The French Monarchy and the Aesthetic Dogma (part V)

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The bas-relief of Girardon, into which passes something of the sensual and melodious passion which conceived "Andromaque" and "Phèdre," is in exile in the gardens of the king. As it is of the robust lineage of Jean Goujon and of Ronsard, it would be at home under the branches, if its beautiful nude women disporting among the reeds did not have the effect of a free irruption of life in the too perfectly clipped alleys which mount toward the too-severe façades and the cold vestibules. Trembling water, undulating grace. . . It is, perhaps, in the twilight of Versailles where the harmonies of autumn were calling, each year, for the coming of Watteau, the first great divine breath. But it stands alone. With Poussin dead—who, moreover, had lived but little in France—the plastics of the century will have neither its Molière, nor its La Fontaine, nor its Pascal above all, nor even its Bossuet. On the other hand, it will have its Boileau. We need not be astonished at this. The strongest power has only an uncertain influence upon the dawning and the progression of the great personalities of literature, whose work bears within itself its origin and its goal. If it can, in hours of political anarchy and of intellectual disorder, allow the great personalities of plastics to grow like the others, in hours of exaggerated centralization and unification it drives into canals and hems in the development of the arts whose fundamental function is to build and to decorate. The system of the century, which already very strongly reacted upon the writers and the poets, had to bring the painters and the sculptors into almost complete subjection to its law. The great men did not find their place in it. The mediocre men gained through it.

We see Pierre Puget wandering, like one accursed, from Toulon to Genoa, from Genoa to Marseilles, from Marseilles to Paris, where he is condemned to repress his soul and abase himself constantly, in order, despite his revolts, to obey the common rule; and despite his disgust, he must submit to the school formulas which his visible anguish tortures and falsifies everywhere. He is not even at his ease amid convicts; he stifles. He begins things, and abandons them. He tries to model the whole of Marseilles like an object. His desire is to draw vessels, build them, and decorate them. He conceives galleys and three-decked ships where the cannons coming from the portholes act, as do the masts and the sails and the oriflammes and the grandiloquent sculptures at the stern, as decorative elements. With his tridents, his sirens, his Amphitrites, and his Neptunes, he struggles on in the seaports, among the clerks and the engineers. He fails in all his projects. “The marble trembles before him, . . ." but he is determined not to take account of this trembling of the marble in order to impose upon it, in spite of itself, the swollen rhetoric of the century, to waste his time, and to scatter his pride in every trade. As a civil and naval architect, a painter, a sculptor in stone and in wood, he works himself out of breath to gain a spiritual domain which he could have assured to himself by a patient and passionate penetration to the depth of a single one of these forms of thought. A few powerfully sketched works are all that give up the secret of the greatness he felt in himself, but upon which he imposes a frame which stifles it and convulses it at every point. The spirit of Michael Angelo wears itself out by trying to lock up its flame in the grimaces of Bernini.

In this he is the opposite of Le Brun, who is devoid of passion, and works without disquietude and at his ease, and who governs the whole of art. He has no other reason for existence. Fed on Descartes, an aesthetician, an historian, an archaeologist, and, into the bargain, a well-taught painter, he exercises, in the name of Colbert, a kind of viceroyalty over what is called from that moment on the "Beaux-Arts," and represents, in France, the Doctrine which he knows how to adapt in its entirety to the functions demanded of it by the deified monarchy, in order to attain the material and philosophic conquest desired by the French mind. Not more than a few isolated men resist: Mignard follows only half-heartedly; Philippe de Champagne, a Fleming, moreover, and but little attracted by the School, cuts himself off in his jealous Jansenism. Le Sueur lives apart, knows almost nothing of Rome, never having made the journey, and, in this century, communes with the spirit of Fénelon through his mellifluous grace, the measured, decorous, and discreet appearance which he gives to French mysticism, and through his sweetish suavity, which falls like a rain of fine ashes on his pale blues and his grays. All the others obey: Mansard, the Coustous, Coyzevox, Girardon himself, and Louis XIV first of all, who thinks that he is commanding. The royal manufactories and the academies are under the orders of the first painter of the king. Le Nôtre furnishes him with the frame that he needs. When he takes part in the work, he can certainly do portraits as robust as those of Sébastien Bourdon and Claude Lefebvre—good painters—or of Coyzevox and the Coustous, good statue makers, and of all those solid workmen who painted well and sculptured well, as men wrote well, and built well, as men spoke and conversed well, as they preached well, as they commanded the armies and the squadrons well, and fought well in their century. But that is too slight a task. He needs immense surfaces in order to spread out his learned and flat painting; he seeks in the battles and the history of Alexander a necessary frame for the bombastic odes which his position and his faith command him to address to Louis XIV. And if his plan includes some room to be decorated, he rises to an effort as superb and as empty as the pompous eloquence to be expected of the artist who solves everything and directs everything. . . Here are long vaulted halls of gold where ornaments in relief make a rich frame for red and somber paintings, cut-glass chandeliers, waxed floors, and tapestries: the reliquary is ready for the god. . . Hyacinthe Rigaud, an acute psychologist, certainly, will be able to embalm him alive in his glory, not a hieratic glory, to be sure, for he has never stepped outside of his century and his society, and he justifies them and summarizes them in their solemn unity; Hyacinthe Rigaud will find all the elements in readiness for his dithyramb. The face, the hand, and the foot will be given a purely monarchical significance. His whole science is employed in painting outspread brocades, mantles of velvet and ermine, and the insignia of nobility. Fingers are never posed on anything but scepters, globes, and crowns; high heels point the tips of the toes at an angle, and flowing wigs deploy the whole of this magnificent stateliness around foreheads, eyes, and lips. Life has fled the depth of souls, and silence reigns in France, as if the aristocratic sentiments of its élite were scandalized by the surrounding tumult, which the death of Rubens, of Velasquez, and of Rembrandt has not yet quieted, and which German music will soon animate once more.

In reality, the period here expresses, with Poussin himself, and with Jean Goujon before Poussin, the fatigue of an extremely intelligent people which is trying by all possible means to conceal its fatigue, and which gives to the forms which it uses for that purpose a majestic exterior and a systematic development which create the illusion sought. It attempts to arrest individual research, which the following century and the Revolution will unchain anew. Instead of seeking a new organism through the individual, it imposes upon the individual a unity issuing from above. France pays—royally—for the glory of having been the first, after the Crusades, to set in motion the movement of the Occident. The stylization of the mind, which she had been seeking since the introduction in her land of Italian idealism, was only an attempt to arrest life in formulas, an attempt destined to be very rapidly checked, but participating, even so, in the qualities of harmony, of clarity, and of measure which remained, despite all, the privilege of the soil.

And so we have before us merely a façade, like those great colonnaded walls which mask uncomfortable apartments, like those imposing manners which ill conceal coarse and dirty habits, like that splendid display of wealth and force which did not prevent La Bruyère from evoking in terrible terms the misery of the peasants, nor the brothers Le Nain, above all, from recounting, in their little pictures which were not shown at Versailles, the story of the black bread earned by ragged men, with broken hands and bare feet, pictures which told how much majesty is given by exhausting and joyless work to weary attitudes, to clasped knees, to arms dropped in abandon, to eyes staring into emptiness, and to the profound play of light in poor dwellings. A great work, three-fourths of which is lost, a work of primitive power despite its learned structure, it sometimes makes us think of the grave statues of Egypt by its grand humility; an isolated work, and yet classic and of its century, through its form, but isolated in sentiment. When Louis XIV grows old, when his family crumbles, when everyone can see that he is mortal like the others, and that, after all, it is very fatiguing to keep a mask on for a lifetime, the lizards are allowed to run in the monument, the gilding and the stucco are allowed to peel off, and the wind, sweeping the dead leaves and the dust of flowers, is allowed to whirl in the cold rooms. If he still stands erect, it is because the Jesuits have been summoned to prop him up. But everything is cracking—ecclesiastical discipline, industrial power, the navy, the army, pride—and respect. Ruin is everywhere, and persecution, and want. Colbert's system, carried to the bureaucratism which causes the greatest sterility, brings on a tariff war, the paralysis of commerce, and the most extreme anaemia of the arts. The king has no more money. Let a fissure occur in an ensemble so superb, and everything slips through it. . . Louis XIV, his great style, and the dogma, one and uniform, which he represents, will spread, for a century, over Europe, over poor Germany, respectful of so much splendor, over wild Russia, decadent Italy, and drowsing Spain, while France, through one of those sudden recoveries, one of those changes of front with which she starts up again at the moment when she is sliding to the abyss, goes off in another direction with a careless gesture and irony on her lips and in her eyes. The disintegration which, from the beginning of the powerful masquerade, had been announcing itself tragically, with Pascal, affirms itself ferociously with Bayle, who no longer believes in anything whatsoever. Saint-Simon scrapes the oozing bones, and pours vitriol and vinegar on the wounds that will not close. . . Mignard, though very old, reacts against Le Brun as soon as he becomes his successor. Rome is now without attraction; Rigaud dispenses with her, Jouvenet does not go there, nor does Largillière. Coyzevox has already something of the free and nervous look of Houdon. The painters of the north return to fashion. Largillière, who has studied Rubens at Antwerp and several times made the journey to London to gather up the trace of Van Dyck there, seeks to emancipate himself, to loosen his hand, to bring air into his harmonies. A breath of romance and of the pastoral lifts the curls of the wigs, and carries the eyes toward the heavens. . . The soul of Watteau sometimes circles through the alleys at evening, mingling with the laughter that is returning, with the tears that are released, and with a sad and tender something which makes the hearts tremble. . . 

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