Rodin – Thought In Art

ONE morning, finding myself with Rodin in his atelier, I stopped before the cast of one of his most impressive works.

It is a young woman whose writhing body seems a prey to some mysterious torment. Her head is bent low, her lips and her eyes are closed, and you would think she slept, did not the anguish in her face betray the conflict of her spirit. The most surprising thing in the figure, however, is that it has neither arms nor legs. It would seem that the sculptor in a moment of discontent with himself had broken them off, and you cannot help regretting that the figure is incomplete. I could not refrain from expressing this feeling to my host.

” What do you mean? ” he cried in astonishment. ” Don’t you see that I left it in that state intentionally? My figure represents Meditation. That ‘s why it has neither arms to act nor legs to walk. Haven’t you noticed that reflection, when persisted in, suggests so many plausible arguments for opposite decisions that it ends in inertia? ”

These words corrected my first impression and I could unreservedly admire the fine symbolism of the figure. I now understood that this woman was the emblem of human intelligence assailed by problems that it cannot solve, haunted by an ideal that it cannot realize, obsessed by the infinite which it can never grasp. The straining of this body marked the travail of thought and its glorious, but vain determination to penetrate those questions which it cannot answer; and the mutilation of its members indicated the insurmountable disgust which contemplative souls feel for actual life.

Nevertheless, this figure recalled a criticism which is often heard on Rodin’s works, and, though without agreeing with it, I submitted it to the Master to find out how he would answer it.

” Literary people,” I said, ” always praise the essential truths expressed in your sculptures. But certain of your censors blame you precisely for having an inspiration which is more literary than plastic. They pretend that you easily win the approbation of writers by providing them with subjects which offer an opening for all their rhetoric. And they declare that art is not the place for so much philosophic ambition.”

” If my modelling is bad,” Rodin replied sharply, ” if I make faults in anatomy, if I misinterpret movement, if I am ignorant of the science which animates marble, the critics are right a hundred times. But if my figures are correct and full of life, with what can they reproach me? What right have they to forbid me to add meaning to form? How can they complain if, over and above technique, I offer them ideas? — if I enrich those forms which please the eye with a definite significance? It is a strange mistake, this, to imagine that the true artist can be content to remain only a skilled workman and that he needs no intelligence. On the contrary, intelligence is indispensable to him for painting and for carving even those figures which seem most lacking in spiritual pretensions and which are only meant to charm the eye. When a good sculptor models a statue, whatever it is, he must first clearly conceive the general idea; then, until his task is ended, he must keep this idea of the whole in his mind in order to subordinate and ally to it every smallest detail of his work. And this is not accomplished without an intense effort of mind and concentration of thought.

What has doubtless led to the common idea that artists have little intelligence is that it seems lacking in many of them in private life. The biographies of painters and sculptors abound in anecdotes of the simplicity of certain masters. It must be admitted that great men who think ceaselessly of their work are frequently absent-minded in daily life. Above all, it must be granted that many very intelligent artists seem narrow because they have not that facility of speech and repartee which, to superficial observers, is the only sign of cleverness.”

” Surely,” I said, ” no one can contest the mental vigor of the great painters and sculptors. But, to return to our question — is there not a sharp line dividing art from literature which the artist should not cross? ”

” I insist that in matters which concern me I can-not stand these limitations,” Rodin answered. ” There is no rule, according to my idea, that can prevent a sculptor from creating a beautiful work.

” What difference does it make whether it is sculpture or literature, provided the public find profit and pleasure in it? Painting, sculpture, literature, music are more closely related than is generally believed. They express all the sentiments of the human soul in the light of nature. It is only the means of expression which vary.

” But if a sculptor, by the means of his art, succeeds in suggesting impressions which are ordinarily only procured by literature or music, why should the world cavil? A publicist lately criticised my Victor Hugo in the Palais Royal, declaring that it was not sculpture, but music. And he naively added that this work reminded him of a Beethoven symphony. Would to Heaven that it were true!

” I do not deny, moreover, that it is useful to reflect upon the differences which separate literary from artistic methods. First of all, literature offers the peculiarity of being able to express ideas without recourse to imagery. For example, it can say : Profound reflection often ends in inaction, without the necessity of figuring a thoughtful woman held in a block of stone.

” And this faculty of juggling with abstractions by means of words gives, perhaps, to literature an advantage over other arts in the domain of thought.

” The next thing to be noticed is that literature develops stories which have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It strings together different events from which it draws a conclusion. It makes people act and shows the consequences of their con-duct. So the scenes that it conjures up gain strength by their sequence, and even have no value except as they make part of the progress of a plot.

” It is not the same with the arts of form. They never represent more than a single phase of an action. That is why painters and sculptors are wrong in taking subjects from writers, as they often do. The artist who interprets a part of a story may be supposed to know the rest of the text. His work must prop itself up on that of the writer; it only acquires all its meaning if it is illuminated by the facts that precede or follow it.

” When the painter Delaroche represents, after Shakespeare, or after his pale imitator, Casimir Delavigne, the Children of Edward (les Enfants d’Edouard) clinging to each other, it is necessary to know, in order to be interested, that they are the heirs to a throne, that they have been imprisoned, and that hired murderers, sent by the usurper, are just coming to assassinate them.

” When Delacroix, that genius whose pardon I beg for citing him next to the very mediocre Delaroche, takes from Lord Byron’s poem the subject of Don Juan’s Shipwreck (Naufrage de Don Juan) and shows us a boat in a storm-swept sea, where the sailors are engaged in drawing bits of paper from a hat, it is necessary, in order to understand this scene, to know that these unhappy creatures are starving and are drawing lots to see which of them shall serve as food for the others.

” These two artists, in treating literary subjects, commit the fault of painting pictures which do not carry in themselves their complete meaning.

” Yet, while that of Delaroche is bad because the drawing is cold, the color hard, the feeling melodramatic, that of Delacroix is admirable because this boat really pitches on the glaucous waves, because hunger and distress convulse the faces of the shipwrecked, because the sombre fury of the coloring announces some horrible crime — because, in short, if Byron’s tale is found mutilated in the picture, in revenge, the fiery, wild, and sublime soul of the painter is certainly wholly there.

” The moral of these two examples is this; when, after mature reflection, you have laid down prohibitions which seem most reasonable in the matter of art, you will rightly reproach the mediocre man because he does not submit to them, but you will be surprised to observe that the man of genius in-fringes them almost with impunity.”

Roving round the atelier while Rodin was talking, my eyes found a cast of his Ugolin.

It is a figure of majestic realism. It does not at all recall Carpeaux’s group; if possible, it is even more pathetic. In Carpeaux’s work, the Pisan count, tortured by madness, hunger, and sorrow at the sight of his dying children, gnaws his two fists. Rodin has pictured the drama further advanced. The children of Ugolin are dead; they lie on the ground, and their father, whom the pangs of hunger have changed into a beast, drags himself on his hands and knees above their bodies. He bends above their flesh — but, at the same time, he turns away his head. There is a fearful con-test within him between the brute seeking food and the thinking being, the loving being, who has a horror of this monstrous sacrifice. Nothing could be more poignant.

” There,” said I, ” is an example to add to that of the shipwreck in confirmation of your words; it is certain that it is necessary to have read the Divine Comedy in order to represent the circumstances of Ugolin’s torment — but even if the stanzas of Dante were unknown, it would be impossible to remain unmoved before the terrible inner conflict which is expressed in the attitude and the features of your figure.”

” It is true,” Rodin added, ” when a literary subject is so well known the artist can treat it and yet expect to be understood. Yet it is better, in my opinion, that the works of painters and sculptors should contain all their interest in them-selves. Art can offer thought and imagination without recourse to literature. Instead of illustrating scenes from poems, it need only use plain symbols which do not require any written text. Such has generally been my own method.”

What my host indicated, his sculptures gathered around us proclaimed in their mute language. There I saw the casts of several of his works which are most full of ideas.

I began to study them one by one.

I admired the reproduction of the Pensee, which is at the Musee du Luxembourg. Who does not recall this singular work?

It is the head of a woman, very young, very fine, with features of miraculous subtlety and delicacy. Her head is bent and aureoled with a reverie which makes it appear almost immaterial. The edges of a light coif which shadow her forehead seem the wings of her dreams. But her neck and even her chin are still held in the heavy, massive block of marble from which they cannot get free.

The symbol is easily understood. Thought expands within the breast of inert matter, and illumines it with the reflection of her splendor — but she vainly endeavors to escape from the heavy shackles of reality.

Next I turned to Illusion, daughter of Icarus (l’Illusion, fille d’Icare). It is the figure of a youthful angel. As she flew with her great wings through space, a rude blast of wind dashed her to earth, and her charming face was crushed against a rock. But her wings, unbroken, still beat the and, immortal, she will rise again, take flight again, fall again to earth,, and this to the end of time. Untiring hopes, eternal disappointments of illusion!

Now my attention was attracted by a third sculpture, the Centauress. The human bust of the fabulous creature yearns despairingly towards an end which her longing arms can never attain ; but the hind hoofs, grappling the soil, are fast there, and the heavy horse’s flanks, almost crouched in the mud, cannot kick free. It is the frightful opposition of the poor monster’s two natures — an image of the soul, whose heavenly impulses rest miserably captive to the bodily clay.

” In themes of this kind,” Rodin said, ” the thought, I believe, is easily read. They awaken the imagination of the spectators without any out-side help. And yet, far from confining it in narrow limits, they give it rein to roam at will. That is, according to me, the role of art. The form which it creates ought only to furnish a pretext for the unlimited development of emotion.”

At this instant I found myself before a group in marble representing Pygmalion and his statue. The sculptor passionately embraces his work, which awakes to life within his arms.

” I am going to surprise you,” said Rodin, suddenly; ” I will show you the first sketch for this composition,” and he led me towards a plaster cast.

I was indeed surprised. This had nothing what-ever to do with the story of Pygmalion. It was a faun, horned and hairy, who clutched a panting nymph. The general lines were about the same, but the subject was very different. Rodin seemed amused at my silent astonishment.

This revelation was somewhat disconcerting to me ; for, contrary to all that I had just heard and seen, my host proved himself indifferent, in certain cases, to the subject. He watched me keenly.

” To sum it up,” he said, ” you must not attribute too much importance to the themes that you interpret. Without doubt, they have their value and help to charm the public; but the principal care of the artist should be to form living muscles. The rest matters little.” Then, suddenly, as he guessed my confusion, he added, You must not think that my last words contradict what I said before.

” If I say that a sculptor can confine himself to representing palpitating flesh, without preoccupying himself with subject, this does not mean that I exclude thought from his work; if I declare that he need not seek symbols, this does not signify that I am a partisan of an art deprived of spiritual significance.

” But, to speak truly, all is idea, all is symbol. So the form and the attitude of a human being reveal the emotions of its soul. The body always expresses the spirit whose envelope it is. And for him who can see, the nude offers the richest meaning. In the majestic rhythm of the outline, a great sculptor, a Phidias, recognizes the serene harmony shed upon all nature by the divine wisdom; a simple torso, calm, balanced, radiant with strength and grace, can make him think of the all-powerful mind which governs the world.

” A lovely landscape does not appeal only by the agreeable sensations that it inspires, but by the ideas that it awakens. The lines and the colors do not move you in themselves, but by the profound meaning that is in them. In the silhouette of trees, in the line of a horizon, the great landscape painters, Ruysdael, Cuyp, Corot, Theodore Rousseau, saw a meaning— grave or gay, brave or discouraged, peaceful or troubled — according to their characters.

” This is because the artist, full of feeling, can imagine nothing that is not endowed like himself. He suspects in nature a great consciousness like his own. There is not a living organism, not an inert object, not a cloud in the sky, not a green shoot in the meadow, which does not hold for him the secret of the great power hidden in all things.

“Look at the masterpieces of art. All this beauty comes from the thought, the intention which their creators believed they could see in the universe. Why are our Gothic cathedrals so beautiful? It is because in all their presentment of life, in the human images which adorn their portals, and even in the plants which flourish in their capitals, you can discover a trace of the divine love. Those gentle craftsmen of the Middle Ages saw infinite goodness shining everywhere. And, with their charming simplicity, they have thrown reflections of this loving-kindness even on the faces of their demons, to whom they have lent a kindly malice , and an air almost of relationship to the angels.

” Look at any picture by a master — a Titian, a Rembrandt, for example. In all Titian’s seigneurs you notice a proud energy which, without doubt, animated himself. His opulent, nude women offer themselves to adoration, sure of their domination. His landscapes, beautified with majestic trees and crimsoned with triumphant sunsets, are not less haughty than his people: over all creation he has set a reign of aristocratic pride; it was the constant thought of his genius.

” Another kind of pride illumines the wrinkled, smoke-dried face of the artisans whom Rembrandt painted ; he ennobled the smoky lofts and little windows glazed with bottle ends ; he illumined with sudden beauty these flat, rustic landscapes, dignified the roofs of thatch which his etching-point caressed with such pleasure on the copperplate. It was the beautiful courage of the humble, the holiness of things common but piously beloved, the grandeur of the humility which accepts and fulfils its destiny worthily, which attracted him.

” And the mind of the great artist is so active, so profound, that it shows itself in any subject. It does not even need a whole figure to express it. Take any fragment of a masterpiece, you will recognize the character of the creator in it. Compare, if you will, the hands painted in two portraits by Titian and Rembrandt. The hands by Titian will be masterful; those by Rembrandt will be modest and courageous. In these limited bits of painting all the ideals of these masters are contained.”

As I listened to this profession of faith in the spirituality of art an objection rose to my lips.

” Master,” I said, ” no one doubts that pictures and sculptures can suggest the most profound ideas; but many sceptics pretend that the painters and sculptors never had these ideas, and that it is we ourselves who put them into their works. They believe that artists work by pure instinct, like the sibyl who from her tripod rendered the oracles of God, without herself knowing what she prophesied. Your words clearly prove that your hand, at least, is ever guided by the mind, but is it so with all the masters? Have they always put thought into their work? Have they always had this clear idea of what their admirers found in them? ”

” Let us understand each other,” Rodin said, laughing. ” There are certain admirers of such complicated brain that they attribute most unexpected intentions to the artist. We are not talking of these. But you may rest assured that the masters are always conscious of what they do.” And tossing his head, ” If the sceptics of whom you speak only knew what energy it takes for the artist to translate, even feebly, what he thinks and feels with the greatest strength, they would not doubt that all that appears shining forth from a picture or sculpture was intended.” A few moments later he continued: ” In short, the purest masterpieces are those in which one finds no inexpressive waste of forms, lines, and colors, but where all, absolutely all, expresses thought and soul.

” Yet it may happen that when the masters animate the Nature of their ideals, they delude them-selves. It may be that it is governed by an indifferent force or by a will whose design our intelligence is incapable of penetrating. At least, the artist, in representing the universe as he imagines it, formulates his own dreams. In nature he celebrates his own soul. And so he enriches the soul of humanity. For in coloring the material world with his spirit he reveals to his delighted fellow-beings a thousand unsuspected shades of feeling.

He discovers to them riches in themselves until then unknown. He gives them new reasons for loving life, new inner lights to guide them.

” He is, as Dante said of Virgil, ` their guide, their master, and their friend: “