Germany and the Reformation (part V)

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Leaving Holbein aside, Holbein, who was touched also by the ruin of the German cities, since it was because of his misery that he was forced to leave Basel at the age of forty years and repair to the court of Henry VIII; the great German painters, Cranach among others, are of the same time as Dürer. His two pupils, even, are scarcely younger than he; Hans von Kulmbach who, with dry application, continues his work as best he can, and Altdorfer who forgets the sorrows of the century in the self-conscious and glittering landscapes in which his somewhat weak dilettantism seeks in the German forest the shelter of its foliage and warms himself at the fire of the romantic twilights. The bricks of the German roofs, the opaque woodlands send forth for the last time a dull reflection of somber red and of green almost black, in the canvases of Burgkmair, wherein is dying the school of Augsburg, which, with Christoph Amberger, will hear no more than an echo, almost inaudible but pure, of the great voice of Holbein. Mathias Grünewald, the master of Alsace, hangs the horrible body of the Christ upon the cross by the two arms which are almost torn from their sockets, breaks the two feet with a nail, bruises the body, flays it, and soils it; Mathias Grünewald is, however, a painter, and far superior as a painter to Dürer, to Holbein, and even to Cranach. He knows how to give to his color the accent of the drama, how to agitate, harrow, and terrify one. He is as tragic as he is trivial; he is cruel, sinister, and drunk with strength and horror. Colins, a mysterious sculptor of the end of the century, seems to have spent almost all his life upon carving, in the marble of the tomb of Maximilian, a kind of epic, romantic and warlike; it is overloaded and exaggerated in its movement, but a powerful rhythm preserves it from confusion; it is a rhythm, we may note in passing, that comes from the Flemish country. With Colins, Grünewald is the great dramatist of this anarchical and meticulous school, one in its spirit and yet made up of pieces and of fragments. Only, he does not transmit to his pupil, Baldung Grien, whose nudes are elongated, rounded, and idealized in accordance with the counsel of the Italian painters destined to become tyrannical—he does not transmit the secret of his painting, thick, vulgar, but penetrating wholly into matter and space in a manner which nothing in Germany had given any premonition of, and which is to disappear completely with him. After Holbein, Germany will close her eyes in order to listen more attentively to the rise within her of the murmur of revolt which will burst forth over the earth like an unending call to love, forever renewing itself in sobs and rolling with them toward calm and triumph, on the day when Beethoven will tear the symphonies from his heart.

Now, is it the struggle of the emperors and the popes that killed German art, or is it the decrease of energy, of which German art had been the supreme manifestation, that permitted the struggle of the emperors and popes? Was not creative genius exhausted for the moment? Doubtless, fifty years earlier the German princes could not have laid their hands upon the movement of the Reformation. It is when the inner force is exhausting itself that the external forces gain control once more, and the political victory of a religion always marks the subsiding of the disinterested faith which formulated it little by little. All the German artists of the beginning of the sixteenth century announce Luther, and consequently' the apogee and, at the same time, the beginning of the decline of the affirmations which he brings. Since the time of the cathedrals, moral ideas dominated German plastics, which, because of its impotence to choose in external nature, had never attained the balance of masses and of the arabesques of line which resolve the moral problem, with all the others, by establishing in the mind that feeling for plenitude and for continuity which we call harmony. One can imagine Masaccio or Michael Angelo struggling unceasingly against the excesses of his passionate nature in order to raise his character to the level of his philosophic spirit; one cannot imagine Dürer as living any other than a healthy life, without impossible desires, and remaining always a good workman, a good son, brother, husband, father, and citizen. His four Evangelists illustrate the apostleship of Luther; and it is not the first time that they present themselves in Germany with so simple a firmness. In 1519, when Luther had scarcely begun his struggle, Peter Vischer, the coppersmith, with his leather apron about his waist, had come forth from his forge to listen to the tumult of the century. Round about him second-rate sculptors were exhausting the formula for sentimental mysticism of the Rhenish School (of which the questionable "Virgin of Nuremberg" is the fashionable climax); Tillmann Riemenschneider, the nervous master of Würzburg, restive in his shadow of asceticism, was seeking to carry over the lean elegance of Florence into his images of women with delicate hands, with heavy tresses, with astonished and candid faces, and pure bodies under their too complicated robes. And at this moment, Peter Vischer was demanding of his inflexible morality the secret of clear planes and well-defined volumes. Whether he cast armor in metal and made his figures live within it—those warriors as straight and sure as conscience, or whether he set up, round a tomb, his uncompromising apostles, one would say that in returning with the theorists of the Reformation to primitive Christianity, the very system that condemned the Renaissance, he was unconsciously bringing himself into agreement with the Renaissance in its summons to men to hope, even if Donatello gave a different name to that hope than he did.

With Dürer, perhaps even before Dürer, he is the spirit most clearly conscious of the forces which were urging the Reformer to action. The majority of the other artists went to him instinctively because they always incline to the thing that brilliantly sets the powers of life above the powers of death. In his violence and his joy were focused all the dispersed efforts in the direction of the light which each one of the workers of Germany was making in his obscure sphere. When Lucas Cranach traced the portrait of Melanchthon or that of Luther, with the respect and the emotion inspired by a thing that one understands but little and that one yet feels profoundly—when, at seventy-five years of age, he became the prisoner of the Empire at Mühlberg, he was certainly not expressing the desire to see the triumph of those principles in the name of which organized Protestantism was later to drive the images from the temples, destroy the poem of the senses, condemn the affirmation of life, substitute the holiness of a single book for the holiness of all books affirmed by the Renaissance, and to complete, everywhere in Germany, the quenching of the fires of insurrection of which Dürer and Luther had been the greatest lights. It was with the joy of a child that he had loved the fighting and sensuous monk whose racy words, resounding lyricism and laughter, enchanted him. His confused wood-engravings, blond, shining, and of a charming warmth, were a means of propaganda among the people. In them one sees the Passion bleeding amid a strange procession of men in slashed cassocks, in shoes with turned-up points, amid rich trappings, horses with braided manes and with enormous tufts of plumes—the whole unrolling itself in unforeseen fashion. He translated into good German images the old poem of humanity which his friend translated into good German prose. He could have consented, less than anyone else, in order to assure the domination of a class, under pretext of religion or of morality, to set down the simple idylls revealed to him by the landscape of springtime, delicate and flowery, which he saw in his Saxon countryside. And less than anyone else because he had retained and was to retain until his death that freshness of sentiment in the German soul which Dürer scarcely knew. German pessimism never gained any hold on his heart because, in contrast with all the other masters of his race, he knew how to choose, and to choose spontaneously, far less like a scientist than like an artist. That is not to say that he was capable of rising to those powerful generalizations which are expressed by bare and rhythmical compositions, through which the heroes of art inclose within the architecture and the movement of the form the scattered sensations which teach them, little by little, that the world is continuous. In the full tide of the sixteenth century, he is still a primitive; but this primitive, in his ingenuousness, is the first colorist after Grünewald and the most sensitive of all the German painters to the beauty of form.

He has not, certainly, the sense of the ridiculous. It is often the best means of confessing one's true nature. He paints nude women who have kept on their hats, very awkward women with thin legs, big flat feet, and big knees. But their faces are of an extreme charm, quite round, smiling, and a bit mischievous with their lovely blond tresses. Almost always he surprises them in the first hour of their womanhood; they have a firm, little belly, a pure undulation of the bust and the hip, budding breasts, and altogether the appearance of a flower hesitating to open. His candid sensuality directs his imagination into gardens all trembling with the flowers scattered about where mythological nudities, imperfect and delightful in form, assure us that the Reformer and his friends must not be made responsible for the unhealthy preoccupations which characterize the activity of the Protestant sects deriving from Calvin and the English Puritans. Despite the fact that heavy Teutonic knights are found in his pictures, the freshness of the female figures is triumphant, and as everything is enveloped in blond space into which the ashen reds bring a transparent vapor, one has not the courage to reproach him with unskillfulness. This rustic reveals to us an exquisite soul which, in eighty years of active life, could not exhaust its innocence.

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