Kessler Continued: On Rilke, His Lips & War

Following up on my previous post about this extraordinary 900-page book — I finished it last night — here are a few more remarkable passages around which I drew my customary lines, stars, and exclamation marks:

Paris, February 1905:

With [Théodore] Duret to Mademoiselle Courbet, Courbet’s sister. Works of Courbet from all periods, especially interesting the Demoiselles de la Seine (around ‘66) and quite early pictures from Courbet’s childhood when he was fifteen to seventeen. In the Demoiselles, although later than Manet’s and Monet’s Déjeuner, no "plain air,“ no colored shadows on the dresses (perhaps a little blue in the face of one). In the quite early pictures astonishingly there is already Courbet’s unique, completely new application of color with which he started modern painting. So Courbet achieved this revolutionary new way of painting himself. His sister confirms that he received no instruction in painting in Ornans. Everything was genial intuition. With that a major problem in modern painting is solved.

Weimar, June 1906:

Opening of the Artists League Exhibition… The most interesting thing in the exhibition the painting by quite a young artist who is exhibiting for the first time: Max Beckmann, Naked Boy on the Beach. Like Signorelli and with qualities of Courbet and Cézanne, but nevertheless strongly original in the rhythm of its accents and in its tonality, which has a marvelous unity. I introduced myself to Beckmann and congratulated him.

Berlin, two days later:

Beckmann lunched with me in the Carlton. He spoke of the romance of life that he feels so keenly, the romance of the quite common, everyday life. Poe-Whistler… He is through and through a painter, which is seldom the case with Germans.

Berlin, December 1907:

In the evening the Rilkes came to dinner. She has something great and simple, willful, almost masculine. He appears to be the more feminine of the two. When he sits, while speaking, crunched up in his chair, his legs and arms crossed, you get the impression from his thin body and his soft voice, that sounds as if were the pleading, of an ugly young girl. He spoke of Prague, Russia, Paris, always in quite long, soft, somewhat precious sentences.

Berlin, February 1910:

Met the writer Sternheim at the Meier-Graefes’ in the evening. He has a rather elegant wife off of whose money he lives. He was introduced to me yesterday by Cassirer and immediately laid out a plan for a writer’s trust. Today he launched into obscure theories about tragedy. In a tragedy, the hero is not tragic, but the world around his hero, his milieu. That’s why Hamlet for example should actually be called "the world around Hamlet,” Lear, “the world around Lear,” etc… I asked Sternheim what then was the difference between the hero and a madman? Clearly he couldn’t answer for he employed all sorts of metaphysical expressions. Meier-Graefe asked me, while I was leaving, what I thought of Sternheim. I said, “Crazy.” As Meier-Graefe later told me, Sternheim said to him, when he went back to his guests, “How happy I am to have met Count K. Finally a man who understands me!”

Paris, June 1911:

After breakfast went to the exhibition of the Henry Bernstein collection: Cézannes, Renoirs, Bonnards, Vuillards, etc. There I met Rilke, who was completely taken by the Cézannes. He is now so totally obsessed with Cézanne that he is blind to everything else. Of the mountain in the House in Provence he says, “Since Moses no one has seen a mountain thus.”

Paris, July 1911:

My attention today was fixed almost the entire time on Rilke’s enormously fat lips (especially the lower lip) and on the smell of fruit, which dominates his rooms like in the apple room of an old country house, and circulates in the fresh, warm air from outside, old-fashioned and a little old-maid like. This mouth in this atmosphere, a mixture of the old maid and sensuality. 

Paris, May 1912:

In the evening the premiere of The Rite of Spring. A completely new choreography and music… A thoroughly new vision, something never before seen, enthralling, persuasive, is suddenly there, a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos.

Budapest, February 1915:

Sat alone in the Hungaria in the evening and during this first respite from the immediate presence of the war in seven months, I reflected on it. War is a situation to which you become accustomed, alas. You form bonds in war with an intensity and naiveté such as you only do in youth (Schoeler, Below). We are fearful in normal life and only under fire, confronting death, do we ask ourselves why, like the child when the curtain falls in the theater. This “why,” this somewhat naive problem of the fear of death, becomes gradually clear to you in a war. Gradually you grow numb to shrapnel and death. Paradoxically you live life then all the more intensely: friends, nature, all beauty. War has taught me to love and admire man infinitely more, whom it has revealed to me in all of this horror, baseness, greatness, and sweetness. I have seen him as an animal and as a god.

I’ll end there, though the diaries have another few hundred (compelling, sad) pages to go. Much more of the war. A life in Switzerland. The Epilogue, by the book’s editor and translator, Laird M. Easton, is perfect.

