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Art and Poetry
By Jacques Maritain
Philosophical LibraryCopyright © 1943 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
When Saint Francis had wedded Poverty, he began to sing with unbelievable freedom the world's most delicate and newest song. He tamed the wolves, made a convent of birds, and in all unlikelihood and truth, his heart dilated with love, he took the air, afoot or on his mule out on the backs of what the Psalm calls the exultant hills.
Thus it is that Chagall weds painting; in all humility and cheer! His clear eyes see all bodies in a happy light, he delivers them from physical laws, and makes them obey the hidden law of the heart: agile, free, without heaviness, sagacious and eloquent as the ass of Balaam, fraternal, sweetened one toward the other, the pig toward the poet, the cow toward the milkmaid A laughing gaze, sometimes melancholy, rummaging through an innocent and malicious world.
A quite real world however, like that of childhood. Nothing is firmer, warmer, more dovetailed, than the handclasp of the airplaning couple by which they hold one another up in the open air. Nothing reveals a truer knowledge of the animal world than these astonishing illustrations of the fables of La Fontaine that were to be admired at the gallery of M. Ambroise Vollard, in the fluid brilliance of which the good humor of the Ile-de-France mingles with the revery of Russian forests, La Fontaine with Kriloff and with the tales of Kota Mourliki.
On the visual plane everything looks topsy-turvy. In fact, on the spiritual plane a stroke of magical light has put everything in place. Each composition of Chagall — a real discharge of poetry, a mystery in the sanest clarity — has both an intense realism and spirituality.
Occasionally he opens up his toys to see what is inside; this because he loves them! He knows that in the brain of the cow the little farmer-woman is sitting; he knows that the world is capsizing around the lovers, bucolic and disastrous. He has won the amity of creation, and parades his couples around the sky with the assent of the little villages.
One asks one's self what knowledge, very sure and almost painful in its perspicacity, permits him to be so faithful to life in such complete freedom. No mistake can be made on the love of things, of beasts, of the whole of reality — love too nostalgic to be pantheistic — that animates such knowledge and keeps it in good wind.
Now and then these reminders of Siennese profiles, of Florentine visitations, make one feel the gravity that constitutes the basis of so much fantasy, and understand the great love for Angelico of this veritable and admirable primitive. Pitiful, melancholic, haunted by the departure of perpetual wandering, singing of poverty and hope, it is the very poetry of the Jewish spirit that moves us so profoundly in these miraculous Rabbis, as in the marvels of aerial mobility and fiery truth that spring from the world of forms and colors invented by him for the Yiddish Theater of Moscow.
At a time when the implacable creative force of a Picasso and the pathetic genius of a Rouault would have sufficed, it seems, to occupy all painting, we are grateful to Chagall for showing us that there are — so different, but not incompatible, for no beauty exhausts the multiple fecundity of art — still other sources of poetry. These hold fast in a singularly close manner to the lyricism of a race. But then, is it not a virtue already almost Christian — this taste for freshness and humility and difficult balances, for seeing the world thus from the angle of a happy catastrophe?
This obsession with miracle and freedom, with the innocence and a fraternal communication among all things reveals to us in Chagall an evangelical sentiment unconscious of itself and as if enchanted, where sometimes a certain grating of the world of the senses reminds us that here and there the devil still furtively shows his horns through the flowery bars of this luminous universe.
Chagall knows what he says; he does not perhaps know the range of what he says. That St. Francis would have taught to him, as to the larks.
* * *
To illustrate the Bible was for Chagall's art a singular test. It remained to be seen whether that which seemed to some people only the exuberance of poetry and anxious tenderness, was not hiding a substance capable of being stripped bare In truth those hardly doubted who had divined the importance of the heart in the paradoxes of this painting maliciously hastening to make all things embrace each other.
The forty etchings executed for Genesis attest that the trial turned to the painters advantage. In remaining himself, he is renewed.
Reduced, concentrated, forgetful of the aggressive foliage of color and freedom, his art manifests the better that human and poetic quality and that depth of sentiment which makes him dear to us. Abstract without being cerebral, he does not use the burin methodically according to the procedure of the old masters. An ingenious technique, dictated by an ever alert sensibility, makes the white and the black and the black in the black sing wonderfully, with veiled modulations like the chanting of the Synagogue.
Certain Graeco-Buddhist sculptures have a strange family resemblance to the sculptures of the Christian Middle Ages. More Jewish than ever, Chagall rediscovers with his etchings, in a wholly other world, something of the grave and naive mediaeval inspiration.
The difference however remains profound. In its highest perfection the Gothic succeded in saving the intellectual purity of the Hellenic form by incarnating it in a universe of flesh and soul. The art of Chagall has nothing of the measure of Greek form, it stands at the extreme opposite.
