Masters Of Art - The Afterglow Of Greece
( Originally Published 1912 )
NAPLES is not associated in the mind of the traveler with art. Her attractions are her picturesque squalor and the far famed natural beauty of her surroundings. Yet if we care for "the things that are more excellent," we are here upon holy ground, for Naples was an outpost of that civilization which the world still reveres as the highest, and her great Museum is a reliquary with which few others can compare. The very name, Naples, Nea-polis, New City, is Greek, for here, on the site of what is now known as Old Naples, the Greeks built the newest of that beautiful chain of cities which, beginning with Cumæ on the headlands at the northwest corner of the bay, stretched on through Parthenope, where the hotels of Naples now stand, through Herculaneum and Pompeii and Nuceria and Paestum, on indefinitely to the toe and round the heel of the boot, not forgetting Sicily, which they wrested almost entire from Phoenician Carthage. And here accident and calamity have preserved to us things that else-where have been destroyed in the art of the Greeks. It is not the art of Athens, for we are out on the frontier of Hellas, where the stream from the central spring ran turbid with many a foreign admixture, but it is not the less significant. We see as through a glass, darkly, but the thing we see is Greek.
As we enter the great Museum, we will pay no attention for the moment to the Greek bronzes, most precious in the world, nor to the marbles, — not because they do not deserve attention, but because they deserve more attention than we can now give. He who would enter into the spirit of that ineffable art must not cumber himself with lesser cares.
Mounting the great stairway of the Museum to the first entrance on the right, we enter a series of low rooms whose walls are covered with frescoes taken from the houses of Pompeii. Most are cheap and poor, but a few are admirable, like Achilles and Briseis, the Centaur teaching Achilles to play the lyre, the despairing Medea, and so forth, copies, all of them, of Greek masterpieces whose character we can partly guess from these humble reproductions. But our attention is chiefly attracted to a tripod at the end of the first room, upon whose revolving sides are mounted the only real Greek paintings the world possesses. A few thin slabs of marble such as the Greeks used for this purpose, and the Greeks only, and which must therefore have been imported from Greece itself, bear the faded remains of the greatest of Greek arts. For there can be no doubt that the word, art, suggested to the Greek mind, as to our own, primarily painting. Socrates was by profession a sculptor, and penitent Athens, long after his death, preserved religiously a humble work of his in the Propylea, on the Acropolis itself, yet when he discusses the principles of art with his disciples, he draws all his illustrations from painting. The professional bias would certainly have inclined the other way, but his hearers were more familiar with painting, and, true teacher that he was, he adapts himself to their needs. Greek painting has perished, and Greek bronzes have been melted up, and so we are left to draw our inferences almost wholly from Greek marble sculpture, but we must not forget that this was the less important form of the less important art as the Greeks regarded it. Further, it was not Greek sculpture which gave birth to Christian art, but Greek painting. We must therefore husband with jealous care such slender data as we possess for the study of this noble art.
The little paintings upon the tripod are not representative.
One (B 3) represents a graceful group of girls, two of them playing jack-stones or knuckle-bones, which they toss in the air and catch upon the back of their pretty hands. Others stand, doing nothing in particular, but so disposing themselves that their beautiful arms form charming braided patterns across the scene. Classic profiles, artistic coiffures, and lovely draperies complete the dainty whole. It is art in lighter vein, as are all the others, even the splendid chariot and charioteer which can hardly have had a serious meaning. There is no deep sentiment or soul-stirring incident. It is a thing flung off by a facile hand, a suggestion of the wealth with which Greek art inundated even the little shallows of ancient life. Yet the very triviality of these things has its significance, for they are infinitely perfect in some of the great elements of art. The drawing is such as will bring a thrill to the veriest novice, so amazingly delicate are the lines, the postures and the groupings of these nameless personalities. If the bric-a-brac makers of Greece could give us such things as these, what must have been the works of Parrhasius and Apelles?
Some of the better achievements of Greek art are suggested, however imperfectly, in the Pompeiian wall paintings above referred to. For the most part, these are copies of Greek masterpieces. All are degraded by the copyist's touch, some hopelessly so, and that increasingly as we come to works of a later period. For this is the great lesson which we have to learn as we wander through Italy on our quest, that despite her splendid achievements of a later time, she failed to under-stand the wonderful art whose later direction was entrusted to her, and so degraded and debauched it increasingly as she slowly gave freer scope to her own instincts.
But some of these paintings, which reflect a Greek style rather than copy a Greek masterpiece, are especially worthy of attention. They are panels on which are represented in sketchiest possible manner, in delicate tones, charged heavily with atmosphere, an idyllic landscape, with a figure or two wandering not too conspicuously nor yet too meaningfully down the dreamy perspective. These Greek imaginings have suffered sadly from the rude contact of Vesuvian ashes, and still more from the heavy incubus of Roman patronage, but they are strongly suggestive of some of the latest achievements in art. These pale glimpses of the Elysian Fields re-mind us not a little of the work of the inspired Frenchman through whose hallowed dreamland we follow in quest of Sainte Geneviève. Our apologies to him for suggesting too close an analogy between his creations and these humble and disfigured things, but if our imagination is able to find its way through their disfigurement to the glorious masterpieces which suggested them, then our apologies are due to the Greek.
But the great Museum has a still further revelation for us in one of the halls below. Here, surrounded by statues, is a large mosaic, the so-called "Battle of Issus" (B 14), in which it is easy to recognize one of the masterpieces of Greek painting. It is partially destroyed, but the supreme figures of the composition, Alexander and Darius, are plainly discernible, and the action and sentiment unmistakable. Perhaps this is as near as we shall ever come to one of the great Greek masters of painting, a master of the first rank and of the golden days of Alexander himself or his early successors. It is therefore worth our while to give it our careful attention.
The subject is obviously one of Alexander's battles. The conqueror is rushing into the thickest of the fight, himself the most redoubtable of this redoubtable host. The fate of the day is decided, the Persians are in retreat, and the charioteer of the vanquished Darius, in an agony of fear, is lashing his horses for flight. Looking closer we see that the spear of Alexander has thrust through one of Darius' bodyguard, one of his paladins, and in helpless sympathy, the monarch, whose very life is at stake, reaches out an impotent arm to help his fallen companion. Something of poetic license, no doubt, in this condensing of the long line of battle which brings the two monarchs within a spear's length of each other, but marvelous fidelity to the spirit of the onset and the rout, as also to the character of the two chief personalities. The humanity of the unfortunate monarch is as well attested as the headlong bravado of the conqueror.
But our admiration for these things easily blinds us to the extraordinary difficulties which such a theme involves and the genius with which these difficulties have been overcome. It will not do to have pictures rush headlong away from one end of their imprisoned space to pile up unrestrained at the other. Pictures must contain themselves, willingly, as it were, within their appropriate limits. They must find their interest in the center, or, more exactly, in the upper center, toward which all must seem to gravitate. But how shall we make this charge and rout, which sweeps past like a cyclone, gravitate toward the center ? Our artist is equal to the difficult task.
The problem is essentially one of directing the observer's attention. The picture must not run away with itself. The rush from the left must be counterbalanced by suggestions from the right. These suggestions, however varied, all reduce, in painting, to two, which we may call eye-paths and mental suggestion.
The eye, like the feet, travels easily and willingly where there are paths, and unwillingly or not at all across lots. A picture that has convenient eye-paths is easily seen and remembered ; one that lacks such paths is hard to see and soon forgotten. In extreme cases the eye will simply balk, and refuse to do its work altogether. Eye-paths are in general, lines of light or of strong, stimulating color. Often they are successive masses of such light or color arranged stepping-stone fashion, disconnected but easy to follow. Even dark lines, clearly defined against a light neutral ground, catch and guide the eye.
Mental suggestion is rather a push or impulse given to the mind, sending attention in a certain direction. If we see a crowd of people looking in a certain direction, we look in the same direction to see what they are looking at. Gesture, movement, or leaning of the body, anything that indicates that the person's thought or feeling is moving in a certain direction, will send ours in the same direction.
Let us notice the devices by which the artist has checked the movement of retreat and set up counter movement toward the center to offset the movement of the charge.
First, the Persians are in retreat and their spears, carried over their shoulders, form eye-paths leading us toward the upper center. More suggestive still, the horses, lashed to flight, seem to balk in terror. This not only heightens the terrible strain of the situation, but the horses' legs again lead the eye in the desired direction. Above all, the leaning figure of Darius gives the same backward movement.
But here we come to our second factor, mental suggestion. Let us imagine that Darius, instead of turning and reaching out to his companion, were facing forward and merely tipped backward, perhaps by the sudden start of the chariot. The line of the body would have been the same as now, leading the eye in the desired direction, but the mental suggestion would have been quite the reverse. His thought would have reached forward and would have carried our thought with it. As it is, mind and sense alike conspire to arrest the dangerous rush of the picture and direct us aright.
By the use of these subtle means we have in a highly developed form what the artists call a composition, an arrangement studied with reference alike to requirements of action and life, and the limitations of pictorial representation. But there is still another thing to note which artists themselves too often forget, but which our artist certainly remembered. When we have gotten lines, masses and mental suggestion all properly arranged, and composition faultless, our picture may still be poor art, because we have used trivial or improbable motives to secure the necessary arrangement and action. Darius must lean backward, must, if possible, think backward, but suppose he leaned back to scream in terror or beg for mercy. The picture would be composed as now, would perhaps be as true to nature as now, but it would be cheap art. Worse still, if, as often happens, the position suggests a trivial motive, or no motive at all. The composition, no matter how perfect, then ceases to be art altogether. No, the composition must unfold naturally, actuated by great impulses that have dignity and beauty of their own.
Note how magnificently our artist has met this requirement. Here is the ruler of a vast empire who has lost every thing, and whose life itself is in instant danger, and yet at this supreme moment, he forgets himself and his peril, and his very soul goes out in an agony of impotent sympathy at the sight of the death of his faithful companion. Humanity knows no loftier sentiment than self-forgetting devotion, than love which recks not of danger and hopes not for reward. Our artist has given us a great composition motived by a great sentiment. This is art. This picture is the equal of the greatest masterpieces of Christian art. As a master-piece, both of composition and technical skill, and as an expression of the noblest sentiments, the Battle of Issus and the Sistine Madonna may claim an equal place in our regard.
But let us hasten to add that the picture as we now find it, is far from being entitled to unqualified praise. We must look through a thick and obscuring veil if we are to find the master we are seeking, for a Roman had the inconceivable taste to have this picture copied in mosaic for his dining-room floor. Who would decorate his dining-room floor with a copy of the Sistine Madonna ? It would be quite as appropriate.
We all feel that such a use of the picture is wrong, but why ? It will pay us to analyze our feelings.
In the first place, we do not want to walk on Darius and Alexander, or on commoner folk, or upon horses or living things of any sort. Even realistic roses and the like will slightly deter the sensitive footstep. This may seem to be an over delicate sensitiveness, but it is precisely in this domain of the subtler sentiments that art has its home.
In the second place, even if these forms were of inanimate things, we do not want to walk over humps and holes in the floor. For it must be remembered that modeled forms seem to protrude from the background, and that perspective suggests depth, which in a floor becomes humps and holes. It is not enough to say that they are only imaginary. It is in the imagination that art lives and moves and has its being. When we can have our floor smooth only by thinking away the picture, we destroy the art which we have been at such-pains to create. As a matter of fact, we never can get such a floor quite smooth. If we could measure our nervous outlay, we should find that we are twice as tired after walking a day on such a floor, as after walking on one of normal character.
It has perhaps occurred to the thoughtful reader that while our first difficulty, that of walking on men and living things, does not hold if the picture is on the side wall, the second objection does hold a little. After all, a wall suffers somewhat when in imagination, it is full of humps and holes. If the wall is wholly without importance, this objection dwindles, but if it bounds a room of real character and beauty, particularly if the wall is of special shape upon which all the beauty depends, as in the case of a dome, a vault or a tribune, we should hesitate to thus mentally mar its surface. This is a very subtle consideration, but one which, we shall see, will never quite allow itself to be ignored. The effort to preserve the integrity of the wall, its flatness and comeliness and to keep as vivid and intact as possible the great architectural shapes which this wall helps to define, exerts a continual pressure upon pictorial art, warring against perspective and tending toward a compromise form of art with flat figures and shallow space or none. This compromise art, especially when certain other features are added which the next chapter will suggest, is appropriately known as decorative, as contrasted with pictorial.
