The Sources of Greek Art

View the scanned original illustrations

ON condition that we respect ruins, that we do not rebuild them, that, after having asked their secret, we let them be recovered by the ashes of the centuries, the bones of the dead, the rising mass of waste which once was vegetations and races, the eternal drapery of the foliage—their destiny may stir our emotion. It is through them that we touch the depths of our history, just as we are bound to the roots of life by the griefs and sufferings which have formed us. A ruin is painful to behold only for the man who is incapable of participating by his activity in the conquest of the present.

There is no more virile luxury than that of asking our past griefs how they were able to determine our present actions. There is no more virile luxury than that of demanding, from the imprints of those who prepared our present dwelling, the why of the thing that we are. A statue coming all moist out of the earth, a rusted jewel, or a bit of pottery bearing the trace of painting is a witness which tells us much more about ourselves than about the bygone men who uttered this testimony. Art lives in the future. It is the fruit of the pain, desires, and hopes of the people, and the promise contained in these feelings does not reach its slow realization until later, in the new needs of the crowds; it is our emotion which tells us if the old presentiments of men did not deceive them.

If we are so troubled by the rude idols, the jewels, the vases, the pieces of bas-reliefs, and the effaced paintings which we have found at Knossos in Crete, at Tirynth and Mycenae in Argolis, it is precisely because those who left them are more mysterious to us than the things themselves, and because it is comforting for us to realize, through these unknown beings, that under the variation of appearances and the renewal of symbols, emotion and intelligence never change in quality. Through the continuing action, even when obscure and without history, of the generations which have formed us, the soul of the old peoples lives in ours. But they participate in our own adventure only if their silent spirit still animates the stone faces in which we recognize our eternally young desires, or if we hear the sound of their passage over the earth in the crumbling of the temples which they raised. Egypt, and Chaldea itself, through Assyria and Persia which prolong their life till our time, cast their shadow at our steps. They will never seem to us very far away. Primitive Greece, on the contrary, which does not enter the world until centuries after them, retreats much farther back in the imagination, to the very morning of history. Twenty years ago we did not know whether the almost effaced imprints, noted here and there on the shores and islands of the Aegean Sea, had belonged to men or to fabled shadows. It was necessary to hollow out the soil, to unearth the stones, and to cease from seeing only ourselves in them, in order to catch a glimpse of the phantom humanity which, before the time of history, peopled the eastern Mediterranean. Schliemann, who took Homer at his word, excavated in the plain off Argos from Tirynth to Mycenae. Mr. Evans entered the labyrinth of Minos in Crete where Theseus killed the Minotaur. Myth and history entangle themselves. Now the symbol sums up a hundred events of the same order; now the real event, representative of a whole series of customs, ideas, and adventures, seems to us to put on the garb of a symbolic fiction [Victor Bérard, Les Phéniciens et L’Odysée].

Is it the body of Agamemnon that Schliemann found, buried in gold, under the Agora of Mycenae, and is the Ilissalrik of the Dardanelles the Troy of Homer? What matter? Between Abraham and Moses, in the time when Thebes dominated Egypt, the Aegean Sea was alive. The Phoenicians had advanced from island to island, awakening to the life of exchange the tribes of fishermen who peopled the Cyclades, Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Rhodes — the rocks sprinkled broadcast in the sparkling sea from the mountains of Crete and of the Peloponnesus to the gulfs of Asia Minor. Through them the sensual and cruel spirit of the Orient and the secret spirit of the peoples of the Nile had fertilized the waves. Danaos came from Egypt, Pelops from Asia, Cadmus from Phoenicia.

From fishing, coast trade, the small business of one isle with another, from rapine and piracy, a whole little moving world of sailors, merchants, and corsairs lived their healthy life, neither a rich nor a poor one—a mean one—if we think of the vast commercial enterprises and the great explorations which the Phoenicians undertook. Their feet in the water and their faces to the wind, the men of the Aegean would carry to the traffickers from Tyre and Sidon who had just entered the port, under blue, green, and red sails, their fish and their olives in vases painted with marine plants, octopuses, seaweed, and other forms taken from the teeming, viscous life of the deep. It needed centuries, doubtless, for the tribes of a single island or a single coast to recognize a chief, to consent to follow him afar on cunning and bloody expeditions to the cities of the continent, whence they brought back jewels, golden vessels, rich stuffs, and women. And it was only then that the Achaians and the Danai of the old poems heaped up those heavy stones on the fortified promontories, the Cyclopean walls, the Pelasgic walls under the shadow of which the Atrides, crowned with gold like the barbarian kings who sallied forth from the forests of the north two thousand years later, sat at table before the meats and wines, with their friends and their soldiers.

Such origins could not but make them subtle and hard. Aeschylus felt this when he came there, after eight centuries, to listen in the solitude to the echo of the death cries of the frightful family. These pirates selected sites for their lair near the sea—tragically consistent with their life of murder and the heavy orgies which followed upon their deeds of crime. A circle of hills—bare, devoured by fire and enlivened by no torrent, no tree, no bird cry. We find the life of these men depicted on the sides of the rudely chiseled vase of Vaphio, and on the strips of wall remaining beneath the ruins of Tirynth and of Knossos. There are bits of frescoes there as free as the flight of the sea birds; the art is of a terrible candor, but is already disintegrating. One sees women with bare breasts, rouge on their lips, black around the eyes, their flounced dresses betraying the bad taste of the barbarian; they are painted and sophisticated dolls bought in the Orient or taken by force on the expeditions of violence. Here are bulls pursued in the olive groves, bulls galloping, rearing, charging upon men or tangled in great nets. Sometimes there are reapers who laugh and sing with tremendous gayety among the sheaves of wheat which they carry, but usually we find the questionable woman, the wild beast, and the marine monster; a voluptuous and brutal life like that of every primitive man raised to a post of command by force or by chance. As guardians of the gates of their acropolis they set up stone lionesses with bronze heads, heavily erect. When they died these men were laid away in a shroud of gold leaf. . .

It was a civilization already rotten, a Byzantium in miniature, where dramas of the bedroom determined revolutions and massacres. It ended like the others. The Dorian descends from the north like an avalanche, rolls over Argolis and even to Crete, devastating the cities and razing the acropolises. Legendary Greece enters a thick darkness from which she would not have reappeared if the barbarians had not left, intact under the conflagration, such material testimony of her passage through history as the kings with the masks of gold. The Phoenicians desert the coast of the Peloponnesus, of Attica, and of Crete, and the native populations, dispersed like a city of bees on which a host of wasps has descended, swarm in every direction, on the shores of Asia, in Sicily, and in southern Italy. Silence reigns around continental Greece. It was to be two or three hundred years before the Phoenicians and the Achaians, driven away by the invasion, could get back the route to its gulfs.

No comments: