The Glass Walking Stick


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MUCH has been written recently about a revival of interest in what is called the Baroque — the rather riotous sort of Renaissance architecture which broke out all over Europe, largely in connexion with the Counter-Reformation and largely leading up to what the French call the Great Century, the noontide glory of the Roi Soleil. Critics are saying, with some justice, that the very medievalists who rightly condemned the reckless Renaissance contempt for the Gothic have since exhibited a quite equally reckless contempt for all the results of the Renaissance. As the one was called Gothic merely in the sense of the barbaric, so the other is called Rococo merely in the sense of florid or absurd. The classical foundations of Rome are not necessarily bad because the pointed shrines in Normandy are good; and if it is hard to imagine how anyone ever thought that a savage had designed St Ouen’s, we have even more detailed evidence that it was not exactly a fool who designed St Peter’s.

We all have our preferences, we all probably have our prejudices about these things; but even medievalists like myself may well admit that some of us have shown prejudice as well as preference. We may well admit that, even when we are illuminated with all the windows of Chartres, even when we are rejoicing in some glorious Gothic lantern of flamboyant glass, we are in a sense living in glass houses and should not throw stones. Certainly we should not cast the first stone at every stonemason who does not happen to be a medieval stonemason. To take that position is to be every bit as ignorant and stupid as those great Renaissance classicists who thought themselves so enlightened and so wise. Certainly they were Vandals when they thought they were attacking Goths. But the Gothicists are really Goths when they march only to sack the temples of Rome. So much even a man of medieval sympathies may well concede to those who condemn anything as Pagan if it is not Pugin. But we will probably add that the worst weakness of the medievalists is that they fall short of the medievals. The real trouble has been that even those who admired Gothic most could not revive the part of it that was most admirable. The most wonderful thing about Gothic was the spontaneous individual craftsmanship, especially in its sanctification of the grotesque. But there was nothing specially spontaneous, there was nothing specially individual, there was certainly nothing specially grotesque, about the pallid and pointed church architecture that began with the Victorian High Churchman and is now the pattern of every Wesleyan or Congregationalist chapel in Surbiton or Streatham. The worthy Wesleyan would be gravely surprised if he saw his pew decorated with some of the carvings found on the Miserere seats of the monks. The speculative builder in Surbiton would be distinctly pained if he found an ordinary bricklayer chipping a brick about to make a hideous face, certainly to suit the fancy of the labourer, and possibly to be a caricature of the foreman. This sort of variety within a framework of unity was the real merit of the medieval world, and it is nearly impossible in the modern world. Anyhow, it is quite as impossible in the Gothic chapel in Streatham as it is in the classical temple in Rome. That is what I mean by saying that the modern stained glass attitudinizer is living in a glass house or is open to a tu quoque; he is not really carving his own gargoyles any more than the classicist, and anybody who dared to cast a real stone devil among us might be killing two birds with one stone. He might be not only rebuking classicism for not being Gothic, but even more sharply rebuking Gothic for not being Gothic. In other words, the real objection to revivals of medievalism is that they are not medieval enough.

The Baroque in art and architecture, however, had its own sort of freedom and fantasy; and, as it was produced under social conditions more like our own; it is natural that some of us should turn to it with a new understanding and sympathy. Nevertheless, the understanding and sympathy are quite new, and that for a reason that is rather interesting in itself. It arises from the fact that the full civilization in which this expanded and even extravagant form of classicism flourished is one from which we in England have been cut off by a curious historical accident. The period which was most positive in French history was curiously negative in English history. It is like the case of one of those florid classical masks so often seen in the sculpture and decoration of the Baroque period. Only the French beheld it solid and in the round; a full and featured lace; the noble mask of Comedy or of Tragedy; for the smile was the smile of Molière and the frown was the frown of Racine. But we were on the concave and not the convex side of that mould or protuberance. At that particular period, we saw it as something hollow and empty; even when we imitated it, we used it as a mask and hardly saw it as a face.

Indeed, we imitated the French without admiring them — or, at any rate, we admired them without praising them. They were at once our enemies and our models; but that very fact shows that they were at that moment at their best and we almost at our worst. Wycherley wrote an English version of the noblest of all the plays of Molière, and it is pretty ignoble. It is almost enough to ask where Molière has stood among French writers and where Wycherley has stood among English. Anyhow, it will be agreed that our great period was rather the age of Shakespeare than the age of Wycherley. The reasons for this contrast are probably political and may be very roughly suggested by saying that the natural outcome and climax of the Renaissance, good or bad, was the thing which Charles I failed in achieving and which Henry VIII only seemed to achieve. It was the replacing of a strong Church by a strong State and even by a strong King.

In France this strong State was established, with such advantages as that conception has, in all sorts of things down to the leadership of fashion and the patronage of art and architecture. In England it was thwarted and broken up, for good or evil, by factions, and especially by the faction of the Whig aristocrats. Therefore, if we want to judge that strong State which was the spirit of the time, and balance its good and evil, England happens to be a very unfortunate corner of Europe in which to study it. The English Puritans had their own virtues; the English Whigs had their own case; but they do not tell us much of what was happening in the world just then, or of that positive and constructive culture whose architectural symbol was the Baroque. It seems to me very odd that internationalists, who rebuke the narrowness of national things, seldom sympathize with really international things. Thus the man who is always hoping that a Europe without flags or frontiers will exist in the future, is quite annoyed to discover that a Europe without flags or frontiers really existed in the past. He wants to get nearer to a World State and he hates the nearest that the world ever came to a World State — the Roman Empire. I find the most enlightened Englishmen strangely blind to the positive European importance of the Grand Siècle. They seem to be as jealous of Louis XIV as if he were still alive. But a good historian will feel something of the magnificence of the legend of Louis, just as he will feel something of the magnificence of the legend of Elizabeth. You can not understand France without one, or England without the other — or Europe without both.

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