Intimate Greece (part III)

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The Greeks introduced into their house the world of the air and the plants. The cadaver of Pompeii, a city of Magna Graecia, built and decorated by Greeks, is covered with flowers. In the inner rooms, in the markets, everywhere are garlands of flowers, fruits, and leaves; there are birds and fishes, dense, shining, fiery still-life pieces surrounding false windows and painted floors which open on perspectives of streets and squares, of architecture and streets. It is doubtless only a translated, Latinized Greece, different from classic Greece and much affected by influences of Alexandria, of Asia, and inspired above all by the sea-sky, the vegetation, the red rocks, the flame, and the wine mulled on hot coals. Theocritus was a Syracusan, it is true. But on the soil of Greece there are bas-reliefs, vase-sculptures, Tanagra groups—satyrs, nymphs, young women, dancers, divinities of the woods and torrents—around whom we hear the purling of water, the rustle of leaves, the lowing and sharp bleating of the beasts, and flutes laughing and crying in the wind. And if surrounding nature stilled her voices for a moment to let Phidias commune with himself as he wrote into the human form alone his understanding of the world, Sophocles went to sit in the grove of Colonna, the grove of orange trees with its many crickets where the brooks ripple under the moss; Pindar, the rugged poet of the north, while journeying to the games by routes which took him to gorges and beaches, picked up on his way some formidable images, full of the sky and the ocean; Aeschylus, from the top of the Acropolis of Argos, watched the night sparkle, and from the most distant past of Hellas a cool breeze was blown. Aegean art is already alive with forms of the sea. The sea wind, the water of the river, and the murmur of the foliage are witnesses to the meeting of Ulysses and Nausicaa, whom the hero compares to the stem of a palm tree. Does not Vitruvius affirm that the Doric comes from the male torso, the Ionic from the female torso ?

In any case, this rather limited Pompeiian art, made up, as it is, of recollections and distant imitations, and due almost entirely to the brush of hired decorators and of house painters, breathes the animal and the material world, the swarming and confused world that surrounds us. How young it still is, despite the old age of the pagan civilizations; how vigorous it is with all its vague mossiness; how profound and full of the antique soul! What persuasion there is in its power, and, on the monochrome backgrounds—red, black, green, or blue—how broad and spontaneous the stroke is, how sure, how intense in expression, and how having the form! Amors, dancers, winged geniuses, gods or goddesses, animals, forms nude, draped, or aureoled with wavy gauzes, legends, battles, and all the ancient symbolism so near the soil live again here, with a slightly gross sensualism and with the candor of the workmen who interpret, certainly, but with that calm, that almost unspoiled freshness, that virginity of life which were known only to the ancient world. The dancing forms appear half veiled, with their pure arms and pure legs continuing the pure torso, like balanced branches. The nude bodies emerge gently from the shadow, floating in their firm equilibrium. Here and there are implacable portraits with large, ardent eyes—with life in its brutal austerity, undiminished by any visible intermediary. At times, side by side with the Greek soul, and bearing a germ of academism that, fortunately, is still unconscious, there is that ardent expressiveness which, thirteen centuries later, was to characterize the awakening of Italy. It is to be seen in that "Theseus Victorious over the Minotaur," which the great Masaccio would have loved. It is an anxious, uneven world, with currents of influence running through it in every direction, but fiery and brilliant, rotten at the top, and yet ingenuous underneath.

See in these portraits the sense of immensity that is in the gaze, how the great figures are steeped in thought, and how a tremor seems to run inward through their living immobility. This arrested life is almost terrible to look upon. One would say that it had been suddenly fixed, as if seized by the volcano at the same hour as the city was. Impressionism, do you say? Yes, in its fire, in its breadth, in the way in which the movement is instantaneously surprised; but however much weakened, however enervated the voice of the artisans of a corrupt and skeptical age, this painting expresses a power of comprehension and a depth of love that only a few isolated men attain to-day. It is the only real renascence of Greek heroism. It responds, like the "Hercules of the Belvedere" and the Venuses of the valley of the Rhone, to the shock of Hellenic intelligence as it meets with Latin force and, in a flash, creates an art complete in its vigor, its ardent life, and its feverish concentration.

Although these paintings are not, properly speaking, copies (if we admit that a copy is possible and that the copyist, whether mediocre or touched with genius, does not in every case substitute his nature for that of the master), although they are only reminiscences, the transplantation of Greek works on a renewed soil, it is through them that we can get an idea—even if a distant one—of the painting of antiquity, which the crumbling of the temples has wiped out. The most celebrated frescoes of the dead city recalled the works of Polygnotus, Zeuxis, Parrhasios, and Apelles. The painting related the ancient myths and the story of the national wars. At first it knew flat colors, only very much simplified, doubtless, very brilliant and hard tones, brutal in their oppositions, before modeling appeared with Parrhasios. The lines which inclosed the powerful polychromy must have had the firmness of the uninterrupted curve which the passage of the hills to the plains and of bays to the sea taught to the men who were at this time making the gods. Always decorative in its beginnings, it undergoes the fate of the painting of modern schools, where the easel picture appears when the statues descend from their heights on the temples to invade the public squares, apartments, and gardens. Like sculpture, this painting had to bend to the will of the rich man. But doubtless it retained its character better, being more supple, more a thing of shades, more individualistic, more the master of saving only what it did not want to hide. I see it, after Parrhasios, as somewhat like Venetian painting around Giorgione and Titian: ripe, warm, autumnal, with an evanescent modeling in the colorful shadows and dazzling in the parts which stand out and which seem turned to gold by the sap from within. It is less fluid and musical, however—more massive, more compact. Oil painting has not been discovered, and the wax renders the work slower and less immaterial.

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