The Best Advice

5 Feb 2014

Joe Paquet (see our Voices of Experience interview for Members) reminded us of this profound quote from poet Rainer Maria Rilke:  "If your environment seems poor, blame yourself. Tell yourself you are not poet enough to call forth its richness." Paquet credits Rilke's quote with helping him to understand that he did not necessarily need to travel the world to find inspiration, but that he needed to fine-tune his sensitivity and see the inspiration that was always around him.

Baking the Bread by Anders Zorn, oil painting, 1889.
Baking the Bread by Anders Zorn, oil painting, 1889.

Hearing the quote again inspired us to re-read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. The ten letters were written by Rilke between 1903 and 1908 to aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus and offer insights just as applicable to the visual artist. Exhibitions, competitions and organizations all have their places in the world of art, but they are subject to the changing winds of popular tastes and so are not the measure of an artist's work. To look to others for approval and estimation about how to paint can be an invitation to needless suffering and self-doubt. Rilke's words are reminder to all of us to make a commitment to our work not based on outward approval, but to find our inspiration in Nature and in our everyday lives.  

In the excerpts below, simply substitute the word "paintings" for "poems" and this advice applies equally to artists as well.

"You ask if your verses are good. You ask me. You have previously asked others. You send them to journals. You compare them with other poems, and you are troubled when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (as you have permitted me to advise you) I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple "I must", then build your life according to this necessity; your life must, right to its most unimportant and insignificant hour, become a token and a witness of this impulse. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, as if you were one of the first men, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. . . ."

"Turn therefore from the common themes to those which your own everyday life affords; depict your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts and belief in some kind of beauty - depict all that with heartfelt, quiet, humble sincerity and use to express yourself the things that surround you, the images of your dreams and the objects of your memory. If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches; since for the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place. . . ."

"And if from this turning inwards, from this sinking into your private world, there come verses, you will not think to ask anyone whether they are good verses. You will not attempt, either, to interest the journals in these works:  for you will see in them your own dear genuine possession, a portion and a voice of your life. A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate:  there is no other."

Join us on The Artist's Road for more inspiring and thoughtful articles.

--John and Ann


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