Romanticism and Materialism (part IX)

View the scanned original illustrations

This is an immense thing. And for that reason, all eyes have been fixed upon it for thirty years. While the Impressionists, in the face of the blindest and most commercial resistance, were pursuing their conquest of the light, the movements preceding their own, or paralleling it, were ending, or continuing, or outlining beside them, or within themselves, without anyone's perceiving that fact. This was the irresistible consequence of the social dissociation which was advancing with the same pace that they were. Between the solid construction of the artists who came forth from the Revolution and from its expression in romanticism, and the infinite fragmentation of the researches which were now being attempted, there was the same distance which separates the moral ideal of the triumph of the middle class from the new-born needs which it had itself delivered. At a time when Corot, Daumier, Millet, Courbet, and Puvis de Chavannes were still alive, it seemed as if they had been dead for years. Everything that was new, everything that was unexpected or personal, was called Impressionism, to express people's hate for it, or love for it. Lépine, so classical in his delicate and clear-cut notations of the general aspects of nature, and who was indeed influenced by the group, was confused with it. Even after the final evolution of Cézanne and Renoir, people remained obstinate in classing them with Impressionism. Its visions of the sun and its analyses of the light were confused with the obscure symphonies and the analyses of darkness of Whistler, the American, an adroit and subtle amateur, enamored of mystery and of gleams in the shadows, but deriving, as Impressionism did, from Delacroix, from Courbet, from Manet, and from the landscapists of Japan. At its edges, and announcing it in advance by a few years, were the brief and confused jets of flame of Monticelli, which few saw moving in the penumbra. Under its banner were ranged Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec who, the former especially, had practically nothing in common with it.

However, these confusions explain themselves. The naturalism of the last schools of the century, of which Courbet is the apparent initiator, of which the scientific movement is the positive pretext, but of which one can discover the manifold origins and the secret course in all the social dreams and all the plastic realizations which, since the Revolution, stirred the sources of sentiment and of action, presents itself, in its ensemble, as a violent struggle to acquire the elements of reality. But under the husk of the theories and the systems, under the undulating surface of adventures and of manners and customs, that which persists is the temperament of man, the mode in which, as he traverses the life of his epoch, he takes possession of the spirit which circulates through the forms of the universe and fixes itself in them. Naturalism to be sure, will know no more than the object, will submit to its domination more and more closely for thirty years, and will forbid itself to transpose, to imagine, to compose, to invent, and to ask myth and history for their subjects; it will no longer be willing to do more than open the window, copy the street and the people who cross it, the sky, the trees, the markets, the assemblies, and that which comes to pass, and that which passes. But we shall see one man seizing, in this concrete world, upon matter itself and the density, the savor, and the evident external nature of the object. Another man will seize its color, the reflections which it welcomes and sends back, and the combinations of shadow and sunlight on its shaded surface. Still another seizes its form, the line which describes it and isolates it, its character, and its accent. And in the strong naturalistic unity which will deliver painting from the ball and chain of recipes and dogmas, and from the iron collar of the abstract ideal, this one will follow the indications of Ingres, that one of Delacroix, the other of Daumier or of Corot, and this other of Courbet, and all of them the ardent movement toward living color and form which characterizes painting since David.

This is what gives to the later movements of naturalism that appearance of being dissociated from one another, an appearance of analysis in its directions and its researches, and of lyricism in its sentiment, as always occurs, when men take possession of something of the unknown. From Delacroix to Seurat, Signac, and H. E. Cross, by way of the Impressionists, there is no interruption. But while joy seems to mount and broaden in the measure that the conquest of the sun approaches, with the vibration of the landscapes of the south carried to its apogee of violence, brilliance, and of light in its teeming movement, dissociation becomes more pronounced and, from one analysis to another, ends in the blind alley of a pictorial technique whence it cannot escape [See Appendix (a)]. There is no deviation of direction and of influence from Ingres to Toulouse-Lautrec and, through Manet and Degas, to Seurat, the powerful, musical, and grave initiator of pointillism, the poet of the silent forms which wander in the quiver of the air and at the edge of sunny waters; and with his successors also there is no deviation. But the passionate and sensual realism of Ingres, and Manet's realism with its preoccupation with color and with plastics, tends, with Degas, toward documentation, grazes the anecdote with Toulouse-Lautrec, and turns, with their successors, to illustration, to a record of daily events, and even to caricature.

At least, it is in that direction that the study of the form in movement, and of gesture, in the street, the studio, the café, the theater, the race course, and the dance hall, has attained the sharpest rendering of immediate truth and of concrete character. There is no voluptuousness, none of the intoxication of arriving, beyond the form and the object, at wandering space, the infinite domain of the communion, like that of music, in which intuition causes all lines, all volumes, the whole succession of the planes, all relationships, and all the echoes of harmony to converge. Instead, there is, with Degas, dried-up will-power, and a line that cuts like a knife. Whether his subject is a laundress with bare shoulders and arms, pressing down on her iron with both hands, or a group of dancing girls in the theater, in training to loosen their joints, or long race horses coming across the green to return to their stable, the gesture is so exact, although the muscle is not visible, that it seems to be followed and dissected by a steel point running with the current that throws it into relief. In the diffused light, everything appears livid, everything takes on the deadly aspect of the accessories of glass and of metal which modern life imposes on those who seek to forget it in the pleasures of the machine. The faces seem lit by the wan reflections from café tables, from spoons, saucers, and the absinthe on the counter. The angular and flabby bodies squatting in the pale metal of the tub with its splashing water, render hygiene as sad as a hidden vice. He shows us meager forms with protrusive bones, a poor aspect, harsh and distorted, of the animal machine when it is seen from too near by, without love, with the single pitiless desire to describe it in its precise action, unrestrained by any sense of shame, and without the quality of heroism which might have been given to the all too clear eyes by a lyrical impulse. There is loftiness of bearing in the vision without innocence which has rid itself of all desire to please, and which is eager to know in order to describe, and to describe in order to know. There is a constant sacrifice to the expression of the gesture, which is tenaciously followed in the most precise acts of the toilet, in the movement of climbing out of a bathtub, of raising the arms to twist or comb the hair, and of pressing the towel or the sponge on the breasts. As soon as his sharp eyes surprise the thinness of elbows, the disjointed appearance of shoulders, the broken appearance of thighs, and the flattening of hips, he tells of all this without pity. And yet it is strange that this Occidental, enamored of the most disinterested truth, should often make us think of some Oriental painter seeking to drown the disenchantment of his spirit in the richest and rarest tones, broken at every moment, glistening, dying, and being reborn. It is a cruel art, rendered more cruel by the flames and shadows carried across the flesh by the fires of the footlights, which bring out the hollows and the projections, but in which, at times, when the pastel catches fire and flares up, there shines a poetic flash, evoking, with the ballet girls swept along by the whirlwind of the dance, with their glittering gauze and make-up, some too brief dream in which the soul of some Watteau touched with acid, returning to wander under the artificial lights, might see phosphorescent butterflies flying up to them and breaking their wings.

With Toulouse-Lautrec, this dry flash is as if extinguished. The cruelty persists, turns to sadism, draws blood from the tarnished mouths, drags down the eyelids, oils the poor, flat hair, and renders more thin and wan the miserable flesh which is bought and sold in the market. Blanched drinkers, pale females, the dead glow of zinc bars, the sad, weary round of the café concerts and the dance halls, the moldiness beneath them, and the odors of pharmacies and pomades—everything that a strong century drags behind its conquering army in the shape of worn-out creatures of love, existing to console the wounded and the sick for having to live—all is violently evoked by Toulouse-Lautrec, with the leap of his line, the acid of his color, and the disjointed rhythm of his composition. It is the sinister face of pleasure, a last instinctive protest of agonizing Christianity against the rising intoxication of a universe accepted.

No comments: