Before The Curtain
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Art as a Part of the Fabric of Human Life — Inventions and Their Influence upon the History of Art — Climate and Great World Forces — Human Nature in All Ages Alike — A Summary of Artistic History — A Pageant of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian Worlds.
IN the preceding pages I have given some notion of the nature of art, of the artist's point of view, and of the way he does his work. Those which follow are intended as the briefest possible introduction to the history of art, merely to indicate and suggest its relations to the major movements of the history of mankind, and serve, I hope, to stimulate the reader to a much more extended study.
The history of art is too often written of as an isolated phenomenon unrelated to the facts of life; there could be no error more grave. Art is integral with the fabric of life. It is not a separate stream running parallel with the current of human events; it is one of the threads of that current, and the sweep of life and the progress of art are identical in movement.
When reading of the past it is difficult to bear in mind that steam and electricity are of such recent use; that printing was unknown in Europe until 1438 shortly after the introduction of paper manufacture from China; that transportation and communication was by means of galleys rowed with oars, or by rude sailing vessels so small one wonders at the temerity that attempted the voyages they weathered ; or by camel or horse or ox wain; that there were no post-offices until the reign of Louis XI in France. And that the telegraph and telephone, both wired and wireless ; the phonograph, the typewriter, the monotype and linotype machines, and all such means of rapidly duplicating and recording writing and speech; the development of photography; the invention of electric light and power; the aeroplane—all are products of the past fifty years; in short, none of the miracles we have come to regard as commonplaces of existence had come to pass. Ideas and news were circulated slowly and inaccurately, from mouth to mouth. A building, a book, a picture, or a play, finished yesterday, is being discussed to-morrow in every centre that pretends to any tincture of cultivation in the world. Not so in earlier times; and we are obliged to remind ourselves constantly of these vast differences in the circumstances of our own daily life. They ex-plain much that would otherwise be obscure to us in the history of art or of mankind, such as the slow growth and national agreement of style in some countries, contrasted with the development of distinctly marked and differing types in others; the ranges of hills, the wide marshy tracts, or the dense forests, which acted as barriers to the spread of intellectual influences in a more primitive world, and which fostered these agreements or divergences, are now negligible factors in one in which science is year by year sweeping physical barriers aside and making human society homogeneous and cosmopolitan.
The climate of a country or of a district, the daily life and social customs of a people, the ease or difficulty of inter-course with other peoples or with communities of like race far or near, the plants, the birds, the beasts, the quality and kind of building material, the scarcity of wood, the absence of stone, the presence of clay, the inherited traditions of the inhabitants, these and many other factors act, react, and interact upon the arts of any given place or period. To these we must add the influence a work of art has in itself upon those which follow it. Then we must reckon with political and humanistic movements; the influence of religions; the migrations and dispersions of races; invasions, wars ; the character, tastes, and ambitions of rulers ; trade by land and sea. The simplest bit of architecture, painting, sculpture, pottery, or textile that comes to mind is the child of all these forces.
But beneath the veil of outward circumstance human nature in all its fundamental qualities and defects is much the same as it was centuries and centuries ago. We respond to similar emotions and impulses—we hunger, we thirst, we shiver, we sweat, we feel remorse or joy, we are proud or humble, vain or modest, good, bad, or indifferent, just like some one else in the childhood of the world. There is no reason for us to feel that the men and the arts of distant times are really a long way off. The seeing eye views the men and women and children of all time not as pale and bloodless spectres, but as warm and sentient human creatures with all their differentiated qualities and defects; sees them moving to and fro about their affairs in the streets formed by and framed in the architecture with which we have learned to be familiar; and then we realize that the jamb of this old doorway, that old wall, are worn and polished by the actual, personal, physical contact of scores of generations of human beings ; only thus may we humanize the otherwise lifeless stone. We must go to the play with these fellow beings, sit with them in house or hall, listen to their bards in their company, join with them in fight or frolic.
The history of Western architecture may be summed up in a paragraph; and the arts of painting and sculpture, and the divers arts related to them and to architecture, fall within similar categories : first emerges the Grecian with the Egyptian and Assyrian from which it principally derives in the background, all three based upon a post and lintel system of construction ; next the Roman, which adds the arch, its blood brother the vault, and its cousin the dome, probably borrowed by the Romans from Etruscan and Persian sources; then the Romanesque, little more than an ignorant or naif use of Roman forms; the Byzantine, contemporary toward the East with the Romanesque in the West and blending Grecian, Asian, and Roman elements; the Arabic, Saracenic, and Moorish, evolved by the Mohammedans from Persian origins; then the Mediaeval or Gothic, that glorious flowering of the Romanesque, Byzantine, and Saracenic stocks into a highly organized structural system of isolated supports and balanced thrusts, with light screen-walls between the piers as enclosures; then a reversion to Roman forms in the Renaissance, of which the sequent progress is checked by the French Revolution; since then, an eclecticism in which no convictions are apparent, but in essence a continuation of the Renaissance impulse. We may therefore recognize broadly three major periods in modem Western art-the Classic, comprising Grecian and Roman works and their immediate derivatives; Mediaeval or Gothic; and the Renaissance, now gathering new force again after the lapse of more than a century.
