“Mystery” – from Rodin’s “Art” Chapter IX

or The First Cyprian Commandment

photo by Franky Vivid

photo by Franky Vivid

[Paul Gsell, author of the book, has gone to visit Master Rodin]

1One morning, when I had gone to Meudon to see Rodin, I was told in the entrance hall of the house that he was ill and that he was resting in his room.

2I was already leaving when a door opened at the top of the stairs and I heard the master call me.

3”Come on up; I would be pleased!”

4I hurried to respond to this invitation, and I found Rodin in his robe, his hair uncombed, his feet in slippers, in front of a good wood fire (it was November).

Fallen Caryatid by Rodin

Fallen Caryatid by Rodin

5”This is the time of year when I allow myself to be sick,” he told me.

“Oh yes! During all the rest of the year, I have so much work, so many occupations, so many worries, that it is totally impossible for me to breathe an instant. 6But fatigue accumulates, and although I fight obstinately to overcome it, when the end of the year approaches, I am forced to stop my work for a few days.”

7While receiving these confidences, I looked at the wall where there was a large cross to which was nailed a Christ, three-quarters life-size.

8It was a painted sculpture of a very beautiful character.  The divine body hung like a sublime rag on the instrument of execution.  9Its flesh was bruised, bloodless, greenish.  The head had dropped and was painfully resigned. 10A god so dead it seemed he would never be resurrected.  The most complete consummation of the mysterious sacrifice.

Danaide

Danaide

11”You are admiring my crucifix!” Rodin said to me.  “It is prodigious isn’t it?  Its realism recalls the one in the chapel of Santisimo Cristo in Burgos, that image that is so moving, so terrifying — shall we say the word, so horrible — that it is taken for a real corpse that has been stuffed.

12”In truth, the Christ here is much less savage. 13How pure and harmonious are the lines of the body and the arms!”

14Seeing my host in ecstasy, I had the idea of asking him if he was religious.

15”That depends on what you mean by the word,” he answered.  16”If by religious you mean a man who strongly adheres to certain practices, who bows before certain dogmas, obviously I am not religious.  17Who is any more in our time?  Who is willing to abdicate his critical mind and his reason?

Erotic Sketch by Rodin

Erotic Sketch by Rodin

18”But it is my opinion, religion is something besides the reciting of a credo.  19It is the sentiment of everything that is unexplained and no doubt inexplicable in the world.  20It is the adoration of the unknown Force that maintains the universal laws and that preserves the types of beings.  21It is the suspicion of whatever in Nature lies beyond our senses, the suspicion of the whole immense domain of things that neither they eyes of our bodies nor even those of our spirits are capable of seeing.  22Then again, it is the impetus of our soul (la conscience) toward infinity, eternity, toward boundless knowledge and love; 23these are perhaps illusory expectations, but, already in this life, they make our thoughts flutter as if they had wings.

24”In this sense, I am religious.”

25Now Rodin was following the undulating and rapid flames of wood burning in the fireplace.

26He continued: “If religion did not exist, I would have felt the need to invent it.  

27”True artists are, then, the most religious of mortals.

Erotic Sketch by Rodin

Erotic Sketch by Rodin

28”People believe that we live only by our senses and that the world of appearances is enough for us.  29People take us for children who become inebriated by iridescent colors and who play with forms as if with dolls.  30People understand us poorly.  31Lines and shades are only signs of hidden realities for us.  32Beneath the surface [of things], our gaze plunges to the spirit, and then when we reproduce contours, we enrich them with the spiritual content they enclose.

33”The artist worthy of the name must express the entire truth of Nature, not only the truth of the outside, but also, and above all, that of the inside.

34”When a good sculptor models a human torso, he represents not only the muscles but also the life that moves them.  35He represents more than the life; he represents the power that formed them and granted them grace, vigor, amorous charm, or the untamed fire.

36”Michelangelo makes the creative force thunder in all living flesh.  Luca della Robbia makes it smile divinely.  37So each sculptor, according to his temperament, attributes a tragic or very sweet soul to Nature.

38”The landscape painter perhaps goes further.  39It is not only in animated beings that he perceives the universal soul.  It is in the trees, the bushes, the plains, the hills.  40What to other men is only wood and earth appears to a great landscape painter as the face of an immense beaing.  41Corot saw bounty in the trees, the grassy meadows, and the surface of lakes.  Millet saw in nature suffering and resignation.

42”Everywhere the great artist listens to the spirit answering his own spirit.  Where will you find a more religious man?

