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This article is taken from PN Review 54, Volume 13 Number 4, March - April 1987.

Discoveries of Life: Rainer Maria Rilke John Pilling
Rainer Maria Rilke

In an essay of 1902, Rilke writes of a Leonardo who had mastered 'all the arts' in order to 'speak in them, as if in a variety of languages, of his life and his life's discoveries'. What Rilke especially admired in Leonardo was his unparalleled ability to blend subjectivity and objectivity, epitomized by the juxtaposition of the human figure and the landscape of La Gioconda. As if intent upon dismantling this painting's status as an 'enigma', Rilke insists that it is really a 'confession', though in what follows he concentrates his attention on the issue of atonement:


To see landscape thus, as something distant and foreign, something remote and without allure, something entirely self-contained, was essential, if it was ever to be a medium and an inspiration for an autonomous art; for it had to be distant and very different from us, if it was to be capable of becoming a redemptive symbol for our destiny. It had to be almost hostile in its sublime indifference, if it was to give a new meaning to our existence . . .


This is highly speculative art history of the kind we are supposed to deplore, like Rilke's comparable remarks on Cézanne. But even if we discount academic prejudice, it is clear that a passage like this tells us more about Rilke, and his aesthetic preferences, than it does about the Mona Lisa, Leonardo or the history of landscape painting. ...


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