Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Clara Westhoff
Paris Vie, 29, rue Cassette
October 13, 1907 (Sunday)
Today I went to see his pictures again; it’s remarkable what an environment they create. Without looking at a particular one, standing in the middle between the two rooms, one feels their presence drawing together into a colossal reality. As if these colors would heal one of indecision once and for all. The good conscience of these reds, these blues, their simple truthfulness, it educates you; and if you stand beneath them as acceptingly as possible, it’s as if they are doing something for you. You also notice, a little more clearly each time, how necessary it was to go beyond love, too; it’s natural after all, to love each of these things as one makes it: but if one shows this, one makes it less well; one judges it instead of saying it. One ceases to be impartial; and the very best – love – stays outside the work, does not enter it, is left aside, untranslated: that’s how the painting of sentiments came about (which is in no way better than the paintings of things). They’d paint: I love this here; instead of painting: here it is. In which case everyone must see for himself whether or not I loved it. This is not shown at all, and some would even insist that love has nothing to do with it. It’s that thoroughly exhausted in the action of making, there is no residue. It may be that this emptying out of love in anonymous work, which produces such pure things, was never achieved as completely as in the work of this old man; his inner nature, having grown mistrustful and cross, helped him to do it. He certainly would not have shown another human being his love, had he been forced to conceive such a love; but with this disposition, which was completely developed now, thanks to his strangeness and insularity, he turned to nature and knew how to swallow back his love for every apple and put it to rest in the painted apple forever. Can you imagine what that is like, and what it’s like to experience this through him?
I'll get to this letter of Rilke's in a sec.
In my early days of writing, writer and poet (also art historian and critic) Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet spoke soft and clear: Go inside yourself. That has stayed with me since those days in the early 1990s, along with William Everson’s Birth of a Poet, and many other writings that focused on a similar theme. Go inside. Go inside the subject, and go inside myself.
"apprehend the very essence of things," eventually resulting in his "object poems". Besides Rodin, perhaps Paul Cézanne had the biggest impact on Rilke and how he viewed art and the world of artistic expression. It was Cézanne who more than any other painter was a bridge between the Impressionists of the late 19th century and the Cubists of the early 20th.
book. The quote that opens this post is in one of the letters. My paraphrase of that paragraph is: When Cézanne painted, he wasn’t saying in his paintings, See how I love the apples; here, love them too. He just . . . loved the apples. That love exists in the paint, in the pulsing colors, in the bold smears and layers laid on by his palette knife, as real as the apples themselves.
Love is attention. What does it take, to spend a life paying attention to apples, arranging them in countless still lifes? He even told his human subjects who sat for paintings: Be an apple. As writers and artists, are we overly worried about production, recognition and accomplishment? What would happen if we just love the subject we are portraying? Pay attention to it so closely that we are it. How can something pure and vibrant not come of that?
I owe a debt of gratitude to Marie Howe for her recent interview in The Writer’s Chronicle (sorry, the interview is not online; it is in the hard copy May/Summer 2010 issue), which inspired this post and the rumblings of many things inside me. She said profound things about poems, among them: "What mattered to me was not a book of poems but a poem. Each poem. One poem. It was a world. You know what happens when you read a true poem. It sees you, you see it. . . . It's love, really. Recognition and love. . . . To write one poem seems to me worth living for."
I leave you with a gallery of Cézanne's apples.
Apples and a Glass
Apples on a Sheet
Still Life with Plaster Cupid
Still Life with Compotier
Apples and Biscuits
Apples and Napkins
Apples and Oranges
Dish of Apples
Still Life with Apples and Pears
Still Life with Apples
Still Life with Apples (2)
Still Life with Apples (3)
Still Life with Apples (4)
Still Life with Apples (5)
Still Life with Soup Tureen
Still Life with Milk Can and Apples
Rilke's letter to Clara found in Art in Theory, 1900-2000, an anthology of changing ideas, Charles Harrison, Paul Wood
All apple paintings found here.
There is a beautiful article about Cézanne's impact on art, at the Smithsonian here.