Rainer Maria Rilke, the brilliant early 20th century poet, was about 30 years younger than his mentor August Rodin, the brilliant late 19th century sculptor when they met and became fast friends. The friendship lasted many volatile years and affected Rilke profoundly. He had wanted to see like a visual artist and believed that’s the ability Rodin gave him.
You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and August Rodin
by Rachel Corbett
2016 / 310 pages – Kindle
rating – 8.5 / art history/biography
I suppose this is basically the dual biographies of the self-centered artists, the moody Rilke and the half-blind Rodin, but interspersed in the narrative related to their lives and the dynamics of their relationship is the story of the French art scene during the turn of the century including the old academy and Salon people of Paris and the new impressionists with a sprinkling of the German writers and philosophers mixed in.
Rodin’s early teacher – “One looks with the eyes, Lecoq had taught him, but one sees with the heart.” (p. 8) And Rodin grounded his art “in life in all its unexceptional misery.” (p. 10).
Rodin: “ ‘Where did I learn to understand sculpture? In the woods by looking at the trees, along roads by observing the formation of clouds . . . everywhere except in schools.’ ” (p. 12)
“Once Rodin had discovered his task— to express inner feelings through outward movement— his work departed further from that of his historical heroes and began to fall into step with the flux and anxiety of the rapidly modernizing world around him.” (p. 14)
And the German philosopher Theodor Lipps :
Empathy explained why people sometimes describe the experience of “losing themselves” in a powerful work of art. Maybe their ears deafen to the sounds around them, the hair rises on the backs of their necks or they lose track of the passage of time. Something produces a “gut feeling” or triggers a flood of memory, like Proust’s madeleine. When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body. (p. 22)
Camille Claudel the young sculptress with whom Rodin fell in love at the age of 42.
And then there’s Rilke – an early influence was Leo Tolstoy but that man was in his spiritual days then and was not at all welcoming. And there’s Clara Westhoff, Rilke’s wife and lover plus Clara’s friend Paula Becker, his friend and lover and Lou Andreas-Salome, a psychoanalyst and author – as well as a lover. The Duchesse Claire de Choiseul (the American Claire Codert) and many other women who were involved in his life.
Rilke told Rodin that he wanted to experience the world through the point of view of a visual artist. (p. 67).
Rilke studied everyone looking for input on how to see and how to master his emotions. Rodin studied no one and nothing except his subjects.
The book is as much about the creativity of those two very different personalities in that intense environment and I really appreciated those aspects more than the ins and outs of their personal lives. It felt like the book bogged down a bit in the purely biographical sections but … those have to be included.
The title of Corbett’s work, “You Must Change Your Life” is the last line of the famous poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” which was inspired by some statue of that god of which only the torso remained – the head and limbs broken off. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/archaic-torso-apollo
Corbett writes nicely – pretty much staying out of the way and letting the story speak for itself.