In her 1981 essay ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde’, Rosalind Krauss examined the 18th-century landscapes of William Gilpin and the sculptures of Auguste Rodin to find evidence of ‘a bottomless system of reduplication’. For Krauss, the formulaic components of the picturesque landscape and the casts, re-casts and replication of figures in Rodin’s work upset our accepted conception of artistic originality, finding only that this sense of originality relies in the first place on the modular, the copy. In excavating these postmodern moments from within the oeuvres of such supposedly defined and finalised figures of the past, there is some sense of opening history up and revealing the pores beneath the sheen. But there is also a decisive finality in the tone of her reading that speaks more of the power of the discursive anachronism, the handy ability to re-read the past according to the present.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke had for a period in 1905 worked as Rodin’s secretary in Paris. Krauss mentions him almost dismissively as one of those who dotingly fortified the vision of the artist as a singular genius. Rilke’s own strain of ‘thing-poems’ based on concrete observations of objects arose from his responses to the work of both Rodin and Paul Cézanne, and in a public lecture given in 1907 he set out an imaginative manifesto for ‘things’. Presented as a talk ostensibly about Rodin, Rilke refused to mention the artist by name or speak directly about any of his work, instead asking the audience to think of their own objects they have experienced intimately. The thing, he claims, is just a surface we invest in and so alter ourselves, and, in recognising this, ‘art returns to its humble dignified place in everyday life, to craft’. Rilke stakes art’s potency and relevance on an open-ended gambit: ‘For the question as to whether something can come to life does not depend on great ideas, but rather on whether he makes of them a craft, an ongoing project that remains with him to the end.’