Renaissance Art - Introduction

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WE lived for two or three centuries with a feeling that the Italian Renaissance brought us back, for our consolation, into the lost path of ancient art, and that before the Renaissance and outside of it there was nothing but barbarism and confusion. When our need to love them caused us to regard passionately the work left by the artists who, in the last days of the Middle Ages, preceded the Italian dawn, we misunderstood and slandered Italy. We reproached her for the influence that she exercised upon the peoples of the Occident; we refused to see that these peoples, after the temporary exhaustion of their spiritual resources, had to submit to the common law and demand of newer elements that which would fertilize their mind. We are so made that it is very difficult for us to place ourselves outside of history in order to consider it from afar, and so, too easily, we attribute a definitive value to the feelings which our present desires dictate to us. The need for the absolute, in which He our suffering and our strength and our glory, is also something that we refuse to recognize in men who took a different path from our own in order to satisfy that need.

When men have invoked the spirit of their own race in order to condemn the influence of Italy because of the errors into which she led imitators unworthy to assimilate her teaching, it was in reality Michael Angelo or Titian who was being accused of belonging to his own race and of not having been born in the thirteenth century in northern Europe. If we listened to the Italian heroes, it was because they, came at the hour when our instinct required them. The spirit of the north and of the Occident had flowed back upon the Italy of the Middle Ages, menacing her individuality and at the same time introducing into her the elements that were indispensable for her resurrection. It was necessary that the energy of Italy should assume an appearance of insurrection in order to reject everything that she did not recognize as human and constant in those elements which she received from abroad, and in order that she might give back to the north the impetus which she had received from the north, at the hour when the latter should call for her aid. If the imprint which she left upon the north was a deep one, if it still remains, it is that the great effort put forth in the Middle Ages by the peoples across the Alps and the Rhine had almost exhausted them. And it is also that Italy brought to the world an instrument of investigation that had lain forgotten for twelve centuries and to which our fragment of humanity had still to resort in order not to succumb. With its last breath, the social rhythm, which had found its realization in the Occidental Commune and which had expressed itself with such a coherent and anonymous force through the Cathedral and the Nibelungen Lied, was now demanding of the individual that he arise from the midst of the crowds to subject the work of the crowds to his criticism, and to discover in them, in himself, and in the external universe the materials of a new rhythm in which the crowds might one day define themselves, recognize themselves, and find again, for a century or for an hour, the sense of collective action.

The invention of printing did not, as Victor Hugo said, kill the architecture of the ogive. At most it hastened its death slightly. When Gutenberg invented the press, Masaccio and the van Eycks had for ten or fifteen years been pointing out to the painters their new path, and in France all the churches which were being built were so strained in their effect that the architectural elements were rushing to dissociation. Nicolas Froment, Jehan Foucquet, and Enguerrand Charonton were beginning to paint. The invention of printing was due to the same causes as was the decadence of the art that built the edifices in which the whole crowd had a share. The decomposition of architectural unity corresponded with the work of analysis which was beginning to divide the social body, and the liberation of the arts and sciences and the irresistible and sudden rise of sculpture, painting, music, literature, and printing announced the substitution of individual research for the great spontaneous creation in which the newly aroused and magnificent energy of the peoples had for two or three hundred years been summarizing their needs.

What drew our attention toward Italy for so long a time, what made us misunderstand the work of individualization which was going on at the same time in France, in Germany, in Flanders, in England, and in Spain, was that this work in the north and in the west was performed without a halt, because the statue descended from the niche and the painting from the stained-glass window without the artist's ceasing to look at the abandoned temple, even while he moved away from it. In Italy, on the contrary, the individualization of the creative energies found admirable tools ready to hand for the work of self-assertion. And there were men for the task, those who for two centuries had been prepared by civil war and by the violence of their passions, even as they had been prepared for this search for their personal law by the character of the soil which had been forming them since the beginning of their history. All the peoples of Europe gave way before Italy's investigation or adopted it, for the reason that Italy undertook her investigation with a mind freer and more mature than theirs. If they did not always understand the conclusions that were reached, it is not Italy that should be held responsible. Moreover, we are young, and we still look to the future. What she gave us of life will live again when we live again.

This more or less gradual or more or less brutal passage from collective expression to individual expression was not new. History is like a heart that beats—like a fist that opens and closes. At certain hours, popular energy, having reached its summit and requiring full freedom of action, demands momentary concentration into a vast symphonic ensemble of all the moral, religious, and social ideas which, before that time, had been scattered among a few minds that were ahead of their time. This is the prodigious moment when the certitude of living in the absolute and of fixing it in our souls produces a flash of lightning amid the expanse of darkness, and it is this that lifts up a whole people to the unknown god dwelling within it, while it remains all unconscious of what has occurred. This is the wonderful moment when the individual effaces himself, when all the members of a crowd react at the same time to external forces, when great buildings spring forth from the earth, willed by all, built by all, and subordinating to their social function all the isolated expressions through which men only a day before were seeking to define themselves separately. Egypt, in its ensemble, reached this hour several times in the course of its long life and was able to prolong the hour more than any other people because it was Egypt that opened history and because she proceeded slowly in almost absolute isolation ; but even so there were centuries of doubt and hesitation at intervals, and of analysis that is obscure to us because we are too far away to comprehend it perfectly. Chaldea undoubtedly knew this hour, India—nearer to us—lived through it in her frightful intoxication. It was the frenzied and ecstatic dream of Islam. China tried to prolong it within herself for three thousand years. Greece swept rapidly through her hour and left her trace of fire across history. The earliest Doric temples reveal the rapid rise toward this summit of domination which was reached by the anonymous sculptor of Olympia and by Aeschylus at the same time, while Phidias began to lean toward its other slope.

But the anonymous sculptor of Olympia and Phidias were already powerfully characterized individuals. Amid the procession of the people marching toward the Parthenon, the voice of Aeschylus, one of the most pious voices, was heard above the others, and in his brain he bore Prometheus, who was to attempt to ravish the flame from the altar. Since the beginning of history, never had the individual so strongly claimed the right to place his thought at the service of men who did not understand him. By way of these implacable successions of analyses and syntheses [The Saint-Simonians called them critical and organic periods.] which the evolution of the mind imposes upon us like voyages through hell and sojourns in Paradise, we achieve partial syntheses and partial analyses which correspond to momentary triumphs of classes or of tendencies in the social organism. The Greek synthesis, which doubtless attained its strongest expression at some time between the poems of Homer and the Medean wars, was a short stage in the course of the long analysis which separated the decline of the old Oriental civilizations from the obscure beginnings of the modern civilizations. But it was the decisive stage which determined the future.

In any case, the philosophic and aesthetic activity in which it culminated seemed forever to dissociate the elements of human energy, and when it had introduced into the world the terrible ferments of reason and liberty, the world seemed condemned never to recover the profound harmony in which all men meet and in which the social rhythm submerges all the individual rhythms. It is true that painting has revealed to us almost nothing of what the soul of the ancients confided to it as it wandered in search of itself; and yet painting is par excellence the plastic instrument of the individual, through its infinite suppleness, its obedience to every change of direction, to every leap, to every flash of light, to every shadow of the mind as well as through its faculty for binding together the most complex relationships. Sculpture is still a social art which has to produce in space a block closed on all sides—it must therefore respond to clearly constructed philosophic ideas, and when it was torn from the temple, it could not do otherwise than betray to us the disquietude, the doubt, the dispersion and irremediable disorder of the social body itself; it could not fail to let us foresee the coming of a new world, even though it did not indicate to us the true direction of that world. Be that as it may, the Hellenic analysis so disintegrated the old world that it seemed to be going down forever, and it had to appeal first to the Jews and then to the barbarians in order that, in a new territory, it might once more lay the foundation for a social rhythm, which did not culminate until seventeen centuries after the time of the Parthenon—with the Commune of the Occident, the French cathedral, the popular poems of Germany, and the market of the Flemings.

The Renaissance owes its name to the fact that it expressed an hour of our history analogous to that one of which Euripides and Praxiteles lived the first and most decisive moments. Only, we are better able to grasp the plastic manifestations of it. There remains to us something else than the dissolving and sacred thought of the philosophers who affirmed its character—Rabelais, Montaigne, and Erasmus, in whom Socrates and his disciples would not have recognized themselves, but who, in the reverse sense, and in their relation with the mediaeval world, played the role that Socrates and his disciples had played respecting the ancient world. There remains to us something else than the anarchic architecture to which it gave rise in Italy. It has left us painting, an individual work, it is true, but objective, even so, and one that could not endure except that it express a living continuity in the brain of the artist, and no longer, like the arts that precede it, in the anonymous instinct of a collectivity. It is especially through painting that we know why the Renaissance was necessary to us and why we love it. We know why we shall not cease to be grateful to the great individuals who gathered up into their soul the soul of the crowds that had disappeared, in order to transmit their hopes to the crowds that were to come. For it is they who pass on the torch. It is they who are the bond of union between the general needs that men no longer feel and the general needs that they will feel again one day—between the organism of yesterday and the organism of to-morrow. They are in themselves a crowd, and the continuity of sentiment that bound men to men found its refuge in their hearts. The Michael Angelo of the Sistine, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velasquez are, more clearly than the writers, the scientists, or the philosophers, the individual symphonies which, in critical periods, collected the elements of the people's symphony that, for the moment, had been scattered to all the winds of sensation and the mind. One can love them with a love equal to that which one feels for the abandoned temple. Between a cathedral window and a picture by Titian there is the distance that separates an admirable voice in the most beautiful popular choir from a symphony by Beethoven.

It is this that gives to those who arise here and there, to hold up the columns of the temple with their titanic effort, the appearance of being in radical opposition to their surroundings. They seem ill adapted to the society in which they are because they have within them the grand rhythm—invisible to the blind multitudes—of the adaptations to come. They broke dead rhythms to create new rhythms. They are the more solitary the higher they rise and the more complex, universal, permanent, and profound, are the elements of life that are brought into activity by the symphonies which they hear in the silence of their hearts.

But since a social synthesis is the secret goal of their effort, since men are joyful when their purpose is realized, since pessimism occurs only in the rare minds that suffer through their loneliness, and since optimism is the fruit of communion among men, how is it that when this divine communion has been achieved, how is it, I repeat, that men cannot safeguard it? The reason is that no society could resist the general stagnation which the maintenance of this communion would bring about. The reason is that life is nothing else but effort. And the balance of the elements that compose it is never a static realization, but always a tendency; or at least, the instant in which the balance is effected is too imperceptible for us to be able to arrest it otherwise than through the works which spring forth at that moment from our hearts.

This dynamic equilibrium, ever destroyed, ever restored, which it is impossible to maintain but which engenders a hope that we cannot stifle, this repose which we pursue with the desire of attaining it and with the presentiment that we shall lose it immediately, could not be prolonged unless the social organs adapt themselves in a spontaneous, close, and yet mobile manner to economic .and moral conditions whose evolution never ceases. But very soon there comes a moment when the appearance of new peoples and new methods, of unforeseen discoveries, and of currents of external ideas disturbs the balance of the scales, when one of the organs tends to grow at the expense of the other, when the narrow egoism of one class, of one caste, or of some particular group of individuals gains possession of the work of the others for its own profit, and arouses, among those others, isolated forces which will sprout little by little in minds adapted to the search for the law of a new equilibrium. The unequal distribution of wealth, the needs that it develops, and the groupings of interests that it necessarily creates have doubtless been, up to the present, the most visibly active factor of the social dissociations which we observe in history. At the same time, through the aristocracies of culture which it helped to form, it was preparing the ground for the future associations of the very elements that it separated one from another. It has always been believed that luxury exercised a favorable influence on the development of art. In reality, the relationship which certainly exists between luxury and art has given to wealth the advantage of a role that it has never possessed. The intellectual forces of a people are born of the effort from which spring, with these forces, the wealth of individuals, and the power of radiation, and expansion of the collectivity. At the hour when these forces become conscious of themselves, architecture is dead and sculpture dies. If the aristocracies of wealth avail themselves of the flowering of literature and more especially of painting, it is also they who bring the arts into contempt, even as the acquiring of riches destroys the power of a people by raising up around it organs of isolation and defense which end by crushing it. The only wealth of mankind is action.

As a matter of fact, the influence of Italy was arrested when Italy had become the house of pleasure for Europe, as the influence of Greece had come to an end at the moment when Athens, grown rich, was no longer considered good for anything by those who had just conquered her save to teach them and to amuse them. That was enough. To France, who was broken by war and whose formidable effort had twisted and dislocated the limbs and the backbone of the great ogival nave, Italy had indicated a path of regeneration. And along this path France was to gather up powerful instruments with which to emancipate herself. To the Shakespearean cycle she had furnished an inexhaustible treasury of sensations, ideas, and images, a mirror which the breath of the north blurred so that the soul of its poets should not be able to find in it the limits of its mystery. She had prepared the way for the all-powerful hero of painting who was to appear in Flanders at the beginning of the seventeenth century and was to stir the whole world by opening the gates of the modern epoch. He did so when he poured into the single mold of southern rhythms the abounding matter of the flat countries where the mist and the rain take on the color of the sun. And although the protest that the reformers made against the moral dissolution of Italy gave to Germany's political insurrection a character of antagonism toward the Renaissance of the south, it was the example of Italy which permitted them, later on, to arouse the individual forces that were needed by their country.

The search for social equilibriums occurs in space—across the face of the earth, as well as in time—throughout the course of history; and the conditions of that search change according to the economic and geographical circumstances which rendered it indispensable. The countries of the north of Europe, in their relation with the countries of the south, had to experience a reaction which may fairly be compared with that which the Jewish people had attempted against the influence of the Greek people. The exaltation of the intellectual and sensual qualities of men gave way suddenly before the qualities which had been insisted upon by the Jewish prophets. This is, at least, an outline of the significance which, in the mind of those thinkers who expressed it, is to be attributed to the movements of which we have been speaking, movements which are too complex and too profound for us to be able to gather up their political and social meaning into a single formula. The universal character of primitive Christianity and its demand for an inner discipline imposed on the barbarians of the north and the west of Europe bonds which were necessary for the restraining and utilization of their unemployed energy. The Reformation, in its turn, or at least the movement that culminated in the Reformation, permitted them to recover their personality, which was being compromised in the course of time by the progressive invasion of Latin idealism, and to free their economic activity from the domination of Rome. If the outer form which the religious and political powers of Germany gave to the agitation for reform stifled the spiritual powers released by the Renaissance, it was to revive with the great music in the genius of the north, which had been freed and enabled to pour its formidable life into the soul of the men of the future.

Whatever the violations of the innocence of man committed by Catholicism and the Protestant sects, we must accept them as necessary social secretions from which, during centuries, the man of the south and the man of the north have derived what they needed for the establishment of a balance with the natural and moral surroundings in which their life was passed. The individualism in matters of passion of the southern peoples imposed upon them the need for a social frame work of a powerfully hierarchic character; in this all their unrest and all their inner conflicts could find an exact solution and, in case of need, appeal for the support of an immutable force from without. The naturally social character of the peoples of the north, where the harder struggle for existence and the more continuous effort render man necessary to man at every moment, called for a lever from within which should stir the moral nature. In the century when the Germanic genius and the Italian genius expanded m a supreme burst of energy, we shall see the painters who represent the two countries considering form from almost opposite points of view. On the one hand there are frescoes on the walls, made to be seen by all. On the other hand, we find isolated works, belonging to brotherhoods or ordered by donors. On the one hand, we find artists more powerfully individualized because the multitude around them is anarchic and passionate, and they unite the spirit which is scattered through the crowd by raising up an ideal, generalizing a hierarchic image of nature. On the other hand, artists who are scarcely liberated from the collective instinct of the Middle Ages divide up the common spirit by particularizing all the aspects of nature which they see confused and in detail and all on the same plane. Rubens, the man of the north and a Catholic, will bring about a momentary harmony between the soul of Michael Angelo and the soul of Dürer.

But the world will have to wait for him for a hundred years Until we reach him and despite the incessant borrowing from Italy of the peoples of the north despite the fact that Italy sought from the colorists ot Flanders advice the evidence of which is less easy to discover, there was, between the spirit of the north and the spirit of the south, u kind of antagonism which was necessary to the effort of the world and which, doubtless, will not disappear until the day when, the unity of Europe having been effected, more numerous and widely separated groups will confront their desires. The thin landscapes of the south, their transparence,, the sober and precise lines which arrest them in the intelligence and which engender in us clear ideas and essential relationships permitted the great Italians to create an intellectual interpretation of nature which, from the sculptors of Egypt to Michael Angelo, and from Phidias to Titian, has changed only in appearance, and tends to summarize universal life in the human form, as purified as the mind itself from the accidental surroundings which limit, and imperfections which encompass, it. The landscapes of the north, engulfed in mists and buried under leaves, are marked by a confusion which disturbs us with vague sensations of a tangle of images—powerless to organize themselves into ideas. And this was the force that opened to the artists of the northern countries the gates of a mystery in which the forms float and seek one another and make it impossible for sentiment to eliminate and to choose. The men of one group, by reducing nature to an arbitrarily settled harmony, raised man up to be a god; the other group mingled men with life in general by considering nature as a blind symphony in which consciousness is lost in the whirl of sounds, forms, and colors. Hence the spiritual exaltation of those who, the better to seize the higher destiny of man, forgot his misery and their own suffering and saw him forever ascending; hence the humanity of those who, each time that they turned toward man, saw him cradled by the fraternal wave of matter, of ideas, and of movements. The anthropomorphism of the one group and the pantheism of the other have given to our mind the two poles of its power, between which it is perhaps condemned to move eternally and from which it derives desire and doubt, but also the will to action.

And what does doubt matter, and what does it matter that the desire is never quenched! What does it matter if we feel, escaping from us at every moment, that monstrous truth which we think to grasp at every moment and which ceaselessly flows out of us and beyond us, because it is living just as we are and because we create it every day and condemn it to death by the mere fact that we have wrested it from ourselves! What does it matter that there should be, from age to age, broken voices which tell us that we shall never know everything! That is our glory. Each time that we set to work, we know everything, because at the moment of creation there flow into us all the living forces of the world which we invoke and epitomize for the illumination of our spirit and the guidance of our hand. If our love for the Renaissance is so intoxicating, it is that our love consented to suffer in order to bring forth from the night those moving truths whose exhaustless power of creation we are barely beginning to perceive to-day, and this again is because they are inseparable from all the truths that ever were and all that are still to come. We shall not forget those invincible men who, when all the powers leagued together to bar their way, when their books were burned and their crucibles were smashed, when the ax and the sword were raised against them and the fagots were prepared for them around the stake, did not recoil from the task of discovering facts and ideas which each day broke down the equilibrium of soul that they acquired so painfully, and who kept alive in themselves the effort necessary for other conquests. We shall not forget that when humanity, exhausted by the crisis of love through which it had just lived, uttered a cry of anguish, they hastened to lift up and console that love. We shall not forget that at the same hour, when a finger, which had until then pressed upon invisible lips, was lifted at some place, Keppler and Copernicus, with a single gesture, pushed back the sky beyond the very limits of the dream and of intuition; Columbus and Magellan opened up the great routes of the earth in order that it might be placed within our hands like a weapon of combat; Vésale and Michael Servetus seized upon the initial movements of life within our entrails; Shakespeare freed from theological uses the boundless poem that we bear within our hearts; Rabelais, Erasmus, and Montaigne affirmed that force is eternal and that doubt is necessary; Cervantes wrested the life of our idealism from all the evil paths of disappointments and mirages; and Italian art was slowly dying from the effort it had had to make in order to introduce order into the mind, and through order freedom.

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