Spain (part IV)

View the scanned original illustrations

This savagery and this subtlety are found in the painters. The work in itself is sinister, never masked; the deformity of face, of body, and of soul is paraded without shame. They do not discriminate. Death, horror, everything is good in their eyes, and everything collaborates willingly in their task. But as soon as one looks between the forms, the nightmare vanishes, something unexpected and unknown is unveiled—a circulation of aerial atoms, a discreet envelopment, a transparent and faintly tinted shade which floats around them and transfigures them. Velasquez, after the age of fifty, never again painted sharply defined things, he wandered around the objects with the air and the twilight; in the shadow and transparence of the backgrounds he surprised the colored palpitations which he used as the invisible center of his silent symphony. He was no longer taking from the world anything more than the mysterious exchanges which cause forms and tones to interpenetrate one another in a secret and continuous progression, whose course is not manifested or interrupted by any clash or any shock. Space reigns. An aerial wave seems to glide over the surfaces, impregnating itself with their visible emanations in order to define and model them, and to carry away everywhere else a kind of perfume, a kind of echo of them which it disperses over all surrounding space as an imponderable dust.

The world where he lived was sad. A decadent king, sickly princes, idiots, dwarfs, invalids, certain monstrous jesters dressed like lords whose function it was to laugh at themselves and make others outside the law of life laugh at them—all bound up in etiquette, plots, and lies, and united by the confessional and by remorse. At the gates the auto-da-fé, the silence, the rapid crumbling of a still terrible power, and a land where no soul had the right to grow. No matter. In a country, in a court where no one, the king least of all, could free himself or desired to free himself from any of the servitudes imposed by the strength of the soil and of the faith, the painter alone knew how to dominate the fatal character of the surroundings. For his needs he had mastered the grandiose and lugubrious landscape which undulates at the feet of the Guadarramas. Condemned never to paint anything but kings, buffoons, and beasts, he had seized upon the silvery matter which invades the azure of the plateaus of Castile, that he might mingle it with the pallid faces and the dark costumes of the princes, weave it with the air and the steam into flying names, and associate earth and sky with the light harmonies which a horseman, galloping through space, revealed to him alone, in the floating scarfs which traverse the armor, or in the waving plumes of his hat. He possessed everything that trails and quivers in a plain which the mists of the morning or the dust of the evening covers with translucent veils. It is because there is a rift of blue among the storm clouds that a pink ribbon flecks the cuirass of black steel with its unexpected note. In the drops of silver which spatter that cuirass there trembles the diffused splendor of the air. In the whole of a gray picture, with a gray horse—its tail and mane flying in the wind, with gray fringe floating, with a gray sky, a sea stormy and gray, there is just one pink knot between the ears of the animal who bears a proud rider dressed in red and black. The mountains, the blue plains, the distant streaks of snow, the grayish or somber undulation of the ground sown with cork trees and olive trees, are found again in all the grays, in all the blacks shot through with dim blues and with pinks, which the man and the rearing animal impose upon the landscape or receive from it. When there are flames and smoke in the plain, they barely veil the silvery tremble of the clouds, and their reflection does not darken the harmonies of the foreground. His sickly little princes are surrounded by a lyricism of color, contained, veiled, and secret as a great soul, by a diffused light, and by tremors which, running through it, surround their ennui with a retinue so charming that they seem to bear only the shadow of the pitiless crown.

A spirit of nostalgia floats in the air, one sees neither the ugliness nor the sadness nor the funereal and cruel direction given to that crushed childhood. Whether Velasquez followed his masters to the hunt or returned with them to the dark alcazar, he remained the silent friend of the dying race which only an intelligence of sovereign freedom could deliver for us from indifference and death. He alone knew, when he went through the livid corridors, how to preserve in his memory the linage of a melancholy and subtle apparition, of a wandering harmony Iending to the light the fugitive sheen which it turns on the things that present themselves to its kiss. For him alone the little infantas were not burned-out beings with greenish, sullen faces, martyrs swaddled in the robes of state which weighed heavily on their breasts and prevented them from playing, leaping, running, and enjoying the birdlike life of little girls. He loved them. He himself had had two daughters, one of whom had died as a child. On their wan faces he followed all the reflections of the pitying world which mingled with the pallid blood, with the moist lips, and with the astonished eyes, the silvery daylight shining from red curtains, from gray and pink bodices where at times a red or black ribbon alone gave a darker accent, like a corolla bursting forth in a field of young wheat. The blond hair and the pinks of the costume encircled the frail heads with a vague aureole which gave back to the amber air a little of the torpid and charming life stifling behind their foreheads. A transparent handkerchief, spread out like a butterfly's wing, gave glimpses of paler blacks under it, and more attenuated pinks and distant blues. Upon a dress of rose crossed by stripes of thin silver plates and enlivened by spots of mauve, he surprised, with a quickening pulse, a red rose in the childish fingers. The lassitude of those hands resting on the backs of chairs, or the hoops of skirts, filled him with an ardor so tender that, without ever confessing it, he lavished upon them all the deep caresses which the world of the air reserves for that which bathes in it. Under all that trembling silver, his hesitating red and pink appear like a bed of flowers covered with dew at the hour when the light of dawn shines on the hoarfrost of summer.

Velasquez is the painter of evenings, of space, and of silence, even when he paints in broad daylight, even when he paints in a closed room, even when war or the hunt rages around him. As they went out but little in the hours of the day when the air is scorching, when the sun dulls everything, the Spanish painters communed with the evenings. The education of their eye went on in the twilight, and it is then that the signification of Spain in color attains its value. When one has not seen how the night falls over the graded plateaus of Castile or of Estremadura, or over the red and gray plain of la Mancha, one does not know the dull accent, veiled and affecting, which the black capes and hats assume as they silhouette against white walls whose brilliance seems at that moment to be dimmed by a pearly silver. The air takes on an orange tint which reveals a profound intensity in the colors. The rising dust, bathed in the horizontal rays of the setting sun, envelops figures in a blur of amber which half effaces them and paints them against space in somber and trembling spots. Especially when garbed in black, they look like phantoms.

The nearer Velasquez approached his end, the more he sought those harmonies of the twilight in order to transport them into the secretive painting which expressed the pride and discretion of his heart. He abandoned broad daylight, he tended to seize upon the semi-obscurity of rooms where the passages of the planes are more subtle and intimate, where the mystery is increased by a reflection in a glass, by a ray of light coming from without, or by a girl's face covered with a bloom like that of a pale fruit which seems to absorb into its vague and lusterless light the whole of the diffused penumbra. The silvery shadow is rendered animate by the red in the blond hair, by the silver in the black hair, by the greens, the blacks, the pinks, and the infinite grays dispersed like a rain of petals falling where the harmony bids them fall: one would say that all was an apparition at the depth of a great invisible mirror, into which a serene evening enters very slowly. Visions seem to glide; an imperceptible balancing and swaying make one think of music, and when the apparition has disappeared, we do not cease to search our hearts for those beautiful fugitive shadows. They are vanished sisters whom we caught sight of before seeing them, and whom we shall see again without trying.

In fact, we are in the same space as they. These forms are the reflection which nature assumes in an obedient mind which accepts it in its every appearance, never modifying it to heighten its effect, but purifying it imperceptibly in each of the details which manifest it; and when it has been rendered for us in its ensemble, it has been made into something of slightly finer shades, something more aerial, more discreet and more rare, which is what gives it that exact and supernatural aspect. The mystery is almost terrifying. None of us can watch in the world the progressive spreading forth of the shadow and the light, the secret passage which causes one form to prolong another, without his eyes becoming wearied by the continuous circulation of an atmosphere whose density is all that gives gradation to objects and makes them turn and keep their place. But Velasquez sees these insensible things, and expresses them, without deigning to say toward which direction he is guiding us. He travels amid the fluid forces—inappreciable to another—which define the universe. That which we term line—a symbol permitting us to arrest in space the volumes which are never arrested at any precise point in space—that which we term a spot—the superficial illusion of an eye unable to grasp the flight of contours—that which we term form—an abstraction which does not take into account either the air or the light or the living spirit with which matter is animated—these are conceptions which Velasquez can dispense with. He arranges the elements of color in space following the order of surface and of depth dictated to him by these elements when he has assimilated them with his tranquil power of balancing sensation by taste and measure; and when he has finished his task, there has been performed the miracle of an admirable work wherein the artist does not seem to have intervened.

