A Chapter of Art
W HEN a baby is perfectly healthy and has had enough to eat and has slept all it wants, then it hums a little tune to show how happy it is. To grown-ups this humming means nothing. It sounds like "goo-zum, goo-zum, goo-o-o-o-o," but to the baby it is perfect music. It is his first contribution to art.
As soon as he (or she) gets a little older and is able to sit up, the period of mud-pie making begins. These mud-pies do not interest the outside world. There are too many million babies, making too many million mud-pies at the same time. But to the small infant they represent another expedition into the pleasant realm of art. The baby is now a sculptor.
At the age of three or four, when the hands begin to obey the brain, the child becomes a painter. His fond mother gives him a box of coloured chalks and every loose bit of paper is rapidly covered with strange pothooks and scrawls which represent houses and horses and terrible naval battles.
Soon however this happiness of just "making things" comes to an end. School begins and the greater part of the day is filled up with work. The business of living, or rather the business of "making a living," becomes the most important event in the life of every boy and girl. There is little time left for "art" between learning the tables of multiplication and the past participles of the irregular French verbs. And unless the desire for making certain things for the mere pleasure of creating them without any hope of a practical return be very strong, the child grows into manhood and forgets that the first five years of his life were mainly devoted to art.
Nations are not different from children. As soon as the cave-man had escaped the threatening dangers of the long and shivering ice-period, and had put his house in order, he began to make certain things which he thought beautiful, although they were of no earthly use to him in his fight with the wild animals of the jungle. He covered the walls of his grotto with pictures of the elephants and the deer which he hunted, and out of a piece of stone, he hacked the rough figures of those women he thought most attractive.
As soon as the Egyptians and the Babylonians and the Persians and all the other people of the east had founded their little countries along the Nile and the Euphrates, they began to build magnificent palaces for their kings, invented bright pieces of jewellery for their women and planted gardens which sang happy songs of colour with their many bright flowers.
Our own ancestors, the wandering nomads from the distant Asiatic prairies, enjoying a free and easy existence as fighters and hunters, composed songs which celebrated the mighty deeds of their great leaders and invented a form of poetry which has survived until our own day. A thousand years later, when they had established themselves on the Greek mainland, and had built their "city-states," they expressed their joy (and their sorrows) in magnificent temples, in statues, in comedies and in tragedies, and in every conceivable form of art.
The Romans, like their Carthaginian rivals, were too busy administering other people and making money to have much love for "useless and unprofitable" adventures of the spirit. They conquered the world and built roads and bridges but they borrowed their art wholesale from the Greeks. They invented certain practical forms of architecture which answered the demands of their day and age. But their statues and their histories and their mosaics and their poems were mere Latin imitations of Greek originals. Without that vague and hard-to-define something which the world calls "personality," there can be no art and the Roman world distrusted that particular sort of personality. The Empire needed efficient soldiers and tradesmen. The business of writing poetry or making pictures was left to foreigners.
Then came the Dark Ages. The barbarian was the proverbial bull in the china-shop of western Europe. He had no use for what he did not understand. Speaking in terms of the year 1921, he liked the magazine covers of pretty ladies, but threw the Rembrandt etchings which he had inherited into the ash-can. Soon he came to learn better. Then he tried to undo the damage which he had created a few years before. But the ash-cans were gone and so were the pictures.
But by this time, his own art, which he had brought with him from the east, had developed into something very beautiful and he made up for his past neglect and indifference by the so-called "art of the Middle Ages" which as far as northern Europe is concerned was a product of the Germanic mind and had borrowed but little from the Greeks and the Latins and nothing at all from the older forms of art of Egypt and Assyria, not to speak of India and China, which simply did not exist, as far as the people of that time were concerned. Indeed, so little had the northern races been influenced by their southern neighbours that their own architectural products were completely misunderstood by the people of Italy and were treated by them with downright and unmitigated contempt.
You have all heard the word Gothic. You probably associate it with the picture of a lovely old cathedral, lifting its slender spires towards high heaven. But what does the word really mean?
It means something "uncouth" and "barbaric"—something which one might expect from an "uncivilised Goth," a rough backwoods-man who had no respect for the established rules of classical art and who built his "modern horrors" to please his own low tastes without a decent regard for the examples of the Forum and the Acropolis.
And yet for several centuries this form of Gothic architecture was the highest expression of the sincere feeling for art which inspired the whole northern continent. From a previous chapter, you will remember how the people of the late Middle Ages lived. Unless they were peasants and dwelt in villages, they were citizens of a "city" or "civitas," the old Latin name for a tribe. And indeed, behind their high walls and their deep moats, these good burghers were true tribesmen who shared the common dangers and enjoyed the common safety and prosperity which they derived from their system of mutual protection.
In the old Greek and Roman cities the market-place, where the temple stood, had been the centre of civic life. During the Middle Ages, the Church, the House of God, became such a centre. We modern Protestant people, who go to our church only once a week, and then for a few hours only, hardly know what a mediaeval church meant to the community. Then, before you were a week old, you were taken to the Church to be baptised. As a child, you visited the Church to learn the holy stories of the Scriptures. Later on you became a member of the congregation, and if you were rich enough you built yourself a separate little chapel sacred to the memory of the Patron Saint of your own family. As for the sacred edifice, it was open at all hours of the day and many of the night. In a certain sense it resembled a modern club, dedicated to all the inhabitants of the town. In the church you very likely caught a first glimpse of the girl who was to become your bride at a great ceremony before the High Altar. And finally, when the end of the journey had come, you were buried beneath the stones of this familiar building, that all your children and their grandchildren might pass over your grave until the Day of Judgement.
Because the Church was not only the House of God but also the true centre of all common life, the building had to be different from anything that had ever been constructed by the hands of man. The temples of the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans had been merely the shrine of a local divinity. As no sermons were preached before the images of Osiris or Zeus or Jupiter, it was not necessary that the interior offer space for a great multitude. All the religious processions of the old Mediterranean peoples took place in the open. But in the north, where the weather was usually bad, most functions were held under the roof of the church.
During many centuries the architects struggled with this problem of constructing a building that was large enough. The Roman tradition taught them how to build heavy stone walls with very small windows lest the walls lose their strength. On the top of this they then placed a heavy stone roof. But in the twelfth century, after the beginning of the Crusades, when the architects had seen the pointed arches of the Mohammedan builders, the western builders discovered a new style which gave them their first chance to make the sort of building which those days of an intense religious life demanded. And then they developed this strange style upon which the Italians bestowed the contemptuous name of "Gothic"or barbaric. They achieved their purpose by inventing a vaulted roof which was supported by "ribs." But such a roof, if it became too heavy, was apt to break the walls, just as a man of three hundred pounds sitting down upon a child's chair will force it to collapse. To overcome this difficulty, certain French architects then began to re-enforce the walls with "buttresses" which were merely heavy masses of stone against which the walls could lean while they supported the roof. And to assure the further safety of the roof they supported the ribs of the roof by so-called "flying buttresses," a very simple method of construction which you will understand at once when you look at our picture.
This new method of construction allowed the introduction of enormous windows. In the twelfth century, glass was still an expensive curiosity, and very few private buildings possessed glass windows. Even the castles of the nobles were without protection and this accounts for the eternal drafts and explains why people of that day wore furs in-doors as well as out.
Fortunately, the art of making coloured glass, with which the ancient people of the Mediterranean had been familiar, had not been entirely lost. There was a revival of stained glass-making and soon the windows of the Gothic churches told the stories of the Holy Book in little bits of brilliantly coloured window-pane, which were caught in a long framework of lead.
Behold, therefore, the new and glorious house of God, filled with an eager multitude, "living" its religion as no people have ever done either before or since! Nothing is considered too good or too costly or too wondrous for this House of God and Home of Man. The sculptors, who since the destruction of the Roman Empire have been out of employment, haltingly return to their noble art. Portals and pillars and buttresses and cornices are all covered with carven images of Our Lord and the blessed Saints. The embroiderers too are set to work to make tapestries for the walls. The jewellers offer their highest art that the shrine of the altar may be worthy of complete adoration. Even the painter does his best. Poor man, he is greatly handicapped by lack of a suitable medium.
And thereby hangs a story.
The Romans of the early Christian period had covered the floors and the walls of their temples and houses with mosaics; pictures made of coloured bits of glass. But this art had been exceedingly difficult. It gave the painter no chance to express all he wanted to say, as all children know who have ever tried to make figures out of coloured blocks of wood. The art of mosaic painting therefore died out during the late Middle Ages except in Russia, where the Byzantine mosaic painters had found a refuge after the fall of Constantinople and continued to ornament the walls of the orthodox churches until the day of the Bolsheviki, when there was an end to the building of churches.
Of course, the mediaeval painter could mix his colours with
the water of the wet plaster which was put upon the walls of
the churches. This method of painting upon "fresh plaster"
(which was generally called "fresco" or "fresh" painting)
was very popular for many centuries.
At last, during the first half of the fifteenth century, the problem was solved in the southern Netherlands by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. The famous Flemish brothers mixed their paint with specially prepared oils and this allowed them to use wood and canvas or stone or anything else as a background for their pictures.
But by this time the religious ardour of the early Middle Ages was a thing of the past. The rich burghers of the cities were succeeding the bishops as patrons of the arts. And as art invariably follows the full dinner-pail, the artists now began to work for these worldly employers and painted pictures for kings, for grand-dukes and for rich bankers. Within a very short time, the new method of painting with oil spread through Europe and in every country there developed a school of special painting which showed the characteristic tastes of the people for whom these portraits and landscapes were made.
In Spain, for example, Velasquez painted court-dwarfs and the weavers of the royal tapestry-factories, and all sorts of persons and subjects connected with the king and his court. But in Holland, Rembrandt and Frans Hals and Vermeer painted the barnyard of the merchant's house, and they painted his rather dowdy wife and his healthy but bumptious children and the ships which had brought him his wealth. In Italy on the other hand, where the Pope remained the largest patron of the arts, Michelangelo and Correggio continued to paint Madonnas and Saints, while in England, where the aristocracy was very rich and powerful and in France where the kings had become uppermost in the state, the artists painted distinguished gentlemen who were members of the government, and very lovely ladies who were friends of His Majesty.
The great change in painting, which came about with the neglect of the old church and the rise of a new class in society, was reflected in all other forms of art. The invention of printing had made it possible for authors to win fame and reputation by writing books for the multitudes. In this way arose the profession of the novelist and the illustrator. But the people who had money enough to buy the new books were not the sort who liked to sit at home of nights, looking at the ceiling or just sitting. They wanted to be amused. The few minstrels of the Middle Ages were not sufficient to cover the demand for entertainment. For the first time since the early Greek city-states of two thousand years before, the professional playwright had a chance to ply his trade. The Middle Ages had known the theatre merely as part of certain church celebrations. The tragedies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had told the story of the suffering of our Lord. But during the sixteenth century the worldly theatre made its reappearance. It is true that, at first, the position of the professional playwright and actor was not a very high one. William Shakespeare was regarded as a sort of circus-fellow who amused his neighbours with his tragedies and comedies. But when he died in the year 1616 he had begun to enjoy the respect of his neighbours and actors were no longer subjects of police supervision.
William's contemporary, Lope de Vega, the incredible Spaniard who wrote no less than 1800 worldly and 400 religious plays, was a person of rank who received the papal approval upon his work. A century later, Molière, the Frenchman, was deemed worthy of the companionship of none less than King Louis XIV.
Since then, the theatre has enjoyed an ever increasing
affection on the part of the people.
Another art, however, was to become the most popular of all. That was music. Most of the old art-forms demanded a great deal of technical skill. It takes years and years of practice before our clumsy hand is able to follow the commands of the brain and reproduce our vision upon canvas or in marble. It takes a life-time to learn how to act or how to write a good novel. And it takes a great deal of training on the part of the public to appreciate the best in painting and writing and sculpture. But almost any one, not entirely tone-deaf, can follow a tune and almost everybody can get enjoyment out of some sort of music. The Middle Ages had heard a little music but it had been entirely the music of the church. The holy chants were subject to very severe laws of rhythm and harmony and soon these became monotonous. Besides, they could not well be sung in the street or in the market-place.
The Renaissance changed this. Music once more came into its own as the best friend of man, both in his happiness and in his sorrows.
The Egyptians and the Babylonians and the ancient Jews
had all been great lovers of music. They had even combined
different instruments into regular orchestras. But the Greeks
had frowned upon this barbaric foreign noise. They liked to
hear a man recite the stately poetry of Homer and Pindar.
They allowed him to accompany himself upon the lyre (the
poorest of all stringed instruments). That was as far as any
one could go without incurring the risk of popular disapproval.
The Romans on the other hand had loved orchestral music at
their dinners and parties and they had invented most of the
instruments which (in very modified form) we use
Then came the great migrations. The last of the Roman musicians were either killed or became tramp-fiddlers going from city to city and playing in the street, and begging for pennies like the harpist on a modern ferry-boat.
But the revival of a more worldly civilisation in the cities of the late Middle Ages had created a new demand for musicians. Instruments like the horn, which had been used only as signal-instruments for hunting and fighting, were remodelled until they could reproduce sounds which were agreeable in the dance-hall and in the banqueting room. A bow strung with horse-hair was used to play the old-fashioned guitar and before the end of the Middle Ages this six-stringed instrument (the most ancient of all string-instruments which dates back to Egypt and Assyria) had grown into our modern four-stringed fiddle which Stradivarius and the other Italian violin- makers of the eighteenth century brought to the height of perfection.
And finally the modern piano was invented, the most wide-spread of all musical instruments, which has followed man into the wilderness of the jungle and the ice-fields of Greenland. The organ had been the first of all keyed instruments but the performer always depended upon the co-operation of some one who worked the bellows, a job which nowadays is done by electricity. The musicians therefore looked for a handier and less circumstantial instrument to assist them in training the pupils of the many church choirs. During the great eleventh century, Guido, a Benedictine monk of the town of Arezzo (the birthplace of the poet Petrarch) gave us our modern system of musical annotation. Some time during that century, when there was a great deal of popular interest in music, the first instrument with both keys and strings was built. It must have sounded as tinkly as one of those tiny children's pianos which you can buy at every toy-shop. In the city of Vienna, the town where the strolling musicians of the Middle Ages (who had been classed with jugglers and card sharps) had formed the first separate Guild of Musicians in the year 1288, the little monochord was developed into something which we can recognise as the direct ancestor of our modern Steinway. From Austria the "clavichord" as it was usually called in those days (because it had "claves" or keys) went to Italy. There it was perfected into the "spinet" which was so called after the inventor, Giovanni Spinetti of Venice. At last during the eighteenth century, some time between 1709 and 1720, Bartolomeo Cristofori made a "clavier" which allowed the performer to play both loudly and softly or as it was said in Italian, "piano" and "forte." This instrument with certain changes became our "pianoforte" or piano.
Then for the first time the world possessed an easy and convenient instrument which could be mastered in a couple of years and did not need the eternal tuning of harps and fiddles and was much pleasanter to the ears than the mediaeval tubas, clarinets, trombones and oboes. Just as the phonograph has given millions of modern people their first love of music so did the early "pianoforte" carry the knowledge of music into much wider circles. Music became part of the education of every well-bred man and woman. Princes and rich merchants maintained private orchestras. The musician ceased to be a wandering "jongleur" and became a highly valued member of the community. Music was added to the dramatic performances of the theatre and out of this practice, grew our modern Opera. Originally only a few very rich princes could afford the expenses of an "opera troupe." But as the taste for this sort of entertainment grew, many cities built their own theatres where Italian and afterwards German operas were given to the unlimited joy of the whole community with the exception of a few sects of very strict Christians who still regarded music with deep suspicion as something which was too lovely to be entirely good for the soul.
By the middle of the eighteenth century the musical life of Europe was in full swing. Then there came forward a man who was greater than all others, a simple organist of the Thomas Church of Leipzig, by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach. In his compositions for every known instrument, from comic songs and popular dances to the most stately of sacred hymns and oratorios, he laid the foundation for all our modern music. When he died in the year 1750 he was succeeded by Mozart, who created musical fabrics of sheer loveliness which remind us of lace that has been woven out of harmony and rhythm. Then came Ludwig van Beethoven, the most tragic of men, who gave us our modern orchestra, yet heard none of his greatest compositions because he was deaf, as the result of a cold contracted during his years of poverty.
Beethoven lived through the period of the great French Revolution. Full of hope for a new and glorious day, he had dedicated one of his symphonies to Napoleon. But he lived to regret the hour. When he died in the year 1827, Napoleon was gone and the French Revolution was gone, but the steam engine had come and was filling the world with a sound that had nothing in common with the dreams of the Third Symphony.
Indeed, the new order of steam and iron and coal and large factories had little use for art, for painting and sculpture and poetry and music. The old protectors of the arts, the Church and the princes and the merchants of the Middle Ages and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries no longer existed. The leaders of the new industrial world were too busy and had too little education to bother about etchings and sonatas and bits of carved ivory, not to speak of the men who created those things, and who were of no practical use to the community in which they lived. And the workmen in the factories listened to the drone of their engines until they too had lost all taste for the melody of the flute or fiddle of their peasant ancestry. The arts became the step-children of the new industrial era. Art and Life became entirely separated. Whatever paintings had been left, were dying a slow death in the museums. And music became a monopoly of a few "virtuosi" who took the music away from the home and carried it to the concert-hall.
But steadily, although slowly, the arts are coming back into their own. People begin to understand that Rembrandt and Beethoven and Rodin are the true prophets and leaders of their race and that a world without art and happiness resembles a nursery without laughter.