Germany and the Reformation (part III)

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Let us picture to ourselves the youthful Albrecht Dürer amid these surroundings of intense work and complicated activity, in which his old teacher, Wolgemuth, who in Cologne had been deeply impressed with Roger van der Weyden, points out to him, as an example, Pleydenwurff, the man who introduced Flemish painting into Nuremberg. . . Again let us watch him listening passionately to the tales of the comrades who have come back from Italy, to which he is carried again by the pictures, even when mediocre, of Jacopo de' Barbari, who had come to stay in Nuremberg at about that time. . . Let us accompany him to the workshop of his father, the goldsmith, where he eagerly studies the engravings of Martin Schoengauer, the master of Colmar, the austere engravings in which we are not spared the spectacle of the wounds of Christ and of the faces of the executioners, scenes whose dramatic force is increased by the ugliness and the misery of the models, by all the bitterness of the wave which represents the Middle Ages as they reach their end. . . Let us imagine with what fever this passionate nature, always in love with poetry, music, and dancing, surprised in itself warlike forms riding the clouds; how it caught glimpses of dark pools where water sprites glide on a wave all spangled with gold; how all the land of Germany was swarming with spirits when, with the murmur of the street, there rose to his window the chorus of the Meistersinger. . . Let us observe how this ardent and meditative sensibility bends back upon itself so that it may take possession of the atavistic forces which the ancient activity of the city, the sap which has accumulated in its soil deposit in the young mind and, mingling with them the wild reverie of the nomads of the Hungarian steppes, that comes to him with the blood of his father. . . And then we can explain why, in this place and at this time, there was this fruition of mind which, three hundred years before the poets and the musicians of Germany, was to express, in a language more unexpected than theirs, its infinitely complex soul, realistic and sentimental, minutiae-loving and vague, infantile and apocalyptic—its soul which reflects with uncompromising precision all the images that wander before it and which yet is impossible to seize.

The first among all the Germans, he was an expression, complete and very lofty, of the life and the soil of Germany. Li no other place, not in France, not in Flanders, not in Italy itself, is it possible to find a more typical representative of the erudite artist of those times, curious about all things, approaching the study of all things at the same time, and, with unrestrained ardor, heaping up in the same space the results of his researches. His art shows us the confluence and the eddy of two powerfully characterized moments of activity. He has the faith of the Middle Ages, its confused strength and its rich and obscure symbolism; he has the restlessness of the Renaissance, its sense of the infinite perspectives which open before superior minds, and its indefatigable will to knowledge. Like da Vinci, whom he recalls in so many of his phases, but whose attempt to build up a method was a more lucid one, an ardent curiosity makes him one of those labyrinthian, universal, almost bizarre geniuses before whom all the roads of thought present themselves at the same time. He is a kind of Christ turned scientist who seeks the salvation of the world in an intense study of its aspects.

Never, and least of all in the engravings which he cut into the copper with the hand of a workman, the heart of a poet, and the brain of a philosopher, never did he arrange nature. He considered it "the only master," and everything in it interested him to the same degree. In the greatest confusion, he saw the Christian myths enacted with German costumes, in German houses and streets, amid the landscape around Nuremberg, near the waters that flow to the Danube, under rocks of strange form, at the threshold of wooden houses with sloping roofs. In giving form to the complicated and profound reveries which wandered through his meditation, he never placed them outside of the robust plains of southern Germany, away from the hills covered with larches, away from the pasture lands, the brooks, the pools, and the swaying bridges, never outside the places which he had traversed on his journeys to Italy and to Flanders, the banks of the Rhine striped with rows of vines, the forests, the ravines and the torrents of the Black Forest and Tyrol. With the legends which he gathered up everywhere there was mingled the Orient which he encountered in Venice; there are dragons, chimeras, lions, and camels; there are figures of Turks in Nuremberg households, and knights passing in front of dungeons all bristling with sentry boxes and towers—death and the devil following close on their heels. With the unwearying patience, if not the rapidity and the schematic decision of the Japanese, with whom he so often betrays an affinity whenever his needle follows the capricious but clear line of his scrupulous landscapes, he pursues to the end a slow and wide research, the result of which he confided impartially to the dull splendor of the copper, to the savory grain of the wood, and to the dry glitter of his painted canvases. The massive horses of Germany, its muscular hunting dogs, its deer, its hares, its cows, its pigs groveling in the mud of the villages, all its insects and all its birds participated, almost always, in the adventures of love, of the family, of the middle classes, and of warriors which the hard point of his engraving tool seized on with the force and the gentleness of a sensibility accessible to all spectacles. Everything aroused his passion and restlessness—the form of the grasses, of the tiny beasts, the moss on the rocks which are split by the patient growth of the roots, human or animal monstrosities, living things and inert things, the breastplates of forged iron, the weapons, the helmets with their antennae, and the banners with the coats of arms. He executed decorative designs for goldsmiths, ironworkers, costumers, armorers, printers, and booksellers. He wrote didactic treatises. His universal sympathy neglected nothing of what it judged necessary to the perfecting of his craft and of his mind, neither a bit of dead wood nor a heap of stones, nor the fortuitous manner in which the boundaries of a field were held in place with cords—which was not hidden from him by the great clouds of the sky, the swaying forests, the sight of women heavy with child, or by the mysterious harmony of earth and air.

