Intimate Greece (part IV)

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In any case it has preserved until our time, through Pompeii, the perfume of the Greek soul, of which it hands on to us one of the most mysterious aspects, far better than does the art of ceramics, which has traced that soul for us in hardly anything more than its external evolution—in such matters as composition, superficial technique, and subjects. The role of ceramics is limited, with the little terra cottas, to representing the national industrial art of Greece—which is already saying a good deal. But it cannot pretend to stand for more than the reflection in the popular soul of the flowers gathered by certain minds throughout the nation.

Hundreds of workshops had been opened practically everywhere, in Athens, in Sicily, in Etruria, in Cyrenaica, in the Islands, in the Euxine, in a place as distant, even, as the Crimea. The most celebrated painters of cups, Euphronius, Brygos, and Douris, worked with their workmen, often repeated themselves, copied one another and rivaled one another in activity so as to attract patrons. Through the goodly communion of their work, through their continual exchange and emulation, they founded a powerful industry. In it, as in other activities, except where Greece was dominated by Sparta, the slave collaborated with the master, whether as a farmer in the country, as a servant in the city or as an artisan in the workshop; he was, beyond all doubt, less unhappy than the feudal serfs or the wage-earner of to-day. Man was too wise, at that time, to utilize the sufferings of man for his profit; life was too simple, too near the soil, too merged with the light to take the law of hell as its model. Industrial art, however, in spite of these powerful roots, is so limited by its very purposes, that it cannot pretend to such high intention as that of the art which governs the sculpture of the gods. On the other hand, it avoids, for a much longer time, the double snare of pretentiousness and of fashion. Thus it dies less quickly and renews itself more readily. Diderot was right in re-establishing the dignity of the industrial arts. He was wrong in placing them on the same level with the others. The sculptor, and more especially the painter, in his struggle with the material, is guided only by the quality of the material. The purpose of the object allows it to move in so wide an area that the liberty of these artists knows no other limits than those of the infinite space in which occur the relationships of intelligence and sensibility with the whole universe of sensations and images. The artisan is confined between narrower frontiers by the function of the furniture or the ornament on which he works, and also by its size. A fresco and a thimble do not offer identical means to their creators. If the murmur of the soul can be as pure, as touching, in one as in the other, the elements of the symphony are far less numerous in the latter case, and infinitely less complex. And, before practical utility, spiritual utility is obliged to retreat.

In addition, the workman must arrange, in such a way, the ornaments with which he wants to decorate the object, so that they will follow the contour of its forms, to modify themselves according to its volume and its surfaces, and, like himself, accept a role which excludes all others and which is, even so, of an inferior order. And thus it is that only in very rare cases do we discover on the sides of even the most beautiful Athenian vases a hint of that logical composition which places the great sculpture on the plane of the universal. Forms elongate and become parallel to wed the flanks of the amphoras, to make them straight and to give them spring. They stretch in encircling rings around the cups, the vases, and the bowls as if to drag the pot along in a spinning movement. Here and there, undoubtedly very often, in an ensemble at once fiery and sober, easily read at a glance, black on red or red on black, there are admirable details, drawing as pure as the line of the landscape, incisive as the mind of the race, and suggesting the absent modeling by its direction alone and its manner of indicating attitude and movement. For the workman as for the sculptor of the temple, the mold of the Archaic is broken, nature is no longer a world of immutable and separate forms, but a moving world, constantly combining and disuniting itself, renewing its aspects and changing the elements of its relationships at every second.

The form of these vases is so pure that one would say it had been born unaided, that it had not come from the hands of the potters, but from the obscure and permanent play of the forces of nature. We have a vague sensation before these vases, as if the artist were obeying the hints of the wheel as he presses in or swells out the clay, thickens the paste or spreads it. When the wheel hums, when the material whirls and flies, an inner music murmurs to the moving form the mysterious fluctuation which gives songs and dances their rhythm. Grain, breasts, round haunches, closed flowers, open flowers, twining roots, spherical forms of nature—the central mystery of them all sleeps in the still hollow of the vases. The law of universal attraction does not control the suns alone, but all matter moves and turns in the same circle. Man tries to escape from the rhythm, and rhythm always draws him back again. The vase has the form of fruits, of the mother's belly, and of the plants. The sphere is the matrix and the tomb of forms. Everything comes out of it. Everything returns to it.

Save in the case of the great Panathenaic amphoras which have the severity of design proper to their use, the Greek vase almost always welcomes you with a charming sense of the intimate. When it recounts the adventures of war or interprets the old myths, it humanizes itself delightfully. Very often there are children at their games, men in their workshop, women at their toilet, long, undulating, and rich forms indicated with a continuous line. The familiar painting of the Egyptian husbandman told of the work of the fields. The familiar painting of the Greeks, a people of traders and talkers, speaks rather of household work.

The legend of the stern heroism of every-day existence is no more born out by these vases than by the Boeotian figurines. Life in the ancient city tends toward a kindly, sometimes difficult, equilibrium. The passages between its component elements are more noticeable in speech and in the written law than in reality. Southern indulgence and familiarity draw everything together. If the Greek had looked down on woman he would not have spoken of her with so much intelligent love, and if he had been harsh toward his servitor he would not have shown him thus associated with his own tasks. The child plays and goes to school, where he learns music, writing, and recitation. The ephebus frequents the stadium, the men, young and old, frequent the agora, the housewife spins and sews. On feast days, the young girls, like bending reeds, like undulating water, like waving flowers and garlands, dance in long lines, making rhythmical—to the sound of the shrill music—the movements of the march, of the pursuit, of the farewell, of supplication, of prayer, of a voluptuousness unconscious of itself—a full epitome of the essential moments of our life. Passion? The Greek knew it so well that he deified it, but it was for him a food, the passage from one state of equilibrium to another; he had the intuitive feeling that the impulse of sentiment was only a means of realizing harmony.

Ares and Aphrodite had their temples, Dionysus also, but outside of Eleusis—a veiled summit, a mysterious region where, doubtless, the unity of our desire was revealed—the three summits of Greece were the Parthenon of Athens, the sanctuary of Delphi, and the Altis of Olympia, where man came to adore Reason, Beauty, and Energy. Heroism is life accepted. It is the progressive and never-attained realization of the conquests that life imposes on us.

Submission to destiny—therein is Greece. There are in Athens, in the little cemetery of Ceramica at the foot of the Acropolis, certain funeral steles of a moving symbolism. Greece so wanted us to love life that she expressed her desire even on the stone of the tomb. Farewells are said there with simple gestures, with slightly sad and perfectly calm faces, as if the persons were going to see each other again; Friend clasps the hand of friend, the mother touches the child's hair with her fingers, the serving maid hands to the mistress her jewel casket. The familiar animals come, to be present at the departure. The glory of terrestrial life enters the subterranean shadow.

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