“She sways like a premonition on the prow of his shoulder …” – Rodin at the Alte Nationalgalerie

The Alte Nationalgalerie is paying tribute to the great Rodin on the 100th anniversary of his death with a mixed-media exhibition: “Rodin – Rilke – Hofmannsthal. Man and his Genius”. Ralph Gleis, the Director of the Alte Nationalgalerie, describes how Rodin’s work influenced the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Interview: Friederike Schmidt (deutsche Version)

The special exhibition “Rodin – Rilke – Hofmannsthal. Man and his Genius” is no ordinary Rodin exhibition, because besides Rodin as a sculptor, it also deals with the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. What is the relationship between these three giants of the fin de siècle?
Ralph Gleis: The starting point of the exhibition is Rodin’s small sculpture, Man and his Genius – or The Hero, as it was also titled. It is closely linked to the work of two literary figures. One of them was Rainer Maria Rilke, who worked as the artist’s private secretary for a time and whose writings played a great part in making Rodin popular in Germany. The other was Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who visited Rodin in his studio during a visit to Paris in 1900. Among other pieces there, he saw the plaster model of Man and his Genius, and immediately commissioned a bronze cast of it. Hofmannsthal stood the bronze in his study, where it lent him inspiration and creative energy for over twenty years. When financial hardship forced him to part with the statuette, it was Rilke who he approached to help him sell it. As a close associate of Rodin’s and a connoisseur of his work, Rilke had good contacts with collectors and various museums. He arranged for Werner Reinhardt, a Swiss collector, to buy the piece. After the latter’s death in 1951, the statuette was offered for sale by his brother Georg and went onto the American art market, where it was ultimately purchased for the collection of the Nationalgalerie (the one in West Berlin) in 1961. At the time that Rilke was helping to get the small bronze sold, his own creative development was in a state of crisis. However, dealing with the figure – and especially with Rodin once again – allowed him to find new confidence. He composed Nike, which is one of his few poems that can be linked directly to a specific work of art. So this sculpture has been the catalyst for literary creation in two quite different situations. It is more than just a representation of inspiration in the medium of sculpture; it has also provided the stimulus for new compositions.

“Man and his Genius” is not one of Rodin’s best-known works – and yet it triggered the creation of new works, as you say. How is this quality apparent?
In a certain way, Rodin refused to produce ‘finished’ work. His figures seem to have been torn out of the flow of a creative process, making a fragmentary quality into an acceptable attribute of a work of art. This is what makes the sculpture that we have so special. The fragmentary nature of the Genius figure, which lacks a head and arms, makes demands on the viewer’s imagination, which has to take over from the eyes where the material embodiment ends. Rodin’s artistry achieves perfection-through-incompleteness in the torso, which already contains all that he wanted to express. It is the male figure that remains open to multiple interpretations, be it a hero or a thinker. Is the Genius, in female form, departing from him, or is the creative spirit descending on him? The theme of this bronze is ever-elusive inspiration, the creative instant that Rodin captures in other works too. In many of them, he is concerned with a creative process, with representing a man as a creator, so to this extent at least, his art is self-referential. Our bronze of Man and his Genius is more than a work of art created for gazing at, it is a mental stimulus cast in material form, which inspires poets to create immaterial forms of their own.

Ralph Gleis, Director of the Alte Nationalgalerie in the exhibition "Rodin – Rilke – Hofmannsthal. Man and his Genius“ © Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz
Ralph Gleis, Director of the Alte Nationalgalerie in the exhibition “Rodin – Rilke – Hofmannsthal. Man and his Genius“ © Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz

What points of identification does Rodin’s work offer to writers?
The scope for identification offered by Rodin’s art, which thematically often revolves around deeds of the spirit, inspiration, and the creative act, must be particularly great for artists and especially for writers. The wait for an insight, the joy of creation, and the painful loss of inspiration are among the genuine experiences of the artist, which he struggles with and not infrequently fails to overcome. But the working process itself also played an essential role in the triangle of relationships between Rodin, Rilke, and Hofmannsthal, which has hardly been explored up to now. In his essays about Rodin, Rilke compared – not without reason – the art of sculpture with literary creation, just as Hofmannsthal would later change his way of working to reflect Rodin’s approach. For instance, in a letter from around 1900, he wrote that he was “sitting amongst rubble, half-captured figures, and details, like Rodin amongst plaster hands, feet and broken-off wings.”

In the exhibition, the statuette is presented in front of a wall on which Rilke’s poem, Nike, is displayed in large print. What new perspectives open up when we reflect on the statuette with the poem in the background?
If we see Rodin’s work through Rilke’s eyes, we engage with a version of how the writer fills the deliberate gap left for interpretation by the bronze and completes the work, in a way, through the medium of poetry. It is a stimulating experience, as viewers, to construct a story of our own from this constellation of works.

The Alte Nationalgalerie possesses quite a large collection of pieces by Rodin. How did these works come to be here?
Rodin in the Nationalgalerie – that story goes back a long way; it’s almost a tradition. Key works by the French sculptor have been exhibited on the Museumsinsel in Berlin since the turn of the century. It was under a new director, Hugo von Tschudi, that the Nationalgalerie acquired Rodin’s first work in October 1896. In fact, it was donated by the artist Max Liebermann: a cast of a bust of Jules Dalou, which had been sculpted in 1883. Liebermann accompanied the director to Paris on a purchasing tour that has since become almost legendary, because among the paintings that they brought back to Berlin was Édouard Manet’s Winter Garden; it was the first time that work by this Impressionist had ever entered a museum collection.
By 1905, three more major works by Rodin had been acquired for the Nationalgalerie, including The Thinker – each of them paid for privately by art lovers, because French art found no favor with the official purchase committee. These masterpieces have now been brought together on a stage, or a studio floor, alongside works from the Musée Rodin and the Kunsthalle Bremen. They all revolve around Rodin’s central theme: inspiration, the act of artistic creation. This bipolar concept makes it possible to produce a close-up view, a precisely laid-out object history in a cabinet style, which allows visitors to engage with Rodin from a variety of perspectives and disciplines, and combine it successfully with the format of a major show in homage to the sculptor in the Hall of the Impressionists.

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