Romanticism and Materialism (part VI)

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There, then, is French idealism in its most concrete, but also in its most spiritual, expression. To attain this expression, it is useless to spurn as unworthy the desire for matter and the possession of it. To prevent its irresistible rejuvenation, it is useless for this form to hurl itself upon matter, closing its soul and its heart to its loftiest precepts. It is, however, these two simultaneous and parallel movements to which, at the moment when Delacroix and Corot became mature, but also at the moment when scientific civilization affirms itself, the writers and the artists will yield. In England, for example, the protest of the painters against science and its industrial aspects will, under the influence of Ruskin, assume an abstract and literary character, which will cause it to misunderstand and forget painting. In France, the century is fortunately too strong in its painting to stumble in its path. At most, when we approach the final development of what is claimed to be French symbolism, so stammering, so poor, and so submerged under the plastic power of the century, a fragile work will appear, the supreme flower of a culture which no longer possesses anything living or human, and lacks the faculty of revelation and the power of renewal: like so many men of the tragic periods when the mind oscillates between two faiths. Odilon Redon will have every quality of a great painter—and of a great man, nothing. The others accept life and do not go seeking the mystery outside of it, aware that knowledge thrusts back its frontiers and extends it. Corot, who maintains, high and pure, the flame of the spirit in the matter regained and solicited by the spirit, was very glad, I imagine, to make use of the railway in order to reach his painting-ground more quickly. Courbet will not be wrong when he laughs heavily if people talk to him about the soul: but just the same, there will be more "soul" in a square centimeter of the most materialistic of Courbet 's paintings than in all the works of the English pre-Raphaelites, of Gustave Moreau, and of Boecklin, put together. When Puvis gathered inspiration from Greek and mediaeval legends of the ideal world, as he did, he was not frightened at the sight of telegraph poles.

And so Puvis, amid the current which sends painting to the positivist philosophy of the time, and soon to science itself, to ask for a technique after having asked for moral support, Puvis remains the only one who with a sufficient plastic intelligence maintains French idealism in his means and in his results. To tell the truth, he is far less of a painter than Corot, who unites him, through Poussin, with French tradition. His master, Delacroix, did not transmit to him the sense of pathos and the sense of the mystical in painting, doubtless because that sense is the most personal and the most living of all. Movement and harmony do not flow as a unit and from within; in his painting, the unity of the work is external and of the will; his high culture, alone, among the elements of his vision, creates solidarity, one that is sufficient to satisfy taste, but insufficient to subjugate it. But there is not, in the whole work, a suspicion of literary or symbolical intention foreign to the sentiments which the language of plastics is capable of expressing. And if the instinct of the painter is less vast than his mind, his feeling for decoration lends him a moral force which the Gothic men of Italy seemed to have exhausted.

He could not concern himself long with Courbet, his elder by a few years, and whose effort at its beginnings, when he left the atelier of Delacroix, interested him, and always commanded his respect. This somewhat beastlike power must even have revealed to him, by contrast, the secret of his desire. Another painter besides, of the same age as Courbet, revealed to him, at the decisive hour, the great decorative style. Fiery, sensual, intoxicated with love and with painting, the creole Chassériau, celebrated when twenty years old and lacking only, perhaps, a longer life in order to become the greatest painter of his century, was in the very center of the whirlwind in which the wild lyricism of Delacroix and the determined style of Ingres were clashing, influencing all the artists, shaking Chassériau himself and tossing him about without respite, until his death, which came when he had attained the age of Raphael and of Watteau. A life too short, especially if one thinks of its grandiose ambitions, the frescoes in which human forms marry their undulations, like those of rivers or of flowers swaying, with the flowers themselves, with the rivers, with the seaweed, with the branches, with the vines, and with the sheaves, the French poem of Goujon, of Poussin, of Girardon, and of Watteau, unfolding under the burning shadow of the tropical forest, and under the romantic frenzy of death and voluptuousness. A life too frail, a health too precarious for the unforeseen robustness of a plastic intelligence capable of forcing upon the intoxication of his century structural discipline and the heroic grace of the Greco-Latin genius. A life too passionate, perhaps, from which there escaped a fire which returned upon it, and burned it, and permitted to surge up from its fallen ashes the immense splendor of those corollas which grow on some flaming rock, and which one perceives from a long distance, strange, hallucinating, and solitary. When he disappeared, a few ardent compositions, full of the meaning of the great natural symbols—broad flanks, splendor of arms and of knees, the tinkling of jewels and medals, women like some great fruits of the tropics, heavy, ripe, swelling with odorous sap, and giant trees with the wide expanse of their trunks, and their branches like twisting flames—had, at all events, outlined the reconciliation, possible only in a spiritual organism as new and strong as his own, between the two hostile masters in whom the century might have found its decorative expression. Ingres, indeed, from the time of his return from Rome had, with his misunderstanding of reflections, his local tones, his unbroken backgrounds, and his linear rhythms, initiated a type of mural painting which neither he nor his pupils ever brought to realization. Delacroix was too much of a painter, too much of a musician, too much enamored of subtle shades and of lightninglike passages, to subordinate his great epic frescoes to the solemn unity and the austere tone of the walls.

Puvis de Chavannes, with far less genius, but perhaps with more patience and, in any case, with more time than Chassériau had, at least attempted the miracle which no one, since Giotto, has wrought completely. With a little more of sensual intoxication in the color, which is held in too close subjection to the bareness of the stone, a little more of plenitude of life, and of accent, in the grand lines which attempted to bring form and gesture back to the simplest architectural rhythm, he would, through the synthesis of his landscapes and through the pale perfection of his well-controlled harmonies, have touched the highest accord to be attained between painting with its life and the monument with its idea. The noble spirit is practically alone on its peak, where a few pale flowers are strewn and where the sounds of the world become tenuous before they reach him. This ruddy Burgundian, sensual but an aristocrat, who loved women, the country, and good wine, ever rises to imaginary constructions which summarize our universe in majestic forms and chastened melodies. There is no surrender to the sensation of the moment. Everything is masterly evocation of the spiritual aspects of the event and of the place. The moon rises at its hour to lend its glow to the saint who watches over the sleeping roofs. The sea is dead for the poor man whom it feeds, and the shore discloses to him only the anaemic flowers of hope and of memory. When he wills it, all the departed or dying civilizations rise from the oceans they have ransacked, in order to tender their submission to the modern world. The angels fly in a heaven conquered by the industry of men. Let us accept everything, in order to understand everything, he seems to say, and let us spread our two great wings above the miserable quarrels of doubt and of negation. . . The trees, isolated and straight, with their open leaves, the bare plains, the calm rivers, the foam and the azure of the sea, the skies which dawn or evening slowly illuminate or darken, the motionless herds waiting for night, and the groups dispersed by labor, games, study, and war, have the grandeur of a prayer offered by an unbeliever to universal life, to thank it for loving him. It is Renan between the Church and atheism, the double and serene protest, of a nature somewhat too voluntarily spiritual, against excessive literary abstraction, and against encroaching sensualism. He has not the faith, but he understands it, and he expresses it. And then he has a noble vision of things, which is also a faith. And the intellectual epic of France, with its calm harmonies, its measured architecture, and its limpid idealism, is unrolled on all these walls between lines of white muses bearing the sword and the lyre, and somber laurel woods.

At the other extremity of the universal movement which sweeps French painting onward toward the renewal of its means, Courbet accepts the name of "realist." which is given him in derision. He shouts the word like a challenge, with his drawling voice. Every time that people speak of the ideal, or of imagination, or of beauty, or of poetry, or of mystery, he shrugs his heavy shoulders, picks up his brush and paints a manure heap. He is right. Only, he is too right. He has almost no general culture, he has known no fervent apprenticeship under a master of his profession. At the Louvre, he copies those in whom he finds the direct qualities, which are the only ones he understands, and which he seeks to carry further than they—the Venetians, the Flemings, and the Spaniards. Anarchistic and self-taught, he of course founds a School, which is to say, a religion. He calls himself the free man, free from the prejudice of aesthetic education, even while he himself is in search of culture and of government. And he reproduces the faults and the blemishes of cultures and governments in their decay. He copies the pictures of the masters as faithfully as he thinks to copy nature, and carries over into his art the blackened backgrounds of the canvases in the museum, their opaque shadows, and all the foreign substances that age and dirt have deposited on their surface.

By good fortune, his craftsmanship is tremendous. He copies the splendor of flesh, the great gray skies, the brooks under the leaves, the vast trees, the foggy sea and its breaking waves, with as much application, exactitude, and force as he does the bitumen and the rancid oil of the masterpieces which he ill understands. He does not compose, he does not transpose; with black, white, blood, a little gold and clay, his trowel plasters the object under his broad eyes, those of a somnolent, sensual animal ruminating slowly, with a few obscure ideas, and with powerful sensations. He has a gluttonous delight in mixing his thick paste, and the stories he builds up are rudimentary —a country burial, drinkers around a table, stone breakers, or women sifting wheat—which leave a remembrance, dull, very tenacious, however, and sometimes very moving. He believes himself to be bringing romanticism to a brutal close, and he uncompromisingly preserves its antithesis, by opposing blacks and whites, a process easy to conceive and difficult to execute, but with which he plays with a grandiose breadth, as no one had since Frans Hals. Sometimes he thereby reaches depths which extend in veiled and heavy sonorities to the center of the eternal and simple feelings of the heart, like the lowest and purest notes wherein the violoncello and the human voice unite their passion. He knows how to make a drama, direct, present, and of a bare and somber gravity, with the handkerchief which a widow's hand holds to her face as she weeps, and which makes a white spot against her black veil. He knows how to unite there with great livid clouds, a low gray cliff, a few powerful reds, and a few mortuary emblems which carry into the mournful provincial gathering the sumptuous echo of the mystic symbols and of the death-feasts of love and of memory. He does not do this purposely, I should say. He copies. But perhaps, on that day, he writes—with nothing but dark garments, a little white linen, a few women weeping and with bowed heads, some ordinary spectators, a grave digger, a grave in the clay, and a sad and leaden landscape—the most powerful epic of the family in the history of painting.

Such is the man, knowing no fine distinctions, almost coarse, though he has strange flashes, and—his portraits of Proud'hon, of Berlioz, of Baudelaire, and of Vallès are witness to this—though he is attracted toward the mind, like a big woodland insect that flies in, with a buzz of wings, through the open window into lighted rooms. Such is this magnificent painter. Everything that is animal, close to the earth, and the earth itself, in its torpid and obscure life, he recounts with a single and certain power which will not stir. A joy that is sensual and vulgar, but a thousand times stronger than grace, stronger than taste, and stronger than the sense of shame, weighs upon the work, often reaching a point of stifling the air in it till it cannot be breathed, and sometimes deadening the very paint and rendering it crude, heavy, and with no more reflection than comes from lead. The leaves of the trees are almost always without a tremor, and the trunks without nourishing humidity, but around their thick-set robustness heavy shadows are spread, in which the heat of the day collects over the motionless springs and the little sleeping beasts. The oxen plunge into the burning grasses, their eyes half closed, beautiful women stretched on the ground have big folds of moist flesh at their wrists and at their white necks which disappear into the opening of the bodice, and powerful legs under the dress which is sometimes turned up to the knee. When the woman is quite nude, he is uplifted by a kind of massive and radiant lyricism. He pursues her firm curves and the light and shadow, to make of them a single block, solid and full as a living marble. The splendid bellies and the hard breasts breathe in it, between the white arms and the loosened red hair, with the calm of a mountain plain stretched out in slumber. Other creatures of love seek, under the dense boughs, the water known to the creatures of the woods, in which to soak their skin, whose fat luster placidly attracts the eye of the male. The poem of matter marches on, heavy and slow as a plow. Courbet will drive it along to the end of his one broad furrow, whose dark gleam is like that of a damp and heated soil. In his passing, he will have mowed down the whole romanticist Illusion which had been lived through by two or three great painters, but which sinks to earth as soon as they die, because it was not supported by a sufficient mass of reality. The reality which he brings to replace it will go down with him, because it did not take sufficient account of Illusion, and when he has exhausted his reality, art disappears.

The prisoner of another Illusion, the materialist Illusion, Courbet constantly confused realism of language—which belongs to all the masters capable of remodeling the world in their minds in order to project it beyond them as its living symbol—with the realism of the subject. And in order not to become the slave of the Ideal, he became "the slave of the model." [Th. Sylvestre, loc. cit.]

This atheist, with an asceticism which, to be sure, troubled him but little, because it was natural, interdicted transposition, which liberates the creative genius and causes it to enter the plane of the universe. He did not know that reality resides far more in the nature of the artist than in the nature of his subject. He did not know that life resides not only in the epoch, but also in the faculty of incorporating with memory, with the imagination, and with knowledge, the characteristics of the epoch. He did not know that life is not in the object alone, but in all the sensible relationships of all the objects among themselves, and in their intuitive relationships with him who contemplates them. He did not know that it is from this precisely that painting derives its lyrical character, or, as Baudelaire calls it, its "supernatural character." But by that very ignorance, he assured the fecundity of the future.

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