(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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,...

(The entire section is 1978 words.)