This essay will take you to Rome and Paris, but I want to begin in China. The I Ching or Book of Changes is one of the classics of Chinese philosophy and literature. One part of the work gives pictures of states of mind or being which the reader can explore. Our modern Western understanding may well describe the book as helping to integrate conscious and unconscious elements in the soul – the spiritual and the pragmatic. This was how Carl Jung, the leading psychotherapist, saw it. The I Ching works with abstract representations of the polar qualities of yin and yang, qualities which are mutually generative and supportive. It formalises the deep sense of active interconnectedness of events which is the heart of the Tao. I want to give you three of the images from the I Ching as a prelude to this essay on movement. The image in which Heaven, or the creative (yang), stands above Earth, or the receptive (yin), is called Standstill or Stagnation. The two principles have withdrawn into their own tendencies, there is no interaction. The wise man is encouraged to withdraw, he “turns to his inner worth”. In every picture in the I Ching there is the possibility of change, of movement, but this picture of Heaven and Earth as separate is a moment of stagnation in the cycle.
Reverse the relationship and place Heaven fully beneath the earth and the picture is seen as Peace or Contentment. This is union and the wise man is encouraged to direct his will outwards. I will bring in one more image which does not try to capture one of these two extremes but which is called ‘Keeping Still’. The heavenly is above but not dominating, the earthly is strong. It is also, in the I Ching, called the image of ‘Mountain’. There is mention of the back in the exploration of this image. It leads to the advice:
keeping one’s back still
so that restlessness dissolves
Rest and movement belong together – one is always ready for the other. Keeping one’s back still is not the same as making it rigid: “this is dangerous!” warns the text:
“Enforced quiet, subduing the self by force, is wrong. A fire, when smothered, changes to acrid smoke. Likewise, to induce calmness by artificial rigidity suffocates the heart and one’s meditation is soured”.
I appreciate the distinction that the I Ching draws between the more simple state of ‘Peace’ and the more mixed state of ‘Keeping Still’. In each picture there is the development that will come. One of the possibilities or realities found in the image of Mountain, of ‘Keeping Still’, is that:
“To halt, even before beginning to move,
Is no mistake. Be patient. Persevere.”
The commentary goes on to speak of the clarity and innocence of a beginning; it is “a time of few mistakes”. For this very reason, it is a good time to halt, to intensify the clarity and connection one has with the task, to do just enough to form one’s place in the activity, to live more fully in the keeping still. I find this a beautiful way of discovering the power of Inhibiting in the practice of the Alexander Technique: the restful energetic presence of a still but not rigid back.
Now I go to Rome, to early seventeenth century Rome and the genius of Gianlorenzo Bernini, and in particular, to one early, famous sculptural group of his, ‘Apollo and Daphne’. But first a mention of his ‘David’ as an introduction. There had been the earlier free standing statues by Donatello, Verrochio and Michaelangelo, all more than a hundred years old by the time Bernini begins work. It was quite an undertaking to set his own statue alongside these Florentine masterworks. It is recorded that Bernini modelled the face in his own likeness and had his assistants draw him in the pose he wanted. Previous statues had shown David either before or after the combat with Goliath: Bernini shows David in the act of beginning the movement of twisting in preparation for releasing the rock from the sling he holds stretched between his hands. Charles Avery in his study of Bernini gives an important insight into the thinking of the sculptor behind the composition and its placement in the Villa Borghese. Originally the spectator would have been led into gradually experiencing the nature of the body’s twisting and the intent of the movement. David’s right toes “urgently clutch the very edge of the base” suggesting “subliminally that the statue is stepping into the ‘real’ world”. The viewer comes on round the statue and as she experiences the tension in the plaited cords of the sling – “the sculptor’s technical prowess in cutting away durable marble… from all round those narrow extensions is breathtaking. It is a miracle they have never snapped” (Bernini, p 71). The viewer then arrives so as to be “seeing the distant Goliath in his mind’s eye almost from David’s point of view”. The movement in the statue is experienced through the movement of the viewer. This is something new in human experience.
One of the other four unbelievable sculptures which Bernini created in the five years (of his early twenties) at the Villa Borghese is the group of ‘Apollo and Daphne’. First, the story. Apollo, having slain Python with his bow and arrows, tries to take away the same implements from Cupid whom he feels is not worthy of such noble weapons. Cupid refuses, and strikes Apollo with the arrow to excite love, and the nymph Daphne, the daughter of the river God, with the arrow which repels love. He falls in love with her and she rejects him. Eventually in the chase, as he reaches her, she calls out to her father to be rescued or for her form to be changed, and she is made into a tree, the laurel tree. Bernini’s statue captures her poised between these two states of being: her toes are sprouting roots, her fingers are bursting into leaf, but her head still twists away from Apollo’s grasp and her mouth is open in a cry. I find it difficult to express my intense feelings for this perfect work of art. Going again to Charles Avery’s analysis of the original placing of the group, the viewer, entering the room, would have seen Apollo’s back and Daphne’s flowing hair and raised hands turning into twigs and leaves beyond Apollo’s left shoulder. The viewer would be drawn into the room, following Daphne’s spiralling form in order to face the drama, the statue now strongly lit from windows beyond.
Michael Gill has an interesting comment on this statue as representing “a triple metamorphosis “ (IOB, p 384): the stone is turned to flesh in the complex refinement of the carving, the human form becomes a plant form, and the less intellectual, natural spiritual life of wood and river is being taken over by the power and ordered clarity of reason and hierarchy.
We are lucky to have many of the rough three-dimensional sketches and models which Bernini made for the sculptures, and he was a master of caricature cartoon drawings. But for him such preparatory work meant very little: there are a couple of famous remarks of his which show where his technical attention was directed: “from youth I devoured marble and never struck a false blow”, and “Not even the ancients succeeded in making rocks so obedient to their hands that they seemed like pasta”. He also wrote of making marble like wax and of his ability to make his figures look as though they were made out of flesh. This, for me, is the frightening beauty of his work; the conscious longing for a metamorphosis which went beyond the human, although it exploited the human; ideas of Nature and of Art that play with escape, transport, enchantment. Some thirty years later Bernini carved perhaps his best known work, ‘The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’, in which the recently canonised woman is caught, almost lifeless and limp, yet levitating, suspended in otherworldly spiritual ecstasy. Again the stone looks like flesh but this is flesh seeking a life that is above life. Bernini revelled in his power to capture the moment of rapture, the taking of Daphne, the piercing, with the pain of the divine, of Teresa.
These are extreme images but they alert me to the dangers of artistry, of control, in mastering the physical, mastering movement, with a discipline such as the Alexander Technique. I want to stay true to the place action and movement has in constituting our individuality. I long for the metamorphosis, the development, the regeneration that is only available in the everyday physical world of perception and action. In a Preface Rudolf Steiner added, towards the end of his life, to a philosophical work of his early years, he wrote of his life long concern for “the spiritual, which appears to reveal itself within man himself, but which in reality inheres in the objects and processes of the sense world itself” (TK, p XVI).
Antonio Damasio comments on the way that perception involves a complex set of reactions and responses: even memories trigger engaged emotional and motor responses. Experiments with people affected by curare, which prevents the skeletal muscles moving, reveal that below the level of actual movements, then visceral responses as well as memories and plans are all engaged in the accommodation between perception and movement. The basis of our consciousness is in the movement that lives in our bodies even when still, even when paralysed. We can’t simply “think” about an object: “you simply cannot escape the affectation of your organism, motor and emotional most of all, that is part and parcel of having a mind” (FWH, p 148).
And so we move to Paris, or rather to Brussels where in the 1870’s, Auguste Rodin was beginning, already in his thirties, to make life-size standing figures. He was accused of casting the first, ‘The Age of Bronze’, from the living model, people were so impressed by the form. Here is a figure awaking, an adult male figure experiencing the pain of birth, of entering life. He had originally thought of calling it ‘The Vanquished’. Here is another master fascinated by the interplay of movement and stillness. He is the sculptor of freedom and instinct, but also of suffering and decision. Nijinsky, the great dancer, posed for Rodin in his old age, and the small, rough study in plaster which survives has that energy of Nijinsky “half angel, half ape”, as Michael Gill describes it (IOB, p 316), caught in the magic of the held pause in mid-air. The miracle of overcoming gravity.
A different kind of pause is found in the figure of John the Baptist, a bronze figure some two metres high which came soon after ‘The Age of Bronze’. We are lucky to have this figure standing in the landscape near my home, at Glenkiln. Rodin had returned to Paris by the time he undertook this work. He used a man who had never been a professional model, a man always described as a peasant. Auguste Rodin asked him to move around in the studio until he happened upon an attitude which pleased Rodin who then told him to stop while he explored how the inner mood sensed in the gesture related to the muscular configuration. The sketches for the figure show Rodin interested in fragments of the form, the details of expressive life. Some twenty years later he created ‘Walking Man’ which is an intensified fragment of the John figure, without head, or arms, or any historical reference. But it intensifies the gesture, the moment in walking when both feet are on the ground, but with the upper body’s twist already indicating the next step. The original ‘Saint John the Baptist’ was to carry a long thin cross. This was removed. In old age Auguste Rodin would draw either cathedrals or nudes, the first with painstaking care, the second with speed and spontaneity. He loved fragments, which he called ‘abattis’ (limbs from slaughtered animals). Rodin wanted to find the expressive richness which we associate with the face, he wanted to find this in a back, a torso, a hand. Rodin sculpted hundreds of hands, modelled them in clay with his own hands. He was impelled towards fragments. Rilke, the German poet who was for a time Rodin’s secretary, writes of the beauty of these fragments: “each of these debris possesses such an exceptional and striking coherence, each is so indubitable and demands so little to be completed that one forgets that these are only parts… one suddenly realises that conceiving the body as a whole is more the work of a scientist, and that the work of the artists is to create new relationships with these elements, new unities which are greater, more legitimate, and more eternal” (Rilke quoted in Rodin, p 202). That shocking association with slaughter, with the abattoir, was keeping true to Rodin’s experience that what is eternal is movement and movement is change and leads to death: he wanted to celebrate that power in the telling detail. Rilke wrote of this: “In Nature there was only movement; and an art that wished to give a conscientious and credible interpretation of life, might not take for its ideal a calm which was non-existent” (Rilke quoted in Gill, p 316).