This feeling for value, this constant and apparently facile power of exactly proportioning the image to an objective judgment, is perhaps the mark of the freest intelligence, the one most serene and master of itself that ever existed in painting. Raised to this height, virtuosity is a heroic sacrifice. One cannot say that Velasquez never reveals himself. Castilian pride, Andalusian temperament. Oriental fatalism, and Arab nonchalance are all affirmed or divined in those lofty and severe effigies which were painted between the death of Cervantes and the death of Calderon. But the psychological value never trespasses on the plastic value. It stands almost exactly even with it. It envelops itself and remains almost hidden under a precise play of shades and incomparable harmonies. He does not oblige us to see, in "The Lances," the cordial courtesy of the victor, the noble humility of the vanquished, and the spirit which transforms war and, despite the burned plain, the erect weapons, and the cuirasses, raises it above murder and hatred by the simple fact that, momentarily, it passes through a lofty and proud vision. Without saying so, he confides to the trembling water of a mirror the images of modesty or of power in its ennui. He does not compel us to notice the melancholy contrast between feeble princes or colorless queens and the animal that carries them, whose blood beats under the skin of its nostrils, its hocks and its rump, and whose mane flies in the heat of the race and in the steam of its sweat. He does not insist on the irony of the spectacle when he sees approaching an abject dwarf dressed like a prince and leading a formidable dog as tall as himself and threatening to growl, its feet firm, black, as strong as life when it yields to its strength. He scarcely smiles when he writes the name of Don John of Austria under the portrait of a weak-bodied, sneering buffoon, or the name of Menippus or Aesop under that of a beggar. When he paints an idiot, he does not say whether it causes him suffering; he makes the idiot's head and shoulders sway with the stammering of his songs. When the king, with his long, sad face, is before him, dressed in black, he does not confess that it is his own majesty with which the king is invested. A distinction so royal that it never takes the trouble to try to impose itself, a grandeur detached from itself and conscious of being alone in knowing itself, raises to the level of his heart this world, which is dying little by little.

This reserved nobleness is the last of his victories; and his supreme affirmation is the least openly avowed of all, and the most difficult to penetrate. Only bright spots the prison-like existence. First the sojourn in Madrid of Rubens, at the height of his powers, with whom Velasquez, who was then not yet thirty years old, established a friendship, and by whom he was counseled to go to consult the masters of Rome and Venice on how to discipline a natural generosity. Then the two journeys in Italy which he extended as long as possible and from which he brought back, with the friendship of Ribera and of Poussin, that which only a superior mind can discover there, the instrument with which to free himself. The remainder of the time he lived like a servitor, oppressed with idiotic duties, badly paid, dressed in clothing cast off by his superiors, and painting by accident, when he was charged with a portrait, a decorative subject, or one from religion or history. Each progression was for him not only a victory over himself, but also over the indifferent inertia or the hostile forces which surrounded him. He wrested each one of his works from a solitary and almost forced meditation, thrown back upon himself by the impossibility of finding a kindred mind and of confessing his real soul in any other way than through the works with which he was commissioned, into which he infused his longing and his silence, as if behind a veil almost impenetrable. He did not suspect until quite late, at the hour when the shadow of his days was lengthening along his path, the extent of his secret power to bring from the depth of his passion to the surface of life the image of his unknown illusions. And as his isolation and constraint increased with the years, his proud understanding grew apace, as if he had felt that he would not have the time, before death, to collect his forces completely.

No comments: