“A few days ago Rodin began the portrait of one of your most remarkable authors, which promises to become something quite extraordinary…”
Letter of Rainer Maria Rilke,
April 9th, 1906.
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw managed to impress the young Rainer Maria Rilke merely by sitting before the former poet’s idol and master, Auguste Rodin. “He stands excellently,” Rilke gushed in his letters, “with an energy in his keeping still and with such an absolute giving of himself to the hands of the sculptor.” Rainer, though a background figure at the time, and positively Lilliputian in reputation compared to the eminence of Shaw and Rodin, practically flung himself headlong into their graces. That’s not to suggest that he was sycophantic; merely, naturally, that this young Bohemian wanderer was excited to find himself in orbit with two of the century’s greatest minds and hands. “This personality of Shaw’s,” Rilke continues in his letter, “and his whole manner makes me desirous of reading a few more of his books … would sending me a few of his books be justified if I say that I am hoping to write a little thing about him?”
Rodin photographed by George Bernard Shaw
“Rodin had no interests outside his art,” Shaw later said. “He was the most painstaking sculptor I have ever met. I gave something like thirty sittings, in as many consecutive days, at his studio in Meudon. Rodin took a large number of profiles, adjusting my face by a fraction of an inch for each—spinning my head round by degrees. He took an immense number of measurements and made so many pencil marks on the clay that he used up three pencils before the sittings were over … Somewhere near the thirtieth day I asked him when the bust would be finished. ‘Finished?’ he said in surprise; ‘why, I have hardly begun!’”
“Yesterday,” Rilke wrote in a letter dated April 19th, “he seated Shaw in a cunning little child’s armchair (that ironic and by no means uncongenial scoffer was greatly entertained by all this) and cut off the head of the bust with a wire.” Rilke added that, rather than being perturbed by the sight of his effigy being cut into pieces, “Shaw, whom the bust was already remarkably like, in a superior sort of way, watched this decapitation with indescribable joy.”
“Rodin was a passionate collector of pebbles. He would go out to the beach, or into the street, and pick up any pebble presenting in his imagination a resemblance to human features. He also collected large pieces of rock, and for the same reason. At first he accommodated these treasures in glass cases in his own house, then, when the collection grew too big for that, he rented a separate building for them. It was a sign of the highest favour on the part of Rodin to present someone with one such pebble or piece of rock.”
~ George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw continued: “From the clay model he made two casts, one in marble and one in bronze. The bronze one is in my possession, while the marble one is in Dublin. For some unfathomable reason my friends and admirers have covered this marble bust with their pencilled signatures.”
Of Shaw, Rilke concluded that he “is a man who has a very good way of getting along with life, of putting himself into harmony with it … Proud of his works, like Wilde or Whistler, but without their pretentiousness, proud as a dog is proud of his master.”