To return to Rodin’s two metre high John the Baptist, who years later became the more fragmentary ‘Walking Man’. A different model had been used for the head originally, so there was fragmentation there from the beginning. There is yet another revealing remark by Rilke about the figure of John, that he does, in the spirit of the Gospel description, walk “with the great stride of one who feels another coming after him” (Rilke quoted in Glenkiln, p 90). This is significant for me as is Henry Moore’s remark, about Rodin, that “out of the body he could make these marvellous sculptural rhythms”. The rhythm extends out into the space, the relationships, the destiny of the figure, but these distant elements are expressed in the rhythm, the relation of the parts, of the muscular activity, of the sculpted body. Like a musician, Rodin loved to find and explore the small phrase, the telling detail. Wholeness must grow. That first free standing figure sculpted by the thirty-five year old Auguste Rodin had many titles – ‘The Vanquished’, ‘Age of Bronze’, ‘Man Awakening to Nature’. This theme of awakening to or in Nature is in a way opposite to the art of Bernini, the artist in his work rising out of Nature, to an idea of Nature. Rodin himself was averse to any concern with the perfection of form, with trying to make the material and the shaping of the material disappear in the perfection of technique: “As to polishing nails or ringlets of hair, that has no interest for me. It detracts attention from the leading lines and the soul which I wish to interpret”. No, no-one can doubt his skill, his technique which he once described as the ability “to hide what one knows”. He is interested in blossoming and becoming but in a contrasting sense to the escape of Daphne into the form of the tree. He loves ugliness in as much as it reveals inner life, is expressive. In a figure or a movement he is interested in character. These contrasting movements, concerns, are there in the kind of self-modelling we do with the Alexander Technique: blossoming into beauty or into expression which may be ugly, personal. Rodin often changed the titles of his works. He would ask visitors, models, friends, for suggestions, Rodin writing their ideas in pencil on the statue or the base. It was a game, a game designed to draw your attention back to what mattered to him, the momentary gesture of the model which he has tried to capture, the transient movement. Don’t let a title interfere with your response to the feel of the form. Although the sculptures of Rodin often feel so rough, so material, in fact that physicality creates an aura, more to do with light and shadow than mass, and the light and shadow speak of the emotional character of the body. Rodin said, “a body is not formed on a lathe, like a baluster, nor is it moulded like a candle. A sculpture must be made from the inside” (Rodin quoted in R J, p 183).
It is light and shadow which connect Rodin with cathedrals. For him they were vast sculptures which obviously created a space, were spaces, just as he wished his figures to create a space around them. The life within, what Rodin called ‘the swelling of a torso or a limb’, spread from the light and shadow of the surface into the space around. Rodin worked more by modelling clay than by carving. Perhaps this is why hands are so important, why the artist and the human being is known in shaping movement. There is the famous late stone work of two right hands in a gesture of delicate vertical contact. One of its names is ‘Cathedral’. Another similar piece is called ‘The Secret’. The contact and the space between the hands, the physicality and yet the yearning upwards take me back to the I Ching. For me Bernini lives in the world of absolutes, of ‘Peace’ and ‘Standstill’. Rodin belongs more to the different stillness of ‘Mountain’, and also of ‘Lake’, a balancing picture to ‘Mountain’ of a different quality of restful but mobile interpenetration of Heaven and Earth. ‘Lake’ speaks of more possibility of interaction than ‘Mountain’: two lakes may join and replenish one another. The commentary speaks of the lightness and joy of sharing – “There is always something ponderous and one-sided about the learning of the self-taught”. In the form of the two right hands touching I sense this longing for refreshing contact, the modeller seeking to know, to be with, the other, the one who is coming to life. Bernini’s art is self-contained, Saint Teresa taken up into an ecstasy which drains the tone and life from her body. Those two right hands confirm for me that the holiness we cultivate in the work with the Alexander Technique is a social, buoyant exploring holiness. It comes out of a quietness, the quietness, which the I Ching describes, of “the smiling lake which refreshes and rejoices all life… firmness and strength within, manifesting itself outwardly as yielding and gentle.”