These are only convenient chapter headings, as it were, for the clearer arrangement of our subject-matter. We may only roughly refer a style to a certain span of years. There are penumbrae of transition at each end of it and around it, reactions upon it of the style that is growing out of it, throw-backs to the style from which it issued, sporadic interjections of foreign motifs explicable only by the play and counterplay of international relations—many like circumstances that burst through the limits of categories. I remember a time when I had a vague impression that the Kings of France in person had had a good deal to do with the invention of the styles called by their names and that the day Louis XIV died, the Style Louis XV began. I use the term invention in that connection because it marks a frequent misconception—no style was ever invented; a style develops by processes obscure, and cannot be consciously directed.
Art may be conceived as one great stream flowing down to us from ancient times through many lands coloring its waters as it passes, here running crystal clear, there spreading wide and reflecting the sky, now moving sullenly in a narrow channel—but, though swelled by many tributaries, always sweeping on, always the same stream. And the traveller must have some means of knowing through what territory he is passing; that just about here we are leaving Romanesque country and entering upon Gothic; that the sunny range we see far off down-stream is the land of the Renaissance and that it will recall to us in many ways the bright hills of Hellas we passed not long ago. The arts may seem, superficially viewed, to be swayed by surface currents—and in the lesser movements may be—but their general trend responds to forces or a sum of forces hidden perhaps very deeply, as a sunken rock or fault in the river-bed may cause an eddy on the surface. The trend of a period of art must be viewed as a whole and compared as a whole with the tendencies of its epoch as a whole.
Beyond the first Olympiad, beginning 776 B. C., tracing as it does the first dim line discernible between the historic and the prehistoric, we need not attempt to penetrate deeply in the brief review of the history of art we propose. Let it be as though, arriving a little late at a pageant, we miss a part of the prologue and find the depths of the stage shut off by thickness upon thickness of gauze dropped plane by plane until the eye can pierce no farther. The light is dim. It is the dawn of the history of the modern world and in its faint light we see shadowy forms astir and hear ghostly voices; as the centuries pass in review the light grows stronger, the personages more distinct, the voices clearer, the action richer in incident. Of the scenes played after our entrance the first are laid in Egypt, in Babylonia, and Assyria; they serve as an introduction to the play of action in the modern world marked by the entrance of the Greeks upon the stage of history.
The curtain rises upon the long lines of the Egyptian Kings, dynasty beyond dim dynasty vanishing into the mists of the past ; pyramids violet against the orange of the desert sky; great temples where incense rises to gods long since forgotten; we behold Egypt in her glory—then the scene changes and she appears in chains, her proud neck bowed down beneath a foreign yoke. We see Psammetichus with the aid of Greek mercenaries cast off that yoke, drive out the hated foreigner, and Egypt become the instructress of Greece. Psammetichus passes; his son Necho the Second comes upon the stage and before his reign is over the realm becomes tributary to Babylon, later lies prostrate beneath the heel of Persia, regains once more her independence and loses it at last to Alexander; she accepts the Greeks, her erstwhile pupils, as her masters and finally is absorbed with them into the all-conquering Roman Empire.
Again the scene changes, from the valley of the Nile to an immense and fertile plain between the Tigris and the Euphrates, threaded with canals for irrigation and for commerce, channels built in the sweat and cemented in the blood of countless slaves. Across the shimmering fields dim shapes of cities rise, lifted above the gleaming levels on vast artificial mounds; the palaces of Kings, the gardens of Queens terraced to the skies arise to the sound of whips in the hands of the dark overseers lashing the backs of men driven beyond their strength. And on this mighty stage the drama that extended over seven centuries: the King returning from the hunt, the whirling chariots of his suite raising columns of dust that mount to heaven; the King returning from his wars with captive monarchs at his chariot wheels, a long and mournful tail of myriads of their subjects stretching to the horizon. The Assyrians, led by Tiglath-Pileser the Third, conquer Babylonia; Babylon is obliterated and her people enslaved. Nineveh is adorned in the reigns of Sennacherib and Asshur-bani-pal, and Assyria under these sovereigns combines the innumerable petty tribes and states of Western Asia and spreads among them the civilization borrowed from Babylonia. Led by Nabopolassar, the Babylonians rise against Assyria, and Nineveh falls and after the terrors of the sack returns into the desert; the lion and the jackal prowl about her courts; and two hundred years later Xenophon passes the place with his Ten Thousand and cannot learn even her name.
The new Babylonian Empire endures for threescore years and ten, and in that time Babylon becomes the wonder of the ancient world. Then, out of the Northeast, the hordes of the Medes and Persians of Cyrus descend like a cloud upon the land and Babylon in her turn is given to the flames, her hanging gardens wither and perish, her water-courses dry up, her lofty structures of sun-dried brick, roofless, be-come again one with the dust of the plain ; and with her passing the sceptre of domination wielded so long by the Semitic race is grasped by the hands of Aryan peoples, in those hands to remain.