Spain (part III)

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Greco delivered the Spanish soul. After him the flame mounts, straight and high, to die almost suddenly. Nowhere else was there ever an evolution so rapid and so brief, were there rarer and prouder spirits, or was there a darkness more profound before the sudden outburst and after the unexpected fall. Spain is an apparition—emerging from the shadow and reentering it after having, with terrible violence and in the light of gold and of swords, traversed history and passion. Two or three men express this soul in less than a century, and they rise to such a height that they are among the few men whom man can no longer do without. The constraint was so great that few souls burst forth, but when they did there were such forces within them that they shattered all the bonds of the intelligence and the heart. Don Quixote was starting forth on all the dusty roads, alone and free to act out his dream, and master of the conquest of Illusion.

When Velasquez came to Madrid, he must have passed through Toledo. He therefore brought to Castile, which, little by little, was to exert so strong an influence upon him, the profound teaching of Italy interpreted by a Byzantine who had grasped Spain, and the spirit of Andalusia, where he learned his trade. It was not from Pacheco, who scarcely knew the trade, nor from Herrera, with whom he spent scarcely enough time to learn the grinding of colors. But Pacheco had fine pictures and received many artists. His studio was considered the center of Seville, queen of Spain and of America, the city of gold and of fire. Góngora reigned there, Cervantes had come there. Pablo de Céspedes, the good painter of Cordova, brought there the ideas of the Roman masters. Flemish pictures were shown there. There was a thorough acquaintance there with the pictures of Ribalta, an old painter of Valencia, greatly influenced by Correggio and the Bolognese, but a robust and strong nature whom Zurbarán consulted. Some works by Ribera, his best pupil, must have penetrated there.

In any case, the first pictures of Velasquez and almost all those of Zurbarán bear the imprint of the science which defines Ribera and of which Martinez Montañés, at the period when they were studying in Seville, was also giving examples so severely honest—the statues of painted wood in which he renewed the old art of the Spanish sculptors, by borrowing from the Christian drama the elements of tragic naturalism the need for which they express. The pitiless realism of Spain went through and through the Catholic fiction in order to seek behind it that which is bitterest and barest in life. In Spain, Catholicism is not, as in Italy, a political system, or, as in France, an aesthetic and moral discipline; it is a narrow reality which daily existence exhibits afresh. The sacred legend is history, living history. The Virgin is a woman of the people with a dirty child in her arms; the Magdalen a filthy girl, worn by debauchery and misfortune. They have all seen the heretic crucified or burned, they have smelled the blood of beasts which the burning sand soaks up. They have followed the red tracks of the nauseous carts which carry the dead horses out of the arena. The saint manifests himself to the Spaniard under the appearance of a beggar, of a cripple, of a blind man with his eyes covered with flies. The sores of the sick, the carrion drying or rotting in the sun, the dead mule skinned by a clubfooted man, the dwarf, the idiot, and the infirm—whatever is ugliest and most terrible on the earth—is the spectacle which feeds the soul, thirsting for obedience to a sinister destiny. Even to-day, in certain villages, the peasants take down from the Cross the wooden Christ of their Calvary and flagellants pray and bawl and fall on their knees around it. Cadavers of wax lying in open coffins are carried through the streets. Crucified figures covered with human hair and skin are hung up in the chapels. Valdés Leal, the painter of Cordova, painted biers torn open, dead bishops eaten by worms and fermenting in their purple —shining harmonies in the fetid night of a cavern.

It was in order to have the somber strength necessary to say all this that José Ribera departed in his youth for Italy, led a miserable life there, committed murder, perhaps, triumphed, and learned to follow obstinately the play of the muscular fibers, the tension of ligaments, of tendons ready to crack, and of the bony structure clearly seen under dead or dried skin. It was in order to give greater relief in the dramatic light to the projections and contractions stamped by suffering on limbs grown thin, on hollow torsos, on wasted chins, that he asked of Caravaggio how he sent back into the opaque shadow everything that did not express ecstasy or despair. His ascetics are covered with mud and dust. In the carrying out of his work he adopts the cruelty of his executioners and the obstinacy of his martyrs—that thirst for reality which makes brothers of the two types. One cannot reproach him for his too faultless muscles, because they will be broken on the wheel or hang listlessly away after having been broken. One pardons him for his bituminous and black backgrounds because sometimes he rends them in order to show there the vivid skies in which solidly modeled clouds trail.

One need but see those rough-skinned fingers and those knotty joints, those stained beards, those dirty faces, those wrinkles, those bared teeth, and those reddened and watering eyes to recognize how the pitiless will which they express gives to tragic life and to death their nakedest aspect. When one looks for a long time, one sees, arising out of the depth of the reddish shadow like ripening fruits, tender faces of women already caressed by the condensation of amber, of silver, and of pearl which penetrates the flesh with Velasquez and Goya, and for which Murillo substitutes powder, rouge, and the smoke of incense. Perhaps he should have lived far away from the School in his Valencian Spain where the palm trees and the orange bushes cast a shadow, warmer, heavier, and more odorous than in other places. But then he would doubtless not have afforded to the masters of Andalusia and of Castile the hard, firm structure which offers itself, from time to time, to support their miraculous and hesitating edifices.

It was in this sense that he was to influence the young artists of Seville, and with added vigor because almost all of them had received the counsel of Francisco Herrera, who was as much dominated by the masters of Venice as Ribera was by Correggio and the Neapolitan painters. Las Roelas, a priest of Seville who was considered by the Andalusian school until the time of Murillo, had transmitted to him its external formulas. Herrera opened men's eyes. Backgrounds came into existence in the depths of his canvases, and with them that trembling and delicate space which characterizes both the Venetian and the Spanish painters of the mature period, that space of silvery rose against which he could henceforward spread out, without fear of contrasts too violent and of oppositions too sharply defined, the brilliant colors imposed upon his taste by the savagery and the fire of his nature. After him the road is free; Velasquez and, later on, Goya, can come. That which is properly Spanish, not in the character of the forms of the country and the faces of the men which Greco had seized immediately, but in the very matter of the atmosphere and the mysterious, veiled bond between the surroundings and the spots which tell of objects, is outlined with Herrera. Besides this, a quickness of decision hurries him along. Of school composition he has assimilated everything that was needful to the Spaniards, who are profound impressionists, but inapt in giving a logical distribution to the masses and in imposing upon the forms the intellectual hierarchy which gives so dangerous a strength to Greco-Latin art. He has learned from the Italians the superficial arrangement of groups and the approximate ordering of the phrasing. Furious improvisation may play over these dead themes and, in an equilibrium swiftly attained, will raise Spanish passion until it staggers to its full height, like a wounded man drunk with pride who insists on conquering before he dies.

Zurbarán and Velasquez, who come from the same sources, are of the same age, and express that passion when it is free, even if it is not the most intense and uncompromising; both will abandon allegorical pretexts and conventional idealism. Both will agree to forget that which they have learned in order to attain directly that desire for reality imposed on all by their passion—from the executioner who prays and from the priest who kills to the king who lives as a prisoner and who is buried in fustian. Inasmuch as Roelas, Ribalta, Ribera, Montañés, and Herrera transposed the history or the legend which they relate into the scenes of daily life appearing to them in the crudest aspects, they will seek, in these very scenes, the motive for the poems in paint which will gain in veiled emotion, in intimate profundity, or in naked majesty that which they will lose in anecdotal interest or in picturesqueness. They will renounce the pursuit of the life of the imagination for which they are not fitted.

One cannot say that the people which conquered the ocean and America, which dreamed Don Quixote, a thousand novels and ten thousand plays, and wrested from its nightmare the etchings of Goya, was lacking in imagination. But its inventive faculty develops only in the direction of the life before it, which it searches or forces or disfigures without ever seeking in it the symbols of a form to be organized. It does not combine, it does not generalize; it creates its illusion from that which exists. The adoration of Goya for woman appears in the manner in which he speaks of her, not in the aspect which she has and which he leaves to her, an aspect frequently common and sometimes repellent. Don Quixote sees a queen in a tavern girl, a helmet in a barber's bowl, an army in a herd. To express his ideal, Cervantes can do no more than make of it the caricature of reality.

The more the culture of Zurbarán and Velasquez develops, the farther they will penetrate into this pitiless probity. At the base of it, the one will find the bareness of rock and the virile coldness required to despoil their mystic envelope of the practices of annihilation into which Spain plunges after her expansion; the other will find the harmonies revealed by space when one understands how to contemplate it with that passion for isolating oneself in their echoes with which a musician listens to the sounds of the world. Education, race, and the period make fraternal spirits of the two painters. He who goes to live in the savage monasteries of the deserts of Estremadura sometimes opens a window in order to perceive in the distance that aërial palpitation which Velasquez causes to circulate around the forms themselves like a murmur of color. He who is at the court, fettered by the ennui of its etiquette, sees in princes the austerity which Zurbarán lends to churchmen. But Velasquez flees from Spain at times; he returns to it with horizons more vast, around him space widens out to immensity, his soul seems to have wings as he approaches his end, and, passing over periods and peoples, his mind carries on its dialogue with certain superior minds which all peoples understand and which no periods can exhaust. Zurbarán did not cross the moral frontiers which Spain imposed upon him.

He seems to obey monastic rule. The walls of the cells, their tables, their wooden benches, and the fustian of the cowls are not more bare than his strength. The sterility of Spain is in his sepulchral cloisters where meditation revolves around death-heads and books bound in skin. The white or gray robes fall as straight as shrouds. Round about, the vaults are thick, the pavement is cold, the light is dead. Only at rare intervals does a red carpet or a blue ribbon animate this aridity. The voluptuousness of painting reveals itself in the hard bread and the raw roots of the meal eaten in silence, or in a hand or the earthy face of a cadaver, or in the mortuary cloth of silver-gray. But those spectral visages, those lusterless garments, that bare wood, those protruding bones, those ebony crosses on which not a reflection trembles, those yellow books with their red edges ranged in clear-cut order like the hours which divide up life until the end into periods of dismal observances, all unite in assuming the aspect of an implacable architecture which faith itself imposes upon plastics, forbidding it everything which is not a rigid line, a bare surface, an opaque tone, a straight shadow, or a precise and hard volume. A monk in prayer weighs so heavily upon his knees that his head, when he lifts it, seems to raise the stone of a sepulcher. Those distributing or taking food invest the need to live with a solemnity which carries over into the tablecloth, the glasses, the knives, and the victuals. Those lying on their deathbed imprint upon the life surrounding them the rigidity of death.

In this severe painting, everything seems gray. One would call it the color of ashes. If the granite grays which form the very substance of Greco's painting, if the silver grays of Velasquez and Herrera and the pearl grays of Goya, did not leave in our vision their rare reflection, one would think that Zurbarán meant to give to the men withdrawn from the world, whom he has painted, the appearance of abandoned hearths and of braziers grown cold. But all Spain is gray. Its denuded plateaus have the aspect of a dead star covered with ashes by its volcanoes. Spain is a monotonous, deserted expanse rolling unevenly, in which, here and there, one imagines a herd by the dust that it raises. It is not only the flight of the clouds or the trails of snow on the mountains which pour down upon the country that which resembles leaden dust heaped up in places. Toward evening, before they are colored with pink, pale and almost burned out, the hills at the horizon seem touched with silver. When one stands on a height overlooking the cities, one sees the gray expanse round about. The white houses painted with green gold, sometimes covered with granite, and touched with blue and pink, take on a surface like dull tin, occasionally darkened by the accent of a black cypress. An unhappy soil, horrible near by when it shows only its fleshless bones, mysterious from afar, delicate, and veiled with impalpable harmonies born of the varying shades of color in the cultivated land combining with the shadows of the clouds to bring their gentle vibration into the gray uniformity.

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