The Contemporary Genesis (part II)

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Indeed, one is in oneself a multitude. One is the center of a whirlwind of scattered forces, ignorant of one another, and the testimony to which must be sought in social phenomena. When the artist wishes to compose, it is certain that his desire responds to those general desires which were formerly called religious or metaphysical, and of which, most of the time, he is ignorant himself, because they do not interest him. Composition, the subordination of all the parts of a work of art to some idea of rhythm and order, is not an external thing, dependent on an individual caprice or a passing fashion for its rejection or adoption. The mystic sentiment of a work to be undertaken in common goes beyond the individual. And painting, the most individual, and the most intellectual of the arts, either remains uncertain on all its frontiers, or else concentrates itself in some anonymous and summary form in which the archaic outline of an unknown architecture appears. The love of an ancient order, classical or religious, is only the most puerile manifestation of this universal need. It is the rôle and the destiny of the most innocent of men—he who labors or he who thinks—to gratify this need.

Thus, while Courbet 's and Manet's materialism of form was, through the Impressionists and the Neo-Impressionists, approaching the end of its investigation, while the moral cm-rent born of its pitiless decisions was introducing acid and vitriol into painting, through Degas, through Toulouse-Lautrec, and through the ferocious Forain, at the heart of the movement itself, an unknown force was organizing itself and attempting, through Cézanne, to give architecture to the universe, outside of all sentimentalism, and, through Renoir, to recreate a sentiment indifferent to moral purposes, by seeking, in the play of the reflections and of the lines revealed by matter itself, a harmony without object.

For let us make no mistake. There are no works more distant from each other in aspect, or nearer in essence and in direction, than the one created by that man of the will, bringing nature to obey the systems he built up in order to react against the disorder of the time, and that of the man of instinct, finding in nature, without apparent effort, forms which wed each other, and colors which penetrate each other, in order to react against the despair of the time. Anarchy is pessimistic, and what is more, sad. Those who have traversed its hell find no repose save in the power to create order and health for themselves, or else in death.

The powerful man, in order to recover joy, has no need to flee the cities, and to go, with Gauguin, to live among the primitives of to-day—as the pre-Raphaelites, victims of the same sickness, lived among the primitives of former times—and to build up, in distant islands, the burning landscapes whose tense and confused sensuality does not dissimulate either their slightness or their softness, and which halt at the façade of the Cézannian edifices. He does not permit himself to be vanquished before his hour, in the manner of van Gogh, the Hollander, a great heart burned by the flaming earth, he paints, by his electric waters, by his trees and grasses crackling like tongues of fire, his roads, his houses, his harvests, his figures, and all the faces of man, convulsed, warped, and battered as if they were expressing some conflagration, subterranean or of sentiment, with this painting of precious stones and of yellow gold, these drawings whose swarming life overpowers one, this rain of gnawing acids in which the soul and the senses are corroded, and this desire for wild joy, of an apostate ascetic. The powerful man is not mad. And he is simple. He hums a tune while he paints, and is bored when he is not painting. It is certain that he suffers, in his heart, like anyone in misfortune; and his bones are twisted with pain. But he never complains. He says he is only too happy to have kept the sight of his eyes, those miraculous eyes, mirrors of the world, gray and gentle and sad, sometimes sparkling with the mischief of the young painter, in his withered face, bent, lengthened by his white beard, and so noble—recalling that of Titian when he was almost a hundred years old. "It is he," he says, "who looks like me. He has stolen my tricks from me." He does suffer, as a matter of fact. But in his nature dwells the mysterious joy which he recovers instantly at the depths of his wasted organs and his twisted joints, the moment that he seizes his brush; and it is immense, pure, full of movement, undulating, and renewing itself from the depths, like the source of a great river, overflowing with sinuous forms and with waves of changing tones, which penetrate one another, obedient to the fecund rhythms of a sensualism grown more rich, more moving, and more complex in the measure that sickness and age dry him up and weaken him a little more. How long ago it is—the time when, a little astonished, a little respectful, and a little inclined to jest, he listened to the passionate demonstrations of Pissarro, and, standing beside Claude Monet on the banks of the Seine or of the Marne, watched the mottling of the water and the mottling of the leaves under the wind, the round spots of the sun on flesh and on the earth, and the vibration of the air in the silence of the summer! In those days he had muscular hands, which caressed the surface of the world. Now with his feeble hands he twists the world in depth.

The history of Renoir—born at Limoges, the country of masons, potters, and enamelers—is even of less importance than that of Cézanne, for he does not seem to have struggled to discover his innocence. He had perhaps nothing factitious, or almost nothing, to eliminate. He did not continually prune off, like Cézanne, but rather added constantly. He belonged, like Cézanne, to the Impressionist group and shared its unpopularity; later on its success. He continued, like Cézanne, to receive the collective hatred or admiration vowed to those who composed it, by a public enamored of classifications as definitive as they were unprecise. For the public he must, again like Cézanne, still belong to the group, although both of them departed from it to such a point that one and the other may pass as the prophets of the movement in the opposite direction which has followed it. It was, indeed, by watching the reflections on the bark of the poplars and the oaks, on the rippling banks of clouds, on the skin of his nude women, and on the full-blown petals of the anemones and the roses, by pursuing them in the flight of the planes, and the sinking of the luminous shadows, that he turned around the forms with those reflections and those shadows, and bound up the mass of the universe with the lyrical movement of his mind. He necessarily underwent the evolving influence of the greatest among the greatest painters, Masaccio, Titian, Tintoretto, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Watteau, and Delacroix; and, starting out from Claude Monet, he rejoins Rubens by crossing the world of the flesh with its movement and its sensations, and he will subject it to his increasing strength, and constrain it to burst forth again from him with the regularity, the simplicity, and the constancy of the harvests issuing from the soil. Whereas Claude Monet started out from the immediate form realized by Courbet and Manet, while he pursued the moving tremors made by the light on the changing husk of the form and rendered them more and more subtle, Renoir, taking as his point of departure that husk itself, followed the opposite path, and swept with him the tremors of the air and of the waters, the tremors of the blood in the blue veins, and the tremors of the flowers under the sun and the dew, and carried them into the very substance of the air, of the water, of the blood, and of the flowers. And whereas Impressionism refused more and more to recompose the world in the mind and to transpose it into painting, Renoir, whose imagination, by the way, was almost as rudimentary as that of his friends, recomposed it and transposed it in his very instinct, seeing life, harmony, and coherent, solid, and continuous form born where, for other men, there is only appearance, discord, the hollow surface, and chaos.

Imagine a whole room hung with pictures by Renoir. It seems to stream with red, from the fruits, the blood, and the flowers pressed against the walls. From a little nearer, there is an Oriental confusion, like a miraculous carpet; several studies are on the same bit of canvas—a nude woman, a little girl with a pink or red hat, a bouquet of roses, of poppies, of pinks, of geraniums, or of sage, and a landscape the size of one's hand with the circle of the sea and of space. But from this red mass emerges something like those currents of sap which rise from the center of fruits to color their skin, and infinite ashen grays in which silver and mother-of-pearl tremble, in which the emerald, the turquoise, the pearl, and the black diamond penetrate the opal, where the slightest colored palpitation of the slightest touch of paint resounds gently through the ones farthest from it by subtle waves impossible to follow with the eye. And nearer still one sees the beach and the ocean, the trees twisting their flame, the rivers rolling into the reflection of the sky, the ribbons, the hats, the dresses, and the unbound hair of the women—all the dews of the earth mingled with all the prisms of the air, converted into trunks and branches bursting with sap, flesh swelling with blood, young breasts, round arms, firm bellies, glistening hips, and heavy translucent waters filled with the scintillation of the ruby.

It is a lyric transposition, ingenuous and spontaneous, into a form which seems born and reborn incessantly from an inexhaustible focus of the senses, a transposition of everything in the world that has radiance and splendor, the downy pulp of peaches, the cherries, the pomegranates, the rind of lemons and of oranges, the roses of amber color, the blood-colored roses, and the fields of crimson clover, of cornflowers, and of buttercups, and the mouths, and the laughs, and the glances, and the fire of glowing stones in the ripples of the brooks, and the sun setting over the clouds, and its iridescence around the leaves. There really is in that spring, with its tremble of silver, a little of the blood of those bare breasts, a little of the blood of those pinks, and there is some of the silver of that spring in those pinks and in those bare breasts whose red reflections it passes on to the air while taking from it some of its fire. Those massive forms turning in transparent space define painting itself, and the least of them expresses the glory of life and the power of summer.

