Rodin – Mystery In Art

ONE morning, when I arrived at Rodin’s house at Meudon I found the master in his dressing-gown, his hair in disorder, his feet in slippers, sitting before a good wood fire, for it was November.

” It is the time of the year,” he said, ” when I allow myself to be ill. All the rest of the time I have so much work, so many occupations, so many cares, that I have not a single instant to breathe. But fatigue accumulates, and though I fight stubbornly to conquer it, yet towards the end of the year I am obliged to stop work for a few days.”

Even as I listened to his words my eyes rested upon a great cross on the wall, on which hung the Christ, a figure three-quarters life-size. It was a very fine painted carving of most painful realism. The body hanging from the tree looked so dead that it could never come to life — the most complete consummation of the mysterious sacrifice.

” You admire my crucifix!” Rodin said, following my glance. ” It is amazing, is it not? Its realism recalls that one in the Chapel del Santisimo Christo in Burgos — that image so moving, so terrifying, yes—so horrible — that it looks like a real human corpse. This figure of the Christ is much less brutal. See how pure and harmonious are the lines of the body and arms!”

Seeing my host lost in contemplation, I ventured to ask him if he was religious.

” It is according to the meaning that you give to the word,” he answered. “If you mean by religious the man who follows certain practices, who bows before certain dogmas, I am evidently not religious.

” But, to me, religion is more than the mumbling of a creed. It is the meaning of all that is unexplained and doubtless inexplicable in the world. It is the adoration of the unknown force which maintains the universal laws and which preserves the types of all beings ; it is the surmise of all that in nature which does not fall within the domain of sense, of all that immense realm of things which neither the eyes of our body, nor even those of our spirit can see ; it is the impulse of our conscience towards the infinite, towards eternity, towards unlimited knowledge and love — promises perhaps illusory, but which in this life give wings to our thoughts. In this sense I am religious.” Rodin followed the rapid flickering flames of the fire for a moment, and then continued: ” If religion did not exist, I should have had to invent it. In short, true artists are the most religious of men.

” It is a general belief that we live only through our senses, and that the world of appearances suffices us. We are taken for children who, intoxicated with changing colors, amuse themselves with the shapes of things as with dolls. We are misunderstood. Lines and colors are only to us the symbols of hidden realities. Our eyes plunge beneath the surface to the meaning of things, and when afterwards we reproduce the form, we endow it with the spiritual meaning which it covers.

” An artist worthy of the name should express all the truth of nature, not only the exterior truth, but also, and above all, the inner truth.

” When a good sculptor models a torso, he not only represents the muscles, but the life which animates them— more than the life, the force that fashioned them and communicated to them, it may be, grace or strength, or amorous charm, or indomitable will.

” In the works of Michael Angelo, the creative force seems to rumble; in those of Luca della Robbia it smiles divinely. So each sculptor, following his temperament, lends to nature a soul either terrible or gentle.

” The landscape painter, perhaps, goes even further. It is not only in living beings that he sees the reflection of the universal soul; it is in the trees, the bushes, the valleys, the hills. What to other men is only wood and earth appears to the great landscapist like the face of a great being. Corot saw kindness abroad in the trunks of the trees, in the grass of the fields, in the mirroring water of the lakes. But there Millet read suffering and resignation.

” Everywhere the great artist hears spirit answer to his spirit. Where, then, can you find a more religious man?

” Does not the sculptor perform his act of ado-ration when he perceives the majestic character of the forms that he studies? — when, from the midst of fleeting lines, he knows how to extricate the eternal type of each being? — when he seems to discern in the very breast of the divinity the immutable models on which all living creatures are moulded? Study, for example, the masterpieces of the Egyptian sculptors, either human or animal figures, and tell me if the accentuation of the essential lines does not produce the effect of a sacred hymn. Every artist who has the gift of generalizing forms, that is to say, of accenting their logic without depriving them of their living reality, provokes the same religious emotion; for he communicates to us the thrill he himself felt before the immortal verities.”

” Something,” I said, ” like the trembling of Faust when he visited that strange Kingdom of the Mothers, where he talked with the imperishable heroines of the great poets and beheld all the generative ideas of terrestrial realities.”

” What a magnificent scene! ” Rodin cried, and what a breadth of vision Goethe had! ” He continued: ” Mystery is, moreover, like a kind of atmosphere which bathes the greatest works of the masters.

” They express, indeed, all that genius feels in the presence of Nature; they represent Nature with all the clearness, with all the magnificence which a human being can discover in her; but they also fling themselves against that immense Unknown which ,everywhere envelops our little world of the known. For, after all, we only feel and conceive those things which are patent to us and which impress our minds and our senses. But all the rest is plunged in infinite obscurity. Even a thousand things which should be clear to us are hidden because we are not organized to seize them.”

Rodin stopped, and I recalled the following lines of Victor Hugo, which I repeated:

“Nous ne voyons jamais qu’un seul cote des choses ; L’autre plonge en la nuit d’un mystere effrayant; L’homme subit l’effet sans connaitre les causes; Tout ce qu’il voit est court, inutile et fuyant.”

” The poet has put it better than I,” Rodin said, smiling, and he continued: ” Great works of art, which are the highest proof of human intelligence and sincerity, say all that can be said on man and on the world, and, besides, they teach that there is something more that cannot be known.

” Every great work has this quality of mystery. You always find a little fine frenzy.’ Recall the note of interrogation which hovers over all of Leonardo da Vinci’s pictures. But I am wrong to choose that great mystic as an example, for he proves my thesis too easily. Let us rather take the Concert Champetre by Giorgione. Here is all the sweet joy of life, but added to that there is a kind of melancholy intoxication. What is human joy? Whence comes it? Where does it go? The puzzle of existence !

” Again, let us take, if you will, The Gleaners, by Millet. One of these women who toil so hard beneath the blazing sun rises and looks away to the horizon. And we feel that in that head a question has flashed from the submerged mind: What is the meaning of it all?

” That is the mystery that floats over all great work. What is the meaning of the law which chains these creatures to existence only to make them suffer? What is the meaning of this eternal enticement which makes them love life, however sad it is? Oh, agonizing problem !

” Yet it is not only the masterpieces of Christian civilization which produced this impression of mystery. It is felt before the masterpieces of antique art, before the Three Fates of the Parthenon, for example. I call them the Fates because it is the accepted name, though in the opinion of many students they are other goddesses; it makes little difference either way! They are only three women seated, but their pose is so serene, so august, that they seem to be taking part in something of enormous import that we do not see. Over them reigns the great mystery, the immaterial, eternal Reason whom all nature obeys, and of whom they are themselves the celestial servants.

” So, all the masters advance to the barrier which parts us from the Unknowable. Certain among them have cruelly wounded their brows against it; others, whose imagination is more cheerful, imagine that they hear through that wall the melodious songs of the birds which people the secret orchard.”

I listened attentively to my host, who was giving me his most precious thoughts on his art. It seemed that the fatigue which had condemned his body to rest before that hearth where the flames were leaping had left his spirit, on the contrary, more free, and had tempted it to fling itself passionately into dreams. I led the talk to his own works.

” Master,” I said, ” you speak of other artists, but you are silent about yourself. Yet you are one of those who have put into their art most mystery. The torment of the invisible and of the inexplicable is seen in even the least of your sculptures.”

” Ah! my dear Gsell,” he said; throwing me a glance of irony, ” if I have expressed certain feelings in my works, it is utterly useless for me to try to put them into words, for I am not a poet, but a sculptor, and they ought to be easily read in my statues ; if not, I might as well not have experienced the feelings.”

” You are right; it is for the public to discover them. So I am going to tell you all the mystery that I have found in your inspiration. You will tell me if I have seen rightly. It seems to me that what has especially interested you in humanity is that strange uneasiness of the soul bound to the body.

” In all your statues there is the same impulse of the spirit towards the ideal, in spite of the weight and the cowardice of the flesh.

” In your Saint John the Baptist, a heavy, almost gross body is strained, uplifted by a divine mission which outruns all earthly limits. In your Bourgeois de Calais, the soul enamoured of immortality drags the hesitant body to its martyrdom, while it seems to cry the words, ` Thou tremblest, vile flesh!’

” In your Penseur, meditation, in its terrible effort to embrace the absolute, contracts the athletic body, bends it, crushes it. In your Balser, the bodies tremble as though they felt, in advance, the impossibility of realizing that indissoluble union desired by their souls. In your Balzac, genius, haunted by gigantic visions, shakes the sick body, dooms it to insomnia, and condemns it to the labor of a galley-slave. Am I right, master? ”

” I do not contradict you,” Rodin answered, stroking his long beard thoughtfully.

” And in your busts, even more perhaps, you have shown this impatience of the spirit against the chains of matter. Almost all recall the lines of the poet :

“Ainsi qu’en s’envolant l’oiseau courbe la branche, Son ame avait brise son corps!’

” You have represented all the writers with the head bent, as if beneath the weight of their thoughts. As for your artists, they gaze straight at nature, but they are haggard because their reverie draws them far beyond what they see, far beyond all they can express.

” That bust of a woman at the Musee du Luxembourg, perhaps the most beautiful that you have carved, bows and vacillates as if the soul were seized with giddiness upon plunging into the abyss of dreams.

” To sum it up, your busts often recall Rembrandt’s portraits, for the Dutch master has also made plain this call of the infinite, by lighting the brow of his personages by a light which falls from above.”

” To compare me with Rembrandt, what sacrilege ! ” Rodin cried quickly. ” To Rembrandt, the Colossus of art! Think of it, my friend! Let us bow before Rembrandt, and never set any one beside him!

” But you have concluded justly in observing in my works the stirrings of the soul towards that kingdom, perhaps chimerical, of unlimited truth and liberty. There, indeed, is the mystery that moves me.” A moment later he asked : ” Are you convinced now that art is a kind of religion? ”

” Yes,” I answered.

Then he added, with some malice: ” It is very necessary to remember, however, that the first commandment of this religion, for those who wish to practise it, is to know how to model a torso, an arm, or a leg! “