The Franco-Flemish Cycle (part IV)

View the scanned original illustrations

This purity, this transparence of tone, this inviolate magnificence emanating from the material itself, so hard and condensed that it seems, like a black diamond, to radiate its own light, are to characterize the last school of Bruges. One finds them, even, with Patinir, perhaps the most moving and most profound lyricist of landscape, the powerful and concrete narrative of the labors of the countryside, the ancestor of Peter Breughel. But Patinir stands alone under his skies laden with clouds, in his rich and heavy plains where the forests and the harvest lands alternate and succeed each other to the horizon and beyond it. The painter is no longer living the life of his time, and when he looks upon it he is trying to find subjects through which to render the precious harmonies that have grown rigid in his mind. They are losing their strength and life just as everything else is. Gerard David, the pupil of Memling, no longer sees anything in the world save materials having the purity of gems and tones as deep as water. The faces, it is true, as with all the Flemings of that time, bear the stigmata of the age, of the privations, of the physical pain, and of its cares, and he makes an honest attempt to make us perceive them. But before all else, he is a painter. He has no longer the heart of van Eyck, and more than a century is lacking before he can have the mind of Rubens. He paints cloths and wood and steel with as much attention and conscientiousness as he does hands and faces, and when he depicts a torture, that which he finds in the tone of the skinless flesh and of the knife that drips with blood is above all a pretext for recalling the red in which the executioners are dressed. He is a master of harmonies as pitiless as the official who cuts open the skin of the tortured man.

Gerard David has no compunction about taking possession of the secrets of his irreproachable harmonies and of his faultless material. One sees clearly that he is the last of his line. He is accustomed to the spectacle which brought hatred and tears to the successors of van Eyck or from which they fled with averted eyes. There, as elsewhere, the fifteenth century had opened veins and torn hearts. In Italy, there was the frightful contrast between intelligence in the ascendant and activity on the decline; in France chronic war, and in Flanders the convulsive death struggle of liberty. But here and there the suffering is not the same. The evil times have provoked the grief of van der Weyden, the wrath of Dirk Bouts, the sadness of Memling, and the misery of Malouel. The torment of Masaccio, of Donatello, and of Botticelli is the result of the effort they make to tear their soul from an exhausted ideal and to recreate the universe. In the former case it is wholly a moral drama that we see; in the latter, a wholly intellectual one. The Flemings suffer because they can no longer live fully, the Italians suffer because they do not know; and when they have learned through their suffering, they suffer again that they may know more, because that which dominates them is the desire for absolute forms and the imagination with which to realize them.

Hence the difference between the two parallel movements which cause the Occident to pass from a collective form of civilization to an individual form of investigation. In Italy, men are led on by passion, they go ahead because they feel the need to; in Flanders, they go ahead in spite of themselves, their old garments please them, and it was because painting permitted them to take possession of intimate and real landscape, one whose especial destination was no longer, as in Florence, that of expressing abstraction, that, unknown to themselves, they play a positive and necessary role in the conquest of the future. It was doubtless because their social life was disorganized, because they were unhappy and bowed down by an overwhelming moral depression that they were paving the way for a generation which was to be incapable of resisting Italian intellectualism, so consoling in its mirages, but so fatal to those who have not, through great struggle, gained the right to understand it and to assimilate it.

Following the French invasion of the peninsula, the slender rampart which the school of Avignon set up against the moral conquest of France by Italy was carried away. According to the law, the vanquished took his revenge. Across Franco, which had been dragged into the path of Italian culture, debilitated Flanders felt the shock. The painters had deserted Bruges for Antwerp, where, especially after the accession of Charles the Fifth, the heir to the Low Countries through the marriage of his grandfather, all the activity of the Flemish cities was concentrated; and now all these artists yielded to the attractions of the southern genius. Resistance was difficult. Following the example of Francis the First and Charles the Fifth, all the powerful men of western Europe affirmed their preference for the painters from beyond the Alps, and, at the beginning of the century, the great symphonic school of painting had been born in Rome and in Venice; it made the Gothic ideal seem rather clumsy, very much reduced in its strength and in its necessity, to minds which, in the North as well as in the South, felt the demand of the time for the freeing of the individual.

It was to flee from mediaeval impersonality that Jan van Mabuse and van Orley, and Coninxloo, Coxcie, van Hemessen, Martin de Vos, and Jan Mostaert abase their personality before that of the Italians. It made no difference that van Orley followed Rome and Florence and that Martin de Vos invoked the authority of the Venetians, the result was the same—anecdotes too highly dramatized, nudities too ideal, and mythologies too ponderous. If Jan van Mabuse had not sometimes let his eyes rest on the clean-shaven and strong faces of the princes and the merchants, if van Orley, a maker of sumptuous tapestries, had not retained in his puffed-up forms some trace of the dramatic sentiment with which Roger van der Weyden had inspired the beginning of the great pointing of Flanders, and if, above all, Rubens had not in his youth had his mind haunted by the clumsy poems of a crowd of artists who talked of nothing but Italy and who advised the young men to go and study the masters there before taking a brush in their hands, we should have forgotten all those who turned toward Rome. Not one of them was able to turn toward Antwerp, its great port and its luxuriant life nor, above all, to observe in himself the rise of the pride in life which the contact with such a focus of activity might have and should have brought about.

Perhaps it was because Quentin Matsys was born in Antwerp, because he had always lived there, and because he laid down his brush only to go back to his blacksmith's hammer again, that he was the only one to catch a glimpse of the new sources which the growing life of Antwerp was about to open. At the rooms of the guild, to be sure, there was talk about Italy, and the pictures which his comrades showed to one another, the great rosy nudities in the sacred landscapes where the gods lead their herds down the slopes to the meadows, increased the temptation that beset him to fall in line with fashion and to abandon the new forces which, as a man of the people, he was obliged to respect. But he was beginning to understand the lesson of the Latin artists, and to some extent he mastered the urge of an instinct which was recreating itself little by little. He has less empty spaces in his works than have the great Flemish primitives, the organization of his pictures is less confused, and sometimes one finds in them—as in the "Entombment"—a well-defined and well-sustained effort toward the continuity of lines and the balance of volumes which must be the passage between the great dramatic sentiment of Roger van der Weyden and the formidable arabesque into whose tumult—as abundant as the seasons and as well organized as their rhythm—Rubens will bring in all the forms of life. No matter, he is more a Fleming than the others—direct, compact, and with flashes of a strange charm in his landscapes that vanish in transparent distances. As he was a worker in iron, his material is a trifle hard and dry; as he had not had the time to look at the Scheldt, the fat lands which it waters, and the sky, his color is a trifle pale; but he loves full-blooded flesh, good living, and good weather. In germ, he has in him all of Antwerp, from the prodigious Rubens to the mediocre Teniers.

One cannot, especially after having understood Quentin Matsys, deny the necessity and the importance of the part to be played by the artists who turn toward Rome. The Gothic idea in Flanders, as in France and in Germany, had exhausted its resources. The time had come when the artist of the North must die or enter upon the personal research which the artist of the South was proposing to him. He accepted resolutely—Erasmus is of the same age as Jan de Mabuse and Quentin Matsys—and from this spirited submission there came forth Shakespeare, Rubens, and Rembrandt as, later on, Newton, Lamarck, and Beethoven were to follow.

No comments: