Rilke and the Purpose of Art


As an artist, I am familiar with that nagging question that every artist must ask themselves- what is the purpose of my art and why do I do it? Many writers have probed this question- Tolstoy wrote a book called, What is the meaning of Art ?; Emerson dealt with it in his essay on Nature; Solzhenitsyn confronted it in his Nobel Prize essay, A World Split Apart; Dostoevsky touched upon it in his address before the Pushkin Memorial; Gaston Bachelard touches upon it when he explores the phenomenology of the imagination; and it shows up in countless other works by Baudelaire, Delacroix, Robert Creeley, Walt Whitman and Rainer Marie Rilke. It is entirely unavoidable. One is compelled to ask this question. In a sense a painter or visual artist works this out by what they choose to depict and the method used. Monet was intrigued by the momentary flashes of life that came before his eyes. He chose to paint landscapes with a broken sense of color and lack of outline to convey this feeling of transience.  Much hinges on finding the inherent meaning of one’s work and committing oneself to it- letting it become the raison d’être of one’s being.

Rainer Marie Rilke explores the purpose of poetry as well as art. I first fell in love with his writing through his biography of Augustus Rodin. It took me years to find an English translation in a used bookstore. In Rodin, who was working on the Gates of Hell at the time, he found the perfect counterpart to himself- both tireless craftsmen seeking to transform the living vitality of existence into works of art.  In Rodin, Rilke describes Rodin’s Balzac, Victor Hugo and The Burgers of Calais as work “…not to beautify or give characteristic expression, but to separate the lasting from the transitory, to sit in judgement, to be just.”  The process of transformation from the visible to its inner equivalents was the greatest thing this world had to offer (Lemont) and Rilke observed it quite clearly in the work of Rodin.

In Rilke’s, Elegies, he expresses the purpose of his work, “… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being… It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, “invisibly”, inside us.” Again he says,” … oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing.” ( Elegies) To take the visible world and allow it to dwell inside of us and then to transform that world and those things in the most intense way and re-imagine them again is the work of the artist. The image becomes the process whereby the visible world finds its equivalent within our being. In this way the transient visible world is re-imagined through the artist and becomes a transformative force. Rilke, like Emerson, expresses the transcendent nature of all things. Emerson in his essay Nature states the purpose of, “… visual art: striking the viewer so deeply, with such authority, the merely personal is obliterated. Something like an archetypal self is evoked.”

It is easy to ignore the incredible Beauty of all things. “The purpose of art is to express the good, the true and the beautiful” as Dostoevsky expressed it. But Solzhenitsyn believed that possibly only beauty will remain.  The artist’s job is to praise and declare again the inherent value of all things and to say it again with intensity.

“O tell us, Poet, what you do? – I praise.

But the dark, the deadly, the desperate ways,

How do you endure them- how bear them?-

I praise.

Padraic Colum, Rilke, 1945

Rabatment as a Compositional Tool

Finding the Verticals

There are many tools available to the artist to aid him. But one needs to find the tools that really fit one’s way of working- tools that aid and intensify one’s ideas. These tools must remain what they truly are- aids that assist the artist’s creative process. One compositional method that I use pretty consistently is rabatment. It was used broadly in the 19th century by many artist out of the Paris ateliers as well as the academy. You see it in Delacroix, Ingres, David, Degas as well as in the American artists who studied in Paris- Sargent, Henri, Cassatt, Beaux and Thayer. It was later adopted by American students of those that went to Paris- Sloan, Bellows etc.

Rabatment consists of creating a relationship between what lies within the canvas to the proportion of the sides. These two aspects create an interdependent-relationship. The sides of the canvas themselves need not be in any set proportion.  The golden section works the same way, but the sides must be related in a specific proportion regardless of what lies within the canvas. I have always found rabatment a much easier tool to use because of its relative simplicity as well as its flexibility.

My online course on Rabatment begins February, 26, 2015
My online course on Rabatment begins February, 26, 2015

Rabatment consists of taking the short side of the rectangle and placing it against the long side (rotate), creating points along the edge that can be connected directly across the canvas as well as a diagonal from these points to the corners. When beginning this process it will appear to be two overlapping squares. David used these verticals to give his compositions a formal look, ie. how he envisioned the classical model of the Greeks. But what I like about this method is that one can achieve an underlying structure of diagonals. Delacroix, who was enthralled with Rubens sweeping curves and diagonals, found this method satisfied all his needs.

The best demonstration I have seen for its use, I found in Charles Bouleau’s book, “The Painter’s Secret Geometry”. He shows a sketch by Gericault for the Raft of the Medusa. It is an initial sketch of his working idea. It is evocative in its own right but not as powerful as after he applies rabatment to the composition. It no longer becomes a historical painting but a painting of man in all his longing and desperation. It reveals his eternal sense of hope. Rabatment takes his idea and gives it force and emotional impact. It transforms the piece through an emphasis on an underlying framework, that is not readily noticed, providing the image with a monumental capacity both emotionally as well visually.

I like to refer to rabatment as the structure of a tree with all its summer foliage. We know that under the leaves there is a trunk that tapers to the top and that there are branches that grow at specific intervals as the tree ascends. And that each of these branches again tappers till it reaches its furthest end. Rabatment is this aspect of the tree. But when we observe it in all its summer fullness we cannot see these underlying things. We only sense them as we observe the leaves. Rabatment should be used as such, as an underlying structure that can be felt but remains unseen. It should only be used after the creative idea is formed. The idea/ image and the inspiration that gave it form should preceed any use of a compositional system. And that any structure must conform to fact and visual phenomena. Theory must be of secondary importance.

Finding the Diagonals

Most times, I use this system to decide the proportions of my canvas and how my figure will appear within it. I manipulate the size of the edges so that my figure falls within a diagonal relationship to the outside edge. I often radiate diagonals from these points of rabatment to achieve a more forceful composition. In a more subtle way, I also include the direction of the gaze of the figure- that this too falls in the proper relationship of diagonals. I also find it useful to break up a large relatively empty space within the background- using it to vary color temperature or value to create a more dynamic sense of space. And lastly, it can act as a tool for giving the color composition its proper relationship and balance- that the most intense colors fall on these lines.

Rabatment has given me another tool for my toolbox. But I am always conscious not to let it enslave me. That would certainly take the “life”out of my work. It is always a temptation to hand over the inherent freedom that lies in the creative act- it would be much easier that way because the journey is difficult. Use only what is necessary for each image and let any system that you use be subservient to the whole.

Negative Capability from Ibn Arabi to Keats to Henri

Dune Shadows

Attempting to identify what exactly is the imagination and what does it look like is like trying to describe flowing water. We have a feeling for it, yet it defies description in so many ways, but we keep on trying because it will always fascinate and tempt us to give it a form.

The imagination rests in the lacuna between conscious thought and feeling. Within this space the creative imagination dwells and allows images to present themselves. Ibn Arabi called this the isthmus between the sensory world, as we experience it, and a mirror image of that world that exists independent of ourselves. Active reverie transforms what is brought to the minds eye as raw material into Poetic Voice and Image. It is a place of conscious activity- a place of interaction. It is only when one brings a purpose to such exploration that one receives direction. One can always tell when an image comes from such a place-it is irrational,yet powerful. It is comprehended on a deeper inner level. Somehow it makes sense in regard to the inner life as opposed to a rational progression of  thoughts. It touches a more universal level within each of us beyond a reflection of its creator.

Ibn Arabi believed in a ” reverie in which the consciousness was still active”. This place of the Mundis imaginalis is where the creative individual finds oneself among archetypal figures who reside within the imagination as well as independently in a world between the sensory faculties and the intellect. It is among such company that the artist receives inspiration and direction in regard to his work. One cannot rationally take the path of one’s choosing. One must be open to the moment and allow things to unfold differently than one had anticipated. Keats called this Negative Capability– ” that  is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.”

Keats believed in a ‘heightened receptivity’ in which the artist allowed his imagination a freedom coupled with a consciousness of the creative process- a marriage of reverie and the working of one’s craft. Robert Henri referred to this space as “living in the moment”. When in the act of painting, one opens oneself to a greater force that carries the work beyond what one thought possible and simultaneously one feels a greater awareness of the individual sitting before oneself. These together created the “living moment” as Henri expressed it.

Lorca’s idea of duende seems to be based on a triadic relationship to bring about the “living moment”, the deep connection between the artist, the listener/viewer and the song/poem/painting. It is a triad of desire, emotion and affinity to the world in all its depth. Or as Lorca expressed it-longing, passion and gravitas. Duende begins with longing and desire. This is the necessary first step because it expresses one’s purpose or intent- one’s motivation. Passion or a heightened sensitivity to the emotions allows one openness to the moment, as the poet, Rumi called it ‘the path to the heart of hearts’. And affinity to the world in all its dimensions, including death itself, is where one relinquishes one’s self (ego) and is able to take on the role of the other- people,  objects, events. This positioning allows one to come in contact with a greater self that sees the inherent connection between things. Duende- longing,passion, gravitas- are necessary attributes of the serious artist.

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