Egypt (part III)

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However that may be, it was the crowd and nothing but the crowd which spread over the wood of the sarcophagi and over the compact tissue of the hypogees, the pure, living, colorful flowers of its soul. It whispered its life in the deep shadows so that that life should shine in the light of our torches when we open the hidden sepulchers. The fine tomb was dug out for the king or the rich man, it is true, and his was the luxurious existence to be traced on the walls, in funeral processions, in adventures of war or of hunting or in the work of the fields. He was to be shown surrounded by his slaves, by his farm workers, by his familiar animals; it was necessary to tell how his bread was made, how his beasts were cut up by the butcher, how his fish were caught, how his birds were captured, how his fruits were offered him, and how his wives made their toilet. And the crowd of artisans worked in obscurity; they thought to tell the charm, the power, the happiness, the opulence, and the life of the master; they told, above all, their misery, but also their fecund activity, utility, intelligence, inner wealth, and the furtive grace of their own life.

What marvelous painting! It is freer than the statuary, which is intended almost solely to render the image of the god or the deceased. Despite its abstract grand style it is familiar, it is intimate; sometimes it turns to caricature; always it is malicious or tender, like this naturally human and good people, which is crushed little by little by theocratic force, and which descends into itself to consider its humble life. In the modern sense of the word there is no science of composition, no sense of perspective. Egyptian drawing is a writing that must be learned. But let one know it well, with its silhouettes whose heads and legs are always in profile while their shoulders and breasts are always in front view, and then see how all these stiff silhouettes move, with what ingenuousness they live, how their silence is peopled with animation and murmur! An extremely well-organized plan, sure, decisive, precise, but quivering. When the form appears, especially the nude form, or as it is divined through a transparent shirt, the artist suspends his whole life in it, that nothing but a light of the spirit may shine from his heart, one which shall illumine only the highest summits of memory and of sensation. Truly , that continuous contour, that single undulating line, so pure, so nobly sensual, which evinces so discreet and strong a sense of character, of mass, and of movement, has the appearance of being traced in the granite by the intelligence alone, without the help of a tool. Then come streaming the deep blues, emeralds, ochres, golden yellows, and vermilions—lightly, never thickly applied. It is like perfectly clear water into which one would let fall, without stirring it by a tremor, unchangeable colors: they do not muddy it, but let the plants and pebbles at the bottom be seen.

The intensity of the sentiment, the logic of the structure break the chains of hieratism and the impulse to style. These trees, these stiff flowers, this whole conventional world has the heavy movement of the fruitful seasons, of the seed as it returns to life. Egyptian art is perhaps the most impersonal that exists. The artist effaces himself. But he has such an innate sense of life, a sense so directly moved and so limpid that everything of life which he describes seems defined by that sense, to issue from the natural gesture, from the exact attitude, in which one no longer sees stiffness. His impersonality resembles that of the grasses which tremble at the level of the ground or of the trees bowing in the wind with a single movement and without resistance, or that of the water which wrinkles into equal circles all moving in the same direction. The artist is a plant that gives fruits similar to those of other plants, and as full of savor and of nourishment. And the convention which dogma imposes upon him is not apparent, because that which issues from his being is animated by the very life of his being, healthy and swelling with juice as a product of the soil.

What he recounts is his life itself. The workmen with their tanned skin, their muscular shoulders, nervous arms, and hard skulls work wholeheartedly, even when the rod is used; their faces remain gentle—the smooth-shaven faces with the prominent cheeks; and it is not without a kind of fraternal irony that the artisan decorator or statue maker, who has represented himself so often, shows them busy at their task, rowers sweating, butchers cutting and sawing, masons assembling bricks of baked mud, herdsmen leading their passive beasts or delivering the females, fishermen, hunters, jovial farmhands holding up frantic ducks by the tips of their wings and, squirming rabbits by their ears, cramming fat geese, carrying cranes in their arms and holding their beaks closed with a firm fist so as to prevent them from screaming. We see the rearing of the heads, the ambling or mincing gaits, hear the bleating, the bellowing, and the sound of wings. The domestic animals—the oxen, asses, dogs, and cats—have their massive or peaceful or joyous or supple look, their unceasing rumination, the tremor of the skin or of their ears, their undulation as they creep, and the silence and surety with which they stretch their paws. The panthers walk as if on velvet, pushing out their flat heads. The ducks and geese waddle, digging and quacking with their flat bills. The stupid fish gape in the drawn nets; the trembling water is transparent, and the women who come to dip it up in their jars or the animals who plunge into it are saturated with its coolness. Oranges and dates have their weight in baskets which are held up by arms as pure as the stem of a young plant, and which are balanced like flowers. The women, when they bedeck themselves or moisten their slim brushes to rouge their mistresses, have the air of reeds bending down to the dew in the grass. The world has the silent shudder of the morning.

This natural poetry, fundamentally ardent and familiar, is carried by the Egyptians into everything that comes from their fingers—into their jewels, their little intimate sculpture, those innumerable knickknacks which encumber their sepulchers, where they follow the dead person to whom they had belonged. And it is in the domestic objects of the kitchen and the workshop. All their fauna, all their flora live again there with that same very sensual and very chaste sentiment; all is motionless and alive; and all has the same profundity. Whatever their material—bronze or wood, ivory, gold, silver, or granite—they preserved, in the matter wrought, its weight and its delicacy, its freshness if of the vegetable world, its grain if a mineral. Their spoons resemble leaves abandoned at the water's edge; their jewels, cut into the shapes of hawks, reptiles, and scarabs, have the look of those colored stones that one picks up in the bed of rivers, on the seashore and in the neighborhood of volcanoes. Underground Egypt is a strange mine. It breeds living fossils which are like the crystallization of organic multitudes.

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