Sunday, 22 July 2018
Rodin and Rilke at the British Museum
I went to the Rodin and the art of ancient Greece exhibition at the British Museum (on until 29 July). It's almost impossible to go wrong with an exhibition like this: it's Rodin, it's classical Greek art, it's Rodin's history with the British Museum...what's not to like? To my surprise, I also found that the words of Rainer Maria Rilke were everywhere.
Rilke went to Paris in 1902 to write a monograph on Rodin, and subsequently became his secretary for a time and his friend. (You can read a fascinating excerpt from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett, here.) All over the exhibition, writeups on the artwork were accompanied by Rilke's words on Rodin, often on the specific piece. Sometimes they made up the entirety of the writeup: this was especially moving where Rilke had written about the intensely emotional The Burghers of Calais. No one, it seems, has been able to improve on Rilke's words. This increased immeasurably my enjoyment of an already marvelous exhibition.
Here's what Rilke said on the figure of Pierre de Wissant in The Burghers of Calais:
He created the vague gesture of the man 'passing through life'... As he advances he turns back, not to the town, not to the weeping people, nor to those accompanying him. He turns back to himself ... his hand opens in the air and lets something go, somewhat in the way in which we set free a bird. He is taking leave of all uncertainty, of all happiness still unrealised... This figure, if placed by itself in some old shady garden, would make a monument for all who have died young. (Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902. Translator not named)