Iris, Messenger of the Gods

Iris, Messenger of the Gods

43”Does not the sculptor perform an act of adoration when he perceives the grandiose character of the forms he studies; when he knows how to extract the eternal type of each being from among the momentary lines; when he seems to discern in the very bosom of the divinity, the immutable models after which all creatures are formed?  44Look, for instance, at the masterpieces of Egyptian sculpture, either human or animal figures, and 45tell me whether the essential contours does not produce the troubling effect of a sacred hymn.  46Every artist who has the gift of generalizing forms, that is to say, of stressing their logic without emptying them of their life, expresses a similar religious emotion.  47For he communicates to us the thrill he himself felt in front of immortal truths.”

48”Something like the trembling of Faust,” I said, “visiting that strange realm of Mothers, where he converses with the undying heroines of the great poets and where he contemplates all the generative ideas of terrestrial realities, impassible in their majesty.”

The Master with his The Creation of Man

The Master with his The Creation of Man

49”What a magnificent scene,” exclaimed Rodin, “and what breadth of vision in Goethe!”

50He continued: “Mystery is, moreover, like the atmosphere in which very beautiful works of art bathe.

51”They express, in effect, everything that genius feels when confronting Nature.  52They represent it with all the clarity, with all the magnificence that a human brain is able to discover.  53But on the other hand, they inevitably are stopped by the immense Unknowable that completely surrounds the very small sphere of the known.  54For in the final analysis, we feel and understand only the tips of things presented to us in this world that are able to impress our senses and our souls.  55But everything else continues into infinite darkness.  56And even though they are close at hand, a thousand things are hidden because we are not capable of grasping them.”

57Since Rodin was silent a moment, I contented myself with reciting the verses of Victor Hugo:

We only see one side of things:

The other is plunged into the night of a terrifying mystery.

Man submits to the effect without knowing the causes:

Whatever he sees is shallow, useless and fleeting.[1]

58”The poet has said it better than I,” said Rodin smiling.

59He continued: “Beautiful works of art, which are the highest testimonies of intelligence and of human sincerity, say everything that one can say about man and about the world.  60Besides, they make us understand that there is something else that one cannot know.

Concert Champêtre by Giorgione

Concert Champêtre by Giorgione

61”Every masterpiece has this mysterious characteristic.  One always finds in it a little bewilderment.  62Remember the question mark that hovers over all the paintings of Leonardo.  But I am wrong to choose this great mystic as an example.  63With him my thesis is verified too easily.  64Let us take instead the sublime Concert Champêtre by Giorgione.  This expresses all the sweet joy of life, but to this is added a sort of melancholy inebriation.  65What is human joy?  Where does it come from?  Where is it going?  The enigma of existence!

The Gleaners, by Jean-François Millet

The Gleaners, by Jean-François Millet

66“Let us also take, if you like, The Gleaners by Millet.  One of these women who toils horribly under the torrid sun straightens up and looks at the horizon.  67And we seem to understand that in this coarse face a question has suddenly become conscious (la conscience): ‘What’s the use?’”

68“There lies the mystery that hovers over the whole work.

69“What good is the law that chains creatures to existence only to make them suffer?  70What good is this eternal lure that makes them love life even though it is essentially sad?  Anguishing problem!

The Parthenon's Three Graces from the West pediment

The Parthenon’s Three Graces from the West pediment

71“It is not only the masterpieces of Christian civilization that produce this mysterious impression.  72One experiences it also before the masterpieces of antique Art, before the Three Fates from the Parthenon, for example.  73I call them Fates because this is the conventional appellation although in the opinion of scholars these statues personify other goddesses.  It matters little, anyway!  74There are only three seated women, but their pose is so serene, so majestic, that they seem to participate in something grand that we do not see.  75Over them reigns, in effect, the great mystery: immaterial, eternal Reason obeyed by all Nature.  76The three women are its (Reason’s) celestial servants.

77“So all the masters reach the private enclosure of the Unknowable.  Some of them lamentably bruise their foreheads here.  Others, who have a more optimistic imagination, think they hear from behind the wall the songs of melodious birds, who populate the secret orchard.”

78I listened attentively to my host, who was surrendering to me his most precious thoughts on his art.  79It seemed that fatigue had sentenced his body to inaction before this fireplace with its dancing flames but had left his mind freer and invited it to launch itself uninhibitedly into dreaming.

80I brought the conversation back to his own works.

81“Master,” I said to him, “you talk about other artists, but you keep quiet about yourself.  82You are, however, one of those who has put the most mystery into his art.  In the least of your sculptures, one recognizes something of the torment of the invisible and the inexplicable.”

St John the Baptist

St John the Baptist

83“What, my dear Gsell!” he said, darting me an ironic look.  84“If I have translated certain feelings in my works, it is perfectly unnecessary for me to detail them in words, for I am not a poet but a sculptor.  And one should be able to read them easily in my sculptures.  Otherwise I might as well not have experienced these feelings.”

85“You are right.  It is up to the public to discover them.  So I will tell you about the mysteriousness I believe I have observed in your inspiration.  You will say if I saw correctly.

86“It seems to me that what has preoccupied you above all in the human being is the strange discomfort of the soul bound inside the body; 87in all your statues it is the same leap of the spirit toward the dream, in spite of the weightiness and cowardliness of the flesh.

88“In your Saint John the Baptist the heavy and almost crude organism is tensed and

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais

seemingly uplifted by a divine mission that surpasses all earthly bounds.  89In your Burghers of Calais, the soul, longing for a sublime immortality, drags the hesitant body to the execution and seems to shout the famous saying, ‘You tremble, flesh!’  90In your Thinker, meditation, which desires in vain to embrace the absolute, contracts the athletic body under its terrible effort, bends it, curls it up, crushes it.  91Even in your Kiss, the bodies quiver anxiously as if they feel in advance the impossibility of realizing the indissoluble union desired by their souls.  92In your Balzac, genius, haunted by gigantic visions, tosses the ailing body about like a rag, forces it to insomnia, and condemns it to forced labor.

detail of The Kiss

detail of The Kiss

93“Is this right, master?”

94“I will not say no,” said Rodin, who pensively caressed his long beard.

95“And in your busts you have perhaps shown even more of this impatience of the spirit with the chains of matter.

96“Almost all recall the beautiful verse by the poet:

Just as the bird in taking flight bends the branch,

So his soul has broken his body![2]

97“You have represented writers with heads bowed as if by the weight of their thoughts.  98As for your portraits of artists, they stare straight before them at Nature, but they are haggard because their dreams lead them far beyond what they see, far beyond what they can express!

99“That bust of a woman at the Musée du Luxembourg[3], perhaps the most beautiful one you have sculpted, leans and wavers, as if the soul felt dizzy upon plunging into the abyss of dream.

The Bust of Mme. Vicuña

The Bust of Mme. Vicuña

100“And, finally, your busts have often reminded me of the portraits by Rembrandt.  101For the Dutch master has also made visible this call of the infinite by lighting the forehead of his personages with a light that falls from above.”

102“Compare me with Rembrandt!  What sacrilege!” Rodin cried sharply.  “With Rembrandt, the colossus of Art!  What are you thinking of, my friend!  103We should prostrate ourselves before Rembrandt and never compare anyone with him!

104“But, in observing my works, you have correctly put your finger on the leap of the soul toward the perhaps chimerical realm of truth and of boundless liberty.  105There lies, indeed, the mystery that moves me.”

106A moment later he asked me:

“Are you convinced now that Art is a kind of religion?”

“Without doubt,” I answered.

107Then, mischievously, he said: “It is important, however, to remember that the first commandment of this religion for those want to practice it is to model well an arm, a torso, or a thigh!”

Suggested Reading:

Art, Conversations with Paul Gsell

Rodin, Images of Desire


[1] Victor Hugo, “A Villequier,” in his Les Contemplations, Book IV, lines 41-44

[2] Victor Hugo, “Fantômes” in his Les Orientales, XXXIII, lines 19-30

[3] The Bust of Mme. Vicuña

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About frankyvivid

Franky Vivid is a poet and burlesque producer from Chicago. He is married to burlesque star Michelle L’amour, with whom he co-founded the international literary salon Naked Girls Reading in 2009. For four years he was the curator of the Everleigh Social Club in Chicago, an experiment in using Cyprianism to inform the operation of a private arts club. Vivid is a Freemasonic Knight Templar and founder of Paradise Garden #7. For more on Cyprianism and a continuing discussion about elements of The Seed and its underlying Philosophy and Practice, visit him at www.cyprianism.com.
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One Response to “Mystery” – from Rodin’s “Art” Chapter IX

  1. My favorite sculpture of his is Adam–for whom the model was a circus strongman named Caillou “The Man with the Iron Jaw”–now I have to go dig out my poem about it.

    Like

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