Posts Tagged ‘Visions of Christ’

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“The Children” from Visions of Christ by Ranier Maria Rilke

May 30, 2011

Let The Children Come Unto Me by Fritz von Uhde

“The Children” by Ranier Maria Rilke

There stood
amid the children of the neighborhood
a rnan. His garment was of modest wear,
and bright as home was his redeemer’s-hair.
And just as on a day in early spring
the blossoms, suddenly awakened, stare,
so had the children gathered, marveling
at him, whom none of the adults would dare to name.
But he is well-known to the young,
who crowd the gateway of the city’s poor.

One of the swarm — a pale one — murmurs: “You’re
the Mercy for whose sake my mother wrung
her hands.” The words are tender on her tongue:
Your home is in the sunset — am I right?..
there, where the mountain-peaks are proud and bright.
To you the tree-tops nod; to you are sung
the windsongs; and you visit — like a friend –
good children in their dreams.” At this they bend
like birches, all of them — the dark, the blonde –
before his smile — and the adults are stunned.
Unto his blessing, as if home were there,
come children scurrying from everywhere,
and all are listening. The word he brings
spreads over them the whiteness of its wings:
“Is there among you one who meditates
how hastily the soundless hours lead you,
how day by day and night by night they speed you
through thousand doorways and through thousand
And all the hinges move just as they need to, [gates?
and all the doors fall softly into place;
your conscience and your comrade I remain,
although the journey ripens past my reign.
I am not life, and life is what you’re after;
the darkness is your portion — I illume;
‘Renounce!’ I cry — but you are lured by laughter;
you crave good fortune, and — my voice is doom.”
He ceased. The grownups listened from afar.
Then, sighing, he continued. “When we are
balked at the border, don’t abandon me.
You’ll be too young to take me where you go;
but as you travel, turn back once to see:
perhaps in a poor place where flowers grow,
or in the tender smile of her who’s been
a long time yearning, or perhaps within
an expectation: I am Memory,
and Childhood. Go — but as you seek strange lands,
turn back to offer me one final glance
already dipped in life from which the new
and never-prayed-to God holds out his hands.
Go on, then. There’s a world awaiting you.”
They hear, in haste, the promise he speaks;
warmer and warmer grow their cheeks:
“Shall we be pounding at the doors?!”
cries out a wild one in the throng
cries out and anxiously implores:
“Through forest and flood, come speed us along!
And is the greatest door, the last,
soon to be passed?”

Thus, for the future the Master has vowed,
the eyes of that youngster boldly ignite;
and he blooms in the midday light.
But one, of that hushed and hearkening crowd,
lifts himself now, one child alone;
dishevelled and wilted his hair, wind-blown,
as over a helmet’s rage still flies
proudly the torn prize.
The voice of this one flutters and begs:
“You!” He anxiously clasps his legs
with poor, starved hands: “You never
warned us, You never said
it would end forever!
Let the ungrateful gallop ahead
to years that the swiftest cannot recover –
I am different, different from these!”
And in a convulsion he clasps his knees.–
The lips of the radiant one, they quiver,
and he bends toward the weeping lad:
“Does mother give you games and food?”
Then into his lap sobs the boy:
“I’m too old for a toy.”
“Does she bring you broth, fresh-brewed,
mornings when you wake?”
The lad has begun to quake:
“Too poor; I go unfed.”
“Don’t her kisses make
your cheeks sometimes turn red?”
Then he confesses: “Mother
has been a long time dead.”…
And the bright one’s lips are unsteady
as leaves in autumn weather:
”Then you’ve been out in life already,
and now we can stay here together.”

In the summer of 1897, Rainer wrote “Die Kinder.” ‘”The Children,” a poem in which adoring youngsters, and adults in the periphery, crowd around the radiant iconographical figure of Christ, seeking his blessings. His sermon, however, contains some sobering paradigms:

I am not life, and life is what you’re after;
the darkness is your portion — I illume;
‘Renounce!’ I cry — but you are lured by laughter;
you crave good fortune, and — my voice is doom.”

Rilke is touched by the simple faith of sheltered children but is aware that it will have to give way, as it did for him, when confronting life. Childhood illusions obviously serve up to a point in the natural development of the individual; beyond that point, Rilke seems to imply, each person must seek for himself the meaning of life and death. The way of Christ may not be the way for all men in that Christ’s lonely mission was a despairing one even for himself.

Rilke’s Christ is inspired by Matthew’s portrayal which glows with affection for children: “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for such is the Kingdom of heaven.” Those who seek Christ, says Rilke, can find him metaphorically in scenes of child — in a mother’s smile, a moment of expectancy. In that sense can the following statement of Rilke’s Christ be understood: “I am Memory and Childhood.”

The theme of Christ and the children lends itself to pathos and tenderness rendered by the infinitely soft alliterations and gliding rhymes in the dreamlike lines.

Some of Rilke’s poetic pictorializations of Christ scenes were inspired by and adapted from the paintings of the once well-known artist Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911). Today, Uhde’s prolific and largely representational output seems passe. In one of Uhde’s devotional portraits, Christ graphically illuminates the darkness and represents light as does the figure in Rilke’s “The Children.”

