Germany and the Reformation (part VI)

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At first sight, there is no relationship between this awkward sensibility and the ever-increasing will which permitted the last of the German painters, dead at the age of forty-six, to inclose, within the sustained undulation of a line as sober as Latin intelligence, the complexity of the German soul. Upon closer study, however, the race is the same. Hans Holbein scrutinized the drawings of Michael Angelo, of da Vinci, and of Raphael; he studied the frescoes of Venice, of Mantua, of Padua, and of Florence, perhaps, where he was to go after leaving Basel, in search of education from the Italian masters to assist him in extracting from the complex work of Cranach, of Dürer, of Grünewald, and of Martin Schoengauer the elements of a clearer and more plastic definition of the effort of Germany. A line impossible to break connects the clear, gentle, and wild portraits of Cranach, the linear and compact portraits of Dürer, all the portraits of all the Germans, from Aldegrever to Baldung Grien, and from Bartolomäus Bruyn to Christoph Amberger, with the matchless images of the master of Basel—a line, as evanescent as the light that plays over the surface of flesh and as decisive as a bony projection, giving the sensation of the mass of a living face, of the mind, and the muscles, of the bone, and the blood, and of the soul that hovers concentrated over all.
He has already inherited from his father, the old master of Augsburg, that line, awkward in appearance, which so faithfully follows the contour of the face, neglecting none of the accidents—that line which, with a terrible conscientiousness, restores in the face the irregular hollows and projections, giving it its special accent, through the manner in which the eye is set in the socket, the chin and cheekbone are outlined, the nose is flattened or protruded, the forehead or temples bend or broaden. The Italians had counseled him to insist a little more here, a little less there, in order to keep the face wholly at the height of its expression. They had shown him the way to fill a frame, how to stop at the proper moment, how to establish a defined volume in space. They certainly did no more for him than that. If he chooses, as they do, it is not to generalize: it is to individualize. Instead of attempting to arrive through synthesis at a universal truth, he attains through analysis a particular truth. The instrument which he receives from the Italians is employed the more to search within him and around him for the Germany which he is to define more accurately. When he leaves Basel for London, it is still as a German that he speaks of the English, It is as a German that, in the great severe portraits—less finished, perhaps, despite their grandiose minuteness than his sketches in pencil—he accumulates on the walls, the tables, and the shelves of the furniture, a hundred objects as precise as the face, inkstands, terrestrial globes, manuscripts, squares, compasses, magnifying glasses, and parchments which, with their steel points, their copper edges, their lenses, and their legible characters, one after another convince us of the certitude as to the place where we are and the identity of the being before whom we find ourselves.

This great artist appears at first as a great scientist. One would say that as a good German he had made it his mission to test, one after another, the truths which the Italians or the Flemings had intuitively conquered. By dint of will power, by dint of study, he came to understand why two or three associated colors, arousing in us the sense of the original unity of things, sweeping through us with an irresistible sentiment of fullness and purifying happiness, teach us more about the things and about ourselves than a century of researches accumulated incoherently. Like the German thinkers of the eighteenth century and the German scientists of the nineteenth, it was through the patient decomposition and the methodical reconstruction of all elements that he found the harmonies which other races seize upon in a single stroke.

But how his science elevates him, as soon as he grasps it! Those harmonies, juxtaposed and no longer penetrated by that visible atmosphere which reveals to the Venetians and to the painters of the Low Countries the universal movement of life, are like a pure mass of intangible reality sustained by everything within our remembrance. His reds, his oranges, and his blacks do riot seem to be rubbed upon his somber greens, but to be woven into the material itself, yielding a rich substance as if ground in a mortar—and everything contributes to it: the clothing, the metal and the glass of the implements and the jewels, the wood of the furniture, the skin of the hands and the faces, and the opaque whites of the eyes. A dull splendor, which does not radiate, but which seems, on the contrary, to sink into the center of the work, gives to all these things a cold profundity, a depth under which other depths are divined, like a pure water to the bottom of which we cannot see. In this sense, his canvases surpass those of the primitives of Bruges, whose red and black are like blood and ink changed into translucent stones. . .The soul, space, and the living or the dead matter are concentrated together until they attain, at the extreme point of molecular condensation, the density of the diamond.

One understands how this man, so resolute in penetrating to the central core of things, should have been, among all the men of his time who made the attempt, the one who succeeded best in giving, through his images, an eternal life to the most impartial spirit of his century; the man of almost complete wisdom, who, amid the furious tumult of appetites and consciences into which men were hurled by the struggle between the reformers and the Church, retained entire freedom of judgment. As well as Erasmus, he had certainly seen the fire lighted about the stake, the pincers opening in the depth of dungeons, the torch in the hands of the people, and the steel in the hands of the soldiers. But his impassive eye sought, in the brutal torrent of the passions let loose, the forms and movements capable of expressing the passion which led him to search for higher realities. Through his art we have seen the spears pass by, the pikes flying, and the horsemen, the executioners, and the landsknechts putting forth their strength; but the violence is studied without hatred or sympathy—as a human phenomenon suited to enlighten him about men. The nervous elegance of the forms in action and the roll of the muscles under the leather garb appear in sober tumult. It is as if the steel of the sword were flowing in the arteries and were vibrating in the tendons, so as to compel life, even in its bloodiest quarrels, to follow the imperious mind of an artist who, when he seeks in wine the forgetfulness of his personal cares, seems trying to cut off from himself everything that is not the image which his eye imprints upon his mind. The curves and volutes of the German masters, who, before him, twisted even the limbs of human beings like vine branches, are concentrated and stylized in the vigorous frame of fruits, leaves, and naked children with which his engravings and his drawings are surrounded. Through the force of his will, he compelled order to continue in the German soul during his lifetime. He imposed impartiality upon his creative power. The faces which he has left—those great Teutonic faces, at once bony and soft, under the shadow of the hats—are, in the realm of painting, certainly those which have transmitted to us most scrupulously—and at the same time the most soberly—the whole truths about the beings who passed before him. Never eye more pitiless—and consequently more enamored of that which survives the illusion of sight brought about in us by our indulgence toward ourselves and toward others—never eye more pitiless than the one he fixed upon us. Never the mind, rising up in the open eyes, the closed lips, the silent brows, and the jaws—never has the mind been more closely incorporated with the compact bones which it sculptures, and which sculpture it in a continual interchange. Now this mass of life thinks, now it does not think; nothing of it hovers outside itself, nothing of it escapes within. Holbein never employs his artist's piety to tell anything about nature and about its highest expression—the head of a man or of a woman—save that which they dictate to the voluntary indifference of his clear sight. Beautiful or ugly, all of these faces radiate a singular purity, which is the indescribable mark of his own dignity. He expends his whole tenderness on a feminine brow under a transparent veil, on the features, sad and grave and heavy with humanity, of a woman who holds two children between her knees.

Although German sentimentalism is invisible in him, and doubtless because of that, Holbein represents the highest effort of German plastics. Very German in his scrupulous precision, his power of analysis and reconstruction, he is the only one of the Germans who knew how to choose, the only one who almost never confused what is beautiful with what is strange, what is essential with what is exact, what is profound with what is complicated; the only one who sought to disengage from detail and from accident, in a reality concrete in itself and outside of all realization, the secret logic of that reality. He is the only one who does not impose sentiment upon form, but seeks through form an understanding of sentiment. An incredible power of will made him slowly catch up with, and, at certain points surpass, those who have only to open their hearts to find the secret of the great plastic truths. It is natural that he should represent at once the end of German painting and the exception which proves its habitual impotence to give to the visible world its architectural meaning. In spite of him and apart from him, German painting remains a great confused murmur, quivering with indistinct life. It is the German musicians, with cries of exaltation and with the deep rapture of a universe on the point of self-discovery, who will one day seize upon the splendid weapon the painters of their country had let fall. 

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