Genius Envy

How Rodin's failure inspired Rilke, and other curious routes of tribute.
In April, the Poetry Foundation cosponsored a panel at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. Poets Mary Jo Bang, Peter Campion, and Raphael Rubinstein, as well as writer Geoff Dyer, explored the parallels between portraits in poetry and the visual arts, jumping off those on display at the Pulitzer's exhibition "Portrait/Homage/Embodiment." This article by Geoff Dyer is the second in a series by the four panelists. (Here's Raphael Rubinstein on Jacques Lipchitz and Gertrude Stein.) On Thursday (December 6), at the Pulitzer Foundation, John Yau moderates a panel on poetry and visual art, featuring Cole Swensen, Andrew Joron, and Arthur Sze.


The history of any art constitutes a form of self-commentary, what George Steiner calls “a syllabus of enacted criticism.” Within this syllabus there are especially charged moments when writers or artists deliberately and explicitly address the work of another writer or artist. The impulse is often elegiac: Auden writes his great elegy for Yeats (“In Memory of W. B. Yeats”), Brodsky writes an elegy for Auden (“York: In Memoriam W. H. Auden”), and most recently, Heaney composes an elegy for Brodsky (the cleverly titled “Audenesque”).

“The words of a dead man,” writes Auden, “[a]re modified in the guts of the living.” These words—and this sentiment—are in turn modified by Brodsky: “Thus the source of love becomes the object of love.”

This chain is what I might term a linear tribute in that an artist composes a tribute to another artist who worked in the same medium. The recent exhibition “Portrait/Homage/Embodiment” at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis presents a series of more complex tributes, in which the source of love in one medium becomes the object of love in another. Thus we have sculptural essays on music (Emile Antoine Bourdelle’s Large Tragic Mask of Ludwig von Beethoven) and literature (a Jacques Lipchitz bust of Gertrude Stein). These essays highlight the shifting relation between artist and subject. The relative importance of who the artwork is by and who or what it is about is always changing.

Every art form has its particular advantages and limitations. It is not unusual for people working in one medium to envy the freedoms of another. Frank O’Hara ponders these matters briefly and frankly—before dismissing them—in his poem “Why I Am Not a Painter”:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.

In keeping with the spirit of the exhibition, I’d like to look a little more patiently at what happens when different media come into close proximity. How do they affect, or rub off on, each other? To what extent can one art form absorb and harness the possibilities inherent in another? To do this I’ll move beyond the exhibition and look at a cluster of well-known tributes and some of the tributaries—so to speak—that flow from this cluster. The cluster is composed of a novelist, who occasions the initial convergence, and a sculptor, a poet, and a photographer who subsequently find themselves grouped around him.

Auguste Rodin, Balzac. Exhibited 1898, cast later. Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo by Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University.


In July 1891, Rodin accepted a commission to make a sculpture of Balzac. He hoped to have a sketch ready by November and to complete the sculpture in 18 months. As often happened, though, the demands Rodin made on himself—his desire to find and capture the “soul of Balzac”—came close to overwhelming him. Claiming to be working “on nothing but the Balzac,” he nevertheless missed deadline after deadline.

In May 1894 delegates from the sponsoring committee visited his studio, only to find that, instead of the expected maquette of the novelist in a monk’s robe, Rodin had modeled a naked figure with arms folded over an enormous belly. This, needless to say, was considered quite unacceptable. Rodin worked on various other versions but was constantly dissatisfied. Although frustrating for everyone concerned, the failure was itself a kind of tribute. Balzac, after all, had written a famous—almost Borgesian—account of an artist’s absolute inability to bring a work to the desired state of perfection: The Unknown Masterpiece (which, incidentally, formed the basis for the interminable Jacques Rivette film La Belle Noiseuse). Finally, with pressure and doubts mounting (there was much speculation in the press as to whether he would ever finish it), Rodin exhibited a plaster cast of his Balzac at the Salon of 1898. The controversy it engendered was as swift as its gestation had been prolonged. The sculpture had its defenders, but Bernard Berenson sounded the more typical note: he regarded it as a “stupid monstrosity. Insofar as he [Balzac] has form at all, he looks like a polar bear standing on his hind legs.”

A poet gave the best account of how Rodin worked on the statue:

For years he lived engrossed by this figure. He visited Balzac’s home, the landscape of Touraine, which constantly reappears in his books, he read his letters, studied the existing portraits of Balzac, and he lived through his works again and again . . . he lived [in Balzac’s world] as if he were himself one of Balzac’s creations, unobtrusively inserted among the multitude of existences which Balzac had created.

Rainer Maria Rilke came to Paris to write a book about Rodin in 1902. As Rodin had immersed himself in the work of Balzac, so Rilke immersed himself in the work of Rodin. As Rodin had sought to pay homage to the genius of Balzac, so Rilke sought to do justice to the genius of Rodin. As Rodin’s sculpture was an essay on genius by a genius, so Rilke’s book became not only a monograph about Rodin but also a vicarious account of his own genius. Rilke himself was conscious of this, writing to Lou Andreas-Salomé that the book “also speaks about me.” The portrait of the artist is also a self-portrait of the poet, and became more so over time as Rodin’s huge influence on Rilke’s work took shape. From Rodin, Rilke developed his work ethic (their unrelenting industriousness was one of the traits that Balzac and Rodin also shared). It was from Rodin also that Rilke became convinced that he must write about his subjects not as they appeared on the surface but as if he had inhabited them from within: “One might almost say the appearance of his things does not concern him,” he wrote of Rodin, “so much does he experience their being.” Rilke struggled to directly translate what he considered the sculptor’s most distinct quality—his ability to create things—into the “thing-poems” [Dinggedichte] of 1907–8.

As the young Rilke had come to write about Rodin and his work, so the young Edward Steichen came to photograph Rodin and his creations. In 1902 he made a composite image of Rodin silhouetted in front of The Thinker and Monument to Victor Hugo. In 1908 he made long exposures of the Balzac monument at night. After seeing Steichen’s pictures—that is, after the photographer had passed the ultimate test of doing justice to the sculptor’s genius—Rodin became convinced not just of Steichen’s individual talent but of photography’s viability as an art form.

It would be nice to be able to square the circle: to report that Steichen later did a portrait of Rilke at Duino as the first of the Elegies swept through him, or that Rilke wrote a poem about Steichen. This did not happen. The important thing is that whatever your starting point, whether your particular interest is poetry (Rilke), photography (Steichen), sculpture (Rodin), or fiction (Balzac), you will, so to speak, be led astray. After this meeting there will be dispersal. And the dispersal will lead, in turn, to new meetings, new convergences.

The relative importance of what a given work is about and who it is by will change. Suppose, for example, that it was an interest in poetry, in Rilke, that led you to the encounter with Steichen. If you then follow his subsequent work, you will approach the famous photographs of W. B. Yeats and Carl Sandburg (Steichen’s brother-in-law) as examples of portraiture by an artist as much as you regard them as portraits of poets. Within the history of photography Steichen’s most obvious descendant is Richard Avedon, who, like Steichen, combined lucrative fashion work with highly regarded portraiture. This, in turn, means that at some point you will come across Avedon’s 1960 portrait of W. H. Auden in a snowstorm in St Mark’s Place, New York.

If you come from the other direction, to Steichen via Yeats and Sandburg, then you will end up like Joseph Brodsky contemplating a photograph of Auden: “I began to wonder whether one form of art was capable of depicting another, whether the visual could apprehend the semantic.” You will, in other words, be back where we started. For every dispersal—there is something almost Rilkean about this, no? —is also a convergence.

So let’s look, briefly, at some other possible routes out of and away from that initial meeting.

