The Contemporary Genesis (part IV)

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Here, then, are certain authentic artists whom the new tendencies assume to dispossess from the direction of men's minds—I speak of those issuing most directly from Impressionism, for it seems to me that in the case of isolated men like Charles Pequin or Despiau, none of the criticisms addressed to these artists by the most uncompromising "constructors" can touch them, and leaves them on the road which goes from Cézanne to Derain. As a matter of fact, all painting and all sculpture have, for twenty years, turned around the indifference of Cézanne and of Renoir toward that which is not plastic expression, the first stage of a feeling for general subordination to some impersonal monument which we do not perceive, but which, with them and at their very time, during the full tide of Impressionism, the full tide of naturalism, others, like Henri Rousseau, were sketching roughly without knowing it or, like George Seurat, they were already trying, with an acute consciousness of that fact, to build it up consistently from all sides. The unbroken candor of the one, and the sovereign intelligence which, with the other, never ceases organizing and spiritualizing its gifts, seem, in our day, to penetrate the influence which these two masters exert together, and in them is summarized the effort of the nineteenth century in France to give, with that influence, a strong skeleton of plastics to that feeling: I persist in believing that neither Bonnard, nor, above all, Matisse, stands in any opposition to it, and that, on the contrary, by giving the final freedom to poetic sensation and to chromatic sensation, they have contributed to clear the way for the most singular innovators. Was it not only yesterday, in fact, that Seurat was considered a Neo-Impressionistic dissociator, and that a bare few—and I was not of the number—perceived the purity and the calm of his rhythms, free and cadenced like figures in a dance, and his masculine power of representing to himself the most picturesque, and even the most commonplace, universe under monumental aspects?

The feeling I speak of is new only in its unanimity. The renaissance of great decoration which has been going on for a century, announced it, unknown to all. And from the fact that the painters of to-day reject all decorative intention, one should not conclude that these two movements oppose each other. To speak of the setting, also, is to imply subordination. But the decorators of the last century had not understood, and would not have been able to understand, that contemporary edifices were not built for them, that they were survivals of an outworn period, and preceded another period whose style, even to-day, is not born: their ambition was a noble one even if misdirected, their attempt was an isolated one, not standing outside of painting—let it suffice to cite Delacroix and Chassériau—but foreign to the preoccupations and to the means of a majority of the painters of their time. However, painting was, even independent of its destination, to assume certain decorative tendencies. The object for its own sake was diminishing in importance, even when it remained the sole pretext for the sculpture or for the picture. And it was an essential part of the phenomenon that these tendencies were to be observed among the most unlearned and the most cultivated of the artists. One surprised them thirty or forty years ago already in Henri Rousseau himself, a contemporary, without knowing- it, of Puvis, of Redon, and of Cezanne; he was an old innocent, a real primitive, a Giotto without training or culture, a customs officer certainly, and doubtless as unqualified to perform that work well as he would have been for the functions of an academician; but he was haunted by tropical landscapes so luxuriant, so pure, so fresh, so full of brilliance and of candor, so far from us, and so near to imaginary paradises and to miraculous gardens, that everything grows pale at times and effaces itself when hanging with these paintings which go beyond all bounds, like green plants, or like carpets of the Orient. The decorative tendencies burst forth in all the Neo-Impressionists, insistent or repentant, in Seurat first, with his tremendous faculty for impressing upon his naturalistic "subjects" an architectural aspect; in H. E. Cross, with his fervor so charming and poetic; in Signac, an enchanting tapestry-maker, weaving the skies, the atmospheres, the waves, and the masts out of solar light, and not fearing to see the division of the brush strokes as the very instrument for decoration. In J. P. Lafitte, it was as if a band of iron was stifling the new growth, which burned in him and which the war ended. One respected the tendencies in Maurice Denis, with whom they are didactic, dogmatic, intent on recreating a whole system of classicism, and obstinately turning toward culture at a time when restlessness and invention were bursting forth everywhere. In Pierre Fauconnet one saw the decorative resolved to go beyond the limits of the picture, to address itself to the accessories of the theater, to invade costume, and to spread over social and fashionable life, which Raoul Dufy, on his side, impresses with his lyricism at once profuse and precise, a thing of fantasy, whirling and ordered, like a dance. One finds the tendencies again among the young painters most eager for innovation, and thus Dufresne's paintings assume their aspect of shimmering and sumptuous carpets. One accepts the decorative, as it results, in some cases, in a conscious archaism or turning to obsession—an almost painful one, and insistent upon introducing romanticism into the new house, in the case of Bourdelle, the only artist of to-day to possess the instinct of the higher symbolism. His art is full of flame, but of smoke also, and it is expressed in a language which is not always his own, wandering, in its inner torment, from the Gothic men to Michael Angelo, from Ingres and from Carpeaux to Rodin, from the Assyrians to the Hindus, and from the Egyptians to the Greeks: however, in his art. whether fresco or sculpture, there is a lyric force in which the thought, accustomed, in general, to use a different language, twists and stiffens in order to make itself understood, and gives to the whole work an ardent tension which ends by imposing itself. One surprises the decorative tendencies in the heavy statues of Joseph Bernard, stones intoxicated by their power of sweeping upward the density and the awkwardness of stone, and sketching, with an archaic note, his images of games, of innocence, and of love. One admires the robust achievement of the decorative, as it comes forth from the earth with fruits in the hollow of its hands; here it has given us works hard and round, and modeled like a column, in the sculpture of Maillol, which would, with sufficient fidelity, symbolize the birth of a season, if the indeterminateness, the vague murmur, and the undefined and sensual love that lives in Oriental color, in music, and in the dance did not express the same thing in a manner at once more direct and more diffused [See Appendix (b)].

