The Franco-Flemish Cycle (part V)

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Now, in Flanders, the first man whom this research revealed to himself was a peasant type whose unexpected manner of speech, whose bizarre and powerful humor have caused him to be looked on too often as merely a comic primitive, perhaps a trifle ridiculous. He was a man of free and bold mind, of great and radiant soul, whose name was Peter Breughel. He had made the trip to Italy, without undue haste, I imagine, not oversupplied with money—on foot, very likely, loitering, retracing his steps, going roundabout ways in order to walk through the villages nestling among the hollows which he discovered off his road, stopping to draw a clump of trees, a herd, a group of workmen in the fields, the gesture of a child, or the form of a sky. He must have understood Italy. Instead of bringing back from it calligraphic formulas and worn-out generalizations, he returned to Flanders to consider the image—apart from all traditional custom, from every preoccupation of a symbolic or religious nature, from all desire to relate his visions to the great collective and confused ideal which was dying, little by little, among the masses of people—an image very true and pure, but well thought out, very human, entirely personal, which Flanders had implanted in his heart.

He discovered that intimacy of the landscape toward which the painters of Flanders had been tending since the time of Pol de Limbourg, but to which not one of them, save Pol de Limbourg himself, van der Goes, and Patinir, had really penetrated; also Jerome Bosch, whose clownlike humor barely masks a profound and familiar sense of the good peasant soil, of harvests, haymaking, seed-time, and plowing. The van Eycks, indeed, had shown how the plains recede behind the processions and the cavalcades which defiled before their eyes, and Dirk Bouts and Memling had perceived, to be sure, that the undulations of the landscape lose themselves in blue mists the farther away they appear in the distance. But not one among these artists, not even Jan van Eyck, had dared really to confess to himself that the cavaliers, the soldiers, and the prophets were scarcely more than a pretext for them and that the trees and the skies made a stronger appeal to them. And perhaps they cared too much for the heavy draperies, the tapestries, and the robes of green or black velvet or of red cloth really to search out in the countryside, attracted toward it as they were, anything else but harmonies corresponding with their subject—a sumptuous and fraternal accompaniment for the scenes in the foreground.

With Breughel, everything changes, or rather everything matures. He places himself in the center of the plains, and it is the plain itself that lives; the man crossing it does not live with a life any different from its own; he shares in all its changes and all its dramas; he has its habits, its desires, and its needs. With equal interest, the painter demands of men and trees that they commune with him. They are his friends by the same right as the others, he retells the confidences which he has received from inanimate and animate nature with the same simple lyricism, spontaneous, but patient, and perhaps a bit mischievous. Or rather, nothing among all earthly things is inanimate for him—nothing, not even the soil, not even the chips of dead wood, not even objects manufactured by the hand of man, not even the little stones along the road. All of that speaks to him at the same time, discreetly, chatting with him, whispering to him all about its little personal life, modest, but determined to lose none of its rights.

How is it that from this accumulation of little facts so powerful a life comes forth? Whether he is walking through the street or the square of a village, or whether he happens to be standing alone amid the fields, he sees everything, even to the tiniest things, and he pictures them all, suffusing the whole with such animation that the universal poetry of the crowd and of the earth flows over one like a strong, slow wave. How is it that one can count the hundreds of children whom he shows at play, distinguish their little toys, take part in their games; how is it that one can listen to the wrangling and gossiping of the housewives gathered into groups or wiping the noses of their children or sweeping in front of their door; how is it that with a sympathetic glance our eye follows the poor people who come and go with their carts and their tools and that at the same time one can grasp the main idea of the scene, the disordered swarming of all this humble humanity and recognize, in the confused murmur, laughing and weeping, all the cries, all the calls, and all the whispered tales? How can he perceive all the leaves of the trees, all their slender branches against the white sky, all the blades of grass, distinguish all the birds that flutter and that hop, describe one after another all the windows of the houses and yet withal give to the whole of nature that collective life in which nothing is isolated, but which envelops and covers all things with the same air and the same sky? How is it that he does not forget, when he tells some little story in all its petty details, that he is a painter, and that he is to sustain, from one end of the canvas to the other, the subtlest, the densest, the most discreet harmonies, making the tones work together with a minute science to which his tenderness gives a quality as moving as a singing voice?

His world is a living being that remains living whether seen from near by or from afar, living in the superior and imposing harmony of all its accumulated elements, living in each one of the atoms whose obscure functioning assures that harmony. He bears that life in himself; one would say that he was independent of the meticulous poet who envelops his observation with so much mystery, submitting simply to the rhythm of the seasons and to the irregular flight of the winds and the clouds, and who yields himself, with the earth and the sky, the vegetation, the crops, the beasts and the men, to the most imperceptible tremor of the immense universe. There is not a blade of grass but is affected when the air and the water are affected by the darkening of the sky, not a wave of the river but knows that it is to strike against a projection of the bank and turn from its course, not a cottage roof but changes its expression when the clump of trees in which it hides is covered with leaves or is stripped of them, not a man, not a dog, that walks with the same step on snow-covered ground, on the muddy ground of spring and autumn, and on the ground that is carpeted in summer with warm grass; there is not a tree which does not cut clear and black against the great white landscape of the silent winter, or which does not belong, through the vaporous foliage which it has in August, to the vapors that rise from the earth. Spring quivers and murmurs. Torpid summer has its odor of hay and of sweat; autumn is heavy with all the herds that toss their heads, with its overladen trees, its full houses, its swelling breasts. And now comes the wind; the branches are stripped and man hastens to regain his dwelling. And in the clear air of winter or the darkened air of winter, the sleeping earth no longer moves, and one hears no other sound than that given forth by the vibration of water and ice. Into the almost dead harmonies of the seasons, when everything is wet by the rain caught in the grip of the cold, space absorbs the poor or blurred huts whose walls are rubbed down with earth and whose roofs are brushed by the sky that they may have their share in the all-embracing splendor of the world. When the winter is violent and black, it is harder to bear, with its frozen soil that crackles to the tips of the branches, than when the snow has covered its bare carcass and dulled all its sounds, save the voices of men who are climbing a hillside, astonished to find themselves alone.

The great painter who has shown us all this is a man of good heart. That is why he is willing to share the secret misery or the secret happiness of the water, the earth, the foliage, the beasts, the soil, and the air. Like Jerome Bosch, who influenced him greatly, he certainly knew the pain of his century. But he quickly abandoned the exaggerated, unreal, and bizarre symbolism of Bosch, his hell swarming with composite monsters and all the grotesque nightmares of his weird and fantastic mind; as the younger man, Breughel could foresee the approach of the horrible drama which was to drown the kind earth in blood and veil with smoke the great sky of the Netherlands. Beginning about 1520, the ideas of the Reformation had entered Flanders, and since Spain was master there, the books are being burned, the apostles tortured, and the stake is always ready for its victims. Perhaps Breughel knew Antonio Moro, an implacable soul with the savage eyes of a Fleming completely dominated by Spain, such a man as could give us the atrocious effigy of the Duke of Alba, that executioner whose diseased mind was to express itself through boiling or crucifying the "Beggars" or breaking them upon the wheel. Breughel suffers at the sight of all of this, but as he has imbibed the sweetness of the countryside, he says nothing, but contents himself with paraphrasing for the future the old legends of the Bible. Always a lover of little children, he has portrayed in the details and in the whole of his pictures—with the torrent-like verve of his contemporary, Rabelais—all their games, leapfrog, sliding-ponds, rounders, marbles, tops, stilts, "straight-oak" and playing at grown-ups; with tender irony he has described their busy and serious little life, from the older ones who play at war to the little ones who make mud pies or who gravely rake their own excrement; here are all the games of the little children who play at life. Always a lover of the poor little children grotesquely decked out with patched trousers that are too long for them, with coarse shoes, with skirts that are too big and that make them look bulky, and with women's handkerchiefs so large that only their little numb fingers stick out from under them, he placed the "Massacre of the Innocents" in a poor village, under the snow; there are ten cottages surrounding a church spire, the pond and the brook are frozen, and a squadron of men clad in iron shut off escape with their raised lances. The soldiers do their work, the mothers struggle with pitiful gestures, poor people surrounding the indifferent captains implore their mercy, the little ones, knowing nothing and thinking perhaps that it is a game, allow themselves be killed without even looking at the murderers; there are some dogs playing about, a bird, some blood on the ground, a little body stretched out. And that is all. Before his death, he saw the passing of the iconoclasts; he may have seen them breaking the statues and slashing the images which he loved. There is no difference between those who break the idol and those who have unlearned how it must be adored. He already knew that perfectly well; he has spoken his thought in the "Parable of the Blind Men" with its indifferent landscape and the weak chain of men, the empty eye-sockets in their faces upturned toward the sky as they totter along in the absolute darkness of destiny and of reason.

The Gothic men had introduced nature into the cathedral, but in fragments, as decorative elements. The cathedral, from top to bottom, was a symbol, but a symbol fixed by dogma, accepted by the crowd as a revelation of truth. If the Flemings, at the end of the sixteenth century, have definitely consented to enter the modern world, whose program had just been outlined by da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Titian, it is with Peter Breughel and through Peter Breughel, who has revealed to the soul of the North the entire body of nature and who has brought eternal symbolism back to the appreciation of the spirit.

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