On Cezanne

Rainer Maria Rilke spent much of 1907, from June to November, in Paris following the traces of one of the formative influences on his poetry, Paul Cezanne, who had died the previous October. In correspondence with his wife Clara Westhoff, Rilke wrote about many of the elements to making things; in these careful but free flowing love letters by any other name, he allows us a particular view toward the ramparts of the possible, the desperate, the beautiful and the audible truths that rise from great artists and art work. From Rilke’s  Letters on Cezanne, translated from the German by Joel Agee.

Monday, June 24

… This morning your long letter, with all your thoughts… After all works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity… Therein lies the enormous aide the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it, —; that it is his epitome; the knot in the rosary at which his life says a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuine-ness, which presents only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside, nameless as mere necessity, as reality, existence -.

So surely we have no choice but to test and to try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also constrained to keep silence regarding it, to avoid sharing it, parting with it in communication before it has entered the work of art: for the utmost represents nothing other than that singularity in us which must enter into the work as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic. – Nevertheless there are two liberties of communication, and these seem to me to be the utmost possible ones: the one that occurs face-to-face with the accomplished thing, and the one that takes place within daily life, in showing one another what one has become through one’s work and thereby supporting and helping and (in the humble sense of the word) admiring one another. But in either case one must show results, and it is not lack of trust or withdrawal or rejection if one doesn’t present to another the tools of one’s progress, which have so much about them that is confusing and tortuous, and whose only value lies in the personal use one makes of them. I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had o cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good. (But that’s just one side of it: feeling this from artist to artist. Another side is the woman and her part in it.) And a third (but only conceivable as a test for the upper grades) is the complication of the woman being an artist. Ah, that is an altogether new question, and ideas start nibbling at you from all sides as soon as you take just a few steps in their direction. I won’t say any more about this today.-

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