In Munich Rilke sporadically attended lectures on art history at the university. Yet his taste in art developed strongly only after he met Rodin, felt the impact of Cezanne and Picasso, and turned his attention from subject to form. Rilke was fascinated by the Christ themes in Uhde’s work. Uhde went the gamut from realism, imitational baroque devotionalism, to impressionism — sometimes expressing his own vision of life and sometimes acceding to public tastes.

Some of Uhde’s Christ paintings departed from the tradition of pictorial splendor by bringing Christ close to contemporary surroundings, especially to the peasant folk, and by giving him simple dress descriptive of no single period. Undoubtedly, Uhde found precedent in the humanization of Biblical figures by Rubens and the stress on moral expression rather than physical beauty by Rembrandt. Greater than his finished and smoothed-out paintings, his sketches show Uhde to have been a painter who could have transcended his time had he the will and self-confidence that makes of art an absolute mission. Rilke thought that the best of Uhde’s work was that in which children played a role and in which Uhde indirectly captured the Christ figure of love and faith and refuge as reflected in their eyes.

Rilke’s deeply subjective description of Uhde’s Christ picture called Let the Children Come unto Me holds particular interest because it shows the mood and portraiture which Rilke attempted in his poem “The Children:”

In “Let The Children Come Unto Me,” it was the concern of the painter to give the wishes and dreams of these children a common focal point, to create a pair of rich and kind hands stretched out toward the hesitant questions and search of these helpless hands, lips which can give consolation and answer to the thousand boundless and bold questions of children, and to create an eye which is radiant enough to become a homeland to those who come out of the dark. He wanted to make the children a gift of a father without the worries, agedness, or anger of a father; in short, to fulfill the deepest and most mysterious longings of their tiny, awakening souls.’

Rilke prefers the Uhde paintings in which the onlookers reveal by their emotions the presence of Christ, to those in which Christ and the onlookers are grouped conventionally. Unfortunately Uhde was pliable when attacked by philistine demands for conventional renderings so that when his painting of the Holy Night (1888) was castigated for allegedly showing in his Madonna “the features of a prostitute who has brought her child into the world in a dive,” he promptly beautified Mary’s face, tidied up her surroundings, and added symbolical iconographic devices. Similar concessions were made when the influential Munich gallery, the Pinakothek, offered to purchase Uhde’s painting “The Ascension of Christ” (1897) provided that he accent the Christ figure and its ascent. Rilke published a biting article about the stipulation, noting that Uhde’s earlier redeeemer was “in no way acquainted with all the finesses of flight techniques. “

Rilke also mentioned in the article that he had visited Uhde’s studio in November 1896 and that he had seen the preliminary painting—a superbly dynamic rendering on gray canvas with turbulent charcoal strokes and vast space over the heads of the crowd. The phenomenon of belief and its power attracted Rilke; apparently Uhde’s preliminary sketch spoke to him in those terms:

Imagine if you will a group of people — not of peasants and not of the educated but simply of people: the elderly, men, maiden, and women. And, imagine this group to be forcibly drawn together, united and commonly enthralled by one sensation. In fine shading on all the faces is the effect of something great and incredible: wonderment in the women, in the maiden: glorification in the children, trust . . . And then in their hands — in that of the elderly, doubt; fear in those of men and women, longing in the hands of maiden; and the hands of children half-unconsciously imitate the gesture of the wondrous one…

Rilke scorned the officially sanctioned ascension which Uhde agreed to paint by touching up and changing his original work: “it proves that basically he no longer sees Christ very clearly.” In the new version, the painter dissociates himself from the crowd and gives it the conventional “Jesus” rather than Christ, “the redeemer who humanly and modestly was on solid ground” in earlier Uhde paintings.
Siegfried Mandel, Visions of Christ

A little Jungian synchronicity at work as I sat down one day last week with my friend Priscilla to watch the film Seraphine. “A well done period piece and art history filled with fascinating historical detail and brilliantly acted by Yolande Moreau as Séraphine Louis, a poor French peasant, and Modern Primitive, self-taught, naïve, folk artist. Séraphine is the true story of a woman who was ecstatically inspired to paint her angels demanded it. Born in 1864, she walked a life-long fine line between divine inspiration and madness, and ended her life alone and penniless in an asylum in 1942. Séraphine is discovered  in 1912 by German art collector Wilhelm Uhde, who provides patronage and begins to get her work into exhibitions, until he is forced to leave France in 1914 due to war between Germany and France.

Uhde returns in 1927 and continues his patronage of the artist, who becomes quite successful for a short period of time (though completely unable to handle either the money or the fame, which, at least as depicted in the film, may have contributed to destabilizing her rather delicate mental balance) before she ultimately has a psychotic break in 1932, and spends the last decade of her life hospitalized and deprived of her painting (mercifully, this decade is mostly absent from the film.) This is not a particularly happy story, but it is a fascinating one, told with direct simplicity and wealth of detail. And Yolanda Moreau is totally mesmerizing.” [From a Netflick’s review]

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