Flanders (part II)

View the scanned original illustrations

And now, through the most far-reaching lyrical movement that has ever flowed from a painter, through a metaphysical feeling about the universe so evident that it vibrates from one end of his work to the other like the steady sound of a great river whose voice is the same though it reflects a hundred skies, though it bathes a hundred shores, and gives its water to a hundred cities—Rubens rendered divine that mass of animalism which Flemish art would have remained for us if Jordaens alone had lived. He accepted the domination of the elementary forces as if to get a better understanding of them, and guided them from within their very centers of action with the formidable ease of a being who feels his life to be sustained by them and who participates in their life. At the moment when the reorganization of the Churches and the organization of the great nations, contrasting with the anarchy and the vitality of the sixteenth century, were demonstrating the necessity of maintaining political unity in the social body, Rubens, who was very much of his time, who consented to place his genius at the service of monarchical centralization and of the religious Restoration—Rubens was affirming, as the century before had done, the eternal quality in the animal forces and the immortal presence of nature in the hearts of the heroes.

Rubens - The Three Caryatids*
He is the central fire that will fuse, in a fruitful equilibrium, the Renaissance and the modern world. The plastic arabesque had been, with the Italians, the especial instrument for expressing the instinctive need to unite dispersed individual energies and for expressing the desire to establish a general meaning of the structure of the universe. With Rubens the arabesque will find in the roots of instinct itself the inner unity of the world, which the Church and the monarchy are trying to reconstitute from without. It transmits the soul of the philosophers and the artists of the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, whose painters will base their work precisely on that work of the master of Antwerp, and press into the living wave which the arabesque brings to that work, the naturalism of Rousseau, the universalism of Diderot, and the transformism of Buffon and of Lamarck, at the hour when Harvey is describing the circulation of the blood in the arteries and when Newton is born to describe the circulation of the spheres in the heavens. The arabesque is no longer a merely sensual expression as with the Venetians; it is no longer satisfied to ask, as the Greeks did, that the higher forms of a harmonious imagination express in ideal fashion the passage of the forces through balanced volumes, which continue one another and reply to one another. It accepts all the aspects of the world without discussing their nature. The formidable complexity of the sensations accumulated by a thousand years of silence, the vast treasury of forms heaped up by the Middle Ages, and the enormous mass of matter of the north—all this was to be given a sudden headlong movement—without discrimination by the arabesque, which turned it in the direction indicated by the mind of the south. With Rubens it enters the intimate substance of life to stir it to its depths. Heavy with flesh, with earth and air, having the decisiveness of lightning, the undulating line which runs through his pictures in every direction sends back to the depths the movements of their surfaces and determines the surfaces by the movements of their depths: it is the mind itself, governing the sensual flood which nourishes it. Rubens handles the forms of the world as though they were a malleable paste, which one lengthens and shortens, which one reduces or separates, which one drags and distributes throughout the whole work, as a god, recreating life, would impose a new order upon the tumult that life would have as it issues from him. Everything in life is evolving. It is simply a force in incessant transformation which germinates and expands and dies in the infinite world of forms, allowing no chance for the mind, which is aware of all this, to arrest its movement between the forms for a single moment or to isolate it from the complex ensemble which all, without an instant of repose, assist in forming and in destroying. Whether he paints myth, history, landscape, the market, sport, fighting, or portrait, Rubens has no other subject than the indefatigable pursuit, through a thousand symbols, of nature in action, of the dynamism of life, whose immense river sweeps through him without his ever being able to exhaust its overflowing waters and without any decrease of his power through his attempts to exhaust them.

Rubens - Helena Fourment*
Everything that came before his eyes during his whole superb existence became an element, at once fiery and docile, of his unified and dramatic conception of nature. Never did he study anything for itself, for the moral and material life which radiates from any object when one studies its secret life. The human face, for example, which he knew well, which he handled as a sculptor kneads his clay, from which each day he drew his unerring effects of sentiment—the human face never interested him for the external or the profound character which it might have revealed to him. It was of little importance to the constructor of worlds what happened under foreheads other than his own and what the eyes, fixed on his, revealed of an enigma foreign to his own. Human eyes and human foreheads entered the symphony like an instrument which he knew how to make resound, at the place and at the minute when he desired it to resound. When a gust of feeling caused him to stop for a moment in the miraculous voyage which he was making among the forms, surrounded as he was by matter and by mind, cleaving his victorious passage amid flesh and amid trees, dragging earth and heaven after him; when he looked at a woman's face or a flower or a cloud with a concentration that stopped him in his course—he recovered himself so quickly, he surrounded his distraction with such a display of orchestral sonorities, that it was no more than a single voice in the chorus, mingling with the others and lost in furious tumult of oratorical exaltation. His universal tenderness veiled his hours of abandon. Like those who love everything that lives, everything that dies, everything that is, he seemed indifferent to the intimate dramas of the heart. He had no time to stop to choose. He opened his breast to all.

Rubens - Philopoemen*
The mind which directs and maintains this whirlwind of life in a circle as sure as the gravitation of the heavenly bodies, rolls with it from form to form as if their very intoxication were producing the lucidity of that mind. Wine and the juice of meats and of fruits circulate through matter with lyric movement to give to the skin its red, to put saliva on the lips, to return into the soil with the stamping of feet, to evaporate into the air with the sweat that forms in drops, to pass into children with the milk from blue-veined breasts, to enter the animals through the grasses which they crop and the bones and debris which they devour, and to pass once more into man through meat and bread. And humanity, whether it loves or eats or drinks or breathes the air and the sunshine of heaven, whether it lies down or walks upon the earth, participates consciously in the universal exchange; and if earth ferments, if unhealthful vapors crawl, if the salubrious wind rises to twist the trees and make them creak, if the clouds carry through space the water that has been drunk up from the flanks of the soil, if the streams sink into subterranean caverns that they may cause a spring to murmur among the distant grasses, we know it when we observe a breast swelling above the curve of an arm, or a back mottling as the blood flushes its fat and muscle, or a mouth opening under a tuft of red beard, and the furious movement of a hand that takes, offers, or threatens is re-echoed to the very horizon.

Rubens - Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medici*

Rubens - Boar Hunt*
This man had the right to love all the aspects of matter, putrefaction, and life, since he mingled the mind with putrefaction as well as with life, and since it is the mind that gives their movement to both. He had this right because he saw that life is born from putrefaction, that putrefaction germinates in life, and that life and putrefaction pass steadily from any point in space to all the others. Never did an artist have within him to that degree the sensuality, always present, and renewed and insatiable, which is to be ranked with sacred things because it indicates to us—at every step that we take, every time that we open our eyes or our nostrils, or that we listen to the great murmur about us—the constant solidarity which binds us with everything that is and which causes us to assimilate ceaselessly everything that is, in order to carry it up to our creative brain and give it back to men in coordinated images. He could not conceive an object separated from the others. His immobility turns to movement and his coarseness becomes radiant because he knows no bit of space but has its echo everywhere, no fraction of time that does not continue within himself, because he has never viewed anything in nature without seeing higher forms germinating incessantly from common forms and without discerning in a bestial gesture a harmonious movement. He descends into the charnel house or lifts himself above it at will, at a single flight; and when he descends into the charnel house, he has, on the feathers of his wing, a reflection of the sun, and when he mounts he has flesh and blood in his talons. Without other transition than the play of values, the continuity of volumes, and the echo of tones, he passes from the profile of a bosom as full as a ripening fruit to a hanging breast, from a belly cut by folds to a luminous and hard belly, from the face of an old man with flabby skin to a woman's face whose pearly skin is flushed with blood, from flesh shot through with flame to dry bones, from a limpid brook to a muddy pool, from a sky all of silver to abysses of darkness. But the same wave circulates everywhere, swelling out the forms of youth when the withered forms are about to dissolve in it to make young forms again, absorbing the withered forms with the voluptuousness which it drew from the young forms. In the symphonic movement, the wail of the violincellos is never veiled by the stridence of the brasses, the sonorous wave joins despair and hope, and the weight that causes it to descend is balanced by the one that causes it to rise.

Rubens - Portrait of Lady Arundel with her Train*
This man from whom, for two centuries, all the painters will come forth is yet the ruination of theories and schools. Life carries him along without his having the time to stop and give its final formula. With him it is a perpetual dawn; he is never without order and lucidity, but he is tireless in breaking every frame that he himself has made in order to overflow its borders, and with such abundance that as he advanced in age and rose into the light it seemed that the forms pressed themselves together ever more densely so that he might have the joy of triumphing over their disorder with greater ease and ardor. There have been loftier characters, subtler intelligences, more passionate natures—there has never been such a harmonious ensemble of all the essential faculties which make up the superior man. In his magnificent life of a king of art, he appears simple and good, steady in his relationships, full of cordial nobility and of affability, and quite without anything incomplete or bitter. He had no need of heroic character, for he was too well balanced to abandon his strength for the charms of honors and of women. He had no need of an exceptional profundity of mind, for the images of life organized themselves in him naturally, according to the rhythm they take as they pass through our senses, and because he created with the ease of a rutting animal. He had no need of an uncompromising passion because everything powerful or comprehensive in the Europe of his time smoothed his path for him without his having to demand it.

