Tuesday, September 14, 2021


If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett (quoted in brainpickings). 

Me in awe of L'Age d'airain, Musée Rodin, 1991.
When I was 15, my big sister took me to Montreal for a few days. I live here now, but that was my first real exposure to the city. The details of the trip escape me. I remember drinking milky coffee from a bowl at a sidewalk café. I remember a visit to the museum: a sculpture on a pedestal, many figures intertwined, and I caressed it, at which point a looming security guard intervened. I don't remember what the sculpture looked like; I remember what it felt like.

I should have known then, recognized the draw of sculpture, the tactility of it. The best sculpture, in my view, is the kind that makes you want to touch it.

I lived in Ottawa for a time, and many a day, when sad or bored or simply free, I would stop by the National Gallery. I would gaze at the sun over Monet's Waterloo Bridge and then puzzle over one of Francis Bacon's popes. As I made my way from one to the other, I would slip past a Giacometti at the side of the hall, or it would slip past me. It might stop me in my tracks. I might take a few steps backwards, forward again, back, trying to pinpoint the exact coordinates where it switched from three dimensions to two, like a child manipulating a holographic postcard, to find where the planes of art and science were in precise alignment with humour and passion. The Giacometti would near disappear, just a line dimension containing multitudes, and unfurling in an instant. And this too manifested tactility, I needed to touch it, to grasp that it was there.

I have been to Paris several times, but I have never been to the Louvre. Given a free afternoon, I go to the Musée Rodin.

That first time I went to Paris, it was 52 hours from touchdown to liftoff, and several of those precious hours would be spent standing in awe of muscular bronze works. I'd seen Camille Claudel. (I bought a volume of Paul Claudel's poetry at a stall along the Seine.)

Despite my love of his work, most everything I know about Rodin I know via Rainer Maria Rilke's letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, when he served as Rodin's personal secretary, and I share his respect for Rodin's ability to materialize his inner mind.

I watched a documentary about Rodin recently and was stunned to realize he'd been rejected, that his career started late, that he was obsessive.

I am coming to understand the physicality of Rodin's work. I am coming to understand why I think it matters. I am learning the art of einsehen, inseeing. I am starting to see something in myself.

I look back at photos I have taken while traveling. Sculptures everywhere, Warsaw, Rome, Barcelona, Prague. Old, obscure, under restoration, often plain weird. From Botero's cat to Černý's babies.

I am learning how to make plaster moulds. I am learning how to see the shape of white space, how to see in relief. We are defined by absence as much as by presence.

No comments: