Marguerite Wildenhain often read to us while we sat eating our bagged lunches under the tree or in the sunshine by the door of the barn at Pond Farm. When she read her translation of Auguste Rodin’s Testament I felt moved to tears. I pass it on for the next generations of potters, sculptors, and artists to feast upon:
AUGUSTE RODIN: TESTAMENT
Translated by Marguerite Wildenhain
You, young men, who want to be the officiants of Beauty, may it please you to find here the summing-up of a long experience.
Love devotedly the masters who have preceded you.
Incline yourselves before Phidias and Michel-Angelo. Admire the divine serenity of the one, the fierce anguish of the other. Admiration is a generous wine for noble spirits.
Nevertheless, beware of imitating your elders. Respectful of tradition, learn to discern what it contains that is eternally fecund: the love of Nature, and Sincerity. These are the two strong passions of the geniuses. All have adored Nature, and they have never lied. Thus tradition hands you the key, thanks to which you can evade routine. It is the tradition itself that asks you to question reality over and over, and that forbids you to blindly submit yourself to any master.
May Nature be your only goddess. Have in her absolute faith. Be certain that she is never ugly and limit your ambition to being true to her. Everything is beautiful for the artist, for in every being and in everything, his look will discover the character, that means the interior truth which shines through the form. And this Truth is Beauty itself. Study religiously: you cannot miss finding Beauty for you will encounter Truth.
You, sculptors, try to fortify inside of you the sense of depth. The mind has difficulty to get familiar with this notion.
It imagines distinctly only the surfaces. It is not easy for it to visualize forms in depth. All the same, this is your task.
Above all, establish clearly the large planes of the figures that you are sculpting. Accentuate vigorously the orientation that you give to each part of the body, head, shoulders, pelvis, legs. Art requires decision. It is through the well-stated lines that you are able to catch depth. When your planes are set, all is found. Your statue is already alive. The details grow and place themselves out of their own.
When you model, do not ever think in terms of surface, but of relief. Let your mind conceive all surface as the extremity of a volume that is pushed out from the back. Imagine the forms as being pointed towards you. All life surges from the center, then grows and blossoms from the inside towards the outside. In the same way, in beautiful sculpture one can always feel an interior impulsion. This is the secret of the antique art.
You, painters, observe in the same way the reality in depth. Look, for instance, at a portrait painted by Raphael. When this master shows a person from the front, he makes the chest go obliquely and gives you thus the illusion of the third dimension. All great painters have tried to sound space. It is in this notion of depth that their strength resides. Remember this: there are no traits, there are only volumes. When you are drawing, don’t worry about the contour, but about the relief.
Practice without end. Break yourself at your job. Art is only feeling. But without this knowledge of the volumes, of proportion, of colors, without the skill of the hand, the most alive feeling is paralyzed. What would the greatest poet become in a country whose language he would ignore? In the new generation of artists there are numbers of poets who, unhappily, refuse to learn to speak! Thus all they do is stammer. Be patient! Do not count on inspiration. It does not
exist. The only qualities of the artist are wisdom, attention, sincerity, will. Accomplish your work like honest workers.
Be truthful, young men. But that does not mean be flatly exact. There is a low exactitude, that of the photography and of the casting. Art begins only with the inner-truth. May all your forms, all your colors, express feelings. The artist who is satisfied with the make-believe and who reproduces servilely details without value, will never become a master. If you have visited any cemetery in Italy, you certainly have noticed with what childishness the craftsmen in charge of the decoration of the tombstones have tried to imitate embroidery, lace, hair-do in their statues. Perhaps they are correct, but they are not true, for they do not speak to the soul. Nearly all our sculptors remind you of those Italian cemeteries. No inner-truth, thus no art. Be in horror of this junk!
Be profoundly, fiercely truthful. Never hesitate to express that which you feel, even when you find yourself in opposition to general ideas. You may not be understood at once, but your isolation will be short. Friends will soon come to you; for that which is deeply true for one man, is so for all. No grimaces, though—no contortions to attract the public! Simplicity, naiveté! The most beautiful subjects are in front of you: they are those that you know best.
My very great and very dear friend Eugene Carrier, who left us so soon, showed his genius painting his wife and his children. It was enough for him to celebrate maternal love to be sublime. The masters are those men who look with their own eyes at what everybody has seen, and can see the beauty in that which is too common for other minds.
Bad artists always wear other people’s boots!
The great thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live. To be a man before being an artist. Real eloquence, said Pascal, laughs at “eloquence.” Real Art laughs at “Art.” Again I cite the example of Eugene Carrier. In the shows, most pictures are just “Painting:” his seemed among the others, as windows open on life!
Accept the fair criticisms. You will recognize them easily. They are those that confirm some doubt that has been worrying you. Don’t let yourself be hurt through those that your conscience does not admit. Don’t be afraid of unjust criticisms. They will revolt your friends. It will force them to reflect on the sympathy that they have for you and they will more resolutely show it when they more clearly discern the motives for this sympathy.
If your talent is fresh, you will have only few partisans at first and you will have a multitude of enemies. Don’t be discouraged. The first ones will triumph, for they know why they love you: the others ignore why you are odious to them. The first ones are passionate for truth and recruit without end new adherents: the others do not show any lasting zeal for their false opinion. The first are tenacious: the others turn to any wind. Victory of truth is certain.
Do not waste your time trying to knot social or political ties. You will see many of your colleagues arrive through intrigue to honor and fortune: they are not real artists. Some of them nevertheless, are very smart and if you should try to compete with them on their terrain, you will have to consume just as much time as they do, that means your total existence: you won’t have a minute left to be an artist. Love passionately your mission. There is none more beautiful. It is much loftier than the common man believes.
The artist gives a great example. He adores his profession; his most precious reward is the joy of doing it well. Actually, alas, one convinces workers to hate their work and to sabotage it. The world will not be at peace till all men have artists’ souls; that is, when all have pleasure in their tasks.
Art is also a magnificent lesson in sincerity. The real artist expresses always what he thinks at the risk of upsetting all established prejudices. He thus teaches frankness to his fellow men.
Now, let us imagine what wonderful progress would be realized at once, if absolute truthfulness reigned among men! Oh, how society would quickly reject all errors and ugliness that she would have admitted, and with what rapidity would our earth become a Paradise!