Jordaens - Allegory of Fertility*
That fire, that inexpressible movement, that unbridled transport of passion which one sees in his slightest sketches was no more than the passage through him of universal life, forever whirling him forward without his making any effort to summon it to him and without his being able to restrain it. It was from him that there poured forth those trees twisted by flame, those torrents of light and shadow, that moving modeling which sculptures and rolls the fat flesh, knots and unties the muscular limbs whose embraces seem to bring his mind into being, those full breasts of women, those heavy udders of the cow from which he sucked life, those overflowing still-life pieces, those fish, meats, and pumpkins, those fruits of the earth and of the trees which he brings streaming down or which he crushes upon his canvas with sunlight and blood. What did it matter if he addressed himself in the language desired by this century to the most conventional century, the one most fascinated by fine speaking and oratorical emphasis, and if, in order to stir it, he employed the melodramatic means which it demanded of him, eyes reddened by weeping, prostrate bodies, supplicating hands, people kneeling theatrically'', and athletic cadavers hung from crosses? The boiling torrent of life swept the theatrical attitudes along in its ascendant power, and they disappeared in it as the gestures of singers are effaced when five hundred musicians accompany their voices. The sonorous wind blowing caused the mantles and draperies to flap, tearing them from shoulders too broad and from settings too pompous, when they masked the blue perspective of the plains stretching away through vapors to the horizon with the curve of the earth, and set in movement by their wandering mists, by their volcanic undulations, and by the wind which blew across them. He had appeared between Rabelais and Bossuet and embodied them both to the tenth power. He drew after him in his train such masses of fat and grease, of ruddy flesh into which the hand could plunge, of unbound blond hair; such elastic surfaces of bare backs, of heavy hips spread out in the light; such heaps of fruits, of vegetables, and of pungent boughs of apple trees and bitter boughs of oak—that, in order to bring this ocean of matter into the modern world, he had to assume the solemn gestures and the bands of lace of the masters of the pulpit and of the confessors of kings. He served the banquet of the century in his own silver vessels, amid brocaded hangings and tall armchairs already occupied by lords in court dress, by women in décolleté, and by grandiloquent bishops. But he had seen the blood flowing through the bluish veins of the beautiful breasts that were offered to his eyes; he had seen the august jaws cracking bones, and the fruits, which he threw with both hands upon the table amid the meats, were moist with dew and swollen with sugar and with juice.

He maintained in his life and transmitted for our need of unity and of rhythm the substance amassed by the Middle Ages and the order introduced into the mind by the Italian masters. In surface and in depth, he mingled and interwove living nature with the continuous lines which for him represented its direction. His influence was enormous, it still endures, it has become a part of our activity for all time. But he had exhausted life for more than a century; the painters of Europe after him appear stricken by a sort of lethargic stupor from which neither Watteau nor Goya could tear them away, and which the France of the nineteenth century alone managed to shake off.

Flanders especially was crushed by it. Aside from Breughel, who is a complete realization and who moreover marked out his path, the whole sixteenth century of Flanders seems to have had no other function than that of announcing Rubens. The sons and the nephews of Breughel had gathered only a few brilliant flowers from the borders of the terrestrial Eden which Rubens entered alone, cutting the harvests, shaking the fruit trees, drawing after him the animals he dominated in order that he might feed upon their flesh or flatter them with his hand, and dazzling the women he loved without letting himself be conquered by them. When he had entered this garden, all the others picked up the grains and the leaves which he let fall unnoticed at each step, because his two arms were fully laden and because, although he was capable of absorbing all that he carried or of decorating his magnificent house with it, he knew too well that, so far as he was concerned, the branches, the ears of corn, and the flanks of the women would not be exhausted. When death laid him low amid the vines, his two feet upon the soil and his brow in the light which was ripening everything around him that his eyes had seen, the race of pupils that surrounded him, finishing his pictures, living upon his flaming sketches, and gathering up the notes in his albums to decorate a palace—the race of pupils could do no more than despoil him of his mantle and force open his fists, still filled to overflowing. Eden was dead with him.

No comments: