The Sources of Greek Art (part III)

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Greece troubles herself but little, and then only at the very beginning of her art, with the enemy powers which hamper our first steps. Although man already places himself under the protection of the intelligent forces, he has not forgotten the struggles which his ancestor was forced to maintain against the brutal forces of a universe which repulsed him. This memory is inscribed in the sculptures which, on the pediment of the Parthenon of Pisistratus, showed Zeus struggling against Typhon, or Herakles throwing Echidna to earth. A barbarous work, violently painted with blues, greens, and reds, a memory of avalanches, of terrifying caverns, of the storms of the north, it was a nightmare of savages still ill taught by Asia and Egypt, but becoming curious and already eager to comprehend. The hell of the pagans will last but a short time.

The temple where these idols reign, these bulls, these twisted serpents, these astonished visages with green beards, is, moreover, in its principle, what it will be in the greatest periods. Architecture is the collective, necessary art which appears first and dies first. The primordial desire of man, after food, is shelter, and it is in order to erect that shelter that, for the first time, he appeals to his faculty of discovering in natural constructions a certain logic whence, little by little, the law will issue forth and permit him to organize his life according to the plan of the universe. The forest and the cliffs are the powerful educators in the geometrical abstraction from which man is to draw the means of building houses which are to have a chance of resisting the assault of rain and storms. At Corinth there already rises a temple with heavy and very broad columns, coming straight up from the ground as they mount in a block to the entablature. Several of them still stand. They are terrible to see, black, gnawed like old trees, as hard as the mind of the Peloponnesian countries. The Doric order came from those peasant houses which one still sees in the countryside of Asia Minor, trees set in the ground in four lines making a rectangle, supporting other trees on which the roof was to be placed. The form of the pediment comes from the slope of this roof, which is designed to carry off the rain. The Greek temple, even when it realizes the most lucid and the most consciously willed intellectual combinations, sends its roots into the world of matter, of which it is the formulated law.

On the sculptures of these temples the mind of Asia has left its trace. They are continued until the great century, but so assimilated in the nascent Hellenic genius that on seeing them one cannot think of direct imitation, but rather of those uncertain and fleeting resemblances which hover on the face of children. The archaic Dorian Apollos, those smiling and terrible statues through which force mounts like a flood, make one think, it is true, of the Egyptian forms, because of the leg which steps forward and the arms glued to the stiff torso. But on this hieratism the theocratic spirit exercises no action. Dorian art is all of a piece, far less subtle, far less refined, far less conscious than that of the sculptors of Thebes. The passages between the very brusque sculptural planes are scarcely indicated. What dominates is the need to express the life of the muscles.

It is because these Apollos are athletes. The great cult of gymnastics is born, that necessary institution which is to permit Greece to develop the strength of arms and of legs, while parallel with it there develops suppleness of the mind in its constant search for the universal equilibrium. Already, from all the regions of the Greek world, from the islands, from the distant colonies, from Italy and from Asia, the young men come to Olympia and Delphi to contest the crown of olive leaves. In running, in wrestling, and in throwing the discus they are nude. The artists, who hasten to these national meeting places, like everyone else who calls himself a Hellene, have before their eyes the spectacle of the movements of the human frame and of the complex play of the muscles rolling under the brown skin, which shows them as if they were bare themselves, and which is hardened by scars, Greek sculpture is born in the stadium. It was to take a century to climb the steps of the stadium and to install itself in the pediments of the final Parthenons, where it was to become the educator of the poets and, after them, of the philosophers. They were to feast their mind on the spectacle of the increasingly subtle relationships which sculpture established in the world of forms in action. There was never a more glorious or more striking example of the unity of our activity: athleticism, by the intermediary of sculpture, is the father of philosophy, at least, of Platonian philosophy, whose first concern was to turn against sculpture and athleticism in order to kill them.

Through the Dorian Apollo Greece passes from primitive art to archaism, properly so-called. The artist considers the form with more attention, painstakingly disengages the meaning of it, and transports that meaning to his work in so uncompromising a manner that he imposes on it the appearance of an edifice, whose architectonic quality seems destined to know no change. The Peloponnesus becomes the great training school of the archaic marble workers; Cleoethas, Aristocles, Kanakhos, and Hagelaides open workshops at Argos, Sicyon, and Sparta; the citadel of the Dorian ideal becomes, before Athens, the focus of Greek thought. But Hellenism in its entirety is not to find its nourishment there. Sparta is far from the routes of the Old World, imprisoned in a solitary valley where mountain torrents flow; it is a fertile but a jealous country, separated from the great horizons by the hard ridges of the Taygetes, which are covered with snow even in summer. The people which dwells there is as closed as the valley itself, and it is these isolated surroundings which are for so long a time to keep up its voluntary egoism. Athens, on the contrary, is at the center of the eastern Mediterranean, and near the sea. It is the meeting point of the positive and disciplined Dorian element, which mounts from the south toward Corinth, Aegina, and Attica in its search for lands to dominate, and of the Ionian element which brings to the city, through the sieve of the islands, the artist spirit of Asia, made supple and subtle by the habits of trade, diplomacy and smuggling. The glory of Sparta, in reality, is that of having offered to Athens a virgin soil to fertilize and also, by harassing her without mercy, to have kept her in condition, to have compelled her for a long time to cultivate her energy. Athens, tempered by these struggles, was not slow in showing her superiority. When the soldiers of Darius followed the traders of Asia to the European coast, it is she who was at the head of the Greeks, while Sparta, inclosed in the blind cult of her personal interest, took her place only after the combat.

Where are we to find the first step of Ionian art in its march toward Attica, the uncertain dawn of the great Oriental sensualism rendered healthy by the sea and sharpened by commerce, which will flood the Dorian soul with humanity? The Hera of Samos is, perhaps, even stiffer than the Peloponnesian athletes, as it is nearer to Saite Egypt, which is unfolding at this moment and investing hieratic form with a humanity of its own. A tight sheath of cloth imprisons the legs, which are close together, but under the figure's light veil, with its lines like those on water, the shoulders, the arms, the breast, and the hollowed back have profiles of a moving grace, and planes which meet one another and interpenetrate with the delicacy of a confession. It is this spirit of abounding tenderness which is soon to take root on the Greek continent. From the end of the sixth century Dorian art and Ionian art were neighbors everywhere without having yet recognized each other fully. At Delphi, at the threshold of the Treasury of the Cnidians, Asiatic Greece saluted with a mysterious smile the rude statue maker of the Peloponnesus who had set up the women, the lions, and the formidable horses in the pediment of the Sanctuary of Apollo. The caryatids which supported the Asiatic architrave were strange, secret women; they had a winged grace, like that of an animal and of a dance; they seemed to guard the gate of temptation, which led to a warmth within, like that of the sun, and to untasted intoxications. The Dorian spirit and the Ionian spirit—the young countryman bursting with vigor and the woman bedecked, caressing, questionable—met and loved. Attic art, which in its adult age was to be the great classic sculpture, austere and living, was to be born of their union.

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