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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1978

The external part of Rilke’s “double world” finds its expression in his Letters on Cezanne according to a rule of artistic communication laid down by Rilke in his letter of June 24. Here he argues that the artist must not share with others the inner work of which the work of art is a “definitive utterance.”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 actual 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.

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This rule is formulated in reference to what an artist may say of himself and of his works, and Rilke uses it to discuss and evaluate both van Gogh and Cezanne.

Of van Gogh, for example, Rilke notes that in the artist’s letters “he’s usually talking of finished work” and points to van Gogh’s uneasy relationships in Arles with Paul Gauguin as proof of the rule. On the other hand, he writes, “That van Gogh’s letters are so readable, that they are so rich, basically argues against him [as a painter]. . . .” Cezanne he holds up as an example of the painter who avoids “intentionality and arbitrariness” by living Rilke’s rule:Ideally, a painter (and, generally, an artist) should not become conscious of his insights: without taking the detour through his reflective processes, and incomprehensibly to himself, all his progress should enter so swiftly into the work that he is unable to recognize them in the moment of transition.

Thus, he writes admiringly of Cezanne that “he was almost incapable of saying anything,” noting how Cezanne’s few “pronouncements about painting” failed and contrasting these unsuccessful theoretical attempts with Cezanne’s clear, objective statements about himself and others:He manages to write very clearly: “I believe the best thing is work.” Or: “I’m making progress every day, although very slowly.” Or: “I am almost seventy years old.” Or: “I will answer you through pictures.” Or: “L’humble et colossal Pissarro—” (who taught him how to work), Or: after some thrashing about (one senses with what relief, in beautiful script): the signature, unabbreviated: Pictor Paul Cezanne.

Rilke’s rule also outlines his practice in these letters as critic, for his statements fall within his “two liberties of communication.” The first liberty (“the one that occurs face to face with the accomplished thing”) he exercises throughout these letters in his descriptions, evocations, and evaluations of individual works as well as groups of works. Thus, in his discussion of van Gogh in the letters of October 2 and October 17, Rilke attempts minute descriptions of certain van Gogh paintings, straining to represent them adequately with words. In the letter of October 15, the subject is drawings by Rodin. After discussing his personal response to the exhibit and questioning the validity of his monograph on Rodin (Auguste Rodin), Rilke describes not individual works, but a group of fifteen drawings of Cambodian dancers done in 1906. Here Rilke is confronted with a body of works that evokes a single unified but detailed response.

Rilke’s writing about Cezanne is, for the most part, general in the earlier letters; his most detailed treatments of individual paintings were written after he viewed the Cezanne room in the Salon d’Automne for the last time. Thus, in the earlier letters Rilke records general impressions of Cezanne’s typical colors and objects but mentions no specific paintings. This excerpt from his letter of October 7 is typical:You know how much more remarkable I always find the people walking about in front of paintings than the paintings themselves. It’s no different in this Salon d’Automne, except for the Cezanne room. Here, all of reality is on his side: in this dense quilted blue of his, in his red and his shadowless green and the reddish black of his wine bottles. And the humbleness of all his objects: the apples are all cooking apples and the wine bottles belong in the roundly bulging pockets of an old coat.

Later he writes generally of “Cezanne’s very unique blue” and of the fruit in his still lifes: “They cease to be edible altogether, that’s how thinglike and real they become, how simply indestructible in their stubborn thereness.” As late as his letter of October 24, Rilke is still attempting a general evocation of Cezanne’s works, noting that, “standing among them, one feels a soft and mild gray emanating from them as a kind of atmosphere. . .

In the letters of October 22, 23, and 24, and that of November 4, Rilke attempts detailed verbal representation of specific paintings by Cezanne. Yet here, though he writes long paragraphs of minute description, he finds his words failing him. For example, after commenting on a portrait of Madame Cezanne and trying to explain how the colors “converse” in this particular painting, he writes, “You see how difficult it becomes when one tries to get very close to the facts. . . .” He begins his next letter thus:I wondered last night whether my attempt to give you an impression of the woman in the red armchair was at all successful. I’m not sure I even managed to describe the balance of tonal values; words seemed more inadequate than ever, indeed inappropriate; and yet it should be possible to make compelling use of them, if one could only look at such a picture as if it were a part of nature—in which case it ought to be possible to express its existence somehow.

Similarly, after writing of “a wall of gray and pale copper” on October 23, Rilke corrects himself on October 24: “I said: gray . . . I should have said: a particular kind of metallic white, aluminum or something similar, for gray, literally gray, cannot be found in Cezanne’s pictures.”

In his description of a Cezanne self-portrait, Rilke turns his words to the second “liberty of communication” (“showing one another what one has become through one’s work”). On October 23, having noted the inadequacy of words when confronting a painting as painting, Rilke turns to the self-portrait, “and,” he writes, “the words, which feel so unhappy when made to denote purely painterly facts, are only too eager to return to themselves in the description of the man portrayed, for here’s where their proper domain begins.” Rilke’s affinity for the personal and human aspects of the artists that interest him is demonstrated in his preoccupation with the biographies of van Gogh and Cezanne.

Having borrowed a book of van Gogh reproductions, Rilke writes to his wife on October 3:You probably wouldn’t even have read the little biographical notice of no more than ten lines that precedes the table of contents; you would have simply relied on your ability to see. But this notice is very, very matter-of-fact and yet so strangely meaningful.

Then, in his own words, Rilke recites the facts of van Gogh’s life, ending with the exclamation, “What a biography.” Similarly, in a passage concerned primarily with technical aspects of color, Rilke cannot resist an aside about Cezanne the man: “I could imagine someone writing a monograph on the color blue, from the dense waxy blue of the Pompeiian wall paintings to Chardin and further to Cezanne: what a biography!” Rilke’s letter of October 9 begins thus: “Today I wanted to tell you a little about Cezanne.” The letter that follows (by far the longest in the collection) makes it very clear that it is Cezanne’s life as much as his works that appeals to Rilke; in the penultimate paragraph he writes: “I wanted to tell you about all this, because it connects in a hundred places with a great deal that surrounds us, and with ourselves.” He concludes, “You know how much of myself was in what I told you today.”

This interest in biography closely approaches the internal part of Rilke’s “double world,” as his statements about Cezanne’s life and its connection with his own suggest. The letters clearly indicate what Rilke saw as the interior significance of his confrontation with Cezanne in the fall of 1907. From Rodin, Rilke had learned lessons about seeing and about working—especially about working. Rilke’s biographer Donald Prater writes of “the ideal Rodin had inspired: to work, steadily and without impatience, at fashioning experience into things which could have an existence of their own, and to turn his back on the mere expression of subjective mood or vague longing at the caprice of inspiration.” This lesson learned, Rilke found himself approaching Cezanne’s paintings in a way impossible before:I again spent two hours in front of a few pictures today; I sense this is somehow useful for me. . . . One can really see all of Cezanne’s pictures in two or three well-chosen examples, and no doubt we could have come as far in understanding him somewhere else. . . . But it all takes a long, long time. When I remember the puzzlement and insecurity of one’s first confrontation with his work, along with his name, which was just as new. And then for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes. .

Again, in the letter of October 18, Rilke confirms that it is an inner, spiritual relationship to Cezanne’s work that concerns him most:I was only convinced that there are personal inner reasons that make me see certain pictures which, a while ago, I might have passed by with momentary sympathy, but would not have revisited with increased excitement and expectation. It’s not really painting I’m studying (for despite everything, I remain uncertain about pictures and am slow to learn how to distinguish what’s good from what’s less good, and am always confusing early and late works). It was the turning point in these paintings I recognized, 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.

“This one thing” is “testing by the real,” or, put simply, seeing and working, concerns which inform all Rilke’s ostensible subjects in this series of letters.

These lessons of seeing and working were continually present to Rilke as he walked through the streets of Paris, as he paged through the book of van Gogh reproductions, as he studied paintings by Cezanne and drawings by Rodin. “To see and to work,” he writes in the first letter of the collection, “how different they are here.” Rilke writes of Rodin on June 28, of “this humble, patient path he trod through the real,” and insists that “‘ultimate intuitions and insights’ will only approach one who lives in his work and remains there. . . .” In October, Rilke writes about van Gogh and about his death because he could no longer work. Of himself, in contrast to van Gogh and Rodin, he writes, “One is still so far away from being able to work at all times,” and he praises van Gogh’s “devotion to what is nearest.” About Cezanne he reports: “With regard to his work habits, he claimed to have lived as a Bohemian until his fortieth year. Only then . . . did he develop a taste for work. But then to such an extent that for the next thirty years he did nothing but work.” Finally, Rilke comments on his own situation:I am on the way to becoming a worker, on a long way perhaps, and probably I’ve only reached the first milestone; but still, I can already understand the old man who walked somewhere far ahead, alone. . . .

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