After Rodin, the next important influence on Rilke was Cézanne. Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne reveals the enormous influence of the Cézanne retrospective in Paris, in the summer of 1907. He discovered there not a refutation but an intensification of what he had learned from Rodin: fruits, in Cézanne’s still lifes, “cease to be edible altogether, that’s how thinglike and real they become, how simply indestructible in their stubborn thereness.” And again, as with Rodin (but more confidently and explicitly now), what he discovers is important primarily for what it enables Rilke to realize about himself and his own work: “It’s not really painting I’m studying. . . . It was the turning point which I recognised, because I had just reached it in my own work or had at least come close to it somehow, after having been ready, probably for a long time, for this one thing which so much depends on.”

The extent to which this breakthrough into “limitless objectivity” was achieved is revealed in “Requiem for a Friend” (1908). The poem was written in response to the death, several weeks after giving birth, of the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker (who had discovered Cézanne years earlier). It is, simultaneously, a lament for his friend and an essay on the art to which they were both indebted:

For that is what you understood: ripe fruits.
You set them before the canvas, in white bowls,
and weighed out each one’s heaviness with your colors.
Women too, you saw, were fruits; and children, molded
from inside, into the shapes of their existence.
And at last you saw yourself as a fruit, you stepped
out of your clothes and brought your naked body
before the mirror, you let yourself inside
down to your gaze; which stayed in front, immense,
and didn’t say: I am that; no: this is.
So free of curiosity your gaze
had become, so unpossessive, of such true
poverty, it had no desire even
for you yourself; it wanted nothing: holy.
(from Stephen Mitchell’s translation)

There are several directions one might follow from here: From Cézanne to poems by Charles Tomlinson (“Cézanne at Aix” in Seeing is Believing [1960]) and Jeremy Reed (“Cézanne” in Nineties [1990]). Or, sticking with Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker, to Adrienne Rich’s important corrective, “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff” (Clara was Paula’s friend and Rilke’s wife), in which a poet speaks as a painter addressing a poet—thereby offering a crisp critique of Rilke:

Do you know: I was dreaming I had died
giving birth to the child.
I couldn’t paint or speak or even move.
My child—I think—survived me. But what was funny
in the dream was, Rainer had written my requiem—
a long, beautiful poem, and calling me his friend.
I was your friend
but in the dream you didn’t say a word.
In the dream his poem was like a letter
to someone who has no right
to be there but must be treated gently, like a guest
who comes on the wrong day.

In real life our chances of meeting people are limited and contingent. In the realm of art and literature those constraints are removed; everyone is potentially in dialogue with everyone else irrespective of chronology and geography.


Originally Published: December 5th, 2007

Geoff Dyer is the author of three novels: Paris Trance, The Search, The Colour of Memory; a critical study of John Berger, Ways of Telling; a collection of essays, Anglo-English Attitudes; and four genre-defying titles: But Beautiful (winner of a 1992 Somerset Maugham Prize), The Missing of the Somme, Out...

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  1. December 6, 2007
     A Rilke fan

    A beautiful essay, thank you. On several occasions, Rilke spoke explicitly to this web of artistic influence.

    In his Schmargendorf diary of 1899, the 25-year-old poet wrote:

    "One must splice oneself into some great circuit...To pass it on is everything; but without seeing the one to whom one passes it, to stretch oneself taut over landscapes and people with a hundred shining wires out to the next pole; is that not it?" (from "Diaries of a Young Poet," translated by Edward Snow & Michael Winkler).

    For Rilke the "great circuit" was precisely the realm of art, the great works accomplished before him and around him.

    This Rilkean "circuit" and the poet's friendship with Rodin is regularly explored at:


  2. December 7, 2007
     Majid Naficy

    Rilke owed his mysticism to Tolstoy.

  3. December 21, 2007
     Terry Bat-Sonja

    Thanks for this wonderful essay...I found it very inspiring... ( as a poet and painter...)

  4. July 1, 2008
     John Moseley

    Yup. That rare thing, an essay about art and literature that heightens our awareness of what matters.