Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it’s superordinate to human action and less because it’s a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.
When we are struck by the power of a work of art, we are enveloped by the strange power that objects can hold over us—an emergent and seemingly impossible subjectivity arising from its objecthood. Often, we ignore objects and treat them as mere equipment, tools that we employ in the execution of our daily tasks. Heidegger points out that it is when these tools break down that they become objects (German: Gegenstand—literally, that which “stands against” one). Objects, in the strong sense, are obstacles; they oppose us, hinder our progress through the world. When the hammer (Heidegger’s favorite example) breaks down, we fix it (thus returning it to the status of equipment) or we toss it away (thus removing it as an obstacle). For the most part, in this line of thinking, we don’t deal with objects in the world but rather with equipment.
Artworks, however, are rather special entities. As Kant recognized in the Third Critique, we approach artworks with a particular kind of disinterest; that is, we don’t expect anything practical from the artwork — we don’t expect it to behave as though it were equipment. The artwork retains its objecthood and part of our engagement with the artwork involves our acknowledging the hidden reserve, the uncanny presence, the disturbing intrusion of objects. At its most intense, the experience of the object can be unsettling; often, we just find it somewhat puzzling. Why, we ask, does this poem move us to tears? It can’t be just the subject matter insofar as that is generally familiar and treated in other situations that move us not at all. Why, we wonder, does this particular sculpture seem to make a claim upon us, seem to demand that we not only observe it but somehow accommodate ourselves to it?
One typical recourse for our concern here is to turn toward the artist herself. If the power of the object frightens us, or even if it merely confuses us in its ability to move our emotions and titillate our senses, then perhaps it is better to attribute that power not to the object as such but to the person ostensibly behind the object. Most of us realize this is something of a dodge and yet it remains an enticing temptation to explain (away) the power of the artwork by grappling with the artist, seeing her as a person—perhaps noble, perhaps debased, but a person all the same. This is often the source of the allure of the artist biography.
On the other hand, most readers are uninterested or unprepared for a technical discussion of the work. Besides, that often merely leads us back to the discomfiting intrusion of the object. Moreover, generally people have trouble resisting the prurient details of the lives of others. And artists tend to have more opportunities for compromising personal situations insofar as their bad behavior is dismissed as the price of genius. Hence, the compromise. We want to come to grips with the mysterious pull of the art but in doing so we turn to the person of the artist, which often leads us away from the art. Striking the right balance is difficult and sometimes impossible.
In her 2016 book, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, Rachel Corbett compounds the difficulty by examining the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media. The book, now being released in paperback, has received glowing accolades from numerous sources and won the 2016 Marfield Prize. Obviously, there’s a substantial audience for this kind of book and this kind of writing. One’s opinion of it, however, hinges upon what one seeks in an artist biography. If you’re looking for a narrative that outlines the various entwinements of two great artists, this should be an appealing read. If you’re looking to explore the nature of the art they produced, to come to grips with the strange power it exerts, you would do best to look elsewhere.
Corbett divides the book into three parts. The first, “Poet and Sculptor”, traces the development of both artists from childhood to maturity (or, for Rilke, early maturity) prior to their first encounter. Here we learn about Rodin’s struggle for recognition, his alienation from the establishment, his artistic awakening conditioned by his work as a laborer, and his penchant for becoming romantically involved with his models and students. Meanwhile, we follow Rilke’s transition out of an adolescence overshadowed by a controlling mother who longed to be considered a member of the social elite, his struggles with military school, his marriage, and the contract into which he entered to produce a monograph on Rodin.
Part Two, “Master and Disciple”, comprising the bulk of the book’s pages, gets to the central concern of the book: the relationship between these two artists of very differing temperaments that nonetheless for a time found an artistic kinship. There are several intriguing anecdotes in this section, including the first encounter between Rilke and the woman who took care of Rodin and had his child, Rose Beuret; she apparently didn’t take kindly to Rodin’s disinterest in her at dinner (he failed to even introduce her to his new acolyte). The lesson that Rilke seems to take most to heart from Rodin (both from his impromptu lectures and from the manner in which he lived his life) is the axiom that one’s work must take precedence over one’s very life: travailler, toujours travailler.
Corbett reveals how this mantra of Rodin’s served both to invigorate Rilke’s creative life and impede his personal relationships. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Corbett’s book is her refusal to allow either Rilke or Rodin off the hook. Neither figure comes across as particularly sympathetic; indeed, both seem rather boorish, self-involved, careless of the feelings and needs of others. Perhaps this is not surprising—most biographies of this sort seem to emphasize the trope of the difficult artist—but Corbett’s reluctance to justify or condone their behavior and neglect forces the reader to consider the role of others in the lives of artists (the other as supporter, patron, lover, defender). Eventually, Rilke becomes Rodin’s secretary but this leads to their falling out over a silly misunderstanding. Corbett suggests that this was a necessary separation—a Romantic glorification of the departure of the Prodigal Son—and integral to Rilke’s artistic independence.
The third section, the brief “Art and Empathy”, serves as a denouement, documenting Rodin’s death and touches lightly upon Rilke’s extended affair with the Polish painter Baladine Klossowska. Judging from the title, Corbett probably intended this section to round off the book through a final discussion of a thread that she attempted to weave throughout her narrative: the development of the concept of empathy and its relation to artistic reception and creation. This, however, is one of the starkest weaknesses of the book. Corbett provides only the scantiest space to a rather unilluminating discussion of empathy. As such, it serves as another in a string of attempts to provide a contextualizing “atmosphere” to her narrative by detailing the state of art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This does surprisingly little to clarify the relationship between Rodin and Rilke or to provide any real insight into the creative works of either.
Thus, even as an exploration of the lives of Rilke and Rodin, the book has several flaws. The writing is uneven, shifting between an objective (and rather dry) accounting of the details of their relationship and a rather saccharine adulatory mode that shades into the realm of historical fiction writing at times in its attempts to create a kind of emotional intensity. These melodramatic moments often involve Paula Becker, a painter-friend of Rilke’s wife, the sculptor Clara Westoff. She seems to be a fascinating figure in her own right but she has little to do with the relationship between Rilke and Rodin (they both knew her) and Corbett seems to reserve Becker for injections of pathos. It all feels a little exploitative. Westoff, certainly the more pertinent figure, provides a more interesting angle for consideration insofar as her artistic work was often sacrificed on the altar of Rilke’s career.
I suppose what I found most disappointing about You Must Change Your Life is that it tries to do so many things at once and, in that endeavor, does rather little beyond presenting a not-altogether-compelling narrative of a series of encounters between two great artists. There are many enticing possibilities here: a cultural and philosophical consideration of empathy as a way of connecting with artworks as objects with an uncanny, emergent simulacrum of subjectivity (one that may preclude, at least for Rilke, actual human connection); an investigation into the costs (mostly to women) of the successful creative careers of established artists (mostly men); an exploration of the manner in which one art form inflects another. That last possibility is sorely missed in this book.
Rodin once claimed that Edward Steichen’s photographs of the Balzac sculpture would make the world understand it. This is a stunning claim. A viable path to the comprehension of one artwork is through the contemplation of another. Certainly, Rilke’s poetry, inflected as it was by Rodin’s influence, exemplifies this kind of trans-medial essence but the reader will only get the merest hint of the consequences of this connection in Corbett’s book and hardly any discussion of what that means for our understanding of Rilke or Rodin. And so the artwork as object, obdurate in its refusal to reveal the mystery of its intimations of an affective subjectivity, remains beyond our grasp; anecdote is forced to stand in for comprehension.