Phidias (part III)

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With him modeling is no longer a science, it is not yet a trade, it is a living thought. The volumes, the movements, the surge that starts from one angle of the pediment to end at the other—everything is sculptured from within, everything obeys inner forces in order to reveal their meaning to us. The living wave runs through the limbs, they are instinct with it, rounded or extended by it; it models the heads of the bones and, as ravines cut into a plain, it indents the glorious torsos from the secret belly to the tremble of the hard breasts. The sap, which rises in it and causes it to pulsate, makes of each fragment of the material, even when broken, a moving entity which participates in the existence of the whole, receiving life from it and returning life to it. An organic solidarity binds the parts together triumphantly. A higher life of the soul, for the first and the only time in history merged and confounded with the tempestuous life of the elements, rises above a world intoxicated and strong in the immortal youth of a moment which cannot last.

From the dusk of morning to the dusk of night the pediments spread out their scroll of life. In them peace descends with the night and light mounts with the day. From the two arms of Phoebus, which emerge from the horizon, stretching out toward the peak of the world, to the head of the horse whose body is already in the shadow at the other side of the sky, life grows, marches on without haste, and diminishes. The whole of life. Without interruption these forms continue one another. Like peaceful vegetation they come forth from the earth and, in the air from which they draw their life, unite their branches and mingle their foliage. Alone or entwined, they continue one another, as the plain into which the hill melts, the valley that reaches up to the mountain, the liver and its estuary which the sea absorbs and the bay which goes from promontory to promontory. The shoulder is made for the brow which lies on it, the arm for the waist which it embraces, the ground lends its strength to the hand that presses on it, to the arm that shoots up from it like a rough tree and that holds up the half-reclining torso. It is limitless space that goes to mingle with the blood in the breasts and, when one looks at the eyes one would say that at the depths of their motionless pools space weds with the spirit which has come to repose there and to recover its vigor. The mechanical course of the heavenly bodies, the sound of the sea, the eternal tide of its embryos, and the unseizable flight of universal movement pass incessantly into these profound forms to blossom into intelligent energy.

A great and solemn moment! Man prolongs nature, whose rhythm is in his heart, determining, at each beat, the flux and reflux of his soul. Consciousness explains instinct and fulfills its higher function, which is to penetrate the order of the world, that it may obey it the better. The soul consents not to abandon the form, but to express itself through the form, and to let its single light flash out at the contact. The mind is like the perfume of man's necessary sensualism, and the senses demand of the mind that it justify their desires. Reason does not yet weaken sentiment; instead sentiment acquires new strength by marrying with reason. The highest idealism never loses sight of the actual elements of its generalizations, and when the Greek artist models a form in nature it shines with a spontaneous light of symbolic truth.

Greek art, at this time, reaches the philosophic moment. It is a thing of living change. Idealistic in its desire, it lives because it demands of life the elements of its ideal constructions. It is the species in the law, the man and the woman, the horse and the ox, the flower, the fruit, the being exclusively described by its essential qualities and made to live as it is, in the exercise of its normal functions. It is, at the same time, a man, a horse, an ox, a flower, and a fruit. The great Venus, peaceful as an absolute, is willed by the whole race. She sums up its hopes, she fixes its desire, but her swelling neck, her beautiful ripening breasts, her moving sides make her alive. She lends her glow to space which caresses her, touches her sides with gold, makes her lungs rise and fall. It penetrates her, she mingles with it. She is the unseizable instant when eternity meets universal life.

This state of equilibrium, wherein all the vital powers seem to hang suspended in the consciousness of man before bursting forth and multiplying under definite forms, imparts its force to all Greek art of the highest class. The anonymous sculptor of Olympia and Phidias and his pupils, the architects of the Acropolis, express the same relations, the same prodigious and blended universe brought to the human scale, the same type of reason, superior to the accidents of nature and subordinated to its laws. But the language of each one remains as personal as his body, his hands, the form of his forehead, the color of his eyes, the whole of his elemental substance, which is written into the marble by the same stroke that renders the universal order which he has understood and marked with its external form. See the faith, the almost savage sweep of the man who made the statues of Olympia, his rugged and broad phrase. See the religion, the sustained energy, the reserve of Phidias, his long, balanced phrase. See, in the encircling frieze, the discretion of his pupils who have neither his freedom nor his power, but who are calm as he is, because, like him, they live in an hour of certitude. Man, the animals, and the elements, everything consents to its role, and the artist feels, in his fraternal heart, the joy of this consent. It is with the same spirit that he tells of the warmth of women, the strength of men, and the rumination of oxen. A life as glorious as the summer! Man has seized the meaning of his activity; it is by what is around him that he frees himself and cultivates himself; it is through himself that he humanizes what is around him.

The bad Roman copies of works belonging to the last period of Greece, the soft goddesses, the draped gods brandishing their lyres, the figures from literature and works of the school have for a long time calumniated Greek art. It expressed to us a colorless people, assuming a theatrical attitude to overawe the future. The artificial heroism hid the real heroism, and the ruggedness and freshness of the primitive were effaced by the fictions of the Alexandrine romancers. We vised to describe the draperies of the "Fates" before having seen their knees, the shelter of their warm abdomen, and their torsos mounting with the power and tumult of a wave to the absent heads which we divine as leaning over in confidences and confession. The anatomy of the "Theseus" and the "Ilyssus" masked the formidable life that swells and dilates them and makes its pulsations pass even to the fragments that have disappeared. The "Panatheniac Frieze" revealed to us the manner in which girls walk as they bear burdens, flowers, and sheaves, how horsemen defile, the tranquility of intelligent strength dominating brute strength, how oxen go with the same step to the slaughterhouse and to work. We had forgotten that these were men and women who had lived, who had loved and suffered, and beasts which used to dig the furrows in the thin plain of Attica, and whose fat and flesh used to burn on the altars.

Whether the mutilated marbles which carry Greek thought from the frontiers of archaism to the threshold of the decadence are wrestlers or virgins, the ease of strength shines from them, and an irresistible sweetness. When we come forth from the murderous effigies of Assyria or the silent statues of Egypt we feel ourselves brought back into the living universe, after having attuned the primitive instincts to the world of the mind. The obsessing anguish and the terror retreat into memory; we breathe deeply, we find ourselves to be what we did not yet know we were; we are the beings imaged by our presentiments. We have seen the athletes arise quite naked in the light, as numerous as the old beliefs, and the young, astonished faces starting from the blue and green robes, like great flowers amid the fields. Demeter has left the ruins of Eleusis, tenderly to place in the hand of the calm Triptolemus the grain of wheat which is to give bread to men, and with it, science and peace. Blind desire and divine modesty, the eternal conflict that compromises or realizes our higher equilibrium—all this we have seen issuing from the dust of Olympia, with the brutes in their madness, the virgins assailed, their beautiful bodies that struggle out of the embrace, their beautiful heavy arms in revolt. There, at the level of the ground, we have picked up the trace of the life of the little slaves of the old serving-woman, and, at the angle of the pediments, we have felt the weight of the breast of women already feeling the movement of new life within them. With the good Herakles, we have carried the globe, swept the stable, and strangled the monsters; we have wandered over the earth to make it healthful, and our hearts with it. In the pediments of the great temple of the Acropolis, with the rough-grained torsos, the full limbs, the wave of humanity that mounts and is appeased, we have recognized, in the projections into the light and the hollowings into the shadow, the image of our destiny. The panting Victories have hung upon their wings that we may surprise, under the robe that proclaims it, the hesitation of the flanks, the breasts, the belly, as they emerge into their prime. All these deified beings show us at once the roots and the summit of our effort.

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