It is from a sort of fluid chaos traversed by the soul that appear signs all the more moving since less self-contained and more engaged in the discords of matter, living appearances that are like the gestures of agile hands raised from below and begging pity. And here greatness appears at the same time, as in the descent of the Angels with Abraham or the angered solitude of Moses, or in that admirable Creation of Man, carried along with such noble movement.
It is in this sense that I said just now: more Jewish than ever. And still Chagall, in his etchings, has not willed to be Jewish, I suppose he does not even know very exactly which dogma, Jewish or Christian, the Old Testament illustrated by him proposes to us. It is the poetry of the Bible that he has listened to, it is this that he has wished to render, but this poetry is the voice of Someone ...
I would reproach myself with seeming to solicit in any sense whatever an art which is thus religious only, so to speak, in spite of itself. It is so nevertheless, at least according to the most unformulated aspiration. And it is quite permissible to remark that precisely because he has sought and willed nothing in this sense, the plastic world of Chagall's Bible, so profoundly and dolorously terrestrial, as yet undelivered, and as if groping its way about in a sacred night, bears witness, without knowing it, to the figurative value of the great lyricism of Israel. The more Jewish is this world, and floundering among the laborious speculations of the three great Patriarchs who are the image of the three divine Persons, the more a nameless evangelical appeal mutely resounds in it. Look at the three Angels at the table of Abraham; what promises do they bring the old man from whom God can hide nothing because he is His friend?
His pale complexion, his clear eye, always aware, but rather more inward-looking than fixed on the object, his violent mouth, bulged forehead, large skull once furnished with abundant blond hair (which it does not miss): there is here something of a moon-clown — a surprising blend of pity and bitterness, of malice and candor — in the physiognomy of this painter, enemy of coteries and of convention, and generally of all contemporary custom, whom renown is by way of drawing from his cave, for he was born in a cave in 1871, during the siege of Paris.
We know that Rouault, who learned first the art of the glass painter, entered when he was twenty the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in the atelier of Gustave Moreau, of whom he was the favorite pupil. "You haven't the brains to do as much," said Gustave Moreau to a member of the Institute about a work of Rouault (the Dead Christ, now in the Grenoble Museum) which had been rejected at the concours de Rome. Thus did Rouault's career begin in storm ... In the nobleness and fervor of his teaching as well as in his vivid intelligence about the past, Moreau was an exceptional master, still more exceptional in the pains he took to waken everyone to his true personality. Rouault has retained a piety for, a profound fidelity to his memory that are rare nowadays, and that alone can explain how such a savage could consent to occupy an official post (that of Curator of the Musée Gustave Moreau).
It is said currently that he has a bad temper, meaning an unsociable temperament. And in fact, relations with him are not always easy, at least for those ignorant of the fact that the sophisticated procedures of a delicate politeness are not the best way to approach him, nor for those also who, with assiduity always badly rewarded, amiably take the risk of asking him questions, asking him what he thinks of the new painting or the new poetry, where he spends his vacations, what he has on the stocks, what he paints with, and above all, ah above all: "I would so much like to see your latest work, couldn't I visit your studio?" That, that is the unpardonable. He buries in secrecy whatever concerns himself; whatever he is doing, he chooses to hide away like a wild thing. That is why he so rarely exhibits, why he is glad of the mercantile instincts of M. Ambroise Vollard, interposing a vast shadow between his works and the eyes of the profane.
In reality he belongs in the category of the shy explosives. Parisian through his mother, but Celtic and Breton through his father, he accumulates within himself, in the inexpressible regions of the heart, impalpable treasures of dream and of nostalgia, of suffering and azure, which the contact with others bruises and oppresses. He ceases to suffer violence only when he finds himself alone before the work to be created, or when he amuses and instructs his children,
Genevieve mon gros bourdon,
Isabelle ma colombelle,
Agnes petit pigeon,
with wisdom and tenderness, with marvelous fantasy. His furies and outbursts are not in the least understood unless they are related to this interior lyricism, which, for several years now, he has found need of expressing outwardly in weird songs, springing like wild flowers.
Along with this, a curious instinct for moral proselytism, a natural incapacity for resigning himself to the mediocrity of those about him; at bottom, an insatiable sympathy for human things, prompts this recluse to enter into communication with people and at the same time to get indignant at them. Under the cover of bruskness, even of brutality, there hides a soul which does not know indifference or disdain. Hence the ferocious images, much more somber than the ordinary caricature, through which, during one period (now long past) he had to discharge his angered heart. His most violent exasperations against the bourgeoisie and against our social order are thus like the disappointments of a soul in love with an interior order that it wants too avidly to meet in the streets, in the tribunals, and in the subway.
The life of Georges Rouault not only offers a magnificent example of disinterestedness, patient courage, furiously earnest work, obstinate and without respite. It conceals profounder virtues. When, as apprentice glassworker (he earned then 50 centimes a week, or about 10 cents), he had to carry a package far, his employer gave him three sous (a little over ½ cent) to take the omnibus. The child made the trip on foot, and kept the 3 sous to buy paints; but in order not to rob his employer even of a minute, he started along with the omnibus, and ran without stopping in order to arrive at the same time as the vehicle which was to have carried him. An astute combination, which adjusted the interests of art to those of probity, at the expense of cardiac muscles. We are pleased to see in this childish trait a symbol of the admirable moral rectitude, austere, scrupulous, heroic if there was need, of this great artist who still remains the artisan. There is in Rouault a purity — almost jansenist, and which could become cruel — that makes his force and liberty. There is also in him, like a living hidden well-spring, an intense religious feeling, the faith of a stubborn hermit, that led him to Huysmans and to Léon Bloy, and that made him discover the image of the divine Lamb in all the abandoned and the rejected whom he commiserates. It is religion that is at the origin of his tenderness and his revolt, of his hatred against all sorts of pharisaism. Add to this the faculties of a prodigiously sensitive eye, and the gift of pitiless observation, and you will understand the true meaning of his vehemences.
But first of all he is a painter, exclusively a painter. I do not refer to his technical knowledge only, nor to his disconcerting skill. I mean the spirit of the painting, in its most living intellectual and sensitive reality. A philosopher could study in him the virtue of art as in the pure state, with all its exigencies, its mysteries, its fierce self-restraint. If he wounds many people by reactions lacking in gentleness, if he protects himself against all modes of subjection with meticulous and vigilant violence, with umbrageous and proud independence, it is to maintain in himself this virtue in its integrity. He likes to repeat after Poussin: "We are making a mute art" and while boiling always with a confused flood of thoughts, while possessing an exquisite sense of the beauty of the old masters and while finding sometimes the most significant sayings (design, he said, is a jet of the spirit on the alert) he never explains himself, letting his work alone defend itself, respecting his art to such a point that he does not wish to touch it by words. Obstinate in his furrow, he cannot be classed in any school. His painting, so human and expressive, has a purely plastic eloquence, with nothing literary in it. His love of rare materials, which could have led him astray in endless research, his human preoccupations and his taste for satire which could have diverted him toward anecdote — these he has not suppressed but dominated by his art, which, by triumphing over them, has become all the more pure and the more robust.
Seeing ahead of him, after his Child Jesus among the Doctors, the easiest and most profitable future, he broke his moorings and scandalized his first admirers by entering the dark night of which he did not see the end, but where he felt his energies would be purified. Gustave Moreau, astonished by his first "realistic" experiments, — for they had begun at the time, with the butchers he saw passing in the rue des Fourneaux on their large wagons, then with the clowns whom he went to spy upon at the fete of Grenelle, when the parade ended, Gustave Moreau understood that after all it was better for him to follow his own vision. But later his friends were to reproach him with failing at his task; at one moment very few refused to doubt him. I saw him, then, endure courageously several betrayals, and, what is harder to bear, the reprobation of true and faithful friends. Bloy, affectionately, but nonetheless mercilessly accused him of falling into a demoniac art, of delighting in ugliness and deformity. He listened motionless, white and silent. And what could he have answered? He was obeying a necessity of growth, stronger than he. Prostitutes, clowns, judges, shrews, it was himself that he sought, I mean his own interior accord in the universe of form and color. He has found himself; but that is a trail that one must blaze alone.
Patience! Impassioned as he has been by his art, Rouault has never hurried, either in order to succeed with the public and to obtain official sanction, or to realize all the potentialities that he had to lead to their point of unity. He has never done violence to his gifts. He has let the sap rise, the fruit ripen. Neither his vision nor his technique has suffered the repercussions of the passing styles. He knows the price of verve and of improvisation, but also the poverty of the facile, and of the false harmonies, that give pleasure for one season; the price of knowledge, but also the hollowness of virtuosity, of the recipes and amulets of the schools. He had a horror of an artificial order reconstituted by mechanical or imitative means; he has always felt himself claimed by a certain spiritual order linked to an exquisite measure, to fleeting nuances that have to be discovered from within.
Excerpted from Art and Poetry by Jacques Maritain. Copyright © 1943 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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ContentsBooks by the same author,
THE FREEDOM OF SONG,