Preface to the New Edition (1929)


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I HAVE been on the point of suppressing the pages which serve as an Introduction to the first edition of this book. I judged them—I still judge them—boyish and tearful in their philosophy, and obscure and badly written as well. I have given up my intention. After all, those pages represent a moment of myself. And since I have attempted to express that moment, it no longer belongs to me.

Perhaps one ought to write works composed of several volumes in a few months, their documentation once finished and the ideas they represent having been thoroughly set in order. The unity of the work would gain thereby. But the ensemble of the worker's effort would doubtless lose. Every time he thinks he has been mistaken, a living desire awakens in him, which pushes him on to new creations. In reality, each writer writes only one book, each painter paints only one picture. Every new work is destined, in the mind of its author, to correct the preceding one, to complete the thought—which will not be completed. He does this work over and over again, wherever his sensation or thought was rendered imperfectly in the preceding work. When man interrogates and exerts himself, he does not really change. He only rids his nature of what is foreign to it, and deepens that portion that is his own. Those who burn their work before it is known, because it no longer satisfies them, are credited with great courage. I ask myself whether there is not still greater courage in admitting that one has not always been what one has become, in becoming what one is not yet, and in permitting to remain alive the material and irrefutable witnesses of the variations of one's mind.

I have, therefore, no more suppressed the Introduction of this volume than the chapters which follow it, where, however, ideas will also be found that I have great difficulty in recognizing to-day [The variants that I have introduced into this new edition—additions or subtractions—neither add to nor subtract from anything from the general meaning of the work. They bear almost exclusively on the form]. I cannot change the face that was mine ten years ago. And even if I could, should I exchange it for the one that is mine at the present day? I should lose, doubtless, for it is less young now. And who knows If ore does not hate—just because one is older—the signs of youth in one's mind, as one disdains—because one regrets them—the remembrances of youth in one's body? In any case, hateful or not, one cannot modify the features of a face without at the same time destroying the harmony of the old face, and thereby compromising the features of the future face. For the greater part of the ideas which we think constitute our present truth have as their origin precisely those which we believe constitute our past error. When we consider one of our early works, the passages which strike us the most are those which we love least. Soon we see no more than these; they fascinate us; they mask the entire work. On closing the book again they still pursue us; we ask ourselves why, and the result is—however little our courage—that we open roads for ourselves which we had not suspected. Thus it is that the critical spirit, made sharp and subtle by the disappointments and sufferings of one's intellectual development, becomes, little by little, the most precious, and doubtless the most active, auxiliary of the creative spirit itself.

I am a "self-taught" man. I confess it without shame and without pride. This first volume, which weighs on me, has served at least to inform me that if I was not yet, at the moment when I wrote it, out of the social herd. I was already repelled from entering the philosophic herd. The fact is that preconceived notions of aesthetics were so far from presiding over my education in art that it is my emotions as an artist which have led me, progressively, to a philosophy of art which becomes less and less dogmatic. In many of these old pages there will be found traces of a finalism which, I hope, has almost disappeared from my mind. The reason is that I have evolved with the forms of art themselves, and that, instead of imposing on the idols I adored a religion, I have asked these idols to teach me religion. All, in fact, revealed the same one to me, as well as the fact that it was quite impossible to fix it precisely, because it is universal.

I have had to make an effort in order to reach a harmonious conception of the plastic poem in which men commune. Even now it remains an undemonstrable, an intuitive, even a mystical, conception, if you like to call it that. Yet, in consideration of the effort expended, I hope that I may be pardoned the didactic solemnity of the beginning of my book. It is the mark of the thirtieth year, among those, at least, who have not the privilege of being free men at twenty and slaves at forty. When analysis begins to corrode one's early illusions, one draws oneself together, one wants to keep them intact, one defends oneself against the new illusions which are outlining themselves; one insists on remaining faithful to ideas and images, to means of expression that are no longer a part of one. One surrounds oneself with a hard mold which hampers one's movements. Is not that, in all aesthetic and moral evolutions of the past and the present, exactly the passage from the first instinctive ingenuousness to the free discovery of a second ingenuousness, exactly such a passage as we see in the stiffness of all archaisms? If I am not mistaken in this, I should be very well pleased if the tense character of the beginning of my book corresponded even a little to the tenseness of the first and most innocent among the builders of temples, the painters of tombs, and the sculptors of gods.

I have been reproached with having written not a "History of Art," but rather a sort of poem concerning the history of art. This reproach has left me wondering. I have asked myself what, outside of pure and simple chronology, the recital of inner events could be, when the material expression of those events consists entirely of affective elements. In the sense in which the historians understand history, synoptic tables suffice, and I have prepared them. There is no history except that summed up by these tables which is not, fatally, submitted to the interpretation of the historian [Or rather, what history is there that the historian does not interpret?]. What is true of the history of man's actions is infinitely more so of the history of his ideas, his sensations, and his desires. I cannot conceive a history of art otherwise than made up of a poetic transposition, not as exact, but as living as possible, of the plastic poem conceived by humanity. I have attempted that transposition. It is not my place to say whether I have succeeded with it.

To state the question a little differently, it seems to me that history should be understood as a symphony. The description of the gestures of men has no interest for us, no use, no sense even, if we do not try to seize on the profound relationships of these gestures, to show how they link together in a chain. We must try, especially, to restore their dynamic character, that unbroken germination of nascent forces engendered by the ceaseless play of the forces of the past on the forces of the present. Every man, every act, every work is a musician or an instrument in an orchestra. One cannot regard, it seems to me, the cymbal player or the triangle player as of the same importance as the violoncellos or of the mass of violins. The historian is the leader of the orchestra in that symphony which the multitudes compose with the collaboration of the artists, the philosophers, and the men of action. The historian's role is that of making clear the essential characters, to indicate their great lines, to make their volumes stand out, to contrast their lights with their shadows, to shade off the passages and harmonize the tones. It is so for the art-historian far more than for the historian of action—because the importance of action registers itself automatically in its results and traces, whereas the importance of a work of art is an affair of appreciation.

The historian should be partial. The historian who calls himself a scientist simply utters a piece of folly. I do not know, nor he either, any measuring instrument which shall permit him to graduate the respective importance of Leochares and Phidias, of Bernini and Michael Angelo. It seems that this is admitted with regard to literary history, and that no one thinks of getting wrought up if the historian of letters forgets Paul de Kock, voluntarily or not, to dilate upon Balzac. Neither is anyone surprised if the professor at the Sorbonne, writing a history of France, gives more importance to the gestures of Napoleon than to those of Clarke or Maret. The purists protest only when the partiality of sentiment intervenes to judge Napoleon, Clarke, or Maret. They do not realize that the mere statement of facts already supposes a choice made by men as a whole or by the events themselves, before the historian begins to intervene.

When the question is one of contemporary history, the part of the orchestra leader is much more arduous to perform. The view of the facts as seen from a distance, the more or less strong or persistent influence of the events on minds, the memory that they have left, all these impose on him who writes a commentary of the past, certain summits, certain depressions, visible to all. And to recreate a living organism from them he need do no more than join them with a curve. From nearer by, intuition alone decides, and the courage to make use of it. So much the worse for him who does not dare and cannot leave to the future the task of saying whether he has done well or ill in dealing with the works and the men of his time, as an artist does with the light and shade which he distributes on the object. It is possible that, from the orthodox point of view of history, it is a heresy to affirm that the slightest study by Renoir, the slightest water color by Cezanne belongs much more effectively to the history of art than the hundred thousand canvases exhibited in ten years in all the salons of painting. And, notwithstanding, one must risk that heresy. The poet of the present makes the history of the future.

Let us go farther. The gesture of a hungry man who stretches out his hand, the words that a woman murmurs in the ear of the passer-by on some enervating evening, and the most infinitesimal human gesture have a much more important place in the history of art itself than the hundred thousand canvases in question, and the associations of interest which try to impose them on the public. The orchestral multitude brings into prominence the playing of artists like Cezanne and Renoir, and it is they, in turn, who make clear to us the value of the multitude, which is composed, only to an insignificant degree, of the mass of mediocre works. Amid them its voice arises like a cry in a silence full of indiscreet mimicry and excessive gesture. Our orchestra takes its elements from the widely scattered manners and customs, from the whole of their action on the evolution and exchange of ideas; it is in the discoveries, the needs, the social conflicts of the moment, the obscure and formidable upheavals that love and hunger provoke in the depths of collective life and the hidden springs of the individual conscience.

I am quite willing to mention even the movement called "artistic," which floats on the surface of history by means of institutes, schools, and official doctrines, like a rouge badly applied to a woman's face. It plays its little part in the great plastic symphony wherein Renoir and Cezanne in our time, for example, like Rubens and Rembrandt in another, play the most illustrious role. But it is only by indirect means that the spirit created in the crowds by this "artistic" movement, reacts on each new affirmation of a great artist—who is unaware of practically all its manifestations. I think that if the risk is greater for the modern historian who gives prominence to Cezanne and Renoir in his narrative, his attempt is as legitimate, from the "scientific" point of view as—for the historian of the past—the custom of quite candidly giving more importance to Phidias than to Leochares.

The fact is that we have been for more than a century—since Winckelmann approximately—far too much inclined to tolerate a growing confusion between art history and archaeology. One might as well confuse literature and grammar. It is one thing to describe, by their external character, the monuments that man has left on his journey, to measure them, to define their functions and style, to locate them in place and time—it is another thing to try to tell by what secret roots these monuments plunge to the heart of races, how they sum up the most essential desires of the races, how they form the recognizable testimony to the sufferings, the needs, the illusions, and the mirages which have hollowed out in the flesh of all men, living and dead, the bloody passage from sensation to mind. It is thus that in wanting to write a history that should not be a dry catalogue of the plastic works of man, but a passionate narrative of the meeting of his curiosity and education with the forms that lie in his path, I may have committed—I have committed—errors of archaeology. Although I know worse errors, and although I have not failed to commit some of these besides, I will not go so far as to say that I do not regret them.

Archaeology has been profoundly useful. By seeking and finding original sources, by establishing family likenesses, filiations, and the relationships of works and of schools, little by little, in the face of the diversity in the form of the images (from which so many warring schools of aesthetics have been inspired to create silly exclusivisms), archaeology has defined the original analogy of these works and schools and the almost constant parallelism of their evolution. Everywhere, behind the artist, it has aided us to rediscover the man. Those among us, who have to-day become capable of entering into immediate communion with the most unexpected forms of art, evidently do not take note that such communion is the fruit of a long previous education, for which archaeology is doubtless the best preparation, however convinced of the fact it is itself. Those who rise up with the greatest contempt against the insensibility of the archaeologist are probably those who owe him the greater part, if not of their sensibility, at least of the means which have permitted them to refine it. To-day we laugh at the worthy persons who grant scarcely a pitying look at the lofty spirituality of Egyptian statues, or who recoil in disgust before the grandiose bestiality of Hindu bas-reliefs. Notwithstanding, there were artists who felt like those same worthy persons. I should not affirm that Michael Angelo would not have shrugged his shoulders before an Egyptian colossus, and I am quite sure that Phidias would have thrown Rembrandt's canvases into the fire. Archaeology, in plastics, is classification in zoology. Unknown to itself, it has fundamentally recreated the great inner unity of the universal forms and permitted the universal man to affirm himself in the domain of the mind. That this universal man will one day realize himself in the social realm is a thing I shall beware of maintaining, although it is a possible thing. But that some men, among the great diversity of the idols, car seize upon the one god who animates them all, is a thing as to which I may be permitted, I hope, to rejoice with them. Doubtless I shall even try soon to draw forth from the idols some of the features of this god [The spirit of the Forms (forthcoming)].

But not here. The scope is not broad enough. And I hope my reader is too impatient to approach the recital of the adventures which I have tried to relate for him, to consent to pick its flower before we have had the joy of breathing its perfume together. However, I should not like to have the slightest misunderstanding exist between him and me, as we stand at the threshold of this book. I have already warned him that I scarcely recognized myself in these opening pages of a work already old. They constitute, moreover, an obscure and often common plea for the utility of art. I want to dissipate the ambiguity. I have not ceased to think that art is useful. I have even strengthened my feeling as to that point. Not only is art useful, but it is, without the least doubt, the only thing that is, after bread, really useful to us all. Before bread, perhaps, for if we eat, it is really that we may keep up the flame which permits us to absorb—that we may recast it and spread it forth—the world of beneficent illusions which reveals itself and modifies itself, without a break, around us. From the caveman's or the lakeman's necklace of bones to the image d'Epinal tacked to the wall of the country tavern, from the silhouette of the aurochs dug in the wall of the grotto in P√©rigord to the ikon of the bed- room before which the muzhik keeps his lamp burning, from the war dance of the Sioux to the "Heroic Symphony," and from the graven design tinted with vermilion and emerald hidden in the night of the hypogees to the gigantic fresco which shines in splendor in the festival hall of Venetian palaces, the desire to arrest in a definite form the fugitive appearances wherein we think to find the law of our universe, as well as our own law, and through which we keep alive in ourselves energy, love, and effort—is manifested with a constancy and a continuity which have never abated. Whether this be in dance or song, whether it be in an image or in the narrative recited to a circle of auditors, it is always the pursuit of an inner idol—which we think, each time, to be the final pursuit and which we never end.

Philosophers, in speaking of this "disinterested play," affirm the irresistible need, which has urged us from the earliest times, to externalize the secret cadences of our spiritual rhythm in sounds or in words, in color or in form, in gesture or in steps. But the need asserts itself from this point of view as, on the contrary, the most universally interested of the deeper functions of the mind. Moreover, all games in themselves, even the most childish, are attempts to establish order in the chaos of confused sensations and sentiments. Man in his movement thinks that he adapts himself unceasingly to the surrounding world in its movement. And he believes that this adaptation takes place through the fleeting certitude he has of describing it forever in the intoxication of expression, as soon as he imagines that he has grasped a phenomenon as a whole. Thus, what is most useful to men is play.

The love of play, and the search for it, and the ardent curiosity which is a condition of play, create civilization. The civilizations—I should have said, those oases sown the length of time or dispersed in space, now alone, now interpenetrating, fusing at other times, attempting schemes, one after another, for a unanimous spiritual understanding among men—a possible, probable understanding, but one that is undoubtedly destined, if it be realized, to decline, to die, to seek within itself and around it the elements of a renewal. A civilization is a lyric phenomenon, and it is by the monuments which it raises and leaves after it that we appreciate its quality and its grandeur. It is defined to the extent that it imposes itself upon us through an impressive, living, coherent, and durable style. What men understand almost unanimously as "civilization" at the present hour has nothing at all to do with it—The tool of industry—the railroad, the machine, electricity, the telegraph—is only a tool. Whole peoples can employ it for immediate and materially interested purposes, without any opening up in them, by that employment, of the deep springs of attention and emotion, of the passion for understanding, and the gift for expressing which alone lead to the great aesthetic style wherein a race communes for a moment with the spirit of the universe. From this point of view the Egypt of five thousand years ago, the China of five centuries ago are more civilized than the America of to-day, whose style is still to be born. And the Japan of fifty years ago is more civilized than the Japan of to-day. It is even possible that Egypt, through the solidarity, the unity, and the disciplined variety of its artistic production, through the enormous duration and the sustained power of its effort, offers the spectacle of the greatest civilization that has yet appeared on the earth, and that all manifestations we call civilized since Egypt are only forms of dissolution and dissociation from her style.  We should have to live ten thousand years more in order to know.

Style, in any case—that clear and harmonious curve which defines for us, on the road we follow, the lyrical steps established by those who preceded us, style—is but a momentary state of equilibrium. We cannot go beyond it. We can only replace it. It is the very negation of "progress," which is possible only in the realm of tools. Through the latter and in proportion to the number and the power of the means invented by man, "progress" increases the complexity of life and—by the same token—the elements of a new equilibrium. The moral order and the aesthetic order can, thanks to these tools, make up vaster symphonies, more mixed and complicated with influences and echoes, and served by a far greater number of instruments. But "moral progress," like "aesthetic progress," is merely bait which the social philosopher offers to the simple man in order to incite and increase his effort. Evil, error, ugliness, and folly will always, in the development of a new style, play their indispensable role as a real condition of imagination, of meditation, of idealism, and of faith. Art is a lightning flash of harmony that a people or a man conquers from the darkness and the chaos which precede him, follow him, necessarily surround him. And Prometheus is condemned to seize the Are only that he may light up for a second the living wound in his side and the calm of his brow.

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