Rachel Corbett on Rodin, Rilke and the power of mentorship

Eleanor speaks with biographer Rachel Corbett about the unlikely friendship between German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
Rachel Corbett is the executive editor of Modern Painters magazine. (Rainer Ganahl)
Listen to the full episode52:20

In 1902, the young German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was commissioned to write a short book about the world's most famous sculptor, France's Auguste Rodin. The two met in Paris, where they got along well, and Rilke discovered in Rodin exactly what he was looking for in a mentor. Rilke went on to become the most translated 20th century German poet, influenced to a surprising degree by Rodin's total dedication to the artist's life.

Biographer Rachel Corbett traces the story of Rodin and Rilke in her book You Must Change Your Life. Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Corbett from the CBC's New York studio.

Why Rodin was rejected from art school

There's a story out there that says to get into the Grande École des Beaux-Arts, you have to sculpt in front of a group, and apparently Rodin was extremely theatrical — clay flying everywhere, his arms waving around — and it was just hysterical, and he was essentially laughed out of the room. But there's also a belief that he'd already developed a style of misproportioned bodies by then, which he would carry throughout his life and which may have been held against him.

Rilke's quest to find a mentor

When Rilke was commissioned to write about Rodin, he spent the summer researching him, and he really became interested in the work. The first time they met was in the summer of 1902, when Rilke got permission to observe Rodin in his studio. Rodin was an older man, and a very successful sculptor, so Rilke may have seen him as someone he could attach himself to and learn from. I think he was so attracted to sculptors because they literally formed objects, and he saw himself as this unformed, unreal being. He suffered from writer's block often — I think he knew he had real talent, but he lacked discipline and focus. He wanted someone who had a work ethic to live by — not just a talent to learn from, but a way of living to learn from. And he really found that in Rodin, because Rodin was utterly disciplined.

How Rodin influenced Rilke's thinking

At the time, Rilke was thinking of art as a really big thing. He was thinking too big, too broad. He was looking at love and death, and he was coming out of the German Romantic tradition, which is big and sentimental. He was trying too hard, and his early poems are really gushy love poems that are a bit embarrassing, really. Rodin made equally big work, but that's not how he started. He started with a fingertip, then a finger, then a hand, and the meaning came later. The meaning came out of the doing. Rodin taught Rilke to start small, to start with an object and observe it and then as you build upon it, art results.

Rachel Corbett's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Gnossiennes No. 5" composed by Erik Satie, performed by Aldo Ciccolini.