The Contemporary Genesis (part III)

View the scanned original illustrations

Igor Stravinsky [TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Le Sacre du Printemps, by Stravinsky] has crowned the spring. Already before him, the youthful painting of France bore witness to the decomposition of the old rhythms, and saw, coming to birth out of the chaos, troubled harmonies, relationships at once touching and uncertain, and lines, sounds, and forms groping to find one another. As it was barely beginning to suspect the power of the edifice raised by Cézanne, as it still felt but incompletely the influence of the lyric transposition imagined by Renoir, it was manifesting a singular freedom of intelligence and of impressions. One might have said that it was thus substituting for the reasoned Impressionism of the visual sensation transcribed with fidelity, a kind of impressionism of the total sensation transposed with innocence. Still insufficiently equipped for that task, it was thus returning to the tradition of the greatest painting by the path of schoolboys.

The rhythms revealed by Bonnard and Vuillard on one hand, and by Matisse and Marquet on the other—sometimes by Jean Puy and, on those days, with a lyricism of matter and of color as compact and pure as a flower or a gem—are, I certainly believe, among all the most significant ones, the former by their character of spontaneity, as if they were quivering and moving in the incessant and surprised germination of embryonic life at the edge of a furrow—the latter by the preoccupation with essential equilibrium and with fundamental organization which they reveal, with more innocence in the one case and more science in the other than is generally believed. Already the reaction against these painters has begun, while they are still young, for it is their misfortune to live in a period when neither fashions nor systems last for long. Perhaps, moreover, it is not the fault of the period, for no other has been so rich, none, in so short a time, has become so rich in acquisitions of the senses, of poetry, and of sentiment, all cast one upon another in a marvelous disorder. People are forgetting that, at the very time when Cézanne and Renoir were finishing their task, these painters were continuing the effort of the Impressionists toward freedom of sensation, and were thus restoring to painting the rights of the imagination; people forget how their minds were prepared by these artists to receive, with an ardent impartiality, the unforeseen contribution of the schools and of the epochs which were in no way concerned with European tradition, and which thus broke down the last resistance of Greco-Latin academism.

With all the impassioned and confused decorators of that time of confused passion, Vuillard, Bonnard, Valtat, Roussel, d'Espagnat, and Albert André, we were witnessing, toward the end of the last century, something recalling a very brief period of blossom between a winter and a summer, a being emerging from slumber. There was an uncertain swaying in this art, doubtless, with Valtat, an obscurity due to the force of his brilliance, but there was also evoked the primitive organization of a world in which the purest essence of the most profound color might emanate from matter itself in order summarily to define it, red from the central fire, blue from the high sea, and rose from the peaks covered with sunlit snow. . . It was too well-informed an art with Roussel, too much impregnated with culture; radiant, generous, lyrical, but perhaps a little too negligent, too abundant, with d’Espagnat; and, on the contrary, direct, measured, discreet, savory, but a little timid with Albert André. And with Vuillard, a minute embroiderer of intimate symphonies—with his satin, his brocaded velvet, his feathers of changing color, and his silk threads powdered with pollen—an unprecise, and often even an irresolute but tender poet of the moral atmosphere circulating around beings and things, this art is a little too careful to surround the houses of the intellectuals and of the people of fashion with discreet psychological harmonies in which the spirit of painting is at times too much subjected to the phantoms and the puppets which dwell in these houses for a day. But this art is living, and it bursts forth and is symbolic in its innocence with Bonnard, the miraculous illustrator of ancient and modern life, the poet so unforeseen in his spontaneity, the astonished searcher, and the extravagant story-teller, who recounts the monotonous adventure in which our own intellectual incertitude unrolls among the fanciful lines of an instinct ever amused.

