The Art of Looking

· Creative Expression, Essays · , ,

by Christian McEwen

Bernard Bereson once said that he had never really enjoyed any work of art, whether verbal, visual or musical, without sinking his identity into it and somehow “becoming it.” Gazing at the leafy scrolls on the doorjambs of a church outside Spoleto, he felt as if every stem, tendril, and curl of foliage had become alive, and he himself had finally emerged into the light after a long groping in the darkness. He felt “as one illumined,” transported into a world in which every edge and outline was now in sensuous relationship to himself, “and not, as hitherto, in a merely cognitive one.”

Such revelations do not happen casually. As Milner knew, to see like this takes time. One has to know how to stop: to let go of one’s usual worries and preoccupations and simply be there for the leafy foliage (or the poem or the painting or the piece of music) for however long it takes. This is one thing with books or music, both of which can be enjoyed in solitude. It is something else entirely with a piece of visual art. Most are on display in public galleries and museums, and always there are the crowds with their whispering head-sets, let alone the voices of the guides, the printed commentary, the racket of the gift store and the cafe. It is not easy in such circumstances simply to allow oneself to wait.


In 1902, When The Poet Rilke was not yet thirty, he visited Paris for the first time. For years, he had looked at paintings as so many writers look, concentrating on their lyrical or narrative qualities. But at the artists’ colony in Worpswede, he’d met the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, as well as the sculptor Clara Westoff, who later became his wife, and the two women had taught him to see in a new way. From them he learned what he called “this daily attentiveness…this thousand-fold looking…this being-only-eye.” Because of them, he also encountered the work of Rodin and Cezanne, which was, quite literally, to change his life.


Clara Westoff Had Been A student of Rodin in 1900, and Paula too was well acquainted with his work. When Rilke arrived at Rodin’s house, the rapport was immediate. “He was kind and gentle,” Rilke reported back to his wife. “And it seemed to me that I had always known him.” At times, the two men would sit together in the garden, musing, dreaming, neither of them saying a word. After a couple of hours, Rodin would get up and rub his hands.

“We have done a lot of work this morning!” he would say.

The remark was not intended to be ironic; on the contrary. Work, for Rodin, could take many forms. He could withdraw into himself, said Rilke, becoming “blunt and hard towards the unimportant.” But he could also be wholly open and receptive.

[W]hat he gazes at and surrounds with gazing is always the only thing, the world in which everything happens; when he fashions a hand, it is alone in space, and there is nothing besides a hand.

Rodin’s work, the clarity and concentra- tion of his gaze, were for Rilke tremendously inspiring. It was because of Rodin that he wrote “The Panther,” the first of the so- called “thing-poems” (Ding-Gedichte), poems about people and animals and works of art, where the emphasis is less on feeling than on observation, less on the observer than the thing observed. Through Rodin’s example, he came to feel that he too had “patience for centuries,” and could live as though his time were “very large.”

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Photo by Thomas Hawk

In the years that followed, Rilke wrote two essays on Rodin, and made him the subject of several lecture tours. He never met Cezanne, who died in 1906, but he was equally inspired by his work, which he first saw at a memorial exhibition held at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Writing to Clara back in Worpswede, Rilke was brimful of admiration at what the artist had accomplished. He described how Cezanne had used his old drawings as models, piecing together the subjects of his paintings from whatever he could find: apples and wine bottles and some borrowed bed covers.

And (like van Gogh) [he] makes his “saints” out of such things; and forces them—forces them—to be beautiful, to stand for the whole world and all joy and all glory, and doesn’t know whether he has persuaded them to do it for him. And sits in the garden like an old dog, the dog of this work that is calling him again and that beats him and lets him go hungry.

Rilke returned again and again to the exhibit, pausing for as much as two hours in front of a few pictures. Like Marion Milner, he hadn’t known how to look at them at first. He felt puzzled and insecure. And then, “suddenly one has the right eyes.” Standing on the threshold between the two rooms full of pictures, he felt the power of their combined presence. “The good conscience of these reds, these blues their simple truthfulness, it educates you,” he wrote. It was “as if these colors could heal one of indecision once and for all.”


Rilke Was Not The Only one to be inspired in this way. Matisse bought Cezanne’s Three Bathers (now in the Petit Palais, Paris) when he himself had almost no money. The pic- ture shows two chunky nudes reclining on the grass by an idyllic pond, while a third woman stands upright, next to a swaying birch tree. The painting helped Matisse and gave him confidence. “It sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist,” he wrote years later. “I have drawn from it my faith and perseverance.”

One might imagine that such earnest concentrated looking had fallen out of fashion. But not at all. When writer Lawrence Wechsler was covering the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, he returned over and over to the nearby Mauritshuis, to commune with the three Vermeers that were on display: Diana and Her Companions, the Girl with a Pearl Earring, and the View of Delft. Jangled as he was from the long days of painful testimony, he marveled at the

“centered serenity” he felt in their presence, as if it were something that the paintings themselves had the power to bestow.

Festina lente, says the Latin tag. “Make haste slowly.” Or in relationship to looking: look again.

Christian McEwen is a freelance author and poet. She leads writing workshops throughout the US, and has shared her craft here at the Monastery.

From World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. Copyright © 2011 by Christian McEwen. Reprinted by permission of Bauhan Publishing, LLC.

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