Romanticism and Materialism (part X)

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And so it is finally to this acrid, over-sharpened work that the analysis comes. Romanticist pessimism, with its lyrical power, proud of its suffering, exalts voluptuousness. But since it depends too much upon its bitter conclusions, it leads straight to those images, after which there will be no more hope, save in a new Illusion. Here is Renoir, here is Cézanne, who are preparing an unknown world. One would think, though they are but little younger than the hard Manet and the cruel Degas, and but little older than the sinister Lautrec,—one would think that they belong, Renoir especially, to a new century. The world accepted in its indifferent strength, its sensual joy regained—all that which is contemporary with these clear-cut and somber works of art—will not mature in the mind until twenty or thirty years later. Fatigued by a hundred years of one of the most powerful efforts in history, the French soul of their period, penetrated by the tragic disenchantment of Schopenhauer, by the sensual Christianity of Wagner, and by the immense despairing murmur of the Russian novel, feels that what is nearest to it are the final and sudden awakenings of romanticist suffering, whose bitterness increases upon contact with the clear-eyed realism developing beside it and offering it new food. Even when it knows and reasons, perhaps then above all, the heart loves the Illusion. While the writers and painters of the document are pursuing their investigation, in solitude and without pity, the romanticism of Carrière and of Rodin absorbs into the sound of its lyric flight the voice of the truth which they know, and makes a heroic passage between consciousness, into which their time is sinking and carrying on its insistent effort, and the intoxication of the future which they feel to be growing up in them.

At their beginnings, Carrière and Rodin are exact realists, the one rather hesitating, a little too moral and soft, the other penetrated by the double current of the sober practice of the stonecutter, and of an academic education which he is not sufficiently prepared to fathom or to reject. And here are the first collective portraits of the family and of childhood, and we see in them the traces left by Whistler's technique, doubtless, that of Courbet probably, certainly that of the good painter Fantin-Latour, and especially that of Renoir, whose mothers and nude children with the uncertain outlines of their soft flesh have been seen by Carrière; and here is the young "Age of Bronze," erect upon the threshold of the new time, like an antique image barely touched by its enervated disquietude. Then, with the sculptor's rising spirit and broadening knowledge, there grows up a lyrical movement which will burst the earlier form, so that new rhythms may be liberated. With the painter we find once more the sentimental thought which Millet started on its course and which, after having been rendered firm in the sculptural mind of Daumier, will finally result, after traversing the social idealism of the century, in the forms, sometimes epic, but almost always theatrical and hollow, of the Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier. But with Carrière it takes on a didactic and metaphysical accent which will cause it to be accepted too quickly by the littérateurs, and too quickly forgotten by the painters. He knows, through Daumier and through Rodin, the power of the expressive volumes on which all the light falls; he has discovered the spirit which circulates from form to form, which draws them to a center, presses them outward, and beats against them as against a metal. Thereupon he follows that spirit alone; form is no longer more than a symbolic sign which he has not sufficiently studied and into which his desire is to precipitate the torrent of universal life rolling from his soul to his heart, and with this torrent, his love, which binds and cements the whole. In his vague arabesque, in the sinuous and continuing curves which make of his intertwined groups something like a single block of life, in which milk and blood, the carnal intoxication of the mothers, and the gluttonous avidity of the infants flow without interruption, to make round the breasts which are offered, to sculpture the skulls which press against them, and to unite the arms which seek each other, the great idea of transformism appears for the first time in painting, as something voluntary and conscious. It is too voluntary and too conscious, for it sees no more than itself, and tries to expose and impose itself; and it is only in the weakest manner that it kneads its clay around it, the material being but barely animated by reds and grays, in which the shadows are sometimes hollow, in which the projections are sometimes awkward, and the embraces are often swollen, as if wrought in some unknown matter from which the skeleton and the muscles were absent. Moreover, one divines in this whole art an irresistible need to subordinate to moral sentiment the plastic intoxication which, with the heroes of painting, subjugates, dominates, and sweeps along in its wake the highest moral sentiment. But a great idea broods over this work, and one sees it fumbling in the irregular movements of the new-born babes, rising with the growth of the children, lighting up as their astonished eyes open upon the world, and bursting forth with nobility in the images that he has given of the faces of certain men, and of himself. The thought is powerful, the work is uncertain, standing very high in sentiment, but disintegrated by irreconcilable forces and showing only the few distant summits which emerge from the mist accumulated in the backgrounds.

With Rodin, the last of the great romanticists, one who seems to assemble in himself, multiplied, the lyric power of the loftiest natures of romanticism and the structural impotence of the poorest men who were inspired by it, the preoccupation with expressing the spirit which circulates in all the elements of a group, diminishes, on the contrary, from work to work, in the measure that he accentuates the strength of the living detail, of the volume determined by the summit of the movement, and of the play of the lights and shadows on the vibrant surface over which rolls the wave of muscle. Often—too often, alas!—the gestures become contorted, the unhappy idea of going beyond plastics and of running after symbols creates groups in which the embracing figures are disjointed; the volumes fly out of their orbit, the attitudes are impossible, and, in the whole literary disorder, the energy of the workman melts like wax in the fire. Even in his best days, he lives and works by brief paroxysms, whose burning sensation runs through him in flashes. There is Impressionism in him. He is not slow in binding the center of his vision through sinuous lines and continuous passages with everything round about which prepares or propagates that vision. It is there, alone, tragic, like a cry in the silence. In order to express it, he does not even have to add a head or arms to a torso, or, under a face and a neck, to establish the torso which carries them. A quivering belly, a moving breast, or an agitated head, full of projections and hollows, imperiously alive and marked by the beat of the blood, the fluid of the nerves, and by thought, suffices him to create a work which makes everything around it seem neutral and dull. With an indication of movement, a spot of aquarelle on a drawing, or a colored vibration overlapping the lines or permitting them to overlap like a spatter of flame, twisting, sinking down, or launching forth, he renders the quiver of everything that is most furtive and most like the lightning in the very spirit of the form through which his mysterious life penetrates us incessantly.

The expression. Everything is sacrificed to that undefinable thing. Never did Rodin quite understand the French sculptors of the Middle Ages, whom he for a long time claimed to follow, and who, in their dominant preoccupation with saying what they felt, gave proof of so much balance and measure; and when, later, he turned to the philosophic sculpture of Greece, he did not, again, completely understand its meaning, and how it is prolonged beyond the passing moment, and what it is that causes its echoes to resound beyond the space in which it lives. And that is not necessary, and his desire to seek in the past for corroboration is perhaps that which is smallest and least pure in his nature, that which has too often led him to tricks of plastics which would swamp his work if a sensual and spiritual force did not almost always uplift it.

In reality, like all the romanticists, this sculptor is a painter above all, and, more than any other among the romanticists, unsuited to erecting a monumental ensemble wherein the architecture of the world should appear summarized. All the palpitations and all the inner leaping of the life of expression produce a sonorous undulation which the light on the surface of the form gathers up, in order to set it vibrating, like a string under the fingers. The dance sends into the life of expression the quiver of its muscle; the sobs of music convulse its depths. Since Rembrandt, no one had so powerfully brought up, from within the living masses, the living spirit which stretches, or breaks, or relaxes the muscles, swells the breasts, and causes them to move, rolls and furrows bellies, marks out the bones of the face, and escapes from the open eyes.

It is thus that subterranean force gives to the ravaged face of the soil its irregular modeling. The sculpture of the whole century had labored sufficiently to bring to the point of culmination of the attitudes in action the inner fluid which determines their form. While Pradier, the "Athenian of the rue Bréda," is continuing Falconet, Clodion, and Chinard, by disrobing frail goddesses in his very Parisian apartment. Rude transports movement into stone. The great Barye who, near Rodin, seems as calm as an antique, because he conceives form in the ensemble, as an architect does, builds organically, spreads and distributes movement through the muscles and the skeleton, accumulates it in jaws and paws, and, under the vibrating planes, keeps his wealth of energy at high tension. The movement gathers itself together and bounds, cracks with the crushing bones, wrinkles at the muzzle of the wild beasts, shines at the level of their flat heads with the eyes like burning stones, and lays their ears straight back in anger or in fear. One would say that the artist courts with it all the scattered, hidden, or quivering sources of power in the world, to concentrate them into the active or reposeful mass, beating with palpitations and traversed by waves of force, as the Egyptians concentrate, in their composite monsters, the light and the spirit as they wander. Dalou, at first far too much vaunted, and then, for political reasons, a little too much forgotten, surprises it at times in the fold of a feminine torso, the gentle hollows, the dimples, and the fat curves of the flesh. Carpeaux sees it springing from all the surfaces, causes it to shine forth from teeth, mouths, glances, feet, hands, knees, hair—the whole nude skin calling forth dancing flames from the whirlwind which he whips to frenzy, with the movement of the nervous limbs, the fleshy torsos, and the round breasts, and to the sounds of festive music leading a brilliant, light, and cynical world to the ditch filled with blood. In his work, the movement turns in a circle, vivifying everything, but not knowing where it can come to rest. Rodin comes to this work to gather up its movement from its summits alone; as he animates them, and as he penetrates through them to its very center, to the burning focus whence the movement radiates, he attaches them to it directly, no longer perceiving on the whole husk of life anything but the living impulse which arises from its depth.

It is thus that he expresses, with dramatic lyricism, that which is most unseizable in life, and that which is most permanent also. Love haunts him, because it is love which brings about in the forms that seek each other and unite at its call, the strongest expression of forms given over to the tragedy of their fate and sent rolling into indifference toward morality and toward death by a power higher than morality and death. It is in vain for "Eve" to hide her face in her arms; she is victorious; behind her flesh, already sinking and losing its freshness, she drags men, beasts, the plants, the oceans, the stars, and a whole troop of slaves following her scent, as the wave of dead leaves runs in the wake of the wind. Here are pitiful couples united by the cohesion of love. The man tries to flee the outstretched lips, to tear his devoured skin from the other devouring skin, to lift his athletic torso above the breasts which undulate and breathe like the sea. He cannot. He is held there by his soul, whose merging lyricism and revolt boil up at each of those contacts of mad couples who seek, in their fusion, forgetfulness of thought and of the void. When the embrace unlocks, there is clotted blood on the bodies and the limbs, which have been laid open and bruised like those that have been on the rack. The bodies, rolling with every flux and reflux of the spasm, are like the damned of Dante, at once drawn together and repelled by the burning within them. It is impossible for the spirit to tear itself from the flesh and from the soil, because there is, in the flesh and the soil, a spirit more universal than itself; it is only a fragment of that universal spirit, turning in space around its motionless force and seeking to escape it. The "Hand of God," in which sleeps the embryonic form, need only close in order to crush the intelligent larva which palpitates as it assumes its rudimentary form in the primeval clay. The "'Thinker," in his harsh tensity, over the gate by which one enters hell, is animated by the same spark which, around him, convulses birth, youth, love, the death struggle, and death itself. The will, being less powerful than hunger, "Ugolino" crawls, like a filthy beast, on his hands and knees. The portraits cling to the earth, which rises in them from everywhere, with the soul and its majesty. The "Balzac" is like those menhirs which the elementary forces seem to erect on our roads. The "Claude Lorrain" has worn-out boots, a clumsy bearing, and awkward gestures, but its face is dazzled by the light. And if the "Apollo," whose every step causes sunlight to burst forth, has vanquished the hydra, his two arms remain fixed to the stone of a pedestal.

One would say that Rodin rose from the soil and from the flesh in order to reach the tragic spot to which Michael Angelo descended from the summits of the intelligence, and in order to utter the cry of the earth as he meets him who brought us the cry of heaven. Whether their starting point be the senses or the mind, materialistic pessimism and Christian pessimism meet halfway, in order that, through orgy or through knowledge, they may teach despair. Incredible obstinacy of the greatest natures in accepting neither their senses nor their soul. Sublime also since, apparently, this conflict is necessary, every thousand or two thousand years, for the gaining of a higher equilibrium between senses and souls, and of resignation to the intoxication of living, whose intensity is multiplied by their agreement.

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