IN Rodin’s great atelier at Meudon stands a cast of that statuette, so magnificently ugly, which the great sculptor wrought upon the text of Villon’s poem, La Belle Heaulmiere.
The courtesan, once radiant with youth and grace, is now repulsive with age and decrepitude. Once proud of her beauty, she is now filled with shame at her ugliness.
” Ha, vieillesse felonne et fiere, Pourquoi m’as tu si tot abattue? Qui me tient que je ne me fiere (frappe) Et qu’a ce coup je ne ine tue ! ”
The sculptor has followed the poet step by step. The old hag, more shrivelled than a mummy, mourns her physical decay. Bent double, crouching on her haunches, she gazes despairingly upon her breasts so pitiably shrunken, upon her hideously wrinkled body, upon her arms and legs more knotty than vine stocks.
“Quand je pense, las! au bon temps, Quelle fus, quelle devenue, Quand me regarde toute nue Et je me vois si tres changee. Pauvre, seche, maigre, menue, Je suis presque tout enragee! Qu’est devenue ce front poli, Ces cheveux blonds. . . . Ces gentes epaules menues, Petite tetins, hanches charnues, Elevees, propres, faictisse (faites a souhait) A tenir d’amoureuses lices ;
C’est d’humaine beaute l’issue ! Les bras courts et les mains contraictes (contractees), Les epaules toutes bossue. Mamelles, quoi ! toutes retraites (dessechees) Telles les hanches et que les tettes ! Quant aux cuisses, Cuisses ne sont plus, mais cuissettes Grivelees comme saucisses ! ”
The sculptor does not fall below the poet in realism. On the contrary, his work, in the horror which it inspires, is perhaps even more impressive than the truculent verses of Maitre Villon. The skin hangs in flaccid folds upon the skeleton; the ribs stand out beneath the parchment that covers them, and the whole figure seems to totter, to tremble, to shrivel, to shrink away.
Yet from this spectacle, at once grotesque and heartrending, a great sorrow breathes.
For what we have before us is the infinite distress of a poor foolish soul which, enamoured of eternal youth and beauty, looks on helpless at the ignominious disgrace of its fleshly envelope; it is the antithesis of the spiritual being which demands endless joy and of the body which wastes away, decays, ends in nothingness. The substance perishes, the flesh dies, but dreams and desires are immortal.
This is what Rodin has wished to make us understand.
And I do not think that any other artist has ever pictured old age with such savage crudity, except one. In the Baptistery at Florence you see upon an altar a strange statue by Donatello an old woman naked, or at least draped only in the long, thin hair which clings foully to her ruined body. It is Saint Magdalene in the desert, bowed with age, offering to God the cruel mortifications to which she subjects her body as a punishment for the care which she formerly lavished upon it.
The savage sincerity of the Florentine master is so great that it is not even surpassed by Rodin himself. But, aside from this, the sentiment of the two works differs completely, for, while Saint Magdalene in her voluntary renunciation seems to grow more radiant as she sees herself growing more repulsive, the old Heaulmiere is terrified at finding herself like a very corpse.
The modern sculpture is, therefore, much more tragic than the older work.
One day, having studied this figure in the atelier for some moments in silence, I said:
” Master, no one admires this astonishing figure more than I, but I hope you will not be annoyed if I tell you the effect it produces upon many of the visitors to the Musee du Luxembourg, especially upon the women.”
” I shall be much obliged to you if you will.”
” Well, the public generally turn away from it, crying, ` Oh, how u g l y it is ! ‘ and I have often seen women cover their eyes with their hands to shut out the sight.”
Rodin laughed heartily.
” My work must be eloquent,” he said, ” to make such a vivid impression, and doubtless these are people who dread stern philosophic truths.
But what solely matters to me is the opinion of people of taste, and I have been delighted to gain their approbation for my Vieille Heaulmiere. I am like that Roman singer who replied to the jeers of the populace: Equitibus cano. I sing only for the nobles! that is to say, for the connoisseurs.
” The vulgar readily imagine that what they consider ugly in existence is not fit subject for the artist. They would like to forbid us to represent what displeases and offends them in nature.
” It is a great error on their part.
“What is commonly called ugliness in nature can in art become full of great beauty.
” In the domain of fact we call ugly whatever is deformed, whatever is unhealthy, whatever suggests the idea of disease, of debility, or of suffering, whatever is contrary to regularity, which is the sign and condition of health and strength : a hunchback is ugly, one who is bandy-legged is ugly, poverty in rags is ugly.
” Ugly also are the soul and the conduct of the immoral man, of the vicious and criminal man, of the abnormal man who is harmful to society; ugly the soul of the parricide, of the traitor, of the unscrupulously ambitious.
” And it is right that beings and objects from which we can expect only evil should be called by such an odious epithet. But let a great artist or a great writer make use of one or the other of these uglinesses, instantly it is transfigured : with a touch of his fairy wand he has turned it into beauty; it is alchemy; it is enchantment!
” Let Velasquez paint Sebastian, the dwarf of Philippe IV. He endows him with such a touching gaze that we instantly read in it all the painful secret of this poor afflicted creature, forced, for his livelihood, to lower his human dignity, to be-come a plaything, a living bauble. And the more poignant the martyrdom of the conscience lodged in this grotesque body, the more beautiful is the artist’s work.
” Let Francois Millet represent a peasant resting for a moment as he leans on the handle of his hoe, a wretched man worn by fatigue, baked by the sun, as stupid as a beast of burden dulled by blows he has only to put into the expression of this poor devil a sublime resignation to the suffering ordained by Destiny, to make this creature of a nightmare become for us the great symbol of all Humanity.
Let Beaudelaire describe a festering corpse, unclean, viscid, eaten by worms, and let him but imagine his beloved mistress under this frightful aspect, and nothing can equal in splendor his picture of this terrible juxtaposition of beauty which we could wish eternal and the atrocious disintegration which awaits it.
“Et pourtant vous serez semblable a cette ordure, A cette horrible infection. Etoile de mes yeux, Soleil de ma nature, 0 mon ange et ma passion ! Oui, telle vous serez, o la reine des Graces Apres les derniers sacrements. Quand vous irez sous l’herbe et les floraisons grasses Pourrir parmi les ossements.
Alors, o ma Beaute, dites a la vermine Qui vous mangerez de baisers, Que j’ai garde la forme et l’essence divine De mes amours decomposes !
” It is the same when Shakespeare depicts Iago or Richard III., when Racine paints Nero and Narcissus; moral ugliness when interpreted by minds so clear and penetrating becomes a marvellous theme of beauty.
” In fact, in art, only that which has character is beautiful.
” Character is the essential truth of any natural object, whether ugly or beautiful; it is even what one might call a double truth, for it is the inner truth translated by the outer truth ; it is the soul, the feelings, the ideas, expressed by the features of a face, by the gestures and actions of a human being, by the tones of a sky, by the lines of a horizon.
Now, to the great artist, everything in nature has character; for the unswerving directness of his observation searches out the hidden meaning of all things. And that which is considered ugly in nature often presents more character than that which is termed beautiful, because in the contractions of a sickly countenance, in the lines of a vicious face, in all deformity, in all decay, the inner truth shines forth more clearly than in features that are regular and healthy.
” And as it is solely the power of character which makes for beauty in art, it often happens that the uglier a being is in nature, the more beautiful it becomes in art.
” There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say, that which offers no outer or inner truth.
” Whatever is false, whatever is artificial, whatever seeks to be pretty rather than expressive, whatever is capricious and affected, whatever smiles without motive, bends or struts without cause, is mannered without reason; all that is without soul and without truth; all that is only a parade of beauty and grace; all, in short, that lies, is ugliness in art.
” When an artist, intending to improve upon nature, adds green to the springtime, rose to the sunrise, carmine to young lips, he creates ugliness because he lies.
” When he softens the grimace of pain, the shapelessness of age, the hideousness of perversion, when he arranges nature veiling, disguising, tempering it to please the ignorant public then he is creating ugliness because he fears the truth.
” To any artist, worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth.
” He has only to look into a human face in order to read there the soul within not a feature deceives him; hypocrisy is as transparent as sincerity the line of a forehead, the least lifting of a brow, the flash of an eye, reveal to him all the secrets of a heart.
” Or he may study the hidden mind of the animal. A mixture of feelings and of thoughts, of dumb intelligences and of rudimentary affections, he reads the whole humble moral life of the beast in its eyes and in its movements.
” He is even the confidant of nature. The trees, the plants talk to him like friends. The old gnarled oaks speak to him of their kindliness for the human race whom they protect beneath their sheltering branches. The flowers commune with him by the gracious swaying of their stalks, by the singing tones of their petals each blossom amidst the grass is a friendly word addressed to him by nature.
” For him life is an endless joy, a perpetual de-light, a mad intoxication. Not that all seems good to him, for suffering, which must often come to those he loves and to himself, cruelly contradicts his optimism. But all is beautiful to him because he walks forever in the light of spiritual truth.
” Yes, the great artist, and by this I mean the poet as well as the painter and the sculptor, finds even in suffering, in the death of loved ones, in the treachery of friends, something which fills him with a voluptuous though tragic admiration.
” At times his own heart is on the rack, yet stronger than his pain is the bitter joy which he experiences in understanding and giving expression to that pain. In all existence he clearly divines the purposes of Destiny. Upon his own anguish, upon his own gaping wounds, he fixes the enthusiastic gaze of the man who has read the decrees of Fate. Deceived by a beloved one, he reels beneath the blow; then, standing firm, he looks upon the traitor as a fine example of the base. He salutes ingratitude as an experience which shall enrich his soul. His ecstasy is terrifying at times, but it is still happiness, because it is the continual adoration of truth.
” When he sees beings everywhere destroying each other; when he sees all youth fading, all strength failing, all genius dying, when he is face to face with the will which decreed these tragic laws, more than ever he rejoices in his knowledge, and, seized anew by the passion for truth, he is happy.”