Modern Art - Introduction

Rubens - The Round*

THE French Revolution is the last step in the movement inaugurated by the Renaissance. It is marked by the reformation of social metaphysics and of morality, but in the depths of instinct it is destined, without doubt, to define the individual. It is the violent act which overcomes the last resistance offered by the monarchical system to the investigation which, five centuries earlier, had been outlined by the masons of the French commune and definitely begun by the artists of Italy. The corporations being broken up, the right of association being impaired, and the theoretical equality of social rights and of taxation being won, the social analysis is effected. The philosophic analysis of Kant, which carried to its logical conclusion the effort of Descartes, of Spinoza, of Bayle, of Montesquieu, of Leibnitz, of the English sensualists, of Voltaire, of Diderot, and of Rousseau, as well as the psychological tragedy lived through by Montaigne, by Cervantes, by Shakespeare, and by Pascal—all made it necessary. Scientific analysis will follow in due course, for there is no longer any political obstacle between the intelligence and the experience in which, for a century, man will pursue the absolute. If it leads him only to the relative, the reason is, perhaps, that he is too eager or that he was seeking this relative in order to regain mysticism by liberating his intuition. But no matter. The possibility of bringing about a new selection, through social investigation among men and by scientific investigation among facts and ideas, justifies the Revolution.

Men combat it in our own day, in the name of the aristocratic and religious values which made twenty centuries of history. Exhausted by their own strength, these values had turned to dust. The Revolution had only to breathe upon them. Its errors, its puerilities, its insufficiencies, its blind hatred for that which it had to pull down, do not lessen its importance. In France and outside of France, the individual, unleashed by it into the full liberty of sensation and research, has almost risen above his physical surroundings and, rebounding with all his might into the unexplored domain of intellectual pride, has given to posterity the poem of that pride. From Carlyle to Ibsen, from Stendhal to Emerson, from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, a new race of prophets has appeared, summoning men to follow them or perish. Thus the Revolution, which had torn men from the old social pantheism already shaken by the Renaissance, was preparing new rhythms. For a century everything issues from the Revolution, even German realism, much nearer, perhaps, to the forces liberated by the upheaval than are many of the inorganic doctrines which thrive with difficulty on the hastily created words which sustain its activity. The poems of individualism will remake the social world. When the individual is so strong that he tends to absorb everything, it is time for him to be absorbed himself and to merge himself and disappear in the multitude and the universe.

French painting, for a hundred years, has accomplished the same task. It is still misunderstood, especially by the French. It is one of the miracles of history, comparable to the most surprising. It has produced ten men of genius, more than the great century of Holland, or of Flanders, or of Spain, as many as the great centuries of Italy. It appeared precisely on the morrow of the spread of revolution over Europe, offering to souls waiting in silence the power of liberation which the march of the republican armies brought to the legitimate appetites of the peoples and to the ideas of their shepherds. It is thanks to that march that it appeared in France and not in some other place, as it was thanks to the struggle of Germany to regain possession of herself from Napoleon, that the great German music, through Richard Wagner, closed its heroic cycle. The explosion of sentiment, so long deferred, employs color as its expression. Conquered Europe and the Orient, faintly in view, tumultuously enter the sensuous emotion of the French. The Romantic dream and classical realism clash and mingle in France, where Italy and Germany meet for the third time. And it is here that the Renaissance of the south and the Renaissance of the north confront each other to affirm a definitive accord.

This accord, which French painting consecrates (it is the eternal destiny of France to balance, in divine measure, the diffused life of the north and the intelligence of the south) was realized for an hour by Rubens. Through him, the mind of Michael Angelo was linked with the humanity of Rembrandt to define the mission of Europe in its profoundest unity, through the most instinctive, the most spontaneous, the most animalistic, but also the most permanent, work in painting—indifferent to everything except object and movement. Under pain of death the north of Europe had to accept the assimilation of Mediterranean thought, just as Mediterranean thought, in order to survive itself, had to load its arabesque with the tide of direct sensations, of music, of revery, and of mystery brought by the soul of the north. We live by our original innocence; but when movements of ideas are born around us and encircle us little by little, like great waters around an island, if our innocence refuses to extract from them the nourishment which will renew it, a frightful aridity succeeds the bursting forth of fruits which rendered it so savory. That which kills is not learning: it is the failure to feel what one learns. Innocence is immortal to him who is ever seeking. It is reborn of its ashes, and the new presentiment appears only when experience and study have destroyed or confirmed the older presentiment. The north and the south, since the invasions of the barbarians, had influenced each other reciprocally and unceasingly, but never, until Rubens, had the spirit of intellectual prophecy introduced its continuing line into the indistinct torrent of colors and matter in order to force upon the image of the world, through the power of a single man, the form, one and living, of the European mind. It was the decisive step after the mission of Montaigne, the formidable wedding of lyricism and the will recreating an imaginary world upon the ruins of Christian metaphysics which had been undermined by the French pessimist. The theological universe may crumble everywhere. In the soul of the great European, from Montaigne to Schopenhauer, cradled on the moving wave of symphonic painting, uplifted on the great wings of the orchestral poem, supported by the sublime hypothesis of gravitation and transformism, a new myth is reforming itself for the man of the future. Living in the bosom of a world which, very probably, has no other purpose than to interchange uninterruptedly, increasingly, and daily the more complex of the heedless forms of energy and love, the man of the future will not know any other paradise in heaven or on earth than that of overcoming the need to increase and to harmonize his energy and his love within himself. That, at least, is the obscure desire which the heroes of European pessimism have for three hundred years been expressing, unknown to themselves, I admit, in their philosophy, their art, and their science. The modern Prometheus, Don Quixote, believes in the sacredness of his mission. But Cervantes loves this madman far less for the phantoms he pursues in his generosity and his courage, than for the divine power of his illusion.

Why did this movement, which was born in the south, expand in the regions of the north? Italy, through the Venetians, had written the prelude of the great symphonic poem which the north was to carry into the flesh and the bone of Europe through Rubens and Sebastian Bach, which was to be established in its intelligence through Spinoza and Leibnitz, which was to stir its heart through Rembrandt and Beethoven, to extend it into space and time through Newton and Lamarck, to render it subtle by the passionate exchange of souls and sensations through Dostoievsky and the Russian musicians, and finally to be diffused in the will of the élite through the German pessimists and in their sensibility through the French painters—they and others uplifted with lyric intoxication, but supported in their intellectual power by the two centuries of discipline and of method which separate Descartes from Kant.

Only, this effort had exhausted Italy, which, into the bargain, was torn by France and the Empire. Moreover, the discovery of America transported from the southern seas to the ocean the center of gravity of the globe. Finally, the Reformation, wrenching the peoples of the north from the spiritual domination of the Church and from the political tyranny of Spain, had permitted them to explore their own mystery. In fact, there is only one man more in the south, Velasquez, who is a miracle, and in whom one may see, by turns and with equally valid reasons, a mere virtuoso —the greatest of all, it is true—and the rarest mind in painting, the king of silence and of the air. But with the exception of Spain, escaping for another half century the decline of the south on account of her being the first to open the route to the west, the whole life of Europe is concentrated in England, in Flanders, in Holland, or is maintained in France, which is condemned to a kind of spiritual immortality because of her being at the center of all the sea routes and all the ethnic sources which have fashioned the Occident, Italy, Spain, England, Germany, and the Low Countries. When Rubens borrows from Raphael his decisive arabesque, the world feels clearly that its curves will ramble and its lines will be spread out to infinite thinness in the void of abstraction unless there should be supplied to that arabesque, in order to render it fruitful, the cloudy sky of the north, its fat lands, its powerful vegetation, the liquid and changing splendor of its light, the heavy food of its men in whose blood rolled together the juice of meats, revery, beer, the desire for women, moral strength, and mist.

Thus, the powerful man seizes upon the elements of the symphony of the people interrupted by the Renaissance, and raises them slowly from his senses to his brain and fuses them once more in his heart in order, sooner or later, to prepare in the multitudes new reasons for action. In the intelligence of the god, there are no longer isolated forms. The whole poem is in the interpenetration of all the forms of the world, which painting, more than all other languages, expresses with so much force and evidence and in which it precedes, by a long period, the constructions of the biologists and the mathematicians. In each new organism, which a great lyric work is, we shall find henceforth more sensual wealth and more intellectual wealth, and therefore, when the poet dies, more elements given back to life in general, more anguish, more desire, more mystery, more tragic individuals, and more of complex evolution. In the measure that the chorus breaks up into fragments and sinks lower in the multitudes, and swells and mounts in the hero, the solitude of the hero is increased by the indifference or the hostility of the multitudes. But the occult influence of this solitude widens. In the Middle Ages the artist was a workman, lost in the crowd of workmen, loving with the same love as theirs. Later on, under the Renaissance, he was an aristocrat of the mind, moving almost on a par with the aristocrat of birth, later on again, a skilled laborer seized upon by the victorious autocracy; and still later, when the autocracy finally crushes the aristocracy under its own ruins, when workman is separated from workman by the death of the corporations, the artist is lost in the crowd, which is ignorant of his presence or which misunderstands him.

Who shall tell the martyrdom of him who keeps love alive within him and whom love flees or repulses? There is, with democracy, only one aristocrat, the artist. That is why it hates him. That is why it pays divine honors to the slave who is part of it, he who no longer knows his work, who no longer loves, who knows the art of complete repose proper to the cultivated classes, and consents to reign over the other slaves, a prize-list in his hand. Even when illustrious, even when hated, even when dragged through the sieve by the mob of the salons, the collectors, and the critics, even when forcibly introduced into the prison galleys of the Academies and the Schools, the artist is alone. David detests the School, the School makes of him its god. For the bleating herd of David's pupils, Delacroix, celebrated when twenty years old, is a wolf. Ingres, who despises Rome and the Institute, directs the School of Rome and presides over the Institute. Men oppose the two masters to each other in the name of theories and systems which both detest. Baudelaire, Daumier, and Flaubert are dragged before the magistrates. Daumier, by the way, in whom are fused the flame of Rembrandt and the force of Michael Angelo, is only a hired merrymaker. Manet is the enemy of the people. Zola is driven from the public journals for defending him. The Impressionists are hooted because they do not know how to draw; later on, their drawing is vaunted in order that their successors may be reviled. The men who pick up a poor living from the crumbs that fall from their table declare them incomplete. Men laugh at the construction of Cézanne, who rediscovers construction. Men mock the color and the bloatedness of Renoir, who brings back solidity of volume and lyricism of color. Do they not stand as much alone as Rembrandt dying of poverty, or Velasquez the valet of the court, or Watteau, who was picked up consumptive by a charitable friend? O painting! sublime art, the highest, the most subtle, the most sensual, but at the same tune the most intellectual of all, ode, dance, and music transposed into the objective world, as far from a common soul as transcendental algebra is from a primary education; the reader of newspaper novels, the champion at dominoes, the officeholder, the chamberlain, and the voter judge you! They give you prizes, like a fattened ox. O pearl, in which there is the play of the whole sea and the immense dramatic sky, and the eternal tragedy of movement and of color, and the proudest and most mysterious tremors of the soul, the swine decide your fate! It is well. Your solitude is so well peopled. You know it. There is not in the world a sound, a tone, a gesture, a form, a ray, or a shadow which exists alone. All listen to one another and answer one another, and enter one into the other by secret passages; and when, from their correspondences, from their common reflections, from their unanimous and joyous direction toward an invisible focus, harmony is born, it transmits all that is universal to the solitary man.

