Romanticism and Materialism (part III)

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Not one among those who were, doubtless, the greatest among the great painters, not one, it seems, equals him—Rembrandt excepted—in profundity, and in force of sentiment; not one—Rubens excepted—in the torrent-like power of expressive movement; not one—Michael Angelo excepted—in capacity for transporting into painting that which seems to belong to the domain of abstract meditation and of the moral prophet. But perhaps there is sometimes lacking in him, that which is never lacking in any of them—the faculty of suppressing and of selecting. There is order in his brain, and even a kind of impressive calm beneath the apparent agitation, but it is not always in his heart. He feels too much, he wants to say too much; and if the ensemble is always living, it sometimes is too much alive, it reels, as if it could not bear the weight of silence. The romanticists construct organically, their point of departure is the inner impulse, and they spread forth their expressive surfaces with so much haste and violence that too often the movement appears confused and overloaded. The contemplation of the object intoxicates the individual to such an extent that the object becomes as living as the individual himself, but its lines waver and the core of the expression bursts forth alone, brilliant, hallucinating, and radiant with strength and love. Hugo abounds in holes, in empty places full of smoke and wind. Wagner is often loose and prolix, and his giant breast suffocates under the flowers he heaps up. The grandiose melody of Berlioz soars for a moment, its two great wings spreading, and then it falls headlong, in a crash of vulgar noises and deafening cries. Delacroix, who, most of all, retains mastery over his power, bounds out of his own rhythm at times, and gets out of breath in racing to regain it. Rodin, the last of all in point of time, has a colossal power of expressing the profound life of the object by the vibrations of its surface. But it is at the expense of his equilibrium and of his relations with those who surround him; there is not one monumental ensemble which holds together from top to bottom.

That is the ransom, doubtless, of every too exceptionally expressive force, necessarily as far from the great architectural calm as the reasons of the heart are distant from reason. Since the painters of the coffins of Christian Egypt, the Hindus, Rabelais, Tintoretto, and Shakespeare, no one has possessed, in the same degree as the great romanticists, the power of expressing that which is most irresistible and most intoxicating in the inner movement of life. The process scarcely changes, but what renders it all-powerful and impossible to imitate is that it is not a process but a way of seeing, a way of acting, a way of living. The romantic painter, or sculptor, or poet finds in the object, with a certitude like that of a thunderbolt, the summit of his expression. Then he surrounds this summit with his creative fever, and, from every point, all things are swept toward it. He is born within the object, he lifts it up, he guides it from one side only, he breaks open its surface. He bursts forth to meet the light, casting behind him into vagueness or the night everything hostile, secondary, or merely indifferent. Hugo, whether he writes or draws, carries his tyrannical desire to the point of diametrical oppositions: the ruins on the promontories, the storm, the ocean, the mountain, everything that is unmeasured and everything that is fateful is indicated and violently modeled by the conflict of antitheses—of light and shadow. Raffet creates a straight line of aigrettes in swift movement, walls of steel, long flowing manes, and a thousand silent hoofs—the whole thing is a single block—and the rumble of destiny is heard in the darkness. Baudelaire accumulates in the center of his vision all the scattered sense impressions which a fanatical and consuming sensibility has permitted him to gather up from a hundred thousand similar objects. Constantin Guys lengthens the painted eyes of the courtesans, accentuates the blood-red note of their mouths, weighs down their hard breasts, makes their jewels heavier and more sonorous, masses higher on their necks the coils of dark hair with its combs and its flowers— and at once the odor of love fills the ballrooms and the shows, prowls the length of the hot streets, enervates the summer evenings and the anxious waiting of the night. Barye concentrates the whole spirit of attack and of defense in the big paws of his wild beasts, in the bunches of muscles of their shoulders, and in the vibrant, tight-strung planes of their thighs and of their backs. Daumier seizes the heart of the drama, and ties tight around it all the expressive knots which a grand and intuitive science of form in action reveals to him incessantly.

He would suffice to define that aspiration, held in common by all the romanticists, for concentrating the whole expression in some sudden projection to which all the lines and all the lights flock from every side, enthusiastic and obedient like so many units of energy moving toward a central force which is to be manifested. Millet, at the same time, is attempting this, and sometimes almost realizes it, when he lays down his brush for the pen or the pencil. But the form, which he seeks to keep simple and naïve, defined by a few bare planes, almost always remains empty. Later, at the other extremity of romanticism, but with the same means. Carrière expresses not so much a desire for the qualities of plastic art as he does his need for sentiment.

With Daumier, on the contrary, the form, which an arabesque of light sculptures, describes, and directs, by its gradations, its surface progressions, and its flowing into depth, turns and twists, as full as a living bronze, knotting and distending itself under the impulsion of effort, of desire, or of hunger, like intertwined vine- and ivy-stems, which draw from the heart of the earth their nourishment and their support. In considering him, one always thinks of several of the masters who have best rendered the pathos of the human form in action. This simple, direct man is the natural fruit of an intense European culture which has not yet left its orbit, and all the old classics recognize themselves in him. He is of the south and of the north. Born in Marseilles, where the shadow and the sun sculpture mountains and shores into broad planes, as expressive and as solid as a structure of bare bone, he lives in the Paris street, in the seething center of everyday tragedy and comedy, which one perceives as soon as one suspends one's automatic pace in order to let one's glance rest for a moment on the scene. He lives in the Paris street. He certainly knows Rembrandt, Rubens, Tintoretto, and Michael Angelo. But he does not think of them when, with the living daylight, which Rembrandt used at will, he illuminates men and women whose action is revealed by projecting volumes which Michael Angelo would have recognized, and by tangles of limbs in which Rubens and Tintoretto would have seen their power of making all the movements of life find their echo in the continuity of lines and the receding of planes.

One would say that he paints with burning clay. It is a sculpture of our drama in which the bones and the muscles collect the entire spirit of the drama, whose penumbra takes back little by little or suddenly the past or present incidents which are not its real point of connection or its spiritual sense. A sublime expression of sentiment arises from the plastic means exclusively, and if he is as good as a saint is, it is because he is as strong as a hero. The drawn shoulder and arm of that woman carrying a basket who is followed by the toddling steps of the child that clutches at her with its little fist, express the effort of a lever too weak to raise a heavy weight. But from the depths of the centuries, pity wells up to accompany those passing figures. The enormous swelling breast from which a little being is drinking, the head and the muscular neck leaning over the soup which the iron spoon carries to the outstretched lips, all express, doubtless, a double meal. But the tragedy of hunger rumbles there like a storm. That powerful woman who presses between her arms and her bosom those beautiful nude children expresses physical health and strength in repose. But the spirit of revolt hovers over her in majesty. That little ass crushed under the weight of that fat peasant, and that skeletonlike horse which could carry no more weight than that of the thin knight, express physical poverty and vulgarity crossing a desert of ashes. But the inner spirit of man marches forth there to wrestle with God.

There is the artist. And there is the work. It is useless to recount the paradox of his career. Regarded as a caricaturist, he died very poor, very celebrated, and wholly unknown. He was a caricaturist, and that is not a serious matter. Delacroix was prudent enough to get himself elected—with difficulty—to the Institute in order to go and dine in society and wear evening dress. And Corot had the luck to be the son of prosperous tradespeople. But this man lived between the barricade, his garret, and the editorial rooms of small radical papers. He was content to possess the street and to conquer the future. They say he was unconscious of it. I doubt that. The mark of a powerful man is to be aware of his power. When one has that fine forehead, those piercing eyes, that courageous mouth, and that face, full and broad like that of Rabelais, and when one kneads the form as one pleases with that good thumb, one is not ignorant of the fact that one is a king. And if one is silent about it, and if one even reaches the point of allowing no one to imagine such a thing, it is because there is a sufficient recompense in modeling life into a resemblance to oneself. The whole dark stream of men obeyed his first call. He reigned over the street, he felt himself the sole master of it, from the moment that he set foot there. Nothing that moved in the street was foreign to him, and into this formidable disorder he introduced the despotic order which all the movements and the passions of the street organized in his mental life. The epic vision of things is only a superb submission of sensation and of the mind to the living strength of everything which the weaklings of sensation and the pontiffs of the mind neglect as inferior to their abstract or mechanical life. He stopped each time that an eloquent gesture pierced the confused uniformity of the crowd in action. He knew the broad streets where the strong man of the fairs lifts iron weights and harangues an attentive circle. At the hour when the workshops pour their dramatic flood over the greasy pavement, he mingled with the passionate groups forming around the street singer and the barrel organ, and joining in on the last verses, in which popular idealism expresses its revolt or its hope. One would see him in the first row, in the fairs of the quarter, when the drummer beat his drum and the glorious barker made his speech. He loved those powerful creatures who stir the soul of the people, simple as they are, and as he is himself. The athlete folds his arm over his gigantic chest muscles, a peaceful demigod of strength and righteousness. The man singing has the fateful countenance of the first poets of heroic deeds in whose mouth the primitive religions affirm their victory from their first cry. And that clown with the painted face and the great living gesture has something about him resembling an archangel opening and shutting the gates of paradise and of hell. . . It was in a similar spirit that Michael Angelo traced the biblical symbols on the ceilings of the Vatican. Daumier, if he lives in less torment, is probably as grave, and if, in his raciness, he thunders in the language of the rough neighborhoods, there is, each time that his bolt illuminates or strikes, prophetic lightning which carries and announces the shock.

For he is a man of justice, a man of truth. The law is a small matter to him, and the law courts even less. He is a just man. He has the mighty gayety of such a one, the irresistible strength, the indulgence, the measure, and the charity. Fines and imprisonment renew his virulence. In his prints, to which a few poor hovels in some corner, a few bare trunks on a bank, a sky where the wind blows, or a strong suggestion of the country or of the city, give the grandeur of a fresco, the blacks and the whites have the velvety and profound sonority whereby his avenging pity takes the love of the living world as a pretext through which to pour itself forth. Everywhere that a man is undeservedly vanquished, or a poor person is humiliated, everywhere that a weak man cries for help, everywhere that vulgarity and baseness triumph, he is there, by himself, to cover the one who seeks protection, and alone to face the one who is not willing to understand. He is present in the court room, where, with a magnificent laugh, his whip lash flays the unjust judge and the lying lawyer. From the top benches, he models with fierce strokes the faces, the knees, and the bellies of the legislators. He brings cartridges to the wretched dwellings of the workmen where the last visitor had spilled blood on the ground and brains on the wall. He fires his rifle with the army of the miserable, from their heap of paving stones. This simple man has in his heart all the innocent forces which, through the insurrections of the serfs and of the Communes, through the cathedral, the war of the Fronde, and the revolutionary days of 1789 and of 1830, opened to the dregs of society the roads of the future. The Pharisee and the hypocrite hide when he passes by, the bad rich man grinds his teeth, and the bad shepherd goes white. And since, in his time, it is the middle class that reigns, he lashes out at the middle class.

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