The Rilke Series

Starting in the early 1990’s, I began working on a series of paintings and drawings based on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. The paintings and drawings are not illustrations, per se, but rather visual responses to the mood, imagery and rhythms of the poems.

Rilke’s poetry has always struck me as intensely visual. The verses themselves were born frequently out of visual experiences- often responses to specific paintings, sculptures and buildings- and have provided me, in turn, with images of great power and sensitivity. Rilke wrote that it was his “inner conviction that even for what is most delicate and inapprehensible within us, nature has sensuous equivalents that must be discoverable.” This seemed to me to be very much a painter’s thought, and one which was completely consonant with my own feelings as a representational painter.

My first responses to Rilke’s poetry were seen in terms of the landscape. He is of particular interest to me in this regard because his imagery is so beautifully concrete and because it is grounded to such a large extent within the landscape or within landscape associations. He often uses as his starting point descriptions of such natural phenomena as distance, vastness, minuteness, the weather, times of day and the changing effects of the seasons. From these visual effects, he is then able to connect immediately to intimate matters of the human heart, such as growth, transformation, decay, solitude and love. Rilke lived for a period among a group of landscape painters in an artist’s colony at Worpswede. His time there culminated in a beautiful essay, “Concerning Landscape”, in which he reveals his enormous sensitivity to the genre. He understood almost instinctively that the struggle of man to find his place within “Nature” was echoed and developed by painters seeking to place figures within their landscape compositions, not as dominant or as incident, but as an equally eloquent, coexisting yet solitary part.

However, as I continued to read and study Rilke’s work, particularly his extraordinary letters, I began to see immense possibilities for still-life compositions as well. In his letters, he took the same penetrating eye with which he observed the landscape and turned it on the familiar objects that made up so much of his everyday life: flowers particularly, but houses, rooms, windows, and the objects of his craft- books, letters, writing materials. I saw his late cycle of French poems, Les Roses, quite clearly as a series of interior, still-life compositions. His feeling for shape and meaning was so profound that he wrote about every object as if he were a painter composing a still-life painting. There is always reference to the visual experience- to form, space, light, color, texture and movement- all used as a means of eliciting an intense interior presence from the object.

The cross-fertilization between painting and poetry is extremely exciting to me. Rilke has helped me see how the simplest of objects can vibrate with intensity. He was deeply involved in the visual arts, so it seems completely appropriate for him, in turn, to help deepen a painter’s vision. Rilke developed much of his thinking about the concreteness of visual imagery from his association with Rodin and his respect for the plastic aspects of sculpture. He wrote extensively about Cezanne, and Rilke’s love for El Greco prompted a prolonged trip to Toledo which bore fruit in many of the images in the Duino Elegies. In his commentary on Rilke’s poetry, Robert Bly has suggested that in Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Pictures), “Rilke wanted to provide readers with a book that would be like a big room filled with paintings”. My desire is to create just such a room of paintings and drawings, “sensuous equivalents” not only for the poetry but for “what is most delicate and inapprehensible within us”.

The Rilke Series is still in progress. I realize now that when I first began to paint and draw in response to Rilke’s poetry, I had little idea what his work would come to mean to me, what an immovable place he would occupy in the center of my feeling. Like one of his own “abundant” roses, his work continues to open and unforld, revealing ever more beautiful and vulnerable insides;

Abandon surrounds abandon
Tenderness touches tenderness…
You’d think your center would caress
Itself on and on and on…

I do not know what the final shape of the series will be. Rilke continually urges us on to greater and more receptive patience- to not demand answers, but to live fully in life’s questions. And one thing Rilke does for us- so much like painting and drawing- is to locate us in the immediacy of these questions, in the full intensity of our current feelings.

Ephraim Rubenstein