Typos — p. 45: buffettings [= buffetings]; p. 48: Commaraswamy [= Coomaraswamy]

Rilke's Rodin

Anthony M. Ludovici

London Forum 1.1, 1946, pp. 41–50

- p. 41 -
We Europeans have reached a crisis in the criticism and interpretation of works of art. Are we any longer to continue the present haphazard method of registering our purely personal reactions to a picture or piece of sculpture — in other words, is aesthetic appreciation to remain preponderatingly subjective — or shall we in future endeavour to relate our aesthetic reactions to some norm or standard? The condition of the graphic and plastic arts at the present day is such that an artist's success, or notoriety, is achieved not necessarily by the outstanding quality of his rendering of an état d'âme common to all men, and expressed within a scale of values generally accepted, but rather by the size and influence of the group he can, by his manner, gather about him and, above all, behind him. It is this group, all conscious of a positive reaction to his work which, if large and powerful enough, secures him fame.
        There will, of course, be other groups, gathered and standing behind other artists. And such is the present confusion of tongues and values, that the number of these groups, all possibly at variance one with another in their reactions, may be multiplied ad infinitum. But there will be one feature and one only that will unite them all — none of them will have reached their attitude of loyalty towards their particular artist by examining his work in the light of any accepted norm or standard. It will always be a matter of personal reaction to an individual manner. It will always be subjective appreciation.
        By being thus atomised and disunited in respect of prevailing values, our society inevitably leads to the formation of coteries and cliques, who come together adventitiously, merely as a result of being "tuned-in", as it were, to the same "wave-length". Nothing more authoritative or regular governs their convergence, merely the chance similarity of subjective judgments in the presence of the same object.
        Inevitably this state of affairs affects the artist. For artists must live. And if to live means gathering as many of one's fellows as possible behind one, all of whom will bleat one's name in unison, it

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follows that the first prerequisite of fame is at least to make a noise, to attract by conspicuousness. This is the best way, and the European artist who most effectively forces the note of his personality so as to exaggerate his individual manner and thereby to command and arrest attention, is he who is most likely to reach the top rung of the ladder.
        Hence the constant temptation, in the art-world of the West, for the artist to be outré, if not outrageous. By this means he gathers at his heels a vociferous group with rapidity and, above all, with certainty. I believe it was Kipling who said that in any large country at least 5,000 people will always be found who will believe in anything. What is true of belief is probably also true of specific aesthetic reactions. But nowadays 5,000 people all bleating one's name is a good start towards the goal. For snobbery alone soon doubles, trebles and quadruples the number.
        The danger is — and here we approach the drawback of modern atomisation — that in these circumstances great fame is not necessarily associated with supremely artistic gifts. As Dr. Coomaraswamy puts it: "Secular and personal art can only appeal to cliques." And he adds: "This is in fact the diagnosis of our modern individualistic art." He further points out that seven-eighths of Western art is completely mediocre and even worse, while one-eighth (if the proportion of genius be so large) is intelligible only to the few. 1
        I am not arguing that there is no quality test in the artist who achieves fame in an atomised society bereft of uniformly accepted values. I only suggest that, since the test of his ability to establish himself is not primarily the quality of his art in relation to an accepted norm or standard, nor its approximation to or distance from an objective reality, he will be tempted to rally his particular group behind him by means amounting to clamour, bluster, and even posturing. He will, that is to say, be encouraged to express himself as subjectively as possible. He may go about crying "Abracadabra!" or, like Cagliostro, "Helion, Melion, Tetragrammaton!" or muttering any language of his own creation. But even this will not scare the whole of the modern public. If not 5,000, certainly 500 will be found who, lured by the very obscurity of his expression, will gather round him, praising his unique self-determined language, and approving of it possibly for the very fact that it can be related to nothing.

