The Sources of Greek Art (part IV)

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Marble had been skillfully treated in Athens for more than a hundred years, and the Acropolis, especially at the time of Pisistratus, had been covered with monuments and statues. But Endoios, the great Athenian master of the sixth century, still remained subject to Ionian traditions. It was only on the eve of the Median wars that the Hellenic synthesis, before manifesting itself by the collective action of resistance to the invader, is outlined in certain minds.

Undoubtedly, a people is too complex an organism, and one whose generating elements merge too closely and are too numerous to permit us to determine the degree of influence of each one of these elements in all the acts which express the people. It is like a river made up of a hundred streams, of a thousand torrents or brooks which bring to it, mixed together, the snow swept down by avalanches, the mud of clay countries, sand and flint, and the coolness and aroma of the forests it has crossed. It is the river, a broad living unity, rolling the same waters with the same sound. The men working at a particular period supply all the intermediary degrees which the future needs in order to pass from one group of men to another without effort and without finding in them differences of aspiration, though they themselves had imagined that they differed profoundly. And the men of this time are united to those who precede them and to those who follow them by necessary relationships wherein the mysterious continuity of our activity is manifested. It is not possible to fix the moment or to designate the work in which the Hellenic soul, as we call it to-day, tried to define itself for the first time. We can only turn our eyes to those works which possess the first quiver of life, over which there seems to pass the first breath of liberty and spiritual joy, in order that we may surprise in them the awakening of a new humanity to the beauty of living.

The young women found near the Erechtheion, twenty years ago, amid the rubbish of the foundations of the Parthenon, where the Greek workmen had put them after the sacking and burning of the Acropolis by the soldiers of Xerxes, were, perhaps, the first who had the smile of intoxication which announces the awakening. Undoubtedly the perfume of the islands was predominant with them. They think above all of pleasing; they are feminine; an invincible amorous force shines from them and accompanies them with a murmur of desire. But on seeing the surety of their planes and their definite and powerful equilibrium, we cannot doubt that the Dorian artisan, who was then working at Aegina, Corinth, and even Athens, had had repeated contacts with the Ionian immigrant whom the Persian conquest had driven back to the Occident.

Brought from the Orient by the adventurers of the sea—the men who told such lying, intoxicating, and savage tales—these women take good care not to shock the hard, austere world which they have come to visit. They remain motionless, holding up their robes with one hand. Their red hair, which hangs on their backs and whose tresses fall on each side of their necks to rest on their breasts, is plaited and curled; it is dyed, doubtless, and streams with jewels. Sometimes their foreheads are diademed, their wrists encircled with bracelets, their ears loaded with rings. From head to foot they are painted, with blue, red, ochre, and yellow, and their eyes of enamel glow in their smiling faces. These creatures so barbarously illuminated, dazzling and bizarre as the birds of the tropics, have the strong savor of the painted and adorned women of the Orient; they are somewhat vulgar, perhaps, but fascinating none the less, like things from afar off, like fairy-tale beings, childish animals, pampered slaves. They are beautiful. We love them with a tenderness which cannot exhaust itself. The whole after-world has issued from their firm, slender flanks.

They have overturned the curious notions that were anchored in us by academic idealism. For three hundred years it regarded immaculate marble as a sentimental emblem of serenity—one which never existed, save in the minds of certain philosophers, at the hour when Greece was approaching her decline. And white marble also stood for a perfection which, it is to be hoped, we shall not attain—discontent, curiosity, and effort being the very condition of life. Until the complete unfolding of her art in any case, and probably until her fall, Greece painted her gods and her temples. Variegated with blues and reds, alive like men and women, the gods became animated at break of day, took part in the surprises and joys of the light, and moved in the depth of the gathering shadow. They belonged to the crowd that swarmed at the foot of the Acropolis, the busy, noisy, familiar crowd of a port leading to the Orient; they came out of the dirty alleys where stray dogs fought for scraps of offal. We see them pass before the shop windows where the port spreads out its quarters of mutton and lamb, its fruits, its heaps of spice, its dyed stuffs, and its glassware; they are in the colorful squares so full of cries and calls—of the odors of garlic, rotting food, and aromatic herbs. We see the naked children, the questionable traders, the sailors hardened by the wind, the women with the painted eyes, dressed in their garish clothing. The temples and the monuments covered with ochre, with vermilion, green, azure, and gold, are made up of the tones of the sky, of the space over the sea—greenish or flushed with purple, they have the colors of the sea, violet or blue, of the earth, of its dress of thin crops and dry foliage, with the milky olive trees and the black cypresses as they marry their forms to the ever-present forms, of the sinuous bays and the hills. What is the role of the statue maker? It is to balance, in the lucidity and the firmness of his intelligence, all these scattered elements, so that on their apparent chaos he may impose clear relationships and harmonious directions.

The Apollonian myth kept watch in the consciousness—obscure as yet, but solid and swelling with primitive faith—of the Athenian marble cutters. The strange women who had taken possession of the Athenian fortress could not have unnerved for more than an hour the city's resistance to the Asiatic hordes which they had preceded by only a short time. Already the element of orgy and sentimental excess represented by their polychromy had been held in check at every point by clear-cut planes and precise contours, thereby sustaining its alluring, smiling action. These planes and contours mark the Athenian's extraordinary urge toward domination of the sensual impulse by the virile health of his nascent reason. The miraculous and fatigued soul of Asia recovers its strength and its faith upon contact with this fierce energy, which it enlightens with intelligence in an unexpected exchange. We have reached the mysterious hour when the flower will unfold to the light the tremble of its petals, which till now had been pressed together in their green sheath. These idols represent, perhaps, man's finest effort to discover in his consciousness the approbation of his instinct. There is in them a tension of soul which moves us, an energy devoted wholly to searching out our agreement of an hour with a world whose secret harmony we feel to live within us. Ingenuous as youth, perverse as desire, they are as firm and as free as the will.

With them Greek archaism possessed itself completely of that architectural conception of form which may be very dangerous because it carries with it the risk of never escaping from it, as in the case of the Egyptians. It is admirable. It is necessary. It is a more elevated form in the eyes of some than the balanced expression of our earthly destiny which the fifth century was to realize among the Greeks. To adhere to it, however, is to pause over appearances of the absolute, beyond which intuition can advance no farther, and to forbid the intelligence to search out, in its relationships with the surrounding world, its general conception of humanity. It is to be afraid of approaching the mystery which we know to be impenetrable and which forever retreats, in the measure that we advance. To reproach Greek art with having been human is to reproach man for existing. And it is to forget, indeed, that the art of the fifth century, even when it broke the frames of archaic form to let the palpitation and the atmosphere of life enter them by torrents, retained all the principles which make the strength and the austerity of that form.

The Egyptian statue maker and the Greek statue maker of the earlier centuries, preoccupied solely with establishing the architecture of their ensembles before they penetrated to the dense world of gestures and feelings, discovered the law of profiles and by so doing founded the science of sculpture. But the element which animates the block, which gives life to the form, is lacking, or, at least, it takes on a metaphysical meaning which separates it a little more each day from the human significance of our activity and leads it fatally to the desert of pure abstraction which is closed on every side. Egyptian sculpture, arrested for all time in its movement, unable to extend its research, set itself the task of rendering subtle the passage, the wave without beginning or end which binds one plane to another; it was absorbed in this problem to the extent of losing sight of the mother form which was the point of departure for the problem; and because it thus forgot, Egyptian art died without hope of resurrection. Saite sculpture made only timid attempts at independence ; it recommenced the same task, it imposed on granite and bronze the docility of clay, it saw in them the undulation of water, it let light and shade glide over them like clouds over the soil. But it exhausted itself in modulating the inflections of its dream much sooner than Theban sculpture did, because Thebes, at least, made a long effort to reach the formulation of this dream, and because after this dream nothing m6re remains if the external world is forever banned. Antaeus needed to touch the earth again. The Greek sculptor, free to explore the world of appearances at his ease, did not fail to perceive that in discovering the relationships of the planes he was to discover the ties which bind to man and to one another all the phenomena of the senses which reveal the universe to us. The passage, wherein the Egyptians saw only a metaphysical exercise—however admirable, becomes, with the Greek, the instrument of sensuous and rational investigation. After him the passage was to the sculptural plane what philosophy is to science.

It is on this account that we love the little painted idols, the astonished and barbarous orantes of the primitive Acropolis. They are at the point of highest tension which we find in Greek thought, at the decisive moment when human genius is to choose the path it is to take. The Median wars came. Athens, at the head of the Greek cities, gave to history one of its finest spectacles. She was to temper her physical strength in sacrifice and suffering, she was to use the repose of mind, which the war was to bring her, to bequeath to the next generation immense intellectual reserves that rush forth in forests of marble, tragedies, and triumphal odes. Thus always, in the course of our history, the great flowering of the mind follows the great animal effort, and the men of action engender the men of thought. We are approaching the hour when human enthusiasm had its hour of most powerful exaltation. The creatures of marble, so full of energy and sweetness, who peopled the citadel, had just been finished when the Persians mutilated them; Aeschylus fights at Marathon, Pindar makes the branches of the sacred tree tremble in the wind of his verse, Sophocles, as a boy, bares his body to sing the Paean on the shore of Salamis. Such vitality uplifts the artists who are to work among the ruins of the Acropolis, that, instead of setting up anew the statues which have been thrown to earth, they find them good enough only to support the pedestal of the statues which sleep within them.

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