Holland (part IV)

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In reality every Hollander is a born painter, and this could not be otherwise. In order that these original gifts may ripen in a few brains and be organized there, it suffices for a moment of enthusiasm or a brief need for effort to stir one or two generations. There is not a country in the world where history and the soil have more directly determined the plastic expression of life. And whatever may have been said of this [Among others, Emile Verhaeren, who affirms, in his fine book on Rembrandt, that the mere fact of the appearance of a heroic genius suffices completely to demolish the theory of environment.], Rembrandt did not escape the rule. Only, there must be no misunderstanding. What the thousand painters of Holland take as the subject for their canvases, Rembrandt takes as the element of his visions. Where the others see facts, he seizes secret relationships which identify his supernatural sensibility with the real, and transports to the plane of a new creation everything that he has religiously borrowed from the Creation we all know. And as those among whom he lives are indifferent to him, as his strange vision passes over the heads of the crowd, he seems to be outside it and even to stand facing it in a state of permanent antagonism. And yet he speaks its language, he tells us about it and thus about himself, who gets from it that which has made him suffer and that which has made him understand. He had to know both its love and its hate before dominating its sentimental passions, the better to accept it as an ever-living necessity and to merge it in himself with the other images of the world and so lift it up with them to the impartial power of his mind.

Whence, then, should Rembrandt have taken his gold and his reds, and that silvery or russet light in which the sun and the spray of water mingle, if he had not always lived in Amsterdam, in the most populous and most sordid spot in the city, near the boats pouring upon the docks red rags, rusty iron, pickled herrings, gingerbread, and the royal train of carmines and yellows on the day of the flower market? Through the fermentation of the slimy streets of the Jewish quarter, where colored garments hang from the windows, rekindling with their burning gleams the reddish shadow, he went along the streets of water which lap and reflect the flowered façades and the dyed cloths, until he came to the edge of the Amstel, where, in the flaming evenings of the maritime cities, the big ships were discharging embroidered cloths, tropical fruits, and birds from the islands. Where else should he have gotten his desire for imaginary voyages, for glimpses of distant seas, for that magical Orient which he perceived as a spray, dancing in a shaft of sunlight, when he caused a ray of his light to descend to the deep cellars into which filters the dampness of the canals? And when he entered those dens where the usurers of the Ghetto weigh gold in the scales, where the poor heap up by families, dressed in reddened tatters or in cast-off Indian tinsel which they had picked up, where, in the darkness, the second-hand dealers heap up iron cuirasses, damascened arms, and wrought copper and leather, how should he fail to surprise the gestures which people make so unguardedly when settled in their misery—the mothers with fully exposed breasts suckling their little ones, the old people dying on straw mattresses, the sores wrapped with dirty rags, and the innocence recovered through hunger and love?

From the external and joyous vision of this picturesque universe revealed to him by his idling, by his purchases in the shops, by the piling up in his studio of heterogeneous collections—Venetian pictures, weapons, furs, jewels, and stuffed animals—he goes onward to his almost jealous contemplation of the human face and gesture in the light which he composed in order to illuminate them with all the harmonies of the most distant suns and the most poignant darkness; and he has not told us what roads he had to travel on this journey. It is the secret of his suffering. It is for us to accept and to understand when we look within us, if we also have suffered. We know that he was married, and happy to be so; that he loved his wife Saskia with all his senses, perhaps with all his heart; that he covered her with jewels and that he painted her nude, dressed, and wearing a great hat. We know that he was rich, or at least that he lived like a rich man with her, and that, when he became a widower, he was pursued by creditors and tracked from one lodging to another; poor at last, abandoned by his friends, given up to drinking, perhaps, he lived from day to day with his son and a servant, his mistress. And we know that the farther he plunged into his solitude the more populous his solitude became. We know that expression became more concentrated and more intense at the same time that the superficial harmonies, almost violent at first, wild with the joy of painting, with laughter, and the splendor of jewels and wine, grew reserved little by little, and finally sank their torrents of sparks, their reddish golds, their pale golds woven with blues, their green golds and their burnt-out greens shot through with gold, into the same dull and ruddy mass in which, since he no longer possessed jewel caskets, he had mixed the dust of his rubies, of his topazes, and his pearls, with the inexhaustible treasure of the sun and the shadow which he used royally and lavishly. We know that the imaginary architectures which Lastmann, his feeble master, was already trying to erect in fantastic lights, were being effaced from his dream at the same time that, to his startled soul, reality was revealing itself as more surprising and richer. We have seen the disappearance of his unreal mosques and synagogues, of which a few immense pillars and a few giant arches, covered with tracery and lacework, emerged from the shadow, thanks to a ray from above lighting up, on the pavement below, a group of Oriental kings; but meanwhile the life around him was appearing little by little, and the structure of the world was affirming itself in more grandiose fashion when, in a dark attic, he divined the presence, barely visible, of some spectacle-maker in meditation. At its romantic beginnings, this dizzy imagination sought to embrace everything in the universe and in life and to transmit the whole by forcing its effects through hallucinating contrasts of light and darkness, of humanity, and of legend; and each thing had its distinct rôle—darkness, light, humanity, legend. He played like a magician with these scattered elements in order to astonish those about him and to dazzle himself. At the end, the universe and life had reconstituted themselves in a logical order; the shadows and the light, legend and humanity, were becoming part of himself, everything was coursing to the center of his being, and, when he looked at objects, he no longer invested them with his dreams and his rays of light: he wrested them from the objects themselves. At first, life was a marvelous tumult, and it was his problem to cause everything ever seen to enter into it, everything that ever was read, everything ever heard, everything guessed at. It became a rapid vision between two confused eternities, something fugitive, forever impossible to seize, an illusion. And it was in that phantom-like illusion that he suspected the truth. Young and rich, he made brilliant portraits of himself, in which the aigrette of a turban, the plume of a velvet cap, the gloves, the gold chains, the spirituelle mouth, and the curled mustache showed his satisfaction with himself. At that time he felt only a few things and thought he knew everything. Old and poor, he had a cloth wrapped round his head, his neck and hands were bare, and a worn coat was on his shoulders; but doubt, grief, awe before the mystery of life, and the disenchanted certitude of the vanity of action, all floated before the restless eyes, the sad mouth, and the furrowed brow. And now that he was feeling everything, he thought he knew nothing.

And yet, from insouciance to disquietude, from the impassioned and truculent painting of his first efforts to the hesitant but essential form of his last, it is the same central force which governs this mind. One follows it within him from form to form, with the shadow and the ray of light which circle around, illuminating one thing, hiding another, causing a shoulder to jut forth, or a face, or a raised finger, an open book, a forehead, or a little child in a manger. It is the same central force which tries to choose, to look upon the world as an inexhaustible repertory of moving symbols which the will seizes upon, but learns to utilize at its fancy only when it has penetrated the intimate powers manifested by space and by the volumes peopling it. In the silent man who wanders through the dirty streets and paints but few portraits other than those of his son, his servant, of some poor man he has met, or of himself, there lives always the imaginary voyager from the Orient and from Venice, who has followed, with the returning ships, the eternal movement proceeding from the heart of the cities to the uttermost parts of the sea; and in his mind the distant mirages of the infinity of the heavens still extend to the infinity of the waters. In the soberest portraits of his sixtieth year, where the gold and the red tremble in the limpid depths of the blacks and whites, the old alchemist finds himself once more, he who had caused fairies to appear in the mist of the west, who penetrated with flame the foggy winter of the cold countries, and mingled with the filth of misery the gems of mythical treasure, the purpled fruits which drop of themselves from the branches, the pollen of poisonous flowers, and the feathers dropped from the wings of birds of fire. If he consents to live between a damp stairway descending from the street and an air hole from which the daylight falls, it is because the sounds of the pavement cause the hundred thousand sonorous orchestras of enthusiasm and memory to leap within him, it is because the light of day fills his inner sight with the illuminations of setting suns and with fêtes which traverse and transfigure his desire. For him everything is now bathed in that radiance of which the luminous mist, the quivering reflections on the canals with their oily mottling, the glittering downpour, the frost of the fields, the immense vibration of tropical suns and the phosphorescent nights on the oceans of the south have created the very atmosphere of his thought and his sensation. Now all life starts from this inner radiance whose splendor, in turn, is what slowly reveals life, from the point of greatest brilliance to the regions of greatest darkness. That which plunges into the light is the reverberation of that which the night submerges. That which the night submerges prolongs into the visible that which plunges into the light. Thought, vision, words, and action unite this forehead, that eye, this mouth, that hand, with the volumes scarcely perceived in the shadow: heads and bodies bending over a birth, a death struggle or death itself. And this is so even, and perhaps above all, when the only instruments of his work are his steel point, his copper plate, and his acid—nothing but black and white; even then he handles the world like a continuing drama which light and darkness model, hollow out, convulse, calm, and bring to birth and death at the call of his passion, of his sadness, and the desperate desire for eternity and the absolute which overwhelms his heart. A lantern, a face lit up, darkness becoming animated, some beings leaning over a cradle on which all the light falls, a cross from which a corpse hangs, a miry road running alongside a pool, a cluster of trees, an obscure sky, a ray of light over some meadow land, the empire of the wind discovered in a flying cloud: here are nothing but black strokes crossing one another on a glowing page, and the tragedy of space and the tragedy of life make the sheet writhe in their fire.

When he was following the teaching of Rubens and of the Italians, as in that "Anatomy Lesson" at The Hague, which is only a good school picture—cold and of an even, waxy material—he arrived at laborious groupings from which almost everything that is his own disappeared, the anxious and direct sense of life, the atomic vibration which runs through his whole field of vision, the lightning illuminating that which he desires to be seen and the darkness veiling the things that he desires to keep silent. When he had followed out the moral bonds which unite the forms among themselves, when he had well observed how a woman holds a child to which she gives the breast, how she dresses it, how a little one takes its first steps, how two heads bend one toward the other for a confidence or a confession, and all the essential gestures which no one notices, he recreated from within outward—and without seeming to notice it—the great harmonies of form. The real mystery of life is that a gesture is beautiful as soon as it is true, and that to a deep functional truth a deep continuity of movements and volumes always responds. One must follow Rembrandt from his humblest notes, made every day with a flying hand, to his most carefully thought-out works. A hundred times he had seen people bending over the same task, auditors around a teacher, spectators and assistants around a surgeon, women around a mother giving birth. He had seen that if each one is at his task, the masses organize by themselves, following an irreproachable equilibrium, that the light falls where it should and ignores that which it should, because it is advantageous that it illuminate one point in the scene and that shadow reign elsewhere. And, in the very intensity of application to works of humanity which group men and women around daily events, he found the power of his expressive volumes. If the man who thinks is not always united with the man who feels, the man who feels, if he will only plumb his own depths, invariably finds there the harmonies which attach the humblest sensations and sentiments to the loftiest thoughts. Giotto, when he grouped people around the death of heroes, had felt those secret harmonies which Michael Angelo hardly ever suspected. But his language is still meager, the masses are only indicated, they do not always respond fully and organically to the profound impulsion of the sentiments which animate them. With Rembrandt, on the contrary, the very substance of the souls with the gesture passes uninterruptedly into the material. Whatever his tool, whether he made use of etching or oil painting, whether he had at his command all the colors of the prism or only the shadow and the light which are at the disposal of the engraver, the luminous palpitation and the instinctive movements which are inappreciable for others reduced the universe, for him, to an uninterrupted circulation of animate molecules of which he himself forms part. To the limit of the invisible he pursues the living presence of all the points which his eye can reach. With his colors he incorporates not only the fat and the blood which he catches from the butcher's stall where the split beeves display their purplish muscles, but also a little of the fog, a little of the night, a great deal of silver, a great deal of flame, and a great deal of gold and of the sun. There is something of all this in each one of the materials of his pictures, whether it is the flesh of men or their glance, the crushed stubble at the edge of a road or a few tufts of reeds in a plain, the shrouds wherein the dead are laid, or the silks and furs in which the living are dressed, or the space all trembling with eternal vibrations whose source and goal he finds in each fragment of things. It was in the same period, in the same city and the same quarter, in the heart of the same swarming and miserable life, surrounded by the same shadows and the same lights that Baruch Spinoza was meditating his book.

Because Rembrandt is the only one who was always present in everything that he looked at, he is the only one who dared to mix mud with the light of the eyes, to introduce fire into ashes, to cause a pink or a pale blue, as fresh as a flower, to glow in a shroud. When he comes, all moral categories disappear, to let the triumphal torrent of life, ever reborn, pour through the night, spurt forth from sepulchers, and cover putrescence and death with phosphorescent shadows in which new germs unfold. He has no need to put a nimbus around the head of Christ seated at the table of a peasant or entering a cellar where the sick and infirm languish, for the most discouraged hearts to hear the lyric song of hope born again from themselves. He has no need of a thinker to cause thought to float over a face. An old pauper, with his furrowed visage, the tendons of his neck, and his rags suffices to evoke something poignant and gentle which he never defines; and his servant, baring herself in a miserable room, has enough sap under her skin to make the place flame as with a torch of voluptuousness. The force of life which dwells in him rolls into withered flesh and covers rags with purple. If Christ had not existed, Rembrandt would have found other legends through which to recount, from the cradle to the grave, the human drama that he was living, or else he would have done without legends and would not have placed under his pictures the titles which they do not need. In the birth of anybody, in the repast of anybody, in the death of anybody, he finds himself. His humanity is actually formidable; it has the inevitable accent of the plaint, the love, the continual, indifferent, and dramatic interchange between everything that is born and everything that dies. He follows our course toward death by the traces of blood which mark it. He does not weep over us, he does not comfort us because he is with us, because he is ourselves. He is there when the cradle is illumined. He is there when the young girl appears to us leaning on the window sill, with eyes that do not know and a pearl between her breasts. He is there when we have disrobed her, when her hard torso trembles to the throbbing of our fever. He is there when the woman opens her knees to us with the same maternal emotion with which she opens her arms to her child. He is there when the fruit drops from her ten or fifteen times in her life. He is there afterward, when she is mature, when her belly is deeply grooved, her bosom droops, and her legs grow heavy. He is there when she has aged, when her furrowed face is surrounded with a cap and when her bony hands cross at her waist to signify that she has no resentment against life for having dealt hard with her. He is there when we are old, when we look fixedly toward the approaching night; he is there when we are dead and our corpse offers its winding-sheet to the arms of our sons.

When, toward the evening of life, he painted the "Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild," he had attained the power to fix average humanity in the eternity of life. Such a force, mastering the soul of the world, giving to the every-day event the importance and the majesty of the mind, recreating the face of men in the simplicity of their habitual existence elevated to epic height by the invisible effort of the intelligence and of love, has in it something terrifying. With Rembrandt we no longer know the true value of words, doubtless because they have only that one value which we can place upon them. Is an art like his objective in which the inner drama so silently animates face and gesture, where the heart of an all-powerful man never ceases to beat within the forms that appear, where the night which he dissipates or thickens at will is always illuminated by his secret presence? And when that man reaches the power of manifesting his grief, his pity, or his pride without telling them, through his recital of the most ordinary and the most hidden acts of life, or in painting a mere portrait, can one discover in his language philosophic intentions which he would doubtless have been surprised to have attributed to him when he was caressing with tawny shadows the belly and the breasts of his servant? There is in this a terrible mystery of which Shakespeare, before Rembrandt, had caught a glimpse. Whereas every living spirit, worthy of domination and strength, struggles unceasingly to individualize himself, to separate himself from the world, the supreme individual no longer separates himself from the world; he accepts it wholly. The world merges with his being to such a degree, all external movements re-echo in his flesh so suddenly and so intoxicatingly that he no longer distinguishes that which is himself from that which is the world, nor realizes that all the things of the world are hymns which are within him. It is because there was, between the world and himself, a pitiless interchange, a kind of silent frenzy of desire, reborn immediately after the possession. When he had not succeeded in dragging to his room some outcast in order to lure to his mouth and his eyes all of his old tired soul, when he did not find his old brother there, battered and hollowed out by work, or his son Titus with his eyes of shadowy flame, or Hendrickje always ready to leave the stove and her dishcloth to put an amber necklace around her neck, undress, and give her flanks to the embrace of light and of the mind, he must needs, to appease his fever, stand before a mirror, grimace, laugh, look grave, feign fright, or give utterance to his suffering. Life for him was a continuous surprise and discovery. It did not allow him an hour of respite. All his misfortunes, his misery, and the oblivion into which he slipped were nothing as compared with the increasing torture of being unable to grasp the flight of things and to perceive the time which was left him to live and to learn, becoming briefer and slipping away more quickly, in the measure that the universe widened its limits and flowed back into him, ever more moving and more complex and more secret. The approach of death is not really dramatic save for him who feels that he will never possess life.

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