The Tropics (part II)

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It is the most interesting effort, doubtless, that has been attempted by primitive men since the days of the cave men of Vézère. But this elementary painting seems condemned to have no evolution, to disappear brutally. The warm waters that ended the glacial period obliged the reindeer hunters to flee from western Europe; the Bushmen dispersed on the arrival of the Kafirs, the Boers, and the English; and from day to day the colonization of Australia reduces the number of the aborigines who covered the rocks of the great island with black, sulphurous, red, and blue frescoes which testify to a generalizing spirit whose rudiments are perhaps less visible among the inhabitants of Africa than among certain peoples of Oceanica. Polynesian art, like Oriental art in general, would seem to tend more especially toward decoration, whereas the character of the art of Africa, like European art, shows itself in a more marked tendency to isolate form in order to examine the activity it possesses within its own limits and within its individual characteristics.

It is true that the climate and landscape of Oceanica offer to the sensibility of the Polynesians resources that are not found in Africa. The dispersal of the race among the thousands of large and small islands, separated by vast expanses of sea, is perhaps the only thing which, preventing the necessary cohesion among the peoples, prevented also a great civilization from being born in the Pacific and from spreading round about. And now it is too late; the conquest of these regions by Europe, the diseases, the alcohol, the morality, and the religion that it brought them have made the Polynesians anaemic, have decimated them and overcome them. The time has already arrived when they are beginning no longer to feel in themselves the poetry of nature which surrounds them and which formed them.

The islands, whose flowered forests spring from seed brought by the wind, cover the blue ocean as the Cyclades of Greece strew the eastern Mediterranean from the promontories of the Peloponnesus to the bays of Asia. Nature is prodigious there—healthy, though sweating with its fecundity, surrounded by perfumes, bursting with flowers, dazzled with its fire-colored birds and its gleaming stones; its forests descend to the water's edge, where they are reflected in the cup of black sapphire incrusted with pearls, where marine monsters dwell in caverns of coral. A beautiful race of men, high of forehead and artists by nature, inhabits the islands; they live in the open air, in the wind from the sea, among splendid forms and the blazing orgy of the colors. The language of the race is harmonious; dancing and war and music are loved, flowers are woven into crowns and garlands, and when the people gives itself up to love, it is still living with the springs and the sunlight. Its mythology is very near—through its triumphant grace, its perfume of the dawn and of the sky, and through its crystalline symbolism—to the old Ionian legends. Had life been a little less facile, had there been unity among the people, a rich future would have awaited them.

The gods that the Polynesians carved in the soft material of their wood, to be erected on their shores or at the doors of their cabins, are in general more animated than the symmetrical silhouettes cut by the Africans. Perhaps their art is less ingenuously conceived and less severe. There is more tendency to style, it seems, but more skill, and at the same time less strength. The eye sockets, the lips, the nostrils, and the ears become, in the most interesting of these images, the point of departure for long parallel lines, sustained and deeply cut, for spirals and volutes which are the result of the effort to demonstrate religious ideas or to terrify an enemy in war; we find in them a profound and pure agreement between the spirit of the myth and its concrete expression. These are no longer dolls which are terrible only in their candor. They are violently and consciously expressive, with their attributes of killing, with their cruel visages; and the colors that cover them are the symbols of their ferocity in combat and their ardor in love. Whether we consider the grimacing faces on the prows of the long curved boats, or the colossuses sheltered under the branches of the odorous forests—men or monsters daubed with vermilion or with emerald green—we find that all these works have passed the archaic stage represented by the statues of Easter Island, which is to Polynesia what an Egypt still plunged in the original mud would be to a lazy Greece, too much enslaved by the flesh. All are monstrous and alive, all have sprung from the bestial energy unchained by the wild loves and the excited senses of a country drunk with its bursting fruits, its multicolored bays, and the multicolored plumes that rain on it like the sunlight. Long ago, before the white man came to force his somber clothing on the people and to dry up their poetic spirit, the great wooden idols were sisters to the enormous flowers and the birds and the naked men who roamed the woods, tattooed from their feet to their foreheads, painted with red, green, and blue, and covered with great undulating lines that were arranged to bring out the forms, to accompany with their flashes the rhythm of the runners, and to accentuate the muscles of the face in their terrifying play of expression during moments of debauchery and cruelty.

Their purpose was to captivate women, to terrify the enemy, and, through an instinct even more obscure and vast, to play, in the symphony of nature, the role dictated by the great corollas hanging from the tangled vines which bind the giant trees, by the glossy coats of the animals, by the fiery wings, and by the sinking of the stars into the sea. All the primitive peoples of the tropics who go naked in the freedom of the light have, in this way and at all times, loved to paint or tattoo their skins with color—the Negroes of Africa and the Indians of America, as well as the Polynesians. But with the Polynesian, the tattooing takes on a brilliancy, and evinces a care for rhythm and life, that we find nowhere else, save among the peoples that derive from the nations of Oceanica or who have been in touch with them for a long time. For their geometrical ornament, the Japanese substituted figures of birds, dragons, chimeras, women—which are really pictures, through their movement and composition. The New Zealanders, if they preserved in their tattooing the geometrical ornament of their Oceanic ancestors, brought to it a precision, a violence, a will to style that would almost suffice to define them as artists if their plastic genius had not revealed itself by other manifestations.

Wherever they may have come from—the Polynesian migrations across the Pacific have scarcely more of a history than those of the birds that wander from climate to climate—they retained the ardent sensualism that distinguishes the populations of Oceanica. Like the latter, they loved to set up posts sculptured with atrocious figures, and to decorate their weapons, the utensils of their industries and households, their boxes and vases, with incised painting that ostensibly is there to observe and perpetuate their traditional rites, their practices of exorcism and of magic, but that in reality expresses that human love of form, of line, and of color which inspires us to harmonize ourselves with nature, so as to understand it better and day by day to recreate it with its own elements. But a new and great thing was appearing among them, an art which indicated the rise of the Maoris to a decreasingly chaotic and a more luminous consciousness of their destiny in the world. It lasted until the English, in the middle of the last century, interrupted the development of the natives. They had practiced cannibalism, it is true, but only after they had entirely destroyed the rare specimens of the antediluvian species which still wandered through the silent forests at the time when their war canoes, ornamented with frightful visages, arrived in the great strange islands, which were devoid of all birds, of insects, of reptiles, and which possessed at most a few dwarfish mammals. The Maoris had been in the country only some three hundred years, perhaps, and it was with difficulty that they managed to organize themselves into tribes, which numbered some tens of thousands of men, and in which the births barely filled the gaps made by the massacres of prisoners of war who were offered as a sacrifice to the gods. And notwithstanding, their soul was already escaping from its silence. They had built villages in the center of which the fortified Pa contained the embryo of the future city. Four or five communal houses sculptured from top to bottom, schools, museums of tradition and legend, temples, inclosures for sport and for assemblies in which sat the councils of administration and of war. The decorative forms we find here are always violent, to be sure; they tell of killing, they are red with blood and contorted into infernal attitudes, but already they manifest a persistent demand for balance and for architectural rhythm. Must we not, therefore, see, as the dominating influence in them, the majestic landscapes where the activity of the Maoris took place and the effort put forth by the people to maintain that activity? They had passed beyond the dangerous region of the tropical zone. The perpetual spring no longer enervated them. Their islands, like those of Japan, ran the gamut of climate from that of Italy to that of Scotland. They placed their villages beside the opal lakes set in cups of lava, that are surrounded by cold springs and boiling geysers, under the shelter of immense mountains where active volcanoes alternate with glaciers that descend to the sea; and when the Maoris followed their pine-bordered streams they came upon fiords that reflected the forests and the snows in the shadowy masses of that southern ocean in which no human face had ever seen its image. A great civilization, a great art, could and should have been born there. The mats woven of phormium, hanging at the doors of the huts, shone with burning colors; the rocks were covered with frescoes in which the blue of the ice and the lakes lived again; the villages, built all of wood, with their sturdy houses whose roofs have a steep slope and with their palisades for defense, were works of art, deeply carved with horrible figures which were tattooed like the people themselves and framed in prodigious series of curved lines, of interwoven spirals, of rhythmical coils, thick and fat, whose calculated mazes combined into the form of the human face. From afar, these forests of sculptured wood had the appearance of the arborescent ferns, tufted and slender, which covered the country. There is a little of the decorative spirit of the artists of Japan, but it is more impetuous and barbarous; quite disdainful of the material employed, it lacks that irony and that minuteness of observation which sometimes dampens enthusiasm. The character of the works is ferocious. Certain sculptured visages are of a structure so abstract and so epitomized that upon looking at them one is reminded of the greatest masters of form, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the archaic Japanese—and there is, besides, something austere and trenchant, a terrible purity that belongs to the Maoris alone.

Certainly, no other people among the Polynesians has reached so high a level. If there is, between the races of Oceanica and the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island, a connection dating back beyond the range of history, it is the Maoris upon whom we must look as the most legitimate inheritors of the line, for the art of the Maoris, as living as that of the Papuans and the other natives of the Pacific, aspires even more than theirs to realize those edifices of animated geometry which we can see as the goal of the hieratic art of the ancestral race. Its island, an extinct volcano, is deserted. But the rocks are dug out in hieroglyphics and figures of birds, fish, and men. Finished or unfinished, more than five hundred colossuses stand erect on the shores or in the center of the dead craters. They are terrible figures, massive and summary, holding their arms at their sides; almost without a cranium, they have bestial faces in which the nose is prominent and dilated and the eyes are wide open; the broad planes in which they are established look as if they were cut with an ax, but centuries, perhaps, were needed before the people could work the basalt of which the figures are made. Why are they there, horribly alone, with their faces to the eternal sea, and what do they mean if it is not our inextinguishable need to discover ourselves and recognize ourselves in the rebellious or docile material that our soil furnishes to us? A seismic catastrophe must have interrupted the works and isolated them from the world. There are tools at the feet of the figures, but no other traces of humanity. Where did those men who erected them take refuge? Whence did they come? What unknown sources had slaked the thirst of these forerunners of the strange races of Oceanica—with the Indo-Europeans, the most gifted of our planet, and antedating, perhaps, the peoples of Asia? They were the victims of their surroundings. The Polynesians had doubtless come from the Dutch Indies, but that was long before the period of history and previous to the time of the Indian civilizations. The present populations of the Dutch Indies, those Malays who also peopled Madagascar, have not the proud and strong grace of the Polynesians, nor their free life, nor their ardor in love, nor their artist mind with its ability to generalize. The thought of the Malays is timid, their character indifferent; they accept the beliefs that their successive masters from the west bring to them. Their ancient art derives from the art of the Indians, their modern art does not go beyond the monotonous practice of primitive industry. It was doubtless through contact with the sea winds and through their ecstatic abandon of themselves to the great currents of the ocean that the Polynesians escaped from the apathy of such origins and were able to call forth the formidable dream that was interrupted, but whose enigma is offered to us in the giants of Easter Island. Who knows if they did not go much farther and, crossing the islands that have disappeared, carried on by the waves, if they did not bring their dream face to face with the eastern sun whose source was hidden from them by the fiery rampart of the Cordilleras? And did not a gulf open up behind them, perhaps, and swallow up the land of their birth, even within their memory?

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