In those singular decorations, which appear shaken and commingled by some quaking of the earth, one has the sensation of a world decomposed into diffused tones, from which, here and there, there emerge embryonic forms which tend to group themselves and organize themselves along unknown lines. The glacial art of Odilon Redon, of a spirituality so rare—a mottled tremor on the surface of a transparent and suspected water in whose depths there may be mother-of-pearl and coral, and which, in the literary manner, symbolizes these obscure fermentations sufficiently well—is the antithesis of the work of these artists, for it tries to catch in the crystallized sheen of its jewels and its flowers that which is only hesitation, tremor, passage, and undetermined movement. But the Russian Ballet carries into the plastic rhythms the formidable orgy of Oriental colorations, and mingles impassioned gesture with the color of sounds, and the intoxication of the eyes with the transports of desire. And Debussy introduces the perfume of gardens into the sound of drops of rain, sways brilliant pollen to the murmur of the trees, and whispers with the confession on trembling lips, with memory and secrecy. The universe turns to a more and more precipitous rhythm. The dance and music are transposed into painting. And Bonnard is perhaps the central sensibility in which that confusion takes place.

I know nothing of his life. It effaces itself. If I were acquainted with it in all its gestures, I should know less who he is. I cannot resist an affection for it as it reaches me through the universal and continuous quiver of his painting. It is one of those lives which proceed without a halt from daily activity and the inner world to the moving and multiple form which constitutes its physiognomy and its daily confession. Consider what he brings to you. Do you not find the man himself in those wooded masses cut by luminous alleys, and in those flowered lawns where children and animals run and frolic? It is the movement of his mind that is revealed in those trembling bouquets, those slender stalks, and that whole fragile splendor of flowers and pure water and in transparent glasses. Strewn flowers, light stuffs, and mirrors reflecting delightful apparitions—it is through you that I know him. Along that path which he has followed to reach that room where your harmonies penetrate one another, brush by one another, and enchant me with their tangled and furtive reflections, like a vague music, he has tarried everywhere. He has leaned on this bridge, to watch the river gathering up a sky of troubled silver through which run shudders of turquoise and of sapphire. I have surprised him at the corner of a lane of mauve, where, with the delight of a child, he was observing that a lantern all askew, a little shop window, a garbage can, the greasy pavement, the gutter, and the most humble animals and the poorest people participate in the glory of the mist and of the sunlight. With comic or tired gestures, the jewel, the faded rag, the mottled fur, or the downy plumage, the quivering ear, the wagging tail, and the leaping, snorting horse, all obey, and enter, without effort, into the whirlwind of his soul. Everything obeys joyously, as if to merit the enchanted tenderness which attaches him to everything that lives. The iridescence of opals, of emeralds, and of jet, and the limpidity of translucent stones into which the lightest down of the flowers and the pollen blown from their corollas penetrate and mingle, have, by their aerial voyages, made me appreciate his heart. That which is most spontaneous, most fugitive, most light and delicate on all moving surfaces is that which he gathers up and mixes, to model his fleeting form, to make his skies recede, and to embroider his diffused world into imponderable harmonies, in which the drop of water, the blade of grass, the butterfly's wing, and the elytron of the insect furnish, if he desires it, the central and colored motif around which his whole universe turns.

Has he perhaps been called an "intimist"? It is quite possible. And if it is true, the discovery is a comic one. He is in the intimacy of all life. He flows and flees like the secret force which circulates within things. I cannot halt his unseizable mind in the blowing hair of a little girl as she dances or runs, in the ball of wool that slips from the basket, in the brisk gallop of a colt, in the circle that widens on the water, and in the growth of little plants. He wanders through nature like that dull movement which manifests the spring and which reveals itself everywhere by the rising in everything alive of the liquids which nourish them. And, besides, he is the spring. Like the rarest artists, he gives the impression of having invented painting. And that is not only because, everything in the world being new for him each day, he expresses it in a new way, but also because he comes at the dawn of a new intellectual order, and because he is the first to arrange, according to a rhythm unknown to all before him, the good old harmonies which have made us what we are. I have been told that Bonnard was an expression of decadence. Decadences ferment, and the ferment of decadences builds the future monument.

I perceive all the less that irreducible opposition which is claimed to exist between Vuillard and Bonnard, and the young painters, who say that they are to-day building this monument in their reaction against Vuillard and Bonnard, because, while the latter, precisely, were doing their work. Matisse, less spontaneous, more reflective, and more doctrinary, but like them deriving from Impressionism, was attempting to draw from Impressionism itself the means of erecting a systematic construction of color. His activity is inseparable from theirs, as the activity of Cézanne and of Renoir is inseparable from Impressionism, which gave them their point of departure. In general, the future attends to the reconciliation of the contraries which are only faces of the same reality. The disciplined orgy in which the sumptuous still-lifes, and the flaming expanses of Morocco and of Spain saturate, with dark harmonies and with brilliant notes, the most rapid portrait, the most summary landscape, or the decoration most strongly inscribed in a few directing lines and a few dominant tones, would show a didactic power of will in Matisse, which is entirely lacking in Bonnard, if one did not ultimately discover in the former a second ingenuousness which is only a progressive gain of control over the personal elements of his equilibrium. In his case, to be sure, there seems to be a willful awkwardness. But that is because it expresses a desire at once lucid and impassioned, to reunite the material harmonies dispersed throughout our needs. All things, in this art, are reduced to the essential indication of the structure of their form and, more especially, of their color, which causes them to assume an unexpected splendor in the unbroken silence around them. Each one becomes the symbol, direct, concrete, and voluntary, of a central idea which presides over the choice and over the association of the tones, and over the disposition and the direction of the lines. Whether he paints a portrait, a still-life, a landscape, or nude women dancing, the arabesque is always there, dominating in order that it may direct, master, and give shades or subtlety to the harmony, whose rhythm comes from it, and with which it plays as a bow draws forth from the string sonorous waves which it swells and contracts. "Nature" is pretty far away. The artist imposes his system with such rigor, such exactitude and logic in the relationships of his sumptuous elements, that he creates a plastic universe of the richest accent.

I think, indeed, that, for this reason, this painter is the one who, least of all since Cézanne, causes one to think of the subject which his works represent. They tend untiringly to organize his universe from the angle of painting alone, absolutely delivered from the attraction of sentiment or of the picturesque in the object. At bottom, they express no object. At all events, the object is, with him, no more than a pretext for the creation of new organisms, which a powerful love for form is alone capable of imagining. And thereby, the recreated object attains a life infinitely more general, in the first place, but also, unexpectedly enough, infinitely more direct, than that which it is supposed to represent. . . See how, on a red background, the play of the blacks, of the grays, and of the yellows is concentrated, or the play of the grays, of the yellows, and of the reds, on a black background. In the one case, abstract space hovers like a liquid atmosphere; in the other case, we see a mirror in which the light is absorbed. The uniformity of that background which, with a bad painter, would be the most banal of means for masking his indigence, becomes, in the hands of Matisse, the rarest instrument for manifesting the most voluntary and the highest distinction. One would imagine oneself seeing music. The most decisive paintings of Matisse make me think of Chinese porcelains, or of hard Japanese lacquers, immobilized, as it were, under some deep water, and in them Goya's power for surprising life seems mysteriously united with the silent and lofty soul of Velasquez. I am thinking of those mat surfaces, almost black or red, in which some solid apparition—flowers or a face—surges up from the silence, in the ardent solitude of its own reality. It is quite evident that this alone, perhaps—I mean the distant impression which he gives of a chromatic didacticism of the kind used by the Orientals—has not been willed by him. But the forms of sensibility expressed by the art of the Far East have entered so deep into the reason of the Occident that today they determine one of the most splendid aspects of its regenerated symbolism. Were I acquainted with the frontiers of the object and of the subject, curiosity as to the world would be extinguished in me. The grand style lies precisely in their secret meeting, and in our impotence to determine its place. And that, I certainly believe, is what gives to Matisse's painting a decorative majesty which it is practically alone in possessing, at a time when almost all painting tends to decoration. The picturesque and the anecdote draw away from it. Music rises from it, in absolute silence.

A great lesson, which begins with Cézanne, and which very few have been able to understand. The painting of Dunoyer de Segonzac, somber and dull, and less decorative, moreover, and above all that of Charles Pequin, more traditional in appearance, are the only ones to-day which give me that immediate musical impression; but with them it is less striking, it is veiled like some chamber-music, which the former sends winding about in sensual arabesques, and in which, with the latter, there arise the purities and the sonorities of the violoncello, against a harmonic mass as solid as a monument. With the former, a equality of heat in the paint, which seems mixed with mud and a little gold, twists the expression like a clay, while the india-ink draws it out into the long frail flames seen among the branches of winter. With this painter, a stirring quality, which seemed almost lost since Chardin, and which one finds to this degree only with Cézanne, reappears in painting: one would say that it was from within, that the color, in ripening, saturated the form, which, on its side, might be said to model the color. The light, the reflections, and the shadows play into the thickness of the paint itself in order to incorporate it with the movement of the masses as they seek their own depth. These inner exchanges are almost poignant in their unweakening intensity, and they maintain the rights of the sensual imagination in that "constructed" form which all are seeking in our day—the recent rôle of Cubism being to keep alive the need for it in the intelligence. Charles Pequin, like Segonzac, represents French measure, whose future, in the presence of the current invasion of foreign ideas and sensibilities, we do not know. Thanks to these artists, thanks to L. A. Moreau, less of a painter, but quite as determined not to renounce the teachings of direct emotion, thanks to Despiau, the sculptor, the purest of the image-makers of France, and to his closely modeled faces, in which the expressive masses alone survive the original emotion, French plastics will perhaps regain its path.

The art of Marquet, on which Matisse leaned heavily, at least during the time when they began together, seems to me to have been the first step in that direction which tends, by a revolutionary reversing of the disabled ship, to a rejoining of the national tradition of measure in lyricism, and of simplicity in expression, which one finds in this country with the great and the little masters, from Foucquet to Corot, passing through Ingres sometimes, through Joseph Vernet, Chardin, Louis Gabriel Moreau, Claude Lorrain, and Poussin always. If one insisted absolutely upon discovering the origins of Marquet, it is there that one would have to seek them. But classic art resides in harmony between the faculty for feeling and the faculty for comprehending, and not in any particular manner of painting or of drawing. The origins of Marquet are the quays, the bridges, the river, the monotonous streets which open up, and their shop windows, their signs, their flags, and the pathway of sky between the embankments of the roofs. The ever similar construction of his canvases has in it something of an absolute necessity, like that of the streets themselves, of the rivers, of the quays, of the bridges, of the roofs, and of the sky. Is it ingenuousness, or is it skill? I know nothing about that, and no more does he. In his viewing of a landscape, of a city scene, or of the sea, the means is always so simple that it disappears. If he suppresses something that bothers him, or accentuates something that touches him, no one sees that he has done so.

It will be clearly seen that such an intelligence of things does not occur without a profound, intimate, and living culture. But he never parades it, any more than he does his taste for the picturesque. He seems more enamored of skies filled with mist and smoke, of snow, of sleeping water, and of the places where the adventure of modern man unrolls, between the door of the factory and that of the slaughter house. But he is at home in this Paris of the Cité, where Notre Dame and its pedestal, the quay, the bridges, and the river with its canals, seem to impose on the very sky, on the clouds, and on the airy and golden light diffusing everywhere, harmony, concrete clarity, logical distribution, and spontaneous measure. And he has penetrated with authority into the blond opal which incloses the seas of the north. And he is very much at ease in the flame trembling around the masts, the smokestacks, and the pennants on the roadsteads of the sun. I know well that this ease is too often made up of a careless misunderstanding of architectonic foundations, excused, however, by the startling exactitude of the vision. The values stammer, but they are so sure that they transport into the painting the exact perspective of the city and of the planet, and the exact gradation of the sky. Sometimes the houses sway, and the roads are askew. A sudden change of tone on the same quay, the same bridge, or the same river would destroy the harmony of plane of the picture, if it were not exactly what brought life into the whole, and if the approximate construction and the impeccable values did not impose unity upon it. One would say that elements of nature are seeking one another, beginning to organize themselves, uniting awkwardly, and making an attempt at some evolving equilibrium, for which they are propped up and made fast by some inner force.

No comments: