Intimate Greece (part II)

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Everywhere, between the fourth and the first century—in Italy, in Sicily, on the shores of Asia Minor—the popular and intimate art causes official art to recede. The coroplast of Myrina and of Tanagra, and the sculptor of Alexandria remains himself, whereas the decorator of the monuments tries to catch once more a soul that has gone from him—that has gone out of the world—and to reconcentrate, by artificial means, the dissociated elements of artistic creation. At Alexandria the figurine sculptor was doubtless not a workman, as at Myrina or at Tanagra, but rather one of those very brilliant, very superficial, and very skillful, fashionable artists who swarm around the rich man. Every new social expression, it is true, calls forth an art which adapts itself to it, which is beautiful simply because of that fact. But plutocratic societies constitute only a moment of that expression, the last before the downfall. It has been said that luxury called forth the arts. We may agree. But luxury consumes art, the profound creative feeling that comes out of the people in their full efforts, as the child from the mother's womb, the feeling that has in it their will, their hope, their power of illuminating. Between the statuette of the collector and the temples of a democracy there is the distance from the shelves of the drawing-room to the Acropolis.

During the Alexandrian period and even more during the imperial period, the diffusion of taste crowded out creative force. When this force manifests itself it often passes for an insult to taste or, at least, to the practical and moderate idea which the ruling classes and the world of fashion conceive of the mystic function of the artist; they imagine him made to satisfy their needs. To be sure, the taste of Alexandria is delightful—at least, the taste of the intellectual aristocracy; for the parvenu, there, as in other places, cares only for anecdotal art. Alexandria loves a whispering, tremulous, suave note in its production. Delicate little bronzes are created in which the material takes on qualities of living flesh, of warm skin; it seems to cower from the cold like the virgin bodies so obligingly described by the sensual artist, in effete epochs, for the delight of the eye and the hand of the cultivated collector. Woman no longer unveils herself, the robes are stripped from her. Aphrodite no longer emerges from the sea; she enters the bathtub. She tries the water with her toes, her young body stoops or turns or stretches itself with a perfect absence of shame, and yet remains chaste, if one thinks of Asia, which attempts a last violent effort. Doubtless also, there is a debt to Egyptian purity, which Grecian nobility recognizes and weds.

Here is the fashionable drawing-room, here are rare pieces of furniture and the glass cases in which sleep precious things, sheltered from profaning hands. Polygraphy and romance have succeeded tragedy and history. It is the period when persons of elegance, men or women, covered from head to foot with amulets and jewels, eat and drink from chiseled metal. The locust, wrought of gold and worn in the hair, no longer sufficed for ladies of fashion. They needed rings, cameos, intaglios, necklaces, bracelets, clasps, and eardrops. The jewels of gold were, in Greece at least, of simple form, for Asia and imperial Rome have more pompous taste. The metal has the suppleness of a trailing vine, it creeps like a reptile over the forms, it weds the warm creases of the neck, it encircles the splendor of the arms, it draws the eye to the beautiful hands, it marries the dull sheen of the painted skin to its own tawny pallor. Set in a bezel or suspended, finely engraved stones bear images of the gods and portraits, birds, lions, beetles, and chimeras; there are as many amulets as there are superstitions in the epochs without faith.

The cult of the stone for its own sake, for its arresting of light, was unknown to ancient art. The material must be wrought, must have imprinted in it man's idea of the universe, of himself, and of his destiny. In stone, in marble, bronze, gold, silver, ivory, wax, wood, and clay, in all the crystallizations of the earth, its bones, its flesh, its blood and its tears, the Greek of every land carved the form of his spirit. Some men have doubted the beauty of the chryselephantine sculpture of the fifth century as they have doubted the splendor which the temples of blue and gold must have taken on as they arose, under the immense Greek sky, from the forests and laurels of the acropolises and the promontories, giving to the white marble an indescribable quality of absolute spirituality. When they carved Athena and Zeus in ivory or gold, the Greeks wanted only to express their veneration for them. But a mind like that of Phidias could not be mistaken in the medium. Behind his brow reigned order, lyric force, and the harmonious accord between intelligence and the heart, and if he carved gods in gold and ivory it was because gold and ivory obeyed him as marble did. What difference does the material make? Whatever it is, it expresses the artist as, in the crust of the earth, coal, and the diamond mingle and express its subterranean fire. The material is poured boiling into the mold of his soul ; when his soul is strong, clay is strong as bronze, and when his soul is gentle, bronze is as tender as clay.

What good stuff the world is made of! Like the skin and the wool of the beasts, like the meat of the fruits, like bread, this stuff is man's companion. It is the water and the salt. It has the docility of the domestic creatures, it welcomes the master at his threshold and at his doorstep, protects him in the walls and the roofs, offers itself for his repose, hollows itself to receive his food, reaches up to lift its fruits to his lips and strives ingeniously to yield him materials less hard than itself. There was a time, toward the end of Hellenism, when wrought material surrounded man on every hand, like a motionless procession, at once defending and exalting him. Heroic art was weakening, doubtless, but the gods of ivory and gold were intact, deep in the sanctuaries, and the bright-painted marble heroes still inhabited the metopes where the gold of their bucklers glistened. Painted temples were everywhere, and propylaea, porticos, stadiums built of steps, colonnades, and terminal gods. The pavements of the streets were of marble, as were the steps of the acropolises and the serene amphitheaters looking over the hills to the sea. Gold and stone, jasper, agates, amethyst, cornelian, chalcedony, and rock-crystal went into the jewels which weighed on the arms, clasped the tunics, and shone in the dyed hair. And in the houses of marble, stone, or wood, and even in the depths of the sepulchers, were seats of marble or of wood, vases of gold, of silver, of bronze, statuettes of terra cotta or of metal, pots of clay or cups of onyx.

The hollow of the hand lent its warmth to precious bits of material, the piece of gold, silver, or copper. Greece did not invent the coin, it is true, but its cities were the first to give it its circular form, to place a head on one side, a symbol on the other, and an inscription composed of watchwords, signatures, or the value. With the diffusion of wealth and aesthetic culture, the coin springs from the bronze matrices in swarms. It is made practically everywhere, in Athens, Asia, Alexandria, and in Sicily especially, in the workshops of Syracuse. Coins mount from the Hellenic hearth like a shower of sparks. The type changes with the city, the events, the victories, and the traditions. Statues, celebrated pictures, legends, myths, symbolic animals, and incisive portraits, the reliefs polished by millions of hands and shaded with black in the hollows have the look of a living material made motionless by the mint. The circle is never a perfect one, the thickness of the disk varies; there, as in other cases, the equilibrium of the elements makes of the art object a complete organism, which symmetry would kill. The metal seems forced out from within as if swelling with juice and with a soul. The Greeks give to it a life of flesh or of the plant. On silver or gold vases they carve networks of twining branches, among which seeds, buds, and leaves—of the oak, the olive tree, the laurel, the plane tree or ivy—seem to tremble. Heavy fruit buries itself in the mystery of the foliage.

It is perhaps by these vases and by many of the terra cotta figurines that we can best judge to what degree the Greeks understood the frame in which the human figure moves. The setting was not a dominant idea with them as it was later on with the Hindoos and the men of the Renaissance—especially the Flemings and the Frenchmen of the Renaissance—because the soil of Greece was less rich in animate forms and because the Greeks looked on man as the ripe fruit; it was the fruit that constantly attracted them, whereas the branches, the trunk, and the ground in which the tree grew seemed to them only accompaniments to the superior melody realized by the mind. But their great tragic poets saw the maenads, dressed in tiger skins and girdled with serpents, crowned with flowers and leafy vine branches, bounding out of the forests with the panthers; they spoke of those monstrous unions from which the beast-man came, to affirm the grand accord of indifferent nature and the mind guided by will. And the humblest of their peasants, who knew that the spring and the grotto were peopled with familiar divinities, was at peace as he felt the fraternity of his soil.

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