        1 Arts and Crafts in India and Ceylon, pp. 23–24.

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        This is admittedly an extreme case. But traces of its most salient features are to be found in most examples of modern Western art.
        What, then, is the function of art-criticism in a society like ours? — It is limited by the same negative conditions which determine the capricious art-appreciation of amateur groups among the general public. Having no canon, no norm, and no uniformly prevailing values on which to base either its strictures or encomiums, it has to fall back on purely personal reaction. True, the professional critic may, as a rule, be credited with a wider knowledge of Western art and its various schools, and a greater familiarity with the history of art, than any member of the amateur-groups for whom he writes. Often, moreover, he possesses a much more impressive knowledge of the jargon of the studios. But, by and large, he can no more proceed to an objective examination of art products than the public whom he professes to guide. His apparatus of historical and technical knowledge merely enables him to be more persuasive, more plausible and more downright than they can be in expressing a purely personal taste.
        And, just as in the expression of personal taste, he may sometimes, like Geoffrey, Camille Mauclair, Arsène Alexandre or Octave Mirbeau, back a sensational winner, so the chances are about equal that he may, like Ruskin, despise the winner in favour of others who "also ran".
        Nor is there any doubt that, in Paris, where fashions in art used in my time to be launched, there was a systematic organisation which, starting with the purchase at ridiculous prices of works by obscure oncoming artists with a sufficiently odd personal manner to attract notice, ended in these same canvases or sculptures being loudly trumpeted in the Press by the journalistic "clients" of the buyer, so that they sold at fifty to a hundred times the rate paid for them in the first instance. I will not mention names. But I know of one well-known firm who practised this lucrative racket for a generation. This is only one of the many sidelines made possible by the anarchy of modern Western art, and it has not been without significance in the ultimate effect it has had on art-trends.
        Now, both in theory and practice, Rodin was in many respects a traditionalist. Indeed, Roger Marx described him as "a continuator of the French tradition in sculpture". Mauclair concurred. I always felt the essentially autochthonous origin of his art, but saw him not so

- p. 44 -
much the follower of Rude, Houdon, Pigalle, Couston, Puget and Germain Pilon, which is Mauclair's view of him, as the reversion to a late Gothic type.
        There is no doubt in my mind at least that he, too, backed by his unofficial but zealous publicity agents, was humoured to the top of his bent in whatsoever was odd and purely personal in his feeling and manner. Thus, like most Western artists, he, too, also emphasised his self-determined language, and to a degree which, in my opinion, often wrested him unhappily from the tradition to which he leant and which, in former times, under the sway of values more uniform than we moderns have ever known, received an almost pan-European acceptance.
        What was this tradition? — As I have already hinted, and as I explain in my Reminiscences, it was preponderatingly Gothic. Hence, perhaps, Whistler's caustic comment: "Rodin's work is not statuesque." True, he tried various styles, even expressed deep admiration for the Greek, and adopted many of the methods of Greek plastic art. But, at bottom, as we perceive when we contemplate the crouching, often contorted, and anything but serene creatures of his art, even when we gaze on those of his figures that approach most nearly to the Greeks, he was a Gothic artist, inspired more by the French cathedrals, in which Gothic was born, than by the Greek temple and its clean, austere serenity. Nor can we for a moment doubt that had he been given the choice of decorating the one or the other, he would unhesitatingly have chosen the cathedral. But he addressed himself to an age and a continent no longer united and integrated by a common code and faith, and in this sense his art was largely an anachronism. His conversation, indeed, confirmed what, in my opinion, anyone who likes can discover for himself in the Rodin Œuvre — namely, that it is a throw-back, with all the awkwardness, irascibility and doubts that mal-adaptation generates, but with the occasional supreme grandeur of a bygone virility.
        How did Rilke see all this? In Rainer Maria Rilke's Rodin, a translation of which has just been published by the Grey Walls Press, we have the good fortune of learning one great poet's impression of another great poet, and the lofty attainments of each makes the essay one of the important documents in the history of art.
        It is at once strange and the most natural thing in the world that it should have fallen to me to review Rilke's Rodin. For I succeeded

- p. 45 -
him as Rodin's private secretary. Indeed, the little chalet, appropriated at Meudon Val Fleury to the sole use of the sculptor's amanuensis, had hardly been vacated by Rilke more than a few days when I occupied it. It is the small building seen in the foreground of the view showing the Villa des Brillants (Rodin's own residence), facing p. 50 of my Reminiscences. I never met Rilke, but from Rodin's garrulous and, as I subsequently discovered, mischief-making bonne-a-tout-faire, Adèle, I heard a good deal about him. Whether, in view of her none too reliable memory — to say no more! — all I heard was true, is at least doubtful. But, at any rate, allowing for some inventiveness and exaggeration and possibly also for a desire to extract from me, by her confidences, the opinion I had formed of Rodin and his household, I gathered that Rilke had been none too happy. Adèle had evidently observed him with some care. She described him as sensitive to a fault, physically so frail that he had inspired her compassion, and implied with a disloyalty which should have aroused my suspicions, that Rilke's occasional clashes with le Maître partook rather of those between the proverbial pot de terre et le pot de fer.
        Certainly, if Rilke was all Adèle said he was, he must often have felt jarred at Meudon. Thus, ever since these confidential talks with Adèle, which consisted chiefly of monologues delivered by her without pause whilst she was giving me my breakfast (which I always had alone), or tidying my rooms, or counting my washing, or what not — ever since, I say, I have wondered what Rilke would have to say about le Maître if ever he wrote about him, as I felt sure he would. For one thing was perfectly clear, whatever Adèle alleged he may have had to endure at Meudon, he bore it for a comparatively long time. Rightly or wrongly, moreover, I inferred from some of the woman's remarks that he had already shown signs of severe illness there; and this fact, coupled with the extreme sensitiveness of his nature, probably led her not only to exaggerate the part played by his employment in distressing him, but also to over-estimate the buffettings which the delicate and fragile pot de terre actually received at the hands of the robust and heavy sexagenarian who was Adèle's master.
        At any rate, no hint of any of this appears in Rilke's monograph. Nor even had all Adèle's story been trustworthy, should we have expected to find it there. For Rilke was much too generous and

- p. 46 -
understanding a nature, and too profound in his knowledge of humanity, to allow mere accidents of temper in an over-worked and much lionised artist to influence his interpretation of that artist's life-work.
        How, then, writing as a first-hand witness of Rodin's labours, and as an assessor of Rodin's merits as a sculptor, does Rilke acquit himself?
        He shows no concern about the state of the arts in the Western world, nor does he once complain about the inevitable restrictions of a critic's functions in a society where there are no uniform values and no norm or standard to which art products may be related. He appears to accept the fact that, like artists themselves and the public at large, the critic has to be content with a subjective attitude to art — that is to say, he has to resign himself to passing judgment in a manner which differs in no way from that of the general public, except that it may display a greater amount of learning, mastery of expression and persuasiveness in stating personal preferences and dislikes.
        Thus, without further ado, Rilke plunges headlong into a purely individual appreciation of the Rodin Œuvre and interprets and explains it with the self-same arbitrariness and personal caprice as might any member of the atomised public for whom he writes. He does it, of course, with all the enhanced power, wealth of imagery, colour and seductiveness which his great poetical gifts imply, but the approach is the same in kind.
        The result is a purely personal impression of an exceptionally personal artist. It differs from and is more valuable than the personal impression of Everyman, only because it is Rilke, the sensitive and penetrating poet, who here tells us what Rodin inspired in him. It is no less fanciful and one-sided than Everyman's would have been, and even its imagery is preponderatingly individual. It is also, therefore, no less subjective. Often it sounds as if coming from one using a self-determined language to comment on another also using a self-determined language.
        But let no one suppose either that this is foreign to the tradition of art criticism in recent years, or that there is any intention here to decry it on that account. It is not only permissible and reputable as a method; it is not only hallowed by universally accepted usage; it is, as I have indicated above, the only method which the condition of

- p. 47 -
art itself and of art criticism in the modern world now renders possible. If it may seem to some unsatisfactory in that it is inconclusive, it is no more so than any other art criticism from the pens of so-called experts. It only appears more fancifully individual because of the loftier flights of Rilke's imagination. It only seems, owing to the sheer beauty and ornament of its dress, to carry more conviction than does the work of the professional critic, because Rilke frankly, though tacitly, disavows, as every honest man should, any right to be dogmatic or to make authoritative rulings about matters which are now purely a matter of individual reaction. But this frankness, this refusal to judge authoritatively, is all to his credit. It only throws into more vivid contrast than ever, the specious methods of less candid art critics who, in the present chaos of values, pretend to state objectively the value of art products which elude relatedness.
        Sometimes, for example, I found myself disagreeing with Rilke's comments. I do not think so highly as he does of Le Baiser. I believe that it is a subject which ought either to have been left severely alone or else executed in the style of the Greek vase painters, i.e., with a free and frank acceptance of all that the situation involved. As it stands it strikes me as a feeble compromise between the innocence of pagan voluptuousness and Mrs. Grundy. I also disagree with Rilke about the Eve. But can I attempt a magisterial refutation of his standpoint in each case? — Certainly not! All I could do, in the present state of art criticism, would be to try to make my personal reactions to these two pieces appear more reasonable, or more plausible than his — that is to say, if it were really worth while, I might try to make mine appear the more justifiable point of view in relation to a purely hypothetical majority modern view — that is all it would come to!
        So that his frank observance throughout of an attitude purely personal to the whole Œuvre cannot be met by any authoritative correction. It must either be accepted or rejected in detail according to the temperament of the reader.
        Take, for instance, this: "He [Rodin]," says Rilke, "has created bodies . . . that listen like faces and lift themselves like arms; chains of bodies, garlands and single organism; bodies that listen like faces and lift tendrils and heavy clusters of bodies into which sin's sweetness rises out of the roots of pain."
        Or this: "There are among the works of Rodin hands. . . . Hands

