The Franco-Flemish Cycle (part III)

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At that moment, and with men so sure of themselves, it was impossible that the influence of the individualistic painting of the South which, in the course of the same century, made itself so strongly felt at Avignon, should enter Flanders. One does not find it with the van Eycks, nor with Petrus Cristus, nor with Bouts, nor with van der Goes, or van Outwater or their pupils. However, even if we do not take into account the influence that Italy and northern Europe have for a long time been exercising upon each other by means of the architects and through the exchanges of manuscripts, we may be certain that, from the end of the fourteenth century, the painters of the North knew Giotto and his school, and that from the beginning of the fifteenth century the Italians saw the rising of the sun of the North. But if Italy never asked of Flanders other lessons than those of technique (although it gave a great welcome to the Flemish artists and bought their pictures), it took a century of material and moral impoverishment before Flanders would listen to Italy, and it was not until Antwerp had risen anew that Italy could give to Flanders her strong nourishment, instead of seeing her reject the gift from the South.

Roger van der Weyden remained a Fleming quite as much as the van Eycks, but in a different way. A hundred years before the Romanizing of this country and far better than they did—because he possessed the freedom that gives self-confidence—he had perceived what it is that gives Italian painting its power of revelation, its educative and expansive force, and its radiance. He had followed the continuous line that the hand of Giotto traced upon the walls to lead those who should come after him. The prophetic genius of the Tuscans finds in him its echo, a little dull and as if muffled by the mysticism of the North, but with an accent that is perhaps more human. He has an instinct for powerful harmonies, for opaque splendor, and for insistence upon color, but it is to dramatize life that he gives wings of fire to his angels, and spreads his winelike violet tones over the gradations of the blue in his skies. The power which his race has given him to distinguish types, to give to bodies the thinness and the deformations resulting from misery, to express grief in faces by the violent play of their muscles, he employs to open the gates of hell. He uses a heavy arabesque, heavy because he drags a weight of real limbs and real bones, full of blood and of marrow, and instead of achieving the effect of bringing out the abstract meaning of the forms, his arabesque serves him as a means of causing them to take on the same dramatic movement as that of his compact material and his gleaming color; again it is his arabesque that permits him to show the weight of corpses held up by taut arms, to permit us to observe the presence of shoulders and breasts under the thickness of clothing, to accentuate the despair of bowed heads under their white headdresses, and to twist necks and hands. Everything hangs heavily and sinks down: knees bend, foreheads are bowed, and only the firm drawing sustains this despair amid the magnificence of life, like a profound hymn that falls and rises to console the vanquished. But there are broken accents in the voice. It is that of a mystic. Something new has passed over Flanders, has troubled its luxurious peace, has upset the egoism of its merchants, has broken open their overfilled strong-boxes, and has opened to the winds the rooms of their houses which they had kept too carefully closed. The figures, which formerly knelt or sat on carpets, amid the carved woodwork or the dyed hangings, now walk or fall upon the ground in the paved churches; they are framed by the complicated flowering of the last Christian architecture, and bell towers and pinnacles invade the canvas to offer their lacework for its background, while the stained-glass windows shower it with their rays.

In Flanders and in France the same mystic ardor arises from the manuscripts at the same moment. Processions bearing caskets of gold unroll through the hollow of the streets, golden archangels hover over the openwork of the city with its sharp gables, its slender belfries, its aerial lacework, arrows darting azure and sunshine through the narrow windows of the churches and the houses. Every nerve in the artist's body vibrates with the vibration of the bells and is made tense by hunger, by prayer, by dreams, and by despair. Nothing can express that last gleam cast by the illuminated manuscript at the moment when it enters upon its death struggle. One might say that all the sensual tumult of the beginning of Franco-Flemish painting, all the mystic fire of its ending, had been concentrated upon the page, to leap forth from it in their bugle blast of gold and of fire. It flames like a stained-glass window. The fire of hell and the burning bush give an added red and more somber reflections to the flame of the hot twilights and to the acrid smoke that rises from the war in France and from the insurrections in Flanders that were stamped out in blood.

It is because Flanders is suffering in its turn. Without being reduced to the misery of the provinces of northern France, still healthy, active, and very much alive, it begins to feel the weight of the gauntlet of the Burgundian. All its gold goes to pay for ducal feasts and for the war in France, while England weighs more and more heavily upon the manufacture of Ghent and the commerce of Bruges. Furthermore, Bruges and Ghent are quarreling, Ghent aids the duke to repress the insurrection of Bruges, and the duke has the support of Bruges in stifling the revolt of Ghent, It is the beginning of the systematic and bloody exploitation of the Low Countries and of the Walloon country. Liège and Dinand will have their turn before the coming of Spain, the terrible war of the "Beggars," before the time of the stake and the massacres when four generations were ground to earth and the great edifice of their ancestors was brought to ruin and devastation.

Bruges is dying. From the end of the fifteenth century onward, her port is filled up with sand. The last of the van Eycks could witness the defeat of her attempt at liberation. Roger van der Weyden works at Brussels when he is not in Italy. Simon Marmion, the miniaturist from Amiens, lives at Ghent; at the court of Philip the Good, Dirk Bouts is at Bruges, to be sure, but he comes there from Holland; Hugo van der Goes is a Ghent man; while Memling, like the van Eycks, is from the Rhine provinces. One would say that the illustrious city no longer attracts the painters through the splendor of her feasts and the power of her activity, but that they yield, when they come to live there, to that kind of sickly dilettantism which seizes upon artists at moments of social discouragement and causes them to emigrate in troops toward the beautiful things that are disappearing. It is true that they still find the things with which to fill their eager eyes: the richness of tone which the red, yellow, and green façades take on in the rain-washed atmosphere, the vivacity, the stability, and the depth of the spots which they outline against the sky and with which they tremble in the water; and they find also the royal mantle of the cultivated land that one sees stretching out across the plain as one stands at the top of the bell tower. And it suffices them to go from Bruges to Ghent to witness the feasts, more sumptuous than ever, that are given there by Philip the Good—Burgundian courts of love, processions, banquets, tournaments, and chapters of the Golden Fleece. Hugo van der Goes receives them there. He is a powerful painter, too pensive and tender not to know what drama is, too strongly sensual also to forget the pomp and magnificence of the time, the savor of the soil, and the diffused light with which space is filled. The deep, moist earth, the dark splendor of the foliage; and, over this confused world whose life arises everywhere, in dew, in sap, in vapor, and in forces of fecundation, the meditative gravity of the faces and the weight of maternity prove that under the froth great depths of water are sleeping. But Bruges is dying, and Flanders is suffering. The feasts are external things, and among the reds and blacks which with their heavy rich notes dominate the flutter of the mantles, banners, and draperies, the eye can now see scarcely more than the colors of blood and of mourning.

The mysterious underside of Flemish life, which had been hidden by the brutal orgies of the lords and by the pomp of the merchants, mounts to the surface of their soul. The secret and miserable Flanders of the nuns and of the poor people has its day. The artists have witnessed "the apparition of the mystic workingman, of the illumined Lollard, and of the visionary weaver, who had escaped from the cellars, terrified at the daylight, pale and wan and as if drunk with fasting" [Michelet, Histoire de France]. One sees it in the pictures of Dirk Bouts, full of ascetic figures, sick and violent, people stretched out with their heads cut off and their blood flowing; full of beloved martyrs, sad and gentle; and of executioners with hideous faces, as one finds also in the manuscripts of the time and in the sickly painting of Jean Malouel, who came from the Low Countries to install himself in Paris—miserable and ruined through the Anglo-French war. Hatred is dominant in him together with the bitter regret that he can not flee the social hell so as to take refuge in the country which he adores like a good Hollander, painting its meadows which are crossed by woods and by brooks, its hilly distances garnished with pasture land, that rich countryside whose depths are covered with bluish vapors and where the steeples and towers are piled up in the crenellated cities.

Memling, on the contrary, resigns himself; his love is stronger than his resentment, as the inner refuge of the convent is stronger than the furious excitement of the famished weaver. It is the death-struggle of Bruges. With his mystic sweetness he has walked along the canals which are falling asleep, he has watched under their waters the flight of the pale clouds, his eye has followed the wandering flotillas of leaves which the wind scatters over their surface, he has seen the flowering of the glycins which fall from the walls to drop lightly in the water, he has taken long rambles in the courts of the convents where the plane trees are becoming bare, where, behind the glitter of the thousand window panes of the façades, life is being extinguished and muffled with silence so that, through the egoism of peace, it may atone for its orgy of materialism, of color, and of tumult which had been going on for so many years outside. His principal work is destined for the hospital, and perhaps, more than the real Flemish landscapes, where one gazes far out into the open air, walking over fat lands all surrounded by sky, he loves the fine, precious landscapes in which shimmer the limpid pinks and the blues of the jewelers. One would say that he rarely comes forth from his inner life, that he rarely sees the world save through the glass of his windows, thereby giving his crowds the appearance of being far away and his landscapes the appearance of being precious, veiled, and spiritual. He does not himself experience the misfortunes of the world, but rather he finds the trace of all of them in the attitudes of the kneeling men and women whom he poses symmetrically; he finds that trace on their faces which he scrutinizes slowly, noting how the suffering of several generations has accumulated in the countenances of men who have grown thin and anaemic and in the pale, sad, and gentle faces of the women, sometimes showing sorrow in the long lines, still further drawn out by the nun's headdress over their foreheads and temples. Where are the strong effigies of Jan van Eyck, full, sanguine, and well-fed? Where is Jan van Eyck himself, so sure of himself—he of the heavy substance, of the solid mind? Memling is a very careful, somewhat discreet and timid man, infinitely patient and attentive, infinitely an artist, sick, doubtless, with a tender and cloistered mysticism, a lover of silence and of engravings, of old books, of violins, and of poetry, a man who welcomes the humble, who is humble himself and very good. If his martyrs are pitiful, his executioners are less repulsive than those of the others; character loses its force through being too minutely searched out, and dramatic action is somewhat veiled through his delicate examination of detail and his meticulous harmonies. They are pure, however, and sometimes brilliant, with a liquid and limpid glow which makes the reds and the blacks comparable with those of the Japanese lacquerers, and to be found outside of Flanders, during this century and the next, among the Germans, in Italy among the Sienese, and, unexpectedly enough, with Raphael; one also finds them In France with Jean Malouel and among several of the anonymous little painters who precede and accompany the Clouets. These are not the only relationships between this century and Japan, and, what is more singular, with the Japan of the same period. At every moment, in the Sienese paintings of the fifteenth century, one finds elongated faces with oblique eyes which, one would say, were drawn by a painter of Nippon. Pisanello and, later, Dürer understand plants and animals in quite the Japanese manner, and certain little Flemish portraits by Memling, Petrus Cristus, and Hugo van der Goes, like those of the dukes of Burgundy, dressed in black with the Golden Fleece about their neck, clean-shaven, pale, and broad faces of dominating and sensual men, make one think of the art of their contemporaries of the most distant Orient, because of the purity of the harmonies, the sober oppositions, and the decision of the outline. Is it by chance? Perhaps not. The Portuguese had already brought to the ports of Europe lacquered boxes and platters and perhaps even paintings by Meitcho, Shiubun, or Sesshiu.

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