SEVERAL days later, Rodin, putting his promise into execution, asked me to accompany him to the Musee du Louvre.
We were no sooner before the antiques than he showed by his happy air that he was among old friends.
” How many times,” he said, ” have I come here when I was not more than fifteen years old! I had a violent longing at first to be a painter. Color attracted me. I often went upstairs to admire the Titians and Rembrandts. But, alas ! I hadn’t enough money to buy canvases and tubes of color. To copy the antiques, on the contrary, I needed only paper and pencils. So I was forced to work in the lower rooms, and there such a passion for sculpture seized me that I could think of nothing else.”
As I listened to Rodin while he told of his long study of the antique, I thought of the injustice done him by those false classicists who have accused him of being an insurgent against tradition. Tradition! It is this pretended revolutionary who, in our own day, has known it best and respected it most !
He led me to the room full of casts and, pointing out the Diadumenes by Polycletus, the original of which is in the British Museum, he said : ” You can observe here the four directions that I indicated the other day in my clay statuette. Just examine the left side of this statue : the shoulder is slightly forward, the hip is back; again the knee is forward, the foot is back; and thence a gentle undulation of the whole results.
” Now notice the balance of the levels the level of the shoulders lower towards the right, the level of the hips lower towards the left. Note that the plumb-line passing through the neck falls on the inner ankle bone of the right foot; note the free poise of the left leg. Finally, view in profile the convexity of the back of the statue, in form like a C.”
Rodin repeated this demonstration with a number of other antiques. Leaving the casts, he led me to the wonderful torso of Periboetos by Praxiteles.
” Here the direction of the shoulders is towards the left, direction of the hips towards the right level of the right shoulder higher, level of the left hip higher.” Then, passing to less theoretic impressions : ” How charming!” he cried. ” This young torso, without a head, seems to smile at the light and at the spring, better than eyes and lips could do.” Then we reached the Venus of Milo.
” Behold the marvel of marvels ! Here you find an exquisite rhythm very like that in the statue which we have been admiring; but something of thought as well ; for here we no longer find the form of the 0; on the contrary, the body of this goddess bends slightly forward as in Christian sculpture. Yet there is nothing restless or tormented here. This work is the expression of the greatest antique inspiration; it is voluptuousness regulated by restraint ; it is the joy of life cadenced, moderated by reason.
” Such masterpieces affect me strangely. They bring vividly before my mind the atmosphere and the country where they had birth. I see the young Greeks, their brown hair crowned with violets and the maidens with floating tunics as they pass to offer sacrifice to the gods in those temples whose lines were pure and majestic, whose marble had the warm transparency of flesh. I imagine the philosophers walking in the outskirts of the town, conversing upon beauty, close to some old altar which recalls to them the earthly adventure of some god. The birds sing amidst the ivy, in the great plane-trees, in the bushes of laurel and of myrtle, and the brooks shine beneath the serene blue sky, which domes this sensuous and peaceful land.”
An instant later we were before the Victory of Samothrace.
” Place it, in your mind, upon a golden shore, whence, beneath the olive branches, you may see the blue and shining sea cradling its white islands ! Antique marbles need the full light of day. In our museums they are deadened by too heavy shadows. The reflection of the sun-bathed earth and of the Mediterranean aureoled them with dazzling splendor. Their Victory it was their Liberty how it differs from ours ! She did not gather back her robe to leap barriers; she was clothed in fine linen, not in coarse cloth; her marvellous body in its beauty was not formed for daily tasks ; her movements, though vigorous, were always harmoniously balanced.
” In truth she was the Liberty not of the whole world, but only of the intellectually elect. The philosophers contemplated her with delight. But the conquered, the slaves who were beaten in her name, had no love for her.
” That was the fault of the Hellenic ideal. The Beauty conceived by the Greeks was the order dreamed of by intelligence, but she only appealed to the cultivated mind; she disdained the humble; she had no tenderness for the broken; she did not know that in every heart there is a ray of heaven.
” She was tyrannous to all who were not capable of high thought; she inspired Aristotle to an apology for slavery; she admitted only the perfection of form and she did not know that the expression of the most abject creature may be sublime. She destroyed the malformed children.
” But this very order which the philosophers ex-tolled was too limited. They had imagined it according to their desires and not as it exists in the vast universe. They had arranged it according to their human geometry. They figured the world as limited by a great crystal sphere; they feared the unlimited. They also feared progress. According to them creation had never been as beautiful as, at its birth, when nothing had yet troubled its primitive balance. Since then all had continually grown worse; each day a little more confusion had made its way into the universal order. The age of gold which we glimpse on the horizon of the future they placed behind them in the remoteness of time.
” So this passion for order betrayed them. Order reigns without doubt in the immensity of nature, but it is much more complex than man in the first efforts of his reason can represent it and besides, it is eternally changing.
Yet sculpture was never more radiant than when it was inspired by this narrow order. It was because that calm beauty could find entire expression in the serenity of transparent marbles ; it was because there was perfect accord between the thought and the matter that it animated. The modern spirit, on the contrary, upsets and breaks all forms in which it takes body.
” No; no artist will ever surpass Phidias – for progress exists in the world, but not in art. The greatest of sculptors who appeared at a time when the whole human dream could blossom in the pediment of a temple will remain for ever without an equal.”
We passed on to the room which holds the work of Michael Angelo. To reach it we crossed that of Jean Goujon and of Germain Pilon.
” Your elder brothers,” I said.
” I should like to think so,” Rodin answered with a sigh. We were now before the Captives, by Michael Angelo. We first looked at the one on the right, which is seen in profile. ” Look! only two great planes. The legs to one side, the body to the opposite side. This gives great strength to the attitude. No balance of levels. The right hip is the higher, and the right shoulder is also higher.
So the movement acquires amplitude. Observe the line of plumb it falls not on one foot, but between the two; so both legs bear the body and seem to make an effort.
” Let us consider, finally, the general aspect. It is that of a console ; the bent legs project, the retreating chest forms a hollow. It is the confirmation of what I demonstrated in my studio with the clay model.”
Then, turning towards the other captive : ” Here again the form of the console is designed, not by the retreating chest, but by the raised elbow, which hangs forward. As I have already told you, this particular silhouette is that of all the statuary of the Middle Ages.
” You find this form of the console in the Virgin seated leaning over her child; in the Christ nailed on the cross, the legs bent, the body bowed towards the men whom His suffering would redeem ; in the Mater Dolorosa who bends above the body of her Son.
” Michael Angelo, I repeat, is only the last and greatest of the Gothics.
” The soul thrown back upon itself, suffering, disgust of life, contention against the bonds of matter such are the elements of his inspiration.
” The captives are held by bonds so weak that it seems easy to break them. But the sculptor wished to show that their bondage is, above all, a moral one. For, although he has represented in these figures the provinces conquered by Pope Julius II., he has given them a symbolic value. Each one of his prisoners is the human soul which would burst the bounds of its corporeal envelope in order to possess unlimited liberty. Look at the captive on the right. He has the face of Beethoven. Michael Angelo has divined the features of that most unhappy of great musicians.
His whole existence proved that he was him-self frightfully tortured by melancholy. Why do we hope for more of life and of pleasure? ‘ he said in one of his most beautiful sonnets. ‘Earthly joy harms us even more than it delights.’ And in another verse, He who dies soon after birth en-joys the happiest fate ! ‘
” All his statues are so constrained by agony that they seem to wish to break themselves. They all seem ready to succumb to the pressure of despair which fills them. When Michael Angelo was old he actually broke them. Art did not content him. He wanted infinity. ` Neither painting nor sculpture,’ he writes, ` can charm the soul turned towards that divine love which, upon the cross, opens its arms to receive us.’ These are also the exact words of the great mystic who wrote the Imitation of Jesus Christ: ` The highest wisdom is to reach the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity to cling to what is but passing and not to hasten towards that joy which is without end.’ ”
There was silence for a time, then Rodin spoke his thought : ” I remember being in the Duomo at Florence and regarding with profound emotion that Pieta by Michael Angelo. The masterpiece, which is ordinarily in shadow, was lighted at the moment by a candle in a silver candlestick. And a beautiful child, a chorister, approached the candlestick, which was as tall as himself, drew it towards him, and blew out the light. I could no longer see the marvellous sculpture. And this child appeared to figure to me the genius of Death, which puts an end to life. I have kept that precious picture in my heart.”
He paused, then went on : ” If I may speak of myself a little, I will tell you that I have oscillated all my life between the two great tendencies of sculpture, between the conception of Phidias and that of Michael Angelo.
” I began by following the antique, but when I went to Italy I was carried away by the great Florentine master, and my work has certainly felt the effects of this passion.
” Since then, especially more of late years, I have returned to the antique.
” The favorite themes of Michael Angelo, the depths of the human soul, the sanctity of effort and of suffering, have an austere grandeur. But I do not feel his contempt of life. Earthly activity, imperfect as it may be, is still beautiful and good. Let us love life for the very effort which it exacts.
” As for me, I ceaselessly endeavor to render my outlook on nature ever more calm, more just. We should strive to attain serenity. Enough of Christian anxiety, in the face of the great mystery, will always remain in us all.”