- p. 48 -
that rise, irritated and in wrath; hands whose five bristling fingers seem to bark like the five jaws of a dog of Hell. Hands that walk, sleeping hands, and hands that are awakening; criminal hands, tainted with hereditary disease; and hands that are tired and will do no more, and have lain down in some corner like sick animals that know no one can help them, etc."
        To a Dr. Commaraswamy, trained in the tradition of that hieratic art which is governed by a norm and is addressed to a people homogeneous in their values, passages like these seem to tell more about the commentator than about the art product. To such a man, Rilke would appear to be relying only on those tuned-in to his own wave-length for any approving response to such passages and many more like them. And to such they must act like a streak of lightning, defining with one bright glow all that they have felt and could not express. To the rest, however, they remain purely individual reaction, the chief interest of which could be condensed in these words, "Thus Rilke reacted to Rodin."
        We who read Rilke's Rodin, then, feel that its importance and uniqueness lie chiefly in its disclosure of what Rodin meant to him. It is less a ruling on Rodin than a series of vivid pictures conceived under the empire of Rodin's genius.
        On the other hand, there are passages in the monograph which transcend the particular and cannot but appeal to all men. If I quote one of them, it will help the reader instantly to appreciate how radically it differs from the two previous passages, and enable him more clearly to grasp both my remarks on these two passages and my general disquisition on modern art criticism.
        The fact that the passage I propose to quote does not relate to one of Rodin's works will, I trust, be forgiven; for, if I am right, the very nature of the case excludes the possibility of any such passage; and, in any event, it is only an example to illustrate my meaning,
        Rilke is discussing Rodin's studios, those workshops of higher craftsmanship which he and I knew so well, and he says very truly, "These rooms were like cells, bare, poor, and grey with dust, but their poverty was like the great, grey poverty of God out of which trees bud in March. Something of the spring was in each of these rooms, a silent promise and a deep seriousness."
        Now, here is a magnificent image — magnificent, because like all great artistry, it makes a universal appeal. Everyman in the Europe

- p. 49 -
of Rodin's public knows those last weeks of winter; the bleak nakedness of the earth and the promise of June's luxuriance beneath the cold, denuded surface. To liken Rodin's inhospitable, forbidding studios to Nature in the barren but expectant month of March, was not only an apt simile, illuminating in its verisimilitude, but one which also related the aspect of those studios to the experience of every man, woman and child in the Western world. To all who, unlike Rilke and myself, had not seen those bare dusty rooms, it gave the right to believe they had seen them. Now this is the acme of art. But — and this is significant in view of what has been maintained above — it is great artistry because it is not individual in the sense of being purely personal. It is given in a currency all understand and can value correctly at sight. What is more, all will value this currency at the same rate. No differences of exchange prevent its worth from being instantly and accurately assessed.
        Can we imagine how much more satisfying both art and art criticism would be, if the qualities which make that Rilke passage great art were restored to art production in general?
        It is no use crying over spilt milk. We moderns have to be content with the second or third best, i.e. with an art and art criticism as completely atomised as the general public, with art products and their interpreters which too rarely afford us the delight of a universal appeal. Too seldom will they give us the right of declaring, "Now we know that," though we may never have see it in the flesh. In short, we must continue to enjoy as small groups just those artists and their interpreters to whose wave-length we happen to be tuned in.
        Meanwhile, so long as the present chaotic conditions persist, we must be grateful if our outstanding artists are interpreted for us by men at least of their own stature who, as commentators, recognise the limitations our state of anarchy imposes, who do not pretend to write magisterially and with expertise, but who merely describe the personal état d'âme generated in them by another personal état d'âme, enshrined in a different medium. At all events, if we are suitably atuned, such interpretations can but enhance our own enjoyment of the art of the day. More we cannot ask. It is the maximum possible demand. For this reason, we must feel grateful for Rilke's important monograph. It gives us the maximum that all can expect. To minorities among that mass it will be a key and an initiation.
        One last word. As I have not seen the German essay by Rilke, I

- p. 50 -
am unable to pass any judgment on the present English translation of it by Jessie Lamont and Hans Trausil. Suffice it to say, therefore, that the book is most attractively produced and is, moreover, beautifully illustrated. The products of Rodin's art chosen for this purpose are characteristic enough to represent, by means of twelve typical examples, the whole range of his genius.