I finished reading Rachel Corbett’s You Must Change Your Life, a double-biography of Auguste Rodin and Rainer Maria Rilke, and enjoyed it. Since it is a double-portrait, with many other artists and writers making appearances, it lacks the depth of a singular biography. What it lacks in depth, though, it makes up for in breadth, charting the intersecting courses of a wide variety of artists and writers at the turn of the century and seeing how they enriched and frustrated and haunted each other. Most of her portrayals are sympathetic, although I don’t know how it could have escaped Corbett’s attention that Gwen John was a real artist in her own right, not just a love-struck student mistress of Rodin’s, as she describes her in a single throwaway sentence.
My favorite parts of You Must Change Your Life are where she explores the creative growth of her two main protagonists, like this excerpt where she writes of Rilke’s developing poetic ideas:
“Inseeing described the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, wherein perception leads to an emotional connection. Rilke made a point of distinguishing inseeing from inspecting, a term which he thought described only the viewer’s perspective, and thus often resulted in anthropomorphizing. Inseeing, on the other hand, took into account the object’s point of view. It had as much to do with making things human as it did with making humans thing.”
She peppers her text liberally with wonderful quotations from Rilke’s letters and poetry and Auguste Rodin’s sayings. It is worth reading the book just to come across quotes that resonate as strongly as Rilke describing an artist as being “like a worm working its way form point to point in the dark.” Or Rodin declaiming: “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character.” I think the quote that felt closest to my own feelings as I read was Rilke’s comment in a letter: “I yearn so strongly: to be a real person among real things.” I sometimes think that desire for the real is the driving force behind most art. It is the wonderful, terrible, quixotic attempt to capture some essence of life, some feeling of self, some of the texture of reality.
When we were visiting our parents for Christmas my family was very kind and took me to the museum. I wrote about it in my journal: “I did get to see Van Gogh’s bedroom painting, visiting from Chicago to the Norton Simon, which was so beautiful in person—a dream of serenity---a dream of home that Van Gogh painted when he was at the asylum in Saint-Remy, having already lost that bedroom and everything it represented to him. It was very poignant for me to see it, struggling as I am with not having a home of my own, no space, no room, no decent studio to work in.”
It is the main reason I haven’t been writing as much here. Since we moved to the bottom of the Silicon Valley in September 2015, I have done nothing but struggle and miss my home. Like Van Gogh, I too, have been painting from memory, using painting to cross boundaries of time and space and re-inhabit the place I miss most. One of the paintings I am working on now is of Mimi, who died last year on one of my visits home, sitting in the long green grass in the backyard of my parents’ house. I can’t pet Mimi anymore, I can’t even sit in the grass that I love and miss so much, but I can paint them, here, in this tiny, dark, cold place hundreds of miles away. It is one of the gifts painting gives the painter.
I am trying so hard to capture some images of life. One of my new year’s goals is to try to write more here, to keep updates on the progress of my artwork and the spirals of my thoughts. Since I rarely get to go out to art shows any more, I’ll try to write more this year about the art books that I am reading, and paintings that I am looking at in my memory, or through my post-card collection, which is its own tiny museum of art.
Nasturtiums oil on panel 2016-2017
I finished working on my nasturtiums, and now they sit on my drying shelf where I can look at them every day. One of the nicest things about having artwork at home is getting to see it in all kinds of light. In the museum, light is so carefully controlled---but at home you can see a painting lit by the raking golden light of sun-down, and watch it glow in a whole new way.