A century tending entirely toward scientific research contributed not a little to the bringing about of a growing misunderstanding between this solitary man and the mass, which was more and more incapable of feeling the language of form. The scientist evicted the artist, a little more each day, from the place which, since the Renaissance, he had occupied in the respect of the men of his time. And men are much more attentive to the humanitarian or practical results obtained by the seekers than they are to the intrinsic quality of their work. They erect altars to the latest inventor of a vaccine or of a stove; they are ignorant of him who comes to change the equilibrium of souls for a century or for a thousand years. It is so ordered, and the myth of Hercules is far better known to the crowd than the myth of Prometheus. Also, it is ordered that the crowd shall prefer those who bear only the stamp of Hercules to the less accessible demiurges who propose to us the grandest hypotheses imagined since the Hindu or Chaldean thinkers, and who inclose the course of the stars in algebraic formulas or capture life at its sources to conduct it, step by step, from the primeval clay to the intelligence of the god. The crowd is ignorant of the fact that these hypotheses have a formidable power over the practical direction of science. It is ignorant of the fact that pure science is only an analytical system destined, precisely, to verify these hypotheses and to draw positive results from their activity. It knows even less that these hypotheses are, fundamentally, of an aesthetic order, that they yield certitudes to which pure science does not attain. It does not know that these hypotheses have this in common with the great artistic generalizations: that while they bring us the intoxication of certitude, they are undemonstrable by experimentation. How then should the crowd understand that, in a way even less known, they also exercise a magical influence upon the evolution of lyricism, since the sense of lyricism has been drawing a little farther away from it every day for five centuries and has abandoned it completely in the last hundred years? How should it grasp the fact, for example, that the realistic art of the end of the last century is only an echo, almost direct, from scientific materialism; that Impressionism was born from the necessary encounter of the most extreme individualism with the most positive conquests of optics, the analysis of the scientists and the social analysis finally resulting in the separation of man from man as one objective phenomenon is separated from another? And why should it know this? Nine times out of ten, the artist himself is ignorant of it, and that ignorance is of benefit. If he suspects it, abstraction and system become his guides, and he ends by confusing the end with the means and dashes against a wall. The poet is carried to the peak of the unconscious; he gains consciousness only that he may better obey the movements of the unknown waves which cradle him, and that he may widen, through consciousness itself, the limits of the unconscious. It is possible that Rembrandt knew Spinoza, even if it is improbable that he read the Ethics, since he did not know Latin. It is sure that La Tour associated with Voltaire and read him, that Greuze listened to Diderot, and that David had read Rousseau. But it is practically certain that Le Nôtre did not know the philosophy of Descartes. And as against La Tour, against Greuze, against David, Le Nôtre was to prove correct. Thus, without seeking to imitate him, he bore the greater resemblance to Descartes.

There is no reason why the artist—and perhaps the most innocent, the least cultivated, especially—should live outside the currents of instinct which determine the special direction of the minds of his time. On the contrary, it would be quite surprising if he did not consider the universe and destiny from an angle nearer to the one which guides the thought and the experiences of the scientists and the philosophers who are his contemporaries. Solidarity of needs begets solidarity of ideas and expression. I do not believe that the scientists themselves, at least in the direction they give to their research, escape the needs of their epoch. All our ideas bear the trace of the profound events which surround us and which touch us, and the mathematical harmonies themselves, despite their apparent eternality, are perhaps not much more independent of the moral ground whence they spring than are the great sensual constructions of the painters or the musicians. The sensibilities of a given age are all directed toward the same invisible goal; they seize upon the relationships which another age would not seize upon; they erect systems which satisfy the obscurest and the strongest of their desires. It is thus that we should understand the inner, spontaneous, and necessary accord between Phidias and Plato, between Giotto and Dante, between Rembrandt and Spinoza, between Le Nôtre and Descartes, between Auguste Comte and Courbet.

We understand, therefore, how it is that science, acting upon the evolution of men's minds and being influenced by them in return, seems to arrive to-day at conclusions almost antagonistic to those within which certain overeager desires tried to arrest it twenty or thirty years ago. On all sides it is bursting in upon the seemingly exhausted domain of philosophy and of mysticism, and as it penetrates into this domain, it is also acted upon thereby. Intuition is once more in favor, and that was bound to come. What was formerly called Reason—which was, one or two centuries ago, from Descartes to Diderot, an admirable individual instrument for passionate investigation, a kind of living being—had become rationalism, an immobile religion, independent of the senses, emancipated from the heart: a lamp in a sepulcher. Those who little by little created the irreducible antagonism between method and life had not learned to see, on summer evenings after the rain—one of those evenings, green and pure, when colors and forms seem to crystallize in themselves what remains of the daylight—they had not learned to see a bed of geraniums, red as blood, in a geometrical garden whose walls of verdure, carved out by the will, tremble like the surface of water. They do not know the meaning of the Italian arabesque, carrying into life the thunderbolt of its line—which Rubens, in tin-n, loaded with all the weight of blood and matter which it could bear without giving way. They had never looked at the frieze of the Apsaras of Angkor, dance and music, sensual movement of the universe itself subjected to a mathematical rhythm by a miracle of the mind. They are probably the same persons who are now seizing upon rehabilitated intuition to enthrone it in a region outside of the intelligence, and are thereby condemning it to death. Man is unable to preserve his equilibrium. He has to divide himself into halves and project himself now toward one of the poles of his soul, now toward the other. He who believes only in science is like an orchestra musician who imagines that the whole symphony resides in the mechanism of his instrument. He who believes only in intuition is like an orchestra musician who imagines that the symphony continues when all the players break their strings and their bows. Man cannot admit to himself that intuition is only a flame spurting forth at the point of contact of an infinity of previous analyses and of accumulated reasoning, and that it delivers him from criticism through the faculty that it has, in action, in art, and in science, for generalizing and for choosing.

For five centuries, the rôle of the European hero has consisted precisely in maintaining within himself the harmony between the intelligence and the heart, a harmony which will assure to the reasoning individual access to one of those moments of certitude seized upon by the people in order to exhaust the climax of love which, once every thousand years, perhaps, makes it think and act like a single hero. This is true even in the France of the eighteenth century, when Diderot has his presentiment of the monotonous movement which always goes beyond so-called moral progress, and which is ceaselessly giving birth to new forces against which this pretended moral progress is forever struggling, and when Lamarck gathers together in his rational differentiation of the organisms the elements of the biological symphony which he proposes to the future. All the conquests of reason, all its stored-up knowledge, contribute to the nourishing of an instinct. Plato the Sophist stood at the threshold of the innumerable avenues that lead to the new growth of popular genius which was named Christianity. And Plato's point of departure was the popular Hellenic genius arrived at its maturity. Feeling, the point of departure of reason, is also the point at which it arrives; and the gaining possession of consciousness brings us back to fruitful unconsciousness wherein the great peoples, like the great individuals, spontaneously create ideas and images in their mature years with as little effort as they created children in their youth. It is to obey the command of life that reason finally comes, not through cowardice, but through courage, to a new mysticism. It is in vain that pure science advances; it thrusts back the mystery, it does not destroy it. Once the threshold of mystery is crossed, art regains its whole dominion.

The modern world is so complex, so uncertain in its directions, so diverse in its elements, the field of society is so upset, the destinies of Europe have been rendered so precarious by the greatest war in history, such a whirlwind of conflicting interests and ideas sweep it along, that its morrow is obscure. And yet the needs of the European crowd remain what they were. When whole peoples take part in war, which but the day before yesterday was the game and means of the aristocracies, war has more influence upon their common evolution. Is not war itself a phenomenon outside of consciousness, a terrible biological crisis in which the individual disappears, in which there burst forth only those blind powers of collective life destined to destroy or to renew from top to bottom the faculties of energy and of love that take part in them? As the intelligence was outstripped by life, moral consciousness was overflowed by war. In the wind which shakes the vine branches, under the whirling rain of grapes and of flowers, Dionysiac intoxication bounds to the sound of cymbals, laughter, and gasps of love. But the claws of the panthers tear the naked limbs. Death and resurrection turn in the bacchanale. If the European soul is not annihilated, the men of Europe will build.

The nineteenth century, especially in France, is a cathedral dispersed. It must be erected. The nonexistence of architecture in the last hundred years is very significant. The reign of the individual brings with it the downfall of the monument. We have seen that very often in history—after Egypt, after legendary Greece, when Japan had emancipated herself from China, and when the Renaissance caused the stained-glass windows to descend from the churches and ground them up on canvas, and when their statues descended to ornament its avenues and gardens. If the reign of the individual ends by his being given back to the multitude because he becomes too densely peopled himself to contain himself, architecture, the work of the anonymous crowds, will be reborn, and painting and sculpture will re-enter the monument. The whole art of to-day, even in its most transitory forms, is obeying an obscure need of subordination to some collective task still unknown; and this need suggests to our art—confused and diverse though it be in appearance—the direction of its lines and the quality of its tones. Whither do we go? Wherever the spirit of life wills it.

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