The imagination of the peoples, in their enervation, turns, indeed, around an invisible flame whose focus is in Paris, and into which each one feverishly casts the treasures and the refuse of its old soul. The most important contributions from abroad have been those of Holland and of Spain; the former country, already many years ago, brought forth Jongkind, and above all van Gogh; to-day it has the bestial and resplendent van Dongen, while Spain makes her voice heard, yesterday with the savage and solitary Regoyos, with Julio Antonio, a Roman of Saguntum, who died, almost a boy, overcome by the weight of his bronzes, to-day with the monotonous, candid, sharp, and perverse Iturrino, and with Picasso, now a genius, and now a man of skill. But aside from these, French painting alone persists in the dispute of the schools, and constitutes the nucleus of a world art impatient to burst forth. Germany, at the end of the last century, possessed certain interesting painters like Leibl, Liebermann, a kind of feudal retainer of French Impressionism, and Marées, but German art developed by itself, stiff and didactic, outside the symphonic movement of which France was the center, and its present-day "Expressionism" [This "expressionism" is perhaps nothing else than a transposition of the impressionistic state of mind passing, if I may be pardoned these barbarous terms, from French objectivism to German subjectivism, and from the plastic plane to the musical plane. Impressionism, at least at its beginnings, assumed to express itself with any means that came to hand, provided the impression was exact. Expressionism teaches that one must express oneself with any means that comes to hand, provided the expression be personal.] denotes only a social movement, for the moment, in which Kokoschka alone seems, with his confused and muddy quality of paint, to be preparing realizations which count; his character is exasperated, his violence is chaotic, and his "expression" sways, to be sure, but its fire and its life afford an art whose savor is undeniable. Hodler, the Swiss, was a vigorous professor. Belgian art since Meunier offers but little more than one isolated figure, James Ensor, who, with frail forms and pale harmonies, revives the marionette-theater spirit of Breughel and of Jerome Bosch. Italian art, before it flowers again, seems to await the full effect of the new urge which Italy is feeling and which is manifesting itself especially, up to the present, through the trenchant character of the forms of its industrial or naval architecture—forms such that only America has found any that are as decisive. Modigliani, the morbid and feverish poet of hands, of bodies, and of faces of women, which he notes suddenly, with a light, eager, and flowing brush—the poet of distortion, of sensual deformation, of flesh, of hallucinating eyes, and of the energetic Italian grace which surges up, warped by the Semitic ferment, after two centuries of sleep—died too soon for us to be able to deduce a general principle from his furtive apparition.

Meanwhile, in France and outside of France, outside of the schools and in the schools, one comes upon parallel phenomena at every step. With the most restless of the artists, form assumes a special instability which reminds one of that of the primitive organisms [See Appendix (c)]. With those who are most guided by the will, one finds a rigidity corresponding with the fixed images of geometrical abstraction [Ibid. (d)]. In the one case, there is an attempt to force the expression of time into the plane of space, the only one at the disposal of painting. In the other case the attempt is to express in this one plane all the dimensions of space. . . After Braque, a Frenchman of France, comes Picasso, a Spaniard of Andalusia, in whom the Arab dream is continued, and its impassioned pursuit of ideographic form through the natural forms reduced to their geometrical figures; Picasso tries, for the first time in Europe, to create a universe without contact with the real, with the pretext of placing in evidence a dimension of which, if I conceive the thing rightly, the "value" already expresses that which can be expressed on a flat sin-face. "Plastic equivalence" has existed for a long time. It is, first, architecture, then furniture or pottery, and then geometrical decoration, the arabesque, and the carpet. It can coexist with plastic "transposition," can frame it, complete it, and influence it. It cannot replace it.

Meanwhile, Picasso is not anchored to it, but turns around it, leaves it, returns to it, uses it as another instrument in his orchestra, and has been careful not to comment on it or even to baptize it—the word "Cubism," like "Impressionism," was at first a term of sarcasm—and with Picasso the movement has broken its narrow dikes and resounds from one place to another, over all the sensibility, all the thought, and all the energy of to-day. The restlessness of Picasso is one of the most ardent leavens in our contemporary fever. It is a nomadic but fruitful restlessness, which stirs up the springs, and the mud at the bottom of them, and the flowering plants that grow on them, a perilous dance of the intelligence as it seeks unheard-of equilibriums on the sharpest summits of sensation, suddenly giving up one game to fling itself into another, a work that is uncertain, and dramatic just through that fact, admirable in flashes, and quite frequently disappointing. But it is always impressive through its attention to character, its constant bent for style and for purity of the form, which is cleared of all incident, and through its disinterested desire to find in the undulations, the swellings, the taperings, and the contrasts of lines, the law of structure of the masses which they symbolize, and the law of continuity of the monumental ensembles which they, when taken together, make up for the dance, for play, for swimming, and for repose on the seashore. It is a work of singular importance, for by its play it demonstrates that what was formerly called "composition" is a system of equilibrium, a general form, which the undulating lines constantly bring back to turn, like tongues and crowns of flame issuing from one hearth, and moving around a central point which is the veritable "subject." It is a confident work, for it opens up hope to so many painters, by its free rehabilitation of fantasy, of invention, and of poetry in painting; confident in its intoxicated and lucid twists at the point of the pencil, and the edifices it builds, unforeseen, but logical as a dance. It has a quality of unexpectedness besides, not allowing one a second of respite in its unceasing evolution, its sudden leaps, its bizarre acts, its feats, its wild whims, and its inflexible reason. And yet it is essential, through its definite break with the Impressionism which Cézanne, Renoir, and Seurat had brought back into the great pictorial tradition, while preserving all its gains, but which, again, was preventing all their descendants from manifesting architectonic invention and plastic imagination. But this work of Picasso's is dangerous also, in its indefatigable wandering between museum painting and magazine illustration, in which latter field he gives scenes of the circus or of the life of Bohemia, lugubrious visions which turn at times toward the laughable, phantoms, boneless puppets, faces of fever and of famine, and surprising but learned forms whose line, through their constant attention to style and to calligraphy, very soon separated from that of the tradition of the marionette theater, which we first find with Daumier in France, which was lightly touched by Manet and Cézanne, to be taken up again by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Seurat, and in our day, carried by Rouault, in the bloody mud of his paintings, to its paroxysm of character, of somber and burlesque tragedy, and of sadness and of horror. And the work of Picasso is dangerous for those who are fascinated by the ability to do what is merely difficult, and dangerous perhaps for the one who performs these feats and who seems—I say only seems—sometimes to have renounced being merely a great painter in order to watch how others imitate him, and to note the surprise in the faces of the public.

For now is the time when, around this work people anathematize, preach, didacticize, and dogmatize. They bring forth Revelations of the Truth. They quarrel, as in the heyday of the School, over the preeminence of form or of color. They lose their time in cursing or in travestying "Impressionism," which, meanwhile, is nothing but ashes. And as they say that it is necessary "to construct," each one proposes his plan. They resort to deformation systematically as, in bygone days, they used to idealize systematically, thereby, even while they curse romanticism, ingenuously substituting a romanticist academism for the classicist academism. In a few months they exhaust the teachings of one after another of the great dead things which took twenty centuries to evolve. The Negro replaces the Greek in the preoccupations of a new doctrinism. The noble Greco-Roman of the old studios disgustedly throws aside his heroics and his helmet in order gravely to seize the tom-tom. They declare themselves primitives as a reaction against the skill which is everywhere; they declare themselves archaic in order to obey the demands of a culture which is at once weary of its science and eager to draw from it synthesized conclusions. They forget that a system does not suffice to create a great art, and even less to create a great artist. When one seeks order, one expresses oneself, one does not demonstrate to others the manner of expressing order.

Of all these confused movements, all that one needs to retain are the collective desires of which they are the symptoms. The art of to-day, despite the artists themselves, still too much given to assuming a look of singularity at any cost, is, unknown to itself, protesting against that individualism uncontrolled by its own discipline, into which a part of modern Europe is sinking, after having reached thereby one of its most splendid flights. A new intellectual order announces itself. And the "constructive" effort of Cubism may be regarded, in this sense, as a stirring symptom. Decorative in itself, it ruins decoration to set up architecture.

Here is the real crux of the problem, which the architect will resolve, but which certain works of painting or of sculpture—after having assimilated, in a few redoubtable years, the immense contribution of the Oriental arts, which see things in great masses and with pure profiles—are already proposing to the evolving consciousness of European humanity, with a power which constantly impresses one. "Nature" now retires to a secondary plane. It is, decidedly, no longer anything but a "dictionary," as Delacroix said it should be. Conceptualism is reborn. This is not the place to say whether Europe is playing its true rôle, and whether it is not too exhausted to take up once more the enormous labor of Asia in constructing a monumental universe which shall elevate form in itself to a level where it would sufficiently justify destiny and effort. In any case, Europe is attempting this, and attempting it in Paris.

André Derain, who is at the center of this decisive movement, seems to reconcile, in time and space, the most distant and most antagonistic worlds: he shows us hallucinating settings, saturated blacks, disturbed oranges, massive nudes, profound and heavy portraits [See Appendix (e)], and vigorous landscapes in which there is a meeting and the beginning of a fusion between the tragic sense of space of Sesshiu and the Chinese, the attentive lyricism of Lorenzetti the Sienese, the ingenuous imagination of Rousseau, the customs official, and the geological density which characterizes Corot—the whole seen as if through a layer of transparent water, a polyp world, coral-like and crystallized. It is in this powerful painter, I believe, that we find the result, in our day, not only of the example of Cézanne and Renoir, but of the whole decorative effort which followed it, and especially of the whole constructive effort, that feeling at once irresistible and vague, around which Picasso unrolled his precise arabesques, but which, always and from everywhere and with Picasso himself, encountered the central, haunting, and invincible preoccupation of subordinating the whole of plastics to some monumental idea of form, in which the idea of imitating it gave way to the determination to comprehend its structure, its norm, and its meaning. Take notice, besides, of the fact that André Derain has had the exceptional strength, in the whirlwind of systems, of crossed influences, and of innumerable revelations, in which we have been living for twenty years, to bring this whole thing back, by a slow, broad effort, to the external and the spiritual aspects of his country, in which Corot, Delacroix, Barye, Renoir, Claude, Poussin, and Foucquet would recognize themselves without difficulty.

A majestic unity characterizes the painting of André Derain to-day. Like the greatest among the painters—and like the greatest only—he resolves the incessant contradictions of appearances by intuitively reaching and by bringing into relief that which Baudelaire called the universal analogy. A skull; a stretch of country in which the skeleton of the soil marks its outlines; a tree, and a human torso, nude or draped—obey the same forces, whose direction, simplicity, and accent are revealed to us by the union of the light caressing, and of the color saturating the surface of their volumes. Now his pictures seem cast, as a block, in some unknown metal, colored from within by some deep force which appears to spread over the surface of this block its dull wave, in order to saturate with somber gold this shoulder, this neck, and this forehead, to illuminate this eye with a gleam as of stone, to pour some thick nocturnal wave into this heavy hair, and to run through these twisted branches, or this hilly plain, with the central fire which passes into the sap and into the rock. One would say that they had issued from some subterranean forge, where a hot lava mingled and fused with red bronze and silver would assume, under the blows of the hammer and the work of the file, the summary and compact form which no accidental, no incidental, is capable of disintegrating. There are still, with Matisse himself, preoccupations foreign to form, as might be expected from so enchanting a colorist, however pure and disinterested he is. Here the concentration has become almost tragic, and, although very French, through the measure, the sober harmony, and the spontaneous equilibrium, it is rude, brief, and massive like a primitive idol discovered in the soil.

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