Wagnerian Painting – Teodor de Wyzewa



I

[…] The world we live in, which we declare real, is purely a creation of our soul. The mind cannot go outside itself; and the things it believes to be outside it are only its ideas. To see, to hear, is to create appearances within oneself, thus to create Life. But the baneful habit of creating the same things has made us lose the joyful awareness of our own creative power; we thought real the dreams we gave birth to, and also this inner self, limited by objects and subject to them, that we had conceived.

Consequently, we have been the slaves of the world, and the sight of this world, where we engaged our interests, has since ceased to give us pleasure. And the Life which we had created – created in order to give us the joy of creating – has lost its original character. It is necessary therefore to recreate it; one must build, over and above this world of defiled, habitual appearances, the holy world of a better life: better, because we can make it intentionally, and know that we make it. This is the very business of Art.

But from where will the artist take the elements of this higher life? He can find them nowhere unless in our normal life, in what we call Reality. This is to say that the artist, and those to whom he wants to communicate the life that he creates, cannot, as a result of what their minds normally do, erect a living work of art in their souls, unless it presents itself to them under the very conditions in which they have always perceived life.

And so, this explains the necessity of realism in art; not a realism which transcribes the vain appearances that we think real, with no other end, but an artistic realism, which tears these appearances from the false reality of interest where we perceive them, in order to transport them into the higher reality of a disinterested life. We see around us trees, animals, men, and we assume they are living; but, seen in this way, they are only vain shadows which drape the shifting decor of our vision. They will only live when the artist, in whose special soul they have a more intense reality, inspires them with this higher life -recreates them before us.

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… as minds become more refined, Art requires increasingly more diverse methods than those operative in reality to suggest the same life. Thus, a polychrome statue resembles the models it has reproduced too much in its material. […]

And so again, a drama, when read, will appear more alive to delicate souls than the same drama played in a theatre by living actors. In order to preserve the feelings of art, we have an ever more urgent need that the impressions of life should be given us, in the life of art, by means other than those of real life.

Painting responds to this need. The means it employs to suggest sensations to us artistically differ entirely from the means employed by reality. For the colours and lines in a painting are not reproductions of the quite different lines and colours which are in reality; they are only conventional signs which have become equivalent to what they signify as the result of an association between the images. But they are just as different, finally, from real colours and lines as a word differs from a thought, or a musical note from the emotion it suggests.

* * *

A few outstanding masters, their eyes endowed with an almost pathological sensitivity, accustomed artists to seeing objects surrounded by the air that bathed them. From that moment, the vocabulary of painting became modified; new signs were introduced which created new sensations […] .

II

Painting, Literature and Music each suggest just one mode of life. But life exists in the intimate union of these three modes. Soon, their art must have appeared to painters, as it did to writers, to be insufficient to create the whole life which they conceived. Therefore, long ago they wanted to expand the possibilities of their art, to employ it to reconstitute diverse forms of life. For example, writers noticed that words, over and above their precise conceptual meaning, had assumed special resonances for the ear, and that syllables had become musical tones, as had the rhythms of the sentence. Then, they attempted a new art: poetry. They employed words no longer for their conceptual value, but as sonorous syllables evoking emotion in the soul by means of their harmonious alliance.

The same need to translate the life of the emotions with the means of their art very quickly drove painters to go beyond the limits of reproducing their sensations in a wholly realistic way.

And a new kind of painting was attempted by them, one which a happy agreement of circumstances made possible. This is to say that colours and lines themselves, like words, had also, through familiarity, assumed for souls an emotional value independent of the objects they represented. We had always seen a certain facial expression, a certain colour or certain contours accompany the objects which inspired us with such-and-such an emotion. And behold, these colours, these contours and these expressions, are linked with these emotions in our soul; they have become not just signs of our visual sensations, but signs of our emotions also; they have become, by the accident of this connection, emotional signs, like the syllables of poetry or musical notes. And so, certain painters were able to leave behind the original purpose of Art, which was to suggest the precise sensations of sight. They employed colours and lines for purely symphonic compositional ends, with no regard for the direct depiction of a visual object. And nowadays, colours and lines – the means of painting -can be used in two quite different kinds of painting: the one sensuous and descriptive which recreates exactly how objects look; the other emotional and musical, neglectful of treating the objects these colours and lines represent, using them only as signs of emotion, marrying them in such a way as to produce in us, by their free play, a complete impression comparable to that of a symphony. […]

Therefore, emotional painting, as well as descriptive painting, has a legitimate right to exist, and possesses the value of an art which is equally precious. […] Its first master was the poetic Leonardo da Vinci. He gave us the emotion of lascivious terror through the mystery of perverse and supernatural expressions. Later,. . . Peter Paul Rubens created the most intense symphonies of colour. […] Whereas with Rembrandt, [… ] [we find] a supernatural play of chiaroscuro which creates an emotion which is at once more troubled and more restrained. Afterwards, Watteau translated elegant melancholy: he devoted the delightful grace of his drawings to light-hearted and sweet poems which seem to recall certain andante movements in Mozart’s quartets. And in turn, Delacroix was the lyricist of violent passions, a little vulgar in their romanticism.

All these masters have proved that painting could equally well be descriptive of real sensations, or suggestive of real emotions. Only, they have intuited that these two possibilities demanded two quite different kinds of art, and that they had to choose one or the other, following their natural inclinations. Today, the necessity of making a choice is even more vital. […]

III

[…] With admirable candour and the prestigiousness of an incomparable visual subtlety, M. Monet completes the work of two sincere and powerful masters, M. Manet and M. Cezanne, and analyses the mobile play of nuances of light. […] We have seen the most elusive secrets of movement and of life captured by M. Degas. However, emotional painting elaborates and modifies its symphonic procedures under a flood of more complex emotions. M. Gustave Moreau . . . delights in the harmonious arrangement of scintillating gems. M. Odilon Redon, in bizarre landscapes, attempts a new kind of creation of desolate terror. […] And, isolated from these painters as from others, M. Renoir, the greatest genius, the only real genius among them, expresses sincerely the sweet, ingenuous dreams of a childlike soul, in interplays of colour as delightful as songs or caresses. He is alone today in gaining inspiration only from himself, alone in having at the bottom of his heart a strong enough voice that the noises of the outside world do not prevent him from hearing it.

And so, while the banality of fashionable formulas wafts out of the Salons, elsewhere there is a splendid blossoming of works by these masters. […] And yet, all too soon, the engulfing tide of democracy will reach their refuges, and the sons of these artists … will renounce the vain cares of an art already without clients. The day is coming when finally the democratic and egalitarian art of universal suffrage will dominate.

 

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