When a painter has this ability, everything encountered by his eye is instantly transfigured. A hand on some gauze, a necklace around a neck, or a rose set in the hair causes us to think vaguely of a butterfly wing on the pollen of some giant flower, of a fruit laid on some blond marble, or of some unknown gem gleaming in the darkness. Everything is tremor, everything is a caress; the silks are like flesh and retain their lightness, the flesh is like silk and retains its weight. An arm emerging from satin and resting on velvet borrows from the satin and the velvet their pearl and their purple, and in exchange transmits to them its warmth; faces in the glowing penumbra of an opera box continue the penumbra and illuminate it, the life of the flowers and of the lights circulates in festival halls to mingle with glances, to wander over bare bosoms, and to quiver upon bodices, ornaments, and ribbons. Before the earlier Renoir, one thinks of Velasquez as he might be after the passing of three centuries, when his soul, joined by a hundred tributaries, had borrowed more of maturity and also more of freshness from the light mists of France.

And before the later Renoir, one thinks of a Rubens who had descended to the Latin sea and had become more saturated in its sunlight. Especially when this painting, with its quality of flowers and mother-of-pearl, spontaneously mingling the pulp of the fruits and the sap of the corollas, goes down to the burning beaches, whence the trees seem to spring forth like subterranean flames, and where the gulfs and the sky unite in the expanse of gold. Above the blue and pink villas perceived through the branches of the pines and the olive trees, and above the russet walls of the old castles on the heights, the distant mountains arise, and their glaciers send forth fires and, between the waves and the clouds, pile up flames of mauve from the diamonds cut from the azure by the twilight or the morning. Then all the waters sing, the apples are about to fall from the tree, the anemones swoon, and the resplendent orgy of the colors, of the odors, and of the murmurs turns around the broad nude flesh spread forth in the heat. The form of the arms and of the breasts, of the torsos and of the legs, becomes concise and circular, like those vegetable organisms teeming with the blood of the heavy seasons. The carnal poem is spiritualized upon contact with an admirable love which embraces it in its ensemble, which no longer sees a detail, an accidental, an isolated or rare gesture, but only full masses whose inner force models the movement. It is a summarized and heroic movement, with a voluntary and profoundly expressive use of projections and hollows, of lengthenings, deformations, and foreshortenings of arms and of legs. As the first evolution of Renoir calls to mind Velasquez, and the second recalls Rubens, the third, I do not know why, makes me think of Michael Angelo. He is quite unaware of this, he paints in absolute freedom, and the direct sensation still passes into the crippled hand, which interprets it ingenuously, after having tempered it in the flame of the pure mind. The natural forms all meet and marry with curves suited to them, with volumes swelling with the same inner forces, and with a movement discovered and created anew by the same heart.

Those legs and those arms undulate like that stream, this torso is round like that tree, these breasts weigh and swell like those ripening fruits. The song of joy shouted in the burning shadows, in the curling of the waves and the streaming of the flowers, creates a kind of swooning silence around those women, recumbent or seated, or at play in the living water, and their wavelike forms continue and balance one another with an ease superior to that of Raphael and a plenitude superior to that of Jean Goujon. It is a plenitude full of movement, which beats to its very depths and trembles in the light, where the air, the reflections, and the dew of perspiration marry with it in order to sculpture it summarily. It is a plenitude in which blood quivers and milk germinates, and where, in the cloudy faces, in the fleshy lips, and under the whole tense and vibrant skin, animal life abounds, and all the mind evolving in it. Never, perhaps, had the profoundest and simplest instinct for living passed from flesh and from eyes into the soul of a great painter, to be sent back into flesh and eyes by that soul. Those babes clinging to the heavy breasts, those vibrant arms which support them, those little beings whose form still hesitates and who lean over a page of writing or over a toy, those little girls with red hair whose astonished eyes open so wide as they marvel at the world, and those young mothers who have grown heavy, express with such intensity the peaceful majesty and the inner, mechanical circulation of life that they seem to be on the plane of life, merged with it, and issuing from the same hearth. A grand animality breathes in them, in its peace and in its power. The gestures and faces of family life, the eternal attitudes of the dance, of the toilet, of distraught meditation, of abandon, of joy, and of repose, live innocently within them. Carrière saw those canvases and the great, red-chalk drawings like things of the antique awaking from a long sleep, and the profound charcoal studies in which the childish and maternal forms are fused, and despite his too didactic striving for spiritual transposition he never attained the expressive power of their structural form, independent, even, of the miraculous harmonies with which Renoir surrounds them and permeates them. Universal life inundates the most furtive gestures of the play of maternity, of love, and of childhood in the sun and in the grasses, and there is no metaphysical need to tell of this life. Here is the most secret mystery of the greatest painting, a pulpy, fruitlike substance unconfined by the living lines, its boundaries marked out by turning masses and moving volumes, and brought, by an infinite circulation of colored particles, into its intimate relationship with the whole of space.

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