Our study of Greek painting must include at least one more famous example, the Aldobrandini Marriage (B 13) of the Vatican Library. It is doubtless a copy, but an excellent one, and in its dignified, simple beauty and its delicate ideal-ism it must be very near to the Greek original. With no such qualifications, therefore, as in the last case, we may take it as representative of Greek art.
The picture represents, in a long panel, and partly in literal, partly in symbolical figures, a marriage, or let us say, marriage, a theme also represented with marvellous beauty in some of the Greek marble reliefs. The long .panel being difficult to compose without monotony, the artist has formed three groups which he realizes must be carefully linked in one, if it is to have the unity which is indispensable to a picture. In the center is the nuptial bed at the right of which sits the ardent bridegroom, while on the other side the goddess Aphrodite endues the abashed bride with charm. To the right is the altar of libation with priestess and brides-maids, one of whom pours the libation, while the other, a girl of singularly modest grace, dances to the accompaniment of the lyre and song. To the left are preparations for ceremonial ablution in charge of a matron, with exquisitely toned and subdued figures of servants in the background. With this brief enumeration, let us notice the far-reaching thought-fulness and resource of our painter.
First, these three groups must be united or we shall have three pictures instead of one, and the joint effect will be quite lost. As we have seen, this connection can be effected in only two ways.
There must be a physical connection which tempts the eye to follow, or there must be a mental connection, an obvious reaching out of attention from one to the other. The right-hand group is composed of human beings, and as the theme centers about the most delicate of human relations, the artist does not wish to intrude the conscious observation of these people upon the privacy of the bride and groom. With fine perception, therefore, he makes this beautiful group self-contained and conscious of the bridegroom's passion. But the white robes of these lovely bridesmaids, curving gracefully outward on either side, carry the eye along fine curving lines to the foot of the bridegroom, whose gracefully relaxed leg leads the eye easily to the central picture. The group on the extreme left is even more sundered from the central group, yet must somehow connect with it. Here the artist makes use of an intermediate figure, a goddess as we know from the half nude, the conventional sign of divinity in the later Greek art. She stands plainly with the left-hand group, but she leans toward the bridal group and looks toward them, as a goddess, conceived as invisible to mortals, may appropriately do. Being with one group in body and with the other in spirit, she effectually unites the two.
But this picture is full of a subtler kind of harmony which we have not met before and which it will be long ere we meet in like measure again. The central group is broad, stable and sloping, such a group as Leonardo, nearly two thousand years later, taught the Florentines to prize. Taking its prominent outlines as a starting point; there is a marked tendency of the minor lines to become rhythmical with these, a tendency much like rhyme and meter in poetry. The sloping figure of the bride gives us a prominent line, emphasized by limb and drapery. Notice the harmonics ; the right arm and right leg of the bridegroom, the figure and limb of Aphrodite, the figure of the other goddess, the skirt of the bridesmaid. There is a like rhythm in the alternation of light and shade. Everything is as carefully weighed and disposed as is every syllable in Tennyson's poems, yet nothing seems forced or artificial. Withal, it is imbued with a sentiment that is truly nuptial, but elevated and refined. How easily the slightest ill-considered look or act could have dropped this into the very abyss.
The reader who is little accustomed to analyze composition may be restive under these suggestions. He would do well to bear in mind the close analogy of poetry. Every reader is aware that poetry consists of two things, sentiment and form. Fine sentiments do not in themselves make a poem. There must be the sensuous element . of rhyme and meter, an element having no intellectual character, but profoundly influencing our feeling and so in its own way largely deter-mining the sentiment itself. This picture is a beautiful sentiment clothed in beautiful form. Without this alternation of light and dark, this rhythm of groups and of lines, it would be a beautiful sentiment still, but it would not be a poem. It would not be art, but merely the raw material of art.
We have devoted this prolonged attention to these few examples of Greek painting, partly because of their own great excellence and the greatness of the art which they represent, and partly because these principles belong to all art and will recur continually in our later study. Scarce a single lesson can be mastered without recalling these problems of place and form, of decoration and picture, which we shall never find exemplified more beautifully or more simply than in these few faint traces of that greatest art which the disasters of our fitful civilization have as yet not quite effaced.