June 19, 2020

Rainer Maria Rilke:
Duino Elegies

Bobbie Sheng explores the symbiotic relationship between the poet and visual artists of his time and tracks the enduring influence of his poetry on artists working today.

<p>Rainer Maria Rilke, 1928. Photo: Lou Andreas-Salomé</p>

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1928. Photo: Lou Andreas-Salomé

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1928. Photo: Lou Andreas-Salomé

More than ever
the things of experience are falling away, since
what ousts and replaces them is an act with no image.
An act, under a crust that will split, as soon as
the business within outgrows it, and limit itself differently.
Between the hammers, our heart
lives on, as the tongue
between the teeth, that
in spite of them, keeps praising.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Ninth Elegy”1


In 1912, Rainer Maria Rilke received an invitation from Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis—his longtime patron and closest friend—to stay at Duino Castle, a picturesque fortress just north of Trieste, Italy. There, while standing atop a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea, Rilke claimed to hear the following line: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” That evening, the poet immediately set to work, turning these words into the opening lines of what would eventually become the Duino Elegies.

For the next decade, Rilke would engage in an arduous cycle of labor characterized by violent and sporadic bouts of literary creation. It was not until 1923 that the Duino Elegies emerged in their totality: a collection of ten intensely religious metaphysical poems informed by the anxieties, traumas, and fragmentations brought on by war and modern life. Yet even as they address the interplay between suffering and beauty in human existence, the Elegies nevertheless project a hopeful vision of a more peaceful world. In the century since its creation, Rilke’s seminal work has inspired generations of artists, providing a direct launching point as well as informing broader ruminations on humankind’s fleeting moments of contact with transient, sublime beauty.

Ten years prior to his divine encounter on the Adriatic cliffs, Rilke had moved to Paris to write a monograph on Auguste Rodin, initiating a complex but lasting friendship between the two men. Rilke venerated the sculptor’s ability to translate poetic sentiments into figuration, as exemplified by Rodin’s large bronze cast La muse tragique (1896). Originally conceived as part of the Monument to Victor Hugo (1889)—in which the muse is perched above the French literary giant and whispers inspiration into his ear—this version of La muse tragique takes the form of a single-figure sculpture, thus evoking a heightened pathos befitting its subject’s symbolic identity. The resulting work is perhaps even more haunting than the original monument; the muse’s arm encircles a missing human presence—a negative space that is at once funereal and ethereal.

Auguste Rodin, La muse tragique, 1896, bronze, 30 ¾ × 46 × 49 ¼ inches (78 × 117 × 125 cm). Photo: Rob McKeever

In the 1960s, a young Anselm Kiefer picked up a copy of Rilke’s Rodin monograph, marking his first encounter with the work of sculptor and poet alike. Through Rilke’s evocative prose, Kiefer developed a profound appreciation for Rodin, whose naturalistic touch and tendency toward the monumental would make him one of Kiefer’s most enduring sources of inspiration. But the clearest connection between the two artists emerges through their watercolors and oil paintings: simple yet sensuous nude studies, and fantastical landscapes whose roiling accumulations of pigment and texture delve into the realm of semiabstraction.

Look, trees exist; houses
we live in, still stand. Only we
pass everything by, like an exchange of air.
And all is at one, in keeping us secret, half out of
shame perhaps, half out of inexpressible hope.

—Rilke, “The Second Elegy”

Installation view, Duino Elegies, Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, March 5–June 27, 2020. Artwork © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Rob McKeever

First conceived in 1893, Medardo Rosso’s Bambino ebreo (Jewish Boy) emerged as one of the artist’s most beloved late-career motifs. In a continuing endeavor to represent complex emotion in the young child’s features, Rosso re-created and recast the somber portrait bust several times for numerous exhibitions and personal gifts. In a plaster version of Bambino ebreo of circa 1920–25, Rosso employed wax—normally a preparatory medium—as a finish, harnessing its deathly connotations of impermanence and decay as well as its approximation of the warmth and tenderness of human flesh, his impulse akin to Rilke’s own existential meditations on the temporary nature of life.

For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. 

—Rilke, “The First Elegy”

Medardo Rosso, Bambino ebreo, c. 1920–25, wax on plaster, 9 ⅜ × 7 ⅛ × 5 ¾ inches (23.7 × 17.9 × 14.4 cm). Photo: Rabatti & Domingie

Reminiscing on his formative education, Cy Twombly wrote: “It was impossible to come out of Black Mountain College and not love Rilke.” Forging a direct, powerful connection to the Elegies, Twombly’s painting Duino (1967) marries the artist’s investigations of geometric form with his consistent interest in literature. To create this “blackboard”—one of a group of works named for their evocation of the schoolroom wall—Twombly scrawled, effaced, and reinscribed the name of Rilke’s titular castle in white wax crayon on a dark gray oil ground, positing the act of writing as an artistic gesture in itself.

Cy Twombly, Duino, 1967, oil-based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 70 × 58 inches (177.8 × 147.3 cm) © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo: Rob McKeever

Edmund de Waal, elegie, 2020, kaolin, graphite, gold, oil stick, oak, and ash, in 2 parts, overall: 33 ⅛ × 46 ⅞ × 1 ¾ inches (84 × 119 × 4.5 cm) © Edmund de Waal. Photo: Mike Bruce

On the occasion of Duino Elegies, presented in March 2020 at Gagosian in New York Edmund de Waal produced elegie (2020), a new work in dialogue with Twombly’s painting for which de Waal used his chosen medium of ceramics to improvise on the earlier artist’s trademark handwritten canvases. The connection to Rilke is a personal one for de Waal: his grandmother Elisabeth de Waal (née Ephrussi) was a writer who struck up an extended correspondence about poetry with Rilke himself. De Waal’s diptych is made from kaolin brushed over a pair of wood panels; on top of these chalky surfaces he scribbles literary snippets in graphite and oil stick, partially smearing and overwriting them to simulate the mutability of observation. With its looping, penciled-in script and pale ground, de Waal’s graphic sculpture comprises an aesthetic inverse and creative tribute to Twombly’s Duino—and to the literary legacy of Rilke before him.

1 All quotations from Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies (1923), trans. A. S. Kline, Poetry in Translation (website), 2004, https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/Rilke.php.

Duino Elegies, Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, March 5–June 27, 2020

Black-and-white portrait of Bobbie Sheng

Bobbie Sheng is a press writer for Gagosian. She has held curatorial research positions at the Frick Collection, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

On Anselm Kiefer’s Photography

On Anselm Kiefer’s Photography

Sébastien Delot is director of conservation and collections at the Musée national Picasso–Paris and the organizer of the first retrospective to focus on Anselm Kiefer’s use of photography, which was held at Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut (Musée LaM) in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, France. He recently sat down with Gagosian director of photography Joshua Chuang to discuss the exhibition Anselm Kiefer: Punctum at Gagosian, New York. Their conversation touched on Kiefer’s exploration of photography’s materials, processes, and expressive potentials, and on the alchemy of his art.

to light, and then return—: A Night of Poetry with Edmund de Waal, Elisa Gonzalez, Terrance Hayes, and Sally Mann

to light, and then return—: A Night of Poetry with Edmund de Waal, Elisa Gonzalez, Terrance Hayes, and Sally Mann

Gagosian presented an evening of poetry inside to light, and then return—, an exhibition of new works by Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann, inspired by each other’s practices, at Gagosian, New York. In this video—taking the artists’ shared love of poetry, fragments, and metamorphosis as a point of departure—poets Elisa Gonzalez and Terrance Hayes read a selection of their recent works that resonate with the themes of elegy and historical reckoning in the show. The evening was moderated by Jonathan Galassi, chairman and executive editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Jerome Rothenberg and Charles Bernstein

In Conversation
Jerome Rothenberg and Charles Bernstein

Gagosian and Beyond Baroque Literary | Arts Center hosted a conversation between poets Jerome Rothenberg and Charles Bernstein inside Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition Exodus at Gagosian at Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles. Rothenberg and Bernstein explored some of the themes that occupy Kiefer—Jewish mysticism, the poetry of Paul Celan, and the formulation of a global poetics in response to the Holocaust—in a discussion and readings of their poetry.

Axel Salto: Playing with Fire

Axel Salto: Playing with Fire

On the occasion of the forthcoming exhibition Playing with Fire: Edmund de Waal and Axel Salto, Edmund de Waal composed a series of reflections on the Danish ceramicist Axel Salto and his own practice.

to light, and then return—Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann

to light, and then return—Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann

This fall, artists and friends Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann will exhibit new works together in New York. Inspired by their shared love of poetry, fragments, and metamorphosis, the works included will form a dialogue between their respective practices. Here they meet to speak about the origins and developments of the project.

Anselm Kiefer and Michael Govan

In Conversation
Anselm Kiefer and Michael Govan

On the occasion of his exhibition Anselm Kiefer: Exodus at Gagosian at Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles, the artist spoke with Michael Govan about his works that elaborate on themes of loss, history, and redemption.

Gagosian Quarterly Winter 2022

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Winter 2022

The Winter 2022 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Anna Weyant’s Two Eileens (2022) on its cover.

Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Questionnaire: Anselm Kiefer

Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Questionnaire: Anselm Kiefer

In this ongoing series, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has devised a set of thirty-seven questions that invite artists, authors, musicians, and other visionaries to address key elements of their lives and creative practices. Respondents make a selection from the larger questionnaire and reply in as many or as few words as they desire. For the fourth installment, we are honored to present the artist Anselm Kiefer.

Cy Twombly: Imperfect Paradise

Cy Twombly: Imperfect Paradise

Eleonora Di Erasmo, cocurator of Un/veiled: Cy Twombly, Music, Inspirations, a program of concerts, video screenings, and works by Cy Twombly at the Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio, Rome, reflects on the resonances and networks of inspiration between the artist and music. The program was the result of an extensive three-year study, done at the behest of Nicola Del Roscio in the Rome and Gaeta offices of the Cy Twombly Foundation, intended to collect, document, and preserve compositions by musicians around the world who have been inspired by Twombly’s work, or to establish an artistic dialogue with them.

Cy Twombly: Making Past Present

Cy Twombly: Making Past Present

In 2020, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, announced their plan for a survey of Cy Twombly’s artwork alongside selections from their permanent ancient Greek and Roman collection. The survey was postponed due to the lockdowns necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, but was revived in 2022 with a presentation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from August 2 through October 30. In 2023, the exhibition will arrive at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The curator for the exhibition, Christine Kondoleon, and Kate Nesin, author of Cy Twombly’s Things (2014) and advisor for the show, speak with Gagosian director Mark Francis about the origin of the exhibition and the aesthetic and poetic resonances that give the show its title: Making Past Present.

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Jérôme Sans visits La Ribaute in Barjac, France, the vast studio-estate transformed by Anselm Kiefer over the course of decades. The labyrinthine site, now open to the public, stands as a total work of art, reflecting through its grounds, pavilions, and passageways major themes in Kiefer’s oeuvre: regeneration, mythology, memory, and more. 

La Ribaute: Transitive, It Transforms

La Ribaute: Transitive, It Transforms

Camille Morineau writes of the triumph of the feminine at Anselm Kiefer’s former studio-estate in Barjac, France, describing the site and its installations as a demonstration of women’s power, a meditation on inversion and permeability, and a reversal of the long invisibility of women in history and myth.