If humanity interests him as strongly as a half-gnawed old bone, it does not attract him more. If he has signed portraits all-powerful in their hard and close modeling; if he has seen passing near him muscular men of irregular, ugly features, but of a severe elegance, and women with fat necks, round and full of face, whose heavy hair falls in curls, one finds in the bark of a tree, the stem of a grape vine, or in a rock that sticks out of a clump of grasses, the same knotty vigor, the same care in retaining the totality and the density of life, the same meticulous spirit. There are none of those audacious curves by which the Italians connect one form with another, not a hint of those subtle passages by which the Venetians or the Flemings make clear the incessant penetration of all the elements of the world. Everything is of equal importance and is separated fundamentally, without reciprocal echoes. . . But everything is so searched out as to its form, so completely grasped in its intimate life, each detail is so deeply felt in its personal vibration, its imperceptible and mysterious characteristics, that the whole trembles and murmurs, and an animation, general and vague, brings movement into this precise world. One might say that nature is recreated haphazardly, in the order, or rather in the absence of order, in which she presents herself to us; that man has not intervened to bring Nature to the human plane and through her to express the ideas which she had just revealed to him, but that he demands that nature sing unaided—with all her innumerable voices, among which the Voice of man counts neither more nor less than the others—the confused poem that she never interrupts. Already we have reached German pantheism. Seemingly it is not the result of an absorption of the body of the universe into the substance of man then springing forth therefrom with the powerful and rhythmic intoxication which makes a living poem of the Hindu temples or the French cathedrals. It seems to express the impotence of a being who cannot separate that part of the world which he should accept from that part which he should reject, because he is too heavily armed for analysis, to study, without preconceptions, in all their aspects, and without order, the objects which present themselves to his view. Instead of absorbing nature, the man is wholly absorbed in nature.

This impossibility of choosing in the objective world those elements which could yield a logically and plastically harmonious construction forms the stumbling-block of German art, if we consider it as the general realization of a collective ideal expressing the race and hurrying it toward a clearly defined goal. With the German artist, everything in Nature is on the same plane. He will be capable of studying each one of the elements which make us love her with a patience, a science, and a conscientiousness superior to those displayed by the Italian, the Frenchman, the Dutchman, and the Fleming, if not the Japanese and the Chinese, and with a sensibility equal to theirs. He will not know, as they do, how to give to each thing in nature the importance that it has in our meditations; he will not know how to express in plastic generalizations the sensual, intellectual, or moral emotions which nature will yield him. Among two or three of the German artists we shall feel a great soul; it will not be able to define itself and never, as in other countries, will it leap into the torrent of powerfully organized life to join other strong or gracious souls so that together they may constitute a vast ensemble expression, forming a mass against the horizon of the past and sharply defining for the men of the future that which was thought and felt by a people of that moment. It is their whole history. Their power of analysis has blocked up for them, with a formidable heap of objects accumulated indiscriminately, the paths of the great syntheses. Their mathematicians did not find the law of gravitation. After their philosophers, with incomparable profundity, had verified one by one all the intuitions of the French and the Scotch—Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and Hume—it was not the Germans who discovered transformism which Lamarck formulated at about the moment when Hegel was showing himself powerless to decide for himself. Not one of the great hypotheses, that for a hundred years have been directing the researches of biologists, came out of their laboratories which, in experiments and in observations, are the most prolific in the world; and their ingenious mechanicians did not discover a single one of the great implements of exchange and of transportation which have made the modern world. They never go by the straightest road to the one that alone is essential and most logical. Detail always masks the ensemble; their universe is not continuous, but made up of juxtaposed fragments. One sees them, in their pictures, giving the same importance to a halberd as to a human face; a motionless stone is made to hold our attention as much as a body in movement; one sees them drawing a landscape like a map in a geography, and, in the decoration of a building, giving as much care to a clock with marionettes as to the statue of Hope or of Faith, treating that statue with the same processes as that clock; and, when by dint of conscientiousness and labor they have given monumental proportions to a market or a nave, they suspend inappropriate objects there, immediately ruining the effect of it.

Hence, as we have seen, their negative pantheism which Dürer, first of all, expresses with so much confused strength. Hence, their pessimism, which, three hundred years before Schopenhauer, envelops the work of the engraver of Nuremberg as with an invisible atmosphere. This art, patient, exact, and complicated, although poetic and sincere to the point of self-immolation, with its tormented fantasy, with its symbolism profound, but at times so obscure that it seems not to understand itself—this art, despite the concentrated splendor of its vital power and its vast sensuality, exhales the definitive sadness of the man who cannot come to a decision. Everywhere the hour-glass measures the flight of time, while the idyll smiles or the drama calls forth its tears, and often death traverses a peaceful landscape made charming by a love story. In the "Melancholia," which seems to summarize his whole work, one sees the genius of humanity borne down by lassitude, with all its conquests about it, because, despite its great wings, it has learned nothing of the essentials. Like Faust, Albrecht Dürer has ranged through all the worlds, in pursuit of the illusion which he has never been able to seize.

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