Obviously, Journey to the Abyss is a book I highly recommend. I wish Alex Ross’ terrific essay-review, which prompted me to buy it, was by now in front of the pay wall, but it’s not. I’ve just found another long piece about the book, this time from James Fenton in The Atlantic. It’s titled, appropriately, “Everywhere Man.” About to dig in.

Count Harry Kessler: "You Cannot Waste Time When You're Young"


Last April, I read an extraordinary review-essay by New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross about the following book: Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918. Ross, one of my favorite cultural writers, told a vivid story of someone with seemingly unlimited reach in European cultural circles, someone who might have breakfast with Rilke, discuss art with Rodin over lunch, spend an early evening looking after a deteriorating Nietzsche, and look ahead to a weekend with Vuillard. Or Degas. Or Monet. A man who kept note of it all — not just logging it, but commenting, analyzing, thinking on the page.  

Ross’ piece is still subscription-only (11/23/12 update; he’s posted it his on site), but Amazon’s page for the diaries offers this bit from his New Yorker review:

A document of novelistic breadth and depth, showing the spiritual development of a lavishly cultured man who grapples with the violent energies of the twentieth century…also a staggering feat of reportage. The war fever infected Kessler…[he] does not hide the grimness of the scene. For the reader, it is a shock to be deposited in such hellish landscapes several pages after watching the antics of Diaghilev and company; few books capture so acutely the world-historical whiplash of the summer of 1914…The supreme memoir of the grand European fin de siècle.

Within about 10 minutes of reading Ross’ review, I’d put the book on my Must Buy list, and by the time my birthday rolled around in June, a loved one had gifted it to me. I’m only 330 pages into the 850 total, but I can say that it is indeed extraordinary. 

Here is Kessler in his early 20s, in 1891, writing to himself from Paris:

Went with Papa in the evening to the Folies-Dramatiques. On the way home spoke to him about my project of a trip around the world, and he gave his consent. If everything goes well then from November until next October over Egypt, India, Indochina, Java to Australia, then New Zealand and North America.

That’s how Kessler rolled. 

Berlin, February 1895:

For my part the way in which a girl places her feet while dancing or how a young officer holds his horse with his thigh gives me a joy that, in this way, none of the so-called orthodox works of art can. I find in such movements, of which a drawing, for example — even done by the Japanese — can only provide a snapshot, a secret beauty, an unconscious style, which enchants me more than all the perfect of fixed forms.

Paris, July 1895, amid a visit to Paul Verlaine:

Finally he promised me to draw a portrait of Rimbaud as well as he could from memory, the existing ones, with the exception of the Fantin-Latour, are all bad. He also spoke again today more than was necessary about earning money, but he is so naive in this that his grasping had actually nothing repellent about it. It resembled more the fondness for sweets of a child than the usual greed.

Berlin, 1896:

Yesterday and today I read for the second time, after four years, Schopenhauer’s Principle of Sufficient Reason. It is notable how many new voices books, which like this one are deeply thought, acquire over time, and how difficult it is — I notice this in my marginal notes — to recover the old impressions and thoughts. Such a work, read for the second time — and this is even more true for literature — is like a yardstick against which you can measure the change in your self over time. And there are also works, the most powerful and the deepest, that you must read over and over again throughout your life, which, like medieval cathedrals at different times of the day, in the morning light, in the glow of the afternoon, and in the cool gray of evening, are always changing and becoming new. You cannot waste time when you’re young, otherwise it is too late, and you have missed forever the morning light of the masterpieces, perhaps their most splendid lighting.

Brussels, 1897:

When it comes to art, what the idiot looks for in an artwork is the confirmation of his way of viewing, thus the satisfaction of his vanity. The artist is supposed to prove to him what a fine observer of nature he — the eternally complacent, the good citizen, the Sunday art connoisseur — is. True art demands, however, renunciation temporarily so that afterward you can walk away all the richer. All art that does not enter the nerves and senses of those who enjoy it, so that they who have experienced it see or feel the world from then on with something of the genius of the artist who has moved them, is, in the end, not worth being produced.

Weimar, 1904:

Munch painted my portrait.

My reading continues.

"Triple Canopy Launches Sarajevo Residency"

Art in America reports on this very interesting project:

On June 21, Brooklyn-based online magazine Triple Canopy will begin a two-week residency called Perfect Strangers, in Sarajevo. While in the Bosnian capital, where several of the country’s national cultural institutions were closed earlier this year due to inadequate government support, Triple Canopy will initiate a program of workshops, site-specific visual and textual works, lectures, and publishing. Artworks and other project components will examine Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fraught history and national identity.

The lack of funding, as well as tensions between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, has thwarted the development of cultural infrastructure since the Bosnian War. Triple Canopy deputy editor Molly Kleiman spoke to A.i.A. about the residency as an opportunity to share Triple Canopy’s resources and practices with artists in Sarajevo: “I wanted to bring the working method that we’ve used in New York to Sarajevo.”

Continue reading.