring of 1906 would find him back in Meudon, where his work, fatter than he remembered, sat upon his shoes like a heavy dog. In one of his poems, he likened himself to a swan out of water, waddling his way “through things still undone.” The personal epistle was an art form at which Rilke excelled, but the business letter in French was boring, intractable, foreign, and frustrating. The poet had become dilatory and the sculptor impatient.

Moreover, Rilke had begun answering mail without taking the trouble to inform Rodin of the fact or the nature of the exchange, assuming an authority he did not have: once to Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a wealthy German patron, once to Sir William Rothenstein, an important English art administrator and academic painter. Upon learning of these presumptions, Rodin fired Rilke with a force that expelled him from his cottage and the grounds as well as from his secretarial position. He was soon back in his little Paris room, a spent shell. (Ibid., p. 245.)

The poet had recovered his perilous freedom, his personal space, a space, one suspects, that was very like the space he believed Rodin’s figures required, not only one that allowed you to inspect them “in the round” but a space that was theirs by right of uniqueness, that distinguished them somehow “from the other things, the ordinary things, which anyone could grasp.” A small statue could, therefore, seem large. Rilke, too, required such room as respect conferred, where he might stand “solitary and luminous” with “the face, of a visionary.” (Rainer Maria Rilke. Auguste Rodin)

Yet Rilke’s rhetoric, when he writes about Rodin’s work, is not simply a reflection of his need to enhance his own importance; it also expresses the, necessity for any work of art to lay claim to the appropriate arena of its enjoyment, hence the close placement of paintings in some’ museums above, below, or beside one another on the same wall or the squeezing of a bust into a corner or the dumping of a figure at the end of a narrow hall that leads to the johns, the elevators, or the shops is a sign of catastrophic overcrowding, a show of curatorial contempt, or evidence of feeble artistic force. Even a fragment; should stand in its space like Napoleon, and there is ample testimony to the imperial effect of Rodin’s sculptures whatever their size. In his essay collection Leonardo’.s Nephew, James Fenton quotes Aristide Maillol — as his talk is recollected by the ubiquitous Count Kessler:

When you view a Rodin from afar, it’s small, very small. But sculpture forms part of the air all around it. Rodin has a Buddha at his place, well placed on a socle, in his garden, in front of a circle of small shrubs. Well, it’s as big as that [showing it very small] and yet it’s as big as the sky. It’s immense. It fills everything.
(James Fenton, Leonardo’s Nephew)

Rilke was similarly taken with this piece.


As if he listened. Silence. Depth.
And we hold back our breath. Yet nothing yet.
And he is star. And other great stars ring him,
though we cannot see that far.

O he is fat. Do we suppose
he’ll see us? He has need of that?
Sink in any supplicating pose before him,
he’ll sit deep and idle as a cat.

For that which lures us to his feet
has circled in him now a million years.
He has forgotten all we must endure,
encloses all we would escape.

Rodin’s preeminent biographer, Ruth Butler, suggests that some additional factors were at work in Rilke’s dismissal. When Rilke returned from his leisurely lecture tour, Rodin was ill with what was called the grippe. Rose Beuret was in a foul mood, which didn’t improve his. So he asked George Bernard Shaw, whose bust he had been commissioned to sculpt, if he and his wife would take the train to Meudon to sit for it so that the ailing artist wouldn’t have to travel to his workshop in Paris.

At first, the Shaws came unencumbered, but when Shaw learned that Rodin didn’t mind being photographed (the playwright had tried his own hand), he asked permission for a friend, the American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, to visit, as well. Shaw, not easily impressed by anyone farther from himself than his beard, was aware that Rodin’s thumb was a greater imprimatur than the Pope’s seal, and told Coburn, “No photograph taken has touched him…. He is by a million chalks the biggest man you ever saw; all your other sitters are only fit to make gelatin to emulsify for his negative.” (Details of this meeting are from Butler, p. 390, and the quote is from Alvin Langdom Coburn Photographer: An Autobiography. New York: Dover Publications, 1978, p. 22.) Rodin couldn’t have been disappointed with Coburn’s customarily lyrical view him sporting a beard that resembled a river and a hat we now call pillbox.” There is a slight upward tilt to his head that resembles the heroic pose he fashioned for Balzac.

To watch him pose for his immortality, Shaw gathered a crowd also calling the curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Sydney Cocerell, to his side.

Rilke joined them, almost immediately impressed with Shaw as sitter — the entire squad eager to write brilliantly about a glittering constellation they underestimated even while trying to exaggerate it

In the newspaper Gil Bias for May 24, 1912, Shaw wrote:

Rodin worked laboriously. . . . When he was uncertain he measured me with an old iron compass and then measured the bust. If the nose was too long he cut off a section and pressed the end to close the wound with no more emotion or affectation than a glazier replacing a window. If the ear was not in its place he would cut it off and lay it on correctly, these mutilations being executed cold-bloodedly in the presence of my wife (who almost expected to see the already terribly animated clay begin to bleed) while remarking that it was quicker to do it thusly than to make a new ear. (Quoted in Elsen, p. 126.)

Rilke wrote to Shaw’s German publisher, Samuel Fischer:

Rodin has begun the portrait of one of your most remarkable authors; it promises to be exceptionally good. Rarely has a likeness in the making had so much help from the subject of it as this bust of Bernard Shaw’s. It is not only that he is excellent at standing (putting so much energy into standing still and giving himself so unconditionally to the sculptor’s hands), but he so collects and concentrates himself in that part of the body which, in the bust, will have … to represent the whole Shaw, that his whole personality seems to become concentrated essence. (Quoted in Butler, pp. 390-391.)

They all took a break to attend the celebration for the installation of The Thinker in front of the Pantheon. Shaw, not to be outdone (and as excellent at sitting as standing), persuaded Coburn to photograph him the very next day, naked following his morning bath, in the pose presently before the Pantheon. The photo exists for posterity’s wonder. Rilke was visibly taken with the English genius, who didn’t mind adulation even from callow unknowns. Apart from that, during Rodin’s week of work, and, worse, during his week of triumph, Shaw had clearly been competing for attention, if not glory, with a sundry that included Rodin’s secretary and Rodin’s statue. Butler says, “It was Rilke who paid the price for the mischievous Englishman’s visit.” (Butler, p. 191.)

Although Rilke would suggest to Rodin the purchase of the Hotel Biron, later the Musee Rodin, and for a time live in that building (as Cocteau would, who claimed to have a role in its preservation), his intimacy with Rodin was over. Two days after Shaw’s departure for London, on May 10, 1906, Rilke was “dismissed like a thieving servant.” We can pretend to know precisely.

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One comment

  1. [...] from “Rilke’s Rodin”, an essay by William H. Gass, click here, here, here, and here  Tweet !function(d,s,id){var [...]

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