The Dusk of Mankind

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THE heroic soul of Greece was to ebb away through three wounds: the triumph of Sparta, the enrichment of Athens, and the reign of intellectualism. Sensibility increased at the expense of moral energy, reason overflowed faith, enthusiasm was dulled through contact with the critical spirit. The philosophers, to whose development sculpture had contributed so much by giving life to ideas, were to deny their origin, laugh at the poets and at the artists, and discourage the sculptors through misleading their minds in the meanders of sophistry. We need not bear them a grudge for this. The equilibrium was about to break; no human power, no miracle could have re-established it. And the soul of Athens, on the brink of the abyss to which her logicians were dragging civilization, was even then forging a tool with which the men of a distant future could build a new dwelling. The death struggle of Greece gave us freedom of examination.

Beginning with the last years of the fifth century, a furtive caress passed over the Greek marbles. The great forms, kept alive by the circulation of their inner energies, disappeared from the pediments, and the artist tried to call these energies to the surface of the statues, of the portraits, of the picturesque groups which, however, he isolated little by little. The form and the spirit, which up to that time had flowered in the same integral expression, now separated from each other irrevocably. The spiritualist searched the body to extract the soul, the skeptic no longer tried to derive from it anything more than sensual satisfactions. About that time a little temple was built on the Acropolis to house a wingless Victory. But the external victories that had descended upon it had kept their wings. They were to depart from Athens.

Greek sculpture is supposed not to have appreciated the inner life until the fourth century. It might be observed that from the Archaic period onward there are statues, like the Samian woman, or like any Orante of the Acropolis, whose visage makes us think of that of the Gothic virgins because of their naive enchantment with life which illumines it from within. But that is not the question. People generally believe that thought cannot dwell anywhere save in the head of the model. The truth is that it is entirely in the head of the artist. The inner quality of a work is measured by the quality of the relations which unite its elements and assure the continuity of its ensemble. And no art had more of the inner quality than that of the fifth century. The modeling of everything goes from within outward. The surfaces, the movements, the empty spaces themselves, everything is determined by the play of the profound forces that pass from the artist into the material, as the blood passes from the heart into the limbs and the brain.

It is true that in a poor society, where the slave was well treated, where the steps of the social hierarchy were very near together, one which lived on an indulgent soil, in a health-giving air, near a flowered sea, human beings did not have an urgent need of one another. The normal expression of man is a resultant of the daily conflict of his passions and his will. The Greek sculptor knew the sentimental agitations whose reflections pass at times over the sternest among human faces. But it was only later, with the definitive breaking of the social rhythm, that these reflections were imprinted there as indelible traces. Man, who was then to be characterized by a warped, suffering body and a haggard face, was defined for Phidias by a complete organic equilibrium wherein the calm of the heart spread through the harmony of the general structure, of which the tranquil face was only one element. The head of the Lapith woman, that of Peitho, and that of the Artemis of the Parthenon express a profound life, but a peaceful one. It is like a great depth of pure water, full and limpid and unruffled. The world does not yet know water forever plowed by the storm, blackened by the poisonous miasmas that slept in it.

Praxiteles draws the spirit to the skin of the statues. As he sees the spirit floating on faces as an undefined smile, as a vague disquietude, as a luminous shadow, he fixes it there, and by so doing breaks that unity which gives to the forms of the great century their contained radiance. To express the inner life he seeks to make it external. And it is no longer as a dawn, it is as an evening, that the soul mounts from the depths to spread itself over the surface. Praxiteles is the Euripides of sculpture. His measure, his elegance, his mind, the subtlety of his animation, and the charm of his analysis do not succeed in hiding from us the fact that he doubts his strength, and that, at bottom, he regrets having lost the sacred intoxication at which he laughs. Under his fingers the plane gets soft, hesitates, and gradually loses the spiritual energy with which Phidias invested it. The expression of the form, distraught and as if a little wearied, is no longer the play of the inner forces, but that of the lights and shadows on its shell. The soul seeks to escape from the embrace of the marble. One sees this clearly in the great dreamy foreheads under the wavy hair, in the sensual and vibrant mouth, in the undefined charm of the face as it leans forward. That no longer means intelligence; that means sentiment. Art dies of it, but new life takes its germ from it and, much later and under other skies, is to flower from it. At the moment when human language and enthusiasm weaken together, the work of Praxiteles affirms, not the appearance, but the survival of the mind and a kind of transference of its function, which is to spend many long centuries in searching for its real organ and in the end is to find it.

His art betrays the coming of a kind of cerebral sensualism which we see appearing at the same hour among all his contemporaries, to whom the friezes of the temple of the "Wingless Victory" and the capital of the "Dancers" at Delphi had already shown the way. Little by little, the deep structure is forgotten, so that the surface of the figures may be caressed by desire, as the surface of the faces is marked by the artist's effort to depict psychological states. When the statue remains clothed, the robes become lighter than a breeze on the water. But, for the first time, the Greek sculptor wholly unveils woman, whose form is significant more especially through the tremor of its surface, just as the masculine form, which had dictated his science to him, is above all significant through the logic and the rigor of its structure. For the first time he rejects the stuffs which the pupils of Phidias had begun to drape in every direction, at the risk of leaving unexpressed the life moving under them. It is without veils that he expresses the movement of the torsos as they draw themselves up to their full stature, the animation of the planes which the light and air model in powerful vibration, the youth of breasts, the vigor of masculine bellies, and the pure thrust of arms and legs. He speaks of the body of woman as it had never been spoken of before, he raises it up and adores it in its radiant warmth, its firm undulations, in its splendor as a living column through which the sap of the world circulates with its blood. These mutilated statues confer on the sensuality of man the highest nobility. Full and pure, like a well of light, intrusted by all their profiles to space which is motionless about them, as if filled with respect, these great forms sanctify the whole of paganism as, later, a mother bending over the dead body of her son is to humanize Christianity. And if we are intimately grateful to Praxiteles and regard him with a tenderness which does not resemble the heroic exaltation to which Phidias transports us, it is because he has taught us that the feminine body, by its rise into the light and the affecting frailty of the belly, the sides, and the breasts in which our whole future sleeps, sums up human effort in the unconquerable idealism with which it faces so many storms. It is impossible to see certain of these broken statues where only the young torso and the long thighs survive, without being torn by a tenderness that is sacred.

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