Poetry in sculpture: Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin


Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems creatively expressed ideas that are hard to put into words, and his writings on the work of sculptor Auguste Rodin glorified their skill at creating tiny surfaces that reflect light to bring sculptures to life.


The poet’s apparent hero worship of Rodin’s sculpting talents is of great interest to Dr Nicholas Reynolds, a Lecturer in Modern Languages and Literatures at Trinity University, Texas.  But it was a turbulent relationship that led to a final break in 1913, which echoes one of Rilke’s prose stories that suggests that two masters cannot be in the same room.


Read the original chapter: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-74470-0_7


Listen to more about Dr Reynolds work in a previous episode here


Image source: Adobe Stock / bbourdages





Hello and welcome to ResearchPod. Thank you for listening and joining us today. In this episode, we’ll be delving into the research of Dr Nicholas Reynolds, who is investigating the relationship between sculpture and poetry, plus the importance different media have in self-discovery and transformation.


Artistic pursuits often have a shared thread of creativity allowing different media to join together and generate a more powerful experience for the audience. Creativity provides a way of expressing inner thoughts and feelings through images or language, such as through poetry, painting or sculptures, bringing an idea to life. In the case of 19th century German-language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, his artistic appreciation of words provided a gateway to understanding other media for creatively expressing ideas that are hard to put into words. As in Rilke’s “Primal Sound” essay, it is a matter of making the invisible, unconscious parts of our minds visible, allowing the hands to  work passively as a conduit for the unconscious. Specifically, Rilke was fascinated by the work of sculptor Auguste Rodin who seemingly worked tirelessly on his creations to perfect them. Rilke’s admiration ran so deep that he dedicated five years of his life to writing a monograph about the sculptor.


Rilke’s work began in 1902, when he put pen to paper and wrote flowing chapters which glorify Rodin’s skill at creating tiny surfaces that reflect light to bring sculptures to life. The poet’s apparent hero worship of Rodin’s sculpting talents is of great interest to Dr Nicholas Reynolds, a Lecturer in Modern Languages and Literatures at Trinity University, Texas. Dr Reynolds is intrigued by the artistic relationship between these two men and has spent time developing the creative theory behind Rilke’s work and exploring his appreciation of Rodin as an ultimate example of artistic talent –and model for Rilke’s own poetic practice– who developed modern sculptural techniques.


Their story begins from afar, with Rilke appreciating the elegant and seemingly flawless sculptures that Rodin created, often of human hands. The poet sang the sculptors praises so often that eventually they formed a closer bond that led to friendship.  From analysing the monograph, Dr Reynolds describes the pair as sharing something of a master and pupil relationship, an interesting dynamic considering both were master craftsmen of their respective art form. But it was a turbulent relationship that led to a final break in 1913, which echoes one of Rilke’s prose stories that suggests that two masters cannot be in the same room.


Let’s explore some of the sculptures that Rodin created. His Hands series captured various stages of movement, such as gesturing when talking, resting when sleeping or moving quickly when stealing an object. Dr Reynolds suggests that by moulding in clay, Rodin has managed to represent complex human activities in a simple form and bring his inner thoughts to life. Rilke was similarly inspired by these sculptures and the stories they may tell about the person behind the hand, noting that human hands are small and that we have so little time to use them. Therefore, the life that Rodin was able to sculpt into clay with his hands is likely one of the reasons Rilke revered the sculptor so much.


Dr Reynolds also highlights that hands are a storytelling aid, taking on a life of their own and breaking down barriers between communities and cultures by expressing thoughts and feelings when words fail us. Also, stories evolve as they are retold, as does poetry and as do Rodin’s sculptures when other artists attempt to recreate them. Rodin could transform movements, and therefore stories, into stone with a natural elegance as he chiselled away at the piece. In recognition of this talent, Rilke often compares Rodin to a natural force in his monograph, something that is stable and steady, resistant to chaos and hardship. Perhaps these are characteristics that are key for an artist to create pieces that are timeless.


The friend’s shared their closest bond when Rilke produced his most complex work – Malte and New Poems. His poems aimed to give the reader a way to free their senses and respond to actions, words and thoughts in a way that kept their senses evolving. Dr Reynolds suggests that poetry can therefore act as a membrane, opening readers’ minds to new thoughts but also channelling unwanted feelings, such as anxiety, into creativity. Similarly, Rodin’s sculptures can be considered poetic too, allowing thoughts and feelings in and out of the viewer and also creating new boundaries that push the limits of our imagination. Rodin is even quoted as saying that he would have to talk for a year to be able to reproduce one of his sculptures in words.


The unconscious messages sent from the artist to the viewer through their work is an interesting concept that Rilke explored further in his monograph. By laying a hand on someone else’s shoulder, a new dimension is created where the hand no longer belongs to its owner. Instead, the viewer’s attention focuses on the interaction between the hand and shoulder. Dr Reynolds interprets these thoughts to symbolise energy and life being directed through a person’s hand into the space around the hand and shoulder, creating something unspoken but meaningful to the viewer. An “ancient, preserved gesture” –like a wave or smile we recognize instantly – is contained in a sculpture, which anyone can pick up on even centuries from its creation. This complex, higher-level view of human actions is something that Rodin was able to capture in clay and is another reason why Rilke saw Rodin as a hero of creativity.


In his monograph, Rilke describes watching Rodin at work, with instinctive, agile movement forming organic shapes. Dr Reynolds proposes that this mirrored the poet’s own thoughts about his work, that his hands, when writing, channelled unconscious thoughts and tapped into the same still intelligence as the sculptor. When chiselling stone, Rodin also harnessed the power of surfaces to add life into his works. By chipping away small pieces of stone, he created surfaces that reflected light in such a way that they emphasised natural shapes and movement. The technique was developed as Rodin became despondent with sculpture and architecture at the time. He sought to bring magnetism back into art and Rilke describes him achieving this by making timeless pieces that allowed light and life into the sculpture, and ultimately into the viewer.


Rilke recognised Reynolds shows that Rilke used this ability in his own process of poem generation – the sculpture tells stories, as did his poems. Through his poems, Rilke brought words to life, evoking visions of nature and flavours of summer fruits in the mouth, for example. This theme of nature is a thread throughout Rilke’s monograph. Rodin is described to be like a force of nature, simultaneously showing a great degree of control when sculpting but also being completely passive and allowing forces of nature to work through him into his hand and whatever tool he was using: chisel, pencil or paintbrush, for example. In the monograph, Rilke clearly thinks that master artists like Rodin have an innate sense when working on a project of where to carve to maximise the impact of their piece and knowing when to stop work and allow the audience to develop their own interpretations of the creation.


However, Rilke’s heroic image of Rodin is exaggerated and the sculptor was far from the perfect craftsman the poet saw. Historical accounts indicate Rodin was often intimidating and imposing, with stories of him making models pose for hours until they were in discomfort, just so that he could capture their expressions when in pain. Dr Reynolds questions whether this process was truly necessary to capture the emotions of the model or whether Rodin, as a supposed master of sculpture, could simply have used the existing adversity all around him as a model. The realism and perfection Rodin strove for in his work is another characteristic he shared with Rilke, who would rewrite even everyday letters if there was a mistake, never letting anything leave his hands if it wasn’t perfect. This tenacity is exhibited by both men and through their creative labour, they hoped to inspire others into artistic activities.


We are exposed to the world through our senses and Rilke’s assessment of Rodin’s sculpture and creative process suggests that, like poetry, the sculptures aimed to refresh and reshape the senses, and say the unsayable.  Rilke believes that creative labour, whether spoken, written or chiselled into stone, can lead to a process of self-transformation.


That’s all for this episode – Thanks for listening and stay subscribed to ResearchPod for more of the latest research from around the world. See you again soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Researchpod Let's Talk

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard