VALENTINA MIR – Memories of Duino
This series of images by Valentina Mir is dedicated to the memory of Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the most celebrated of 20th century poets, whose uncertainties and visionary outcries have made him, for us in posterity, both an exemplar and a warning.
The Duino Elegies, which are perhaps the best known of all Rilke’s works, were originally begun during a stay at the castle of Duino, on the other side of the peninsula from Porto Piccolo, where this exhibition takes place. Rilke was there as the guest of his friend and patron the Princess of Thurn und Taxis. A branch of the Thurn und Taxis family, now re-named Torre e Tassis, and today Italian citizens, still occupy the castle.
One of the ironies of the story of the creation of the poem sequence is that the poet had to wait until his hosts were absent, and he was left in solitude at Duino, to begin this heroic series. Another irony is that he was unable to complete it there, as he suffered, even more than most poets, from bouts of writer’s block.
The series was begun in 1912 and was finally brought to a conclusion ten years later, when Rilke was a guest at another castle belonging to a different friend – the Château de Muzot in Switzerland’s Rhone Valley. It was finally published in 1923.
Though the sequence immediately became, and has remained, famous, as one of the foremost achievement of German-language culture in the 20th century, this acclaim has not been absolutely universal. For example, the eminent German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, in his book The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), went so far as to suggest that the Duino Elegies were “essentially evil”. “The evil in the neoromantic lyric,” Adorno declared, “consists in the fitting out of the words with a theological overtone, which is belied by the condition of the lonely and secular subject who is speaking there: religion as ornament.”
The deliberate fragmentation of images that Mir presents us with here to some extent seems to agree with and support Adorno’s criticism. The one truly stable element in her presentation is a single unified image of the Adriatic in a moment of calm. One looks at it and looks out at a limitless horizon. This is a view that one sees not just from the castle of Duino, but from many viewpoints in Porto Piccolo next door.
The other images are a bringing together of things from many different epochs and cultural sources. There are period photographs, and arts works from many sources. In Image 5, for example, one sees both a portrait drawing of Rilke by Leonid Pasternak, and, widely separated from this, a picture of one of Rodin’s most challengingly erotic sculptures, the headless nude figure, lacking not only a head but one of her arms, of Iris, Messenger of the Gods, which dates from c.1895, twenty years or so before the Duino Elegies began to be born.
Though Rodin’s career, as especially the latter part of it, coincided with the rise of the Europe-wide Symbolist Movement, to which Rilke also to some extent belonged, it comes as at least a small surprise to be confronted with how much he and this German-language poet had in common. The drastic incompleteness of Iris does of course look back, as critics have noted, to the even more drastically incomplete Origin of the World by Courbet, a female torso that delivers an equivalent, or greater, degree of shock.
It also, however, links through somehow to the uncertain cry with which the first of the Duino Elegies begins: “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders.?” Rodin’s sculpture, much more that Courbet’s painting, offers a figure that is still seeking to complete itself, rather than something that has been deliberately and brutally cropped to focus our attention on its sexuality. A notable fact, at least for an English speaker like myself, without much command of the German language, is that there appears to be no one absolutely authoritative translation of the Duino Elegies into English, though multiple attempts have been made. There seem to be at least twenty different versions, made at various times since the poet’s death soon after the sequence was finally completed.
The way in which Valentina Mir treats her visual materials seems to march in step with this aura of uncertainty. Even where there is a frame, the images escape from it.
The series is in fact an example of the power of images without words, yet at the same time it illustrates how the images that Rilke created from words resonate together, as they collide. Each collection of images – the exhibition is a sequence of such collections – is a kind of small symphonic work, which in turn is made up of visual echoes, some fading into the distance, others thrusting themselves into the foreground, ready for more detailed inspection.
As the artist point out the idea a window is fundamental to the project. These windows, as she tells us, “respect the proportions of the historical windows of the castle”. It is through them that one meets the vast expanse of the Adriatic, lapping the shores of the peninsula upon which the castle stands.
Yet windows do not only look outward. They also offer an invitation to look within. Valentina Mir speaks of a process she calls ‘miramorphosis’. Essentially, she is trying to unpack the contents of the poet’s mind.
The ambiguities that Adorno objected to, which were for him a subversion of established collective values, a process, so he felt, of turning them into mere (in his own choice of word) “ornament”, are here seen, more charitably, as the unpacking not merely of the poet’s mind, but of a soul. This soul discovers itself through examining sequences of images, long hoarded within itself. The collages show here are tributes to a new kind of individualism, a step further forward than the kind of individualism that characterised the Romanticism of the 19th century.
Adorno may or may not have been correct is seeing this as a threat to the stability of society, but it is what we live with now, nearly a century after Rilke finally completed his great sequence of poems.