Focillon(1) - Forms in the Realm of Matter Henri Focillon,...

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Unformatted text preview: Forms in the Realm of Matter Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art. NY; Zone books, 1992. Unless and until it actually exists in matter, form is little better than a vista of the mind, a mere speculation on a space that has been reduced to geometrical intelligibility. Like the space oflife, the space of art is neither its own schematic pattern nor its own carefully calculated abbreviation. In spite of certain illusions pop— ularly held in regard to it, art is not simply a kind of fantastic geometry, or even a kind of particularly complex topology. Art is bound to weight, density, light and color. The most ascetic art, striving modestly and with few resources to attain to the most exalted regions of thought and feeling, not only is borne along by the very matter that it has sworn to repudiate, but is nourished and sustained by it as well. W’ithout matter art could not exist; without matter art would be something it had never once desired to be. Whatever renunciation art makes of matter merely bears Witness anew to the impossibility of its escaping From this mag- nificent, this unequivocal bondage. The old antitheses, spirit— matter, matter—Form, obsess men today exactly as much as the dualism ofform and subject matter obsessed men centuries ago. The first duty of anyone who Wishes to understand anything What- soever about the life of forms is to get rid of these contradictions in pure logic, even should they still retain some slight trace of 95 _: 1x. 211:}. is :=:-n:emed with the movements and the cre- ations of :3 Erie": mind. is. in the strictest sense ofthe term, essential:- "‘e’ ‘ -.olog_ical. And, because of this, the oppor- tunity i trasping authentic spiritual values. A study ofthe Senate :fite earth and the genesis of topographical relief, that is- . .or— en}; supplies us with admirable foundations to the poetzjr :l: at”: one. but such studies do not have that object originally Er. ew. The phjrsicis: doe that underlies the transformation and behavior of wei ht, heat, g I}- not take the trouble to define the “spirit” light and even" r}: Then, too, nobody any longer confuses the inertia otrnass ' ah the life of matter. This is because matter, even in its most Kittie details. is always structure and activity, that is to say. form. and because the more we delimit the field oimeta— morphoses. the better do we understand both the intensity and the graph of the movements of this field. These discussions of terminology would be futile, iithey did not involve methods. In my approach to the problem of the life offorms in matter, 1 do not mean to separate the one concept from the other, and if I use the two terms “form” and “matter” individually, it is not to give an ObjECEiYE reality to a highly abstract procedure, but is, on the contrary. in order to display the constant, indissoluble, irreducible character ofa true and genuine union. vave will hold this notion in mind. it will be seen that form does not behave as some superior principle modeling a passive mass, for it is plainly observable how matter imposes its own form upon form. Also, it is not a question of matter and of form in the abstract, but of many kinds of actual matters or substances — numerous, com- plex, visible, weighty — produced by nature, but not natural in and of themselves. Several principles may be deduced from the preceding. The 96 IN THE REALM OF MATTER first is that all different kinds of matter are subject to a certain destiny, or at all events, to a certain formal vocation. They have consistency, color and grain. They are form, as I have already indi— cated, and because of that fact, they call forth, limit or develop the life of the forms of art. They are chosen not only for the ease with which they may be handled, or for the usefulness they con- tribute to whatever service art renders to the needs oflife, but also because they accommodate themselves to specific treatments and because they secure certain effects. Thus. their form, in its raw state, evokes, suggests and propagates other forms, and. to use once again an apparently contradictory expression that is explained in the preceding chapters, this is because this form liberates other forms according to its own laws. But it must be pointed out at once that the formal vocation of matter is no blind determinism, for — and this is the second principle — all these highly individual and suggestive varieties ofmatter, which demand so much from form and which exert so powerful an attraction on the forms ofart, are, in their own turn, profoundly modified by these forms. Consequently, there is between the matters or substances of art and the substances of nature a divorce. even when they are bound together by the strictest formal propriety. A new order is established, within which there are two distinct realms. This is the case even if technical devices and manufactures are not intro- duced. The wood of the statue is no longer the wood of the tree; sculptured marble is no longer the marble of the quarry; melted and hammered gold becomes an altogether new and different metal; bricks that have been baked and then built into a wall bear no relation to the clay of the clay pit. The color. the integument, all the values that affect the sight have changed. Things without a surface, whether once hidden behind the bark, buried in the mountain, imprisoned in the nugget or swallowed in the mud, 97 THE LlFE OF FORMS have become wholly separated from chaos. They have acquired an integument; they adhere to space; they welcome a daylight that works freely upon them. Even when the treatment to which it has been submitted has not modified the equilibrium and natu- ral relationship’of the parts, the life that seems to inhabit matter has undergone metamorphosis. Sometimes, among certain peo- ples, the kinship between the substances of art and the substances ofnature has been the subject of many strange speculations. The Far Eastern masters, for whom space is essentially the theater of metamorphosis and migration, and who have always considered matter as the crossroads where a vast number of highways come together, have preferred among all the substances ofnature those that are, as it were, the most intentional and that seem to have been elaborated only by some obscure art. And yet, these same masters, while working with the substances of art, often under— took to stamp the traits of nature upon them; they attempted, indeed, to transform them completely. And thus, by a singular reversal, nature for them is full of works of art, and art is full of natural curiosities. Their exquisite little rock gardens, for exam- ple, although composed with the utmost care, seem to have been laid out by the mere caprice ofsome highly ingenious hand, and their earthenware ceramics appear to be less the work of a pot- ter than a marvellous conglomerate created by subterranean fire or accident. In addition to this delightful emulation and to this interest in transpositions % which seeks the artificial at the heart of nature and the secret labor of nature at the heart of human invention — these men have been artisans who have worked only with the rarest of substances and who have been the most eman-I cipated from the use ofmodels. Nothing exists in either the veg- etable or the mineral world that suggests or recalls the cold density, the glossy darkness, the burnished and shadowy light, of the lacquers made by these Eastern masters. These lacquers actu- 98 IN THE REALM OF MATTER ally come from the resin of a certain pine, which is then long worked and polished in huts built above watercourses and per- fectly protected from all dust. The raw stuff of their painting partakes both of water and of smoke, and yet is in reality neither the one nor the other, inaSmuch as such painting possesses the extraordinary secret of being able to stabilize these elements and at the same time to leave them fluid and imponderable. But this sorcery, which astonishes and delights us because it comes to us from afar, is no more captious or inventive than the labor of Western artists upon the substances of art. The precious arts, from which we might be first tempted to draw examples. do not, perhaps, offer anything at all comparable in this respect to the resources of oil painting. There, in an art seemingly dedi- cated to “imitation,” the principle of non-imitation appears as it does nowhere else, There, in oil painting, lies the creative origi- nality that extracts from the substances furnished by nature all the matters and the substances necessary for a ne“' nature. This originality is, moreover, one that unceasingly renews itself. For the matter, or substance, of an art is not a fixed datum that has been acquired once and for all. From its very first appearance it is transformation and novelty, because artistic activity. like a chemical reaction, eiaborates matter even as it continues the work of metamorphosis. Sometimes in oil painting we observe the spec- tacle of transparent continuity, ofa retention ofall forms. whether hard or limpid, within a delicate, golden crystallization. Or again, oil painting will nurture forms with gross abundance, and they will seem to wallow and roll in an element that is never quies- cent. Sometimes oil painting can be as rough as masonry, and again it can be as vibrant as sound. Even without the introduc- tion of color, it is obvious that the substance varies here in its composition and in the seeming relationship of its parts. But when we do call on color, it is even more obvious that the same red, 99 THE LIFE OF FORM$ for instance, takes on different properties, not only according to its use in distemper, tempera, fresco or oil, but also a different property according to the manner ofits application in each one ofthese various processes. This observation serves to introduce several others, but before considering them, a number of points remain still to be clari— fied. One might reasonably suppose that there are certain tech niques in which matter is ofslight importance, that drawing, for example, is a process of abstraction so extreme and so pure that matter is reduced to a mere armature of the slenderest possible sort, and is, indeed, very nearly volatilized. But matter in this vol- atile state is still matter, and by virtue ofbeing controlled, com~ pressed and divided on the paper w which it instantly brings to life — it acquires a special power. lts variety, moreover, is extreme: ink, wash, iead pencil, charcoal, red chalk, crayon, whether sin- gly or in combination, all constitute so many distinct traits, so many distinct languages. To be satisfied as to this, one need only imagine any such impossibility as a red chalk drawing by \Natteau copied by ingres in lead pencil or, to put it more simply (inas— much as the names of individual masters introduce certain val— ues that we have not yet discussed), a charcoal drawing copied in wash. The latter at once assumes totally unexpected properties; it becomes, indeed, a new work. we may at this point deduce a more general rule that invokes the principle of destiny or of formal vocation mentioned above, that is, the substances of art are not interchangeable, or in other words, form, in passing from a given substance to another substance, merely undergoes a metamorphosis. The importance of this remark in connection with the his- torical study of the influence of certain techniques on other techniques can, it is hoped, henceforth be understood without difficulty. It was originally inspired by my attempt to establish a 100 lN THE REALM OF MATTER critical approach to one particular, and very definite, idea of influ- ence: that involving the relationships between the monumental sculpture and the precious arts of the Romanesque period. An ivory Or an illumination, when copied by a muralist, at once enters an altogether different universe — a universe whose laws it must faithfully obey. The attempts made by mosaic and by tapestry to take on the effects of oil painting have had familiar consequences. And yet, the masters of interpretative engraving clearly understood that they did not have to “compete” with the paintings they were using as models (any more than painters com- pete with nature), but simply to transpose them. It is, ofcourse. possible to elaborate these ideas much more fully. But at least they help us to define a work of art as unique, for, the equilibrium and the properties of the substances ofart not being constant. no abso— lute copy is ever possible, even within a given substance or at a time when a given style is most firmly established. 1 wish to insist again, in order to make myself perfectly clear. on the fact that form is not only, as it were, incarnated. but that it is invariably incarnation itself. It is not easy for us to admit this readily. Our minds are so filled with the recollection offorms that we tend to confuse them with the recollection itself. and there— fore to believe that they inhabit some insubstantial region of the imagination or the memory, where they are as complete and as definite as on a pubiic square or in a museum gallery. How can certain measures that seem to exist wholly Within ourselves, such as the interpretation of space, or the relationship of parts in human proportions and in the play ofhurnan mOVements, be mod- ified by all the various kinds of matter, and depend on them as well? One is reminded of the phrase Flaubert applied to the Parthenon, “black as ebony.” He wished, perhaps, to indicate an absolute quality — the absolute ofa measure that dominates mat- ter and even metamorphoses it, or to put it more simply, the stern i0] '—E a :E OF FORMS authority of a sing e. indestructible thought. But the Parthenon is made of marbie. and this fact is of extreme importance — so much so that the drums of concrete that have been inserted into the columns by respectful restoration seem no less cruel than mutilations. Is it not strange that a volume may change, as it assumes shape in marble, bronze or wood, as it is painted in dis- temper or oil. engraved with a burin or lithographed? Do we not risk confusing superficial and easily altered properties with oth- ers that are more general and constant? No, for the truth is that volumes. in these various states, are not the same, because they depend on light — on the light that models them, that brings out the solids or the voids and that makes the surface the expression ofa relative density. Now, light itself depends on the substance that receives it. On this subject the light may flow easily or come finnly to rest: it may to a greater or lesser degree penetrate it; it may give it either a dry quality or an oily one. In painting, it is more than plain that the interpretation of space is a function of matter. which sometimes limits space and sometimes destroys its limits. Then. too, a given volume varies according to whether it is painted in full impasto or in superimposed glazes. That our idea of matter should, therefore, be intimately linked with our idea of technique is altogether unavoidable. They are, indeed, in no way dissociated. I myselfhave made this concept the very center of my own investigations, and not once has it seemed to me to restrict them in any way. On the contrary, it has been like some observatory whence both sight and study might embrace within one and the same perspective the greatest possi- ble number of objects and their greatest possible diversity. For, technique may be interpreted in many various ways: as a vital force, as a theory of mechanics or as a mere convenience. In my own case as a historian, i never regarded technique as the automatism of a “craft,” nor as the curiosities, the recipes of a 102 IN THE REALM OF MATTER “cuisine”; but instead as a whole poetry of action and (to pre- serve certain inexact and provisional terms used in the vocabu— lary of this particular essay) as the means for the achievement of metamorphoses. It has always seemed to me that in difficult stud ies ofthis sort — studies that are so repeatedly exposed both to a vagueness of judgments respecting actual worth and to extremely ambiguous interpretations — the observation oftechnical phenom- ena not only guarantees a certain controllable objectivity. but affords an entrance into the very heart of the problem, by presentv ing it to us in the same terms andfrom the same point of new as it 1'5 presented to the artist. To find ourselves in such a situation is as uncommon as it is desirable, and it is important to define wherein lies its interest. The purpose of the inquiries ofa physicist or a biologist is the reconstruction of nature itselfby means ofa tech— nique controlled by experiment: a method less descriptive than active, since it reconstructs an activity. But we historians. aias, cannot use experiment to check our Own results. and the analyt- ical study of this fourth “realm” which is the world of forms can amount to little more than a science of observation. But in view— ing technique as a process and in trying to reconstruct it as such, we are given the opportunity of going beyond surface phenom- ena and of seeing the significance ofdeeper relationships. Thus formulated, this methodological position appears natu— ral and reasonable enough, and yet to understand it fully and above all to exploit its every possibility, we must still strive. within Our inmost selves, to throw off the vestiges ofcertain old errors. The most serious and deeply rooted of these derives from that scho— lastic antinomy between form and subject matter, to the discus- sion of which there is no need to return. Next, even for the many enlightened observers who pay close attention to investigations on technique, technique remains not a fundamental element of knOWledge that reiterates a creative process, but the mere instru- 103 THE LlFE OF FORMS ment of form, exactly as form seems to them to be the garment and vehicle of the subject matter. This arbitrary restriction nec- essarily leads to two false positions, and the second may be con- sidered as the refuge and the excuse of the first. In regarding technique as a grammar, which unquestionably has lived and still does live, but whose rules have taken on a kind ofprovisional fix- ity — a kind of value imparted by unanimous consent — we are led to identify the rules of common speech with the technique of the writer, the practice ofa craft with the technique ofan artist. The second false position is to relegate every creative advance augmenting that grammar to the indeterminate world of“prin- ciples," in exactly the same way, for instance, as ancient medi— cine explained all biological phenomena by the action ofa vital “principle.” But ifwe no longer try to separate what is fundamen- tally united, and instead try simply to classify and conjoin phe- nomena, we see that technique is in truth the result of growth and destruction, and that, inasmuch as it is equally remote from syntax and from metaphysics, it may without exaggeration be likened to physiology. 1 do not deny that I myself am using the term under discus- sion in two senses: techniques in particular are not technique in general, but the first meaning has exercised a restrictive influence on the second. It will be admitted that, in a work of art, these meanings represent two unequal and yet intimately related aspects of activity: that is, first, the aggregate of the trade secrets of a craft and, second, the manner in which these trade secrets bring forms in matter to life. This would amount to the reconciliation of passivity with freedom. But that fact by itselfis not sufficient, for, if technique is indeed a process, we must, in examining a work of art, go beyond mere craft techniques and trace to its source an entire genealogy. This is the fundamental interest (supe- rior to any specifically historical interest) that the “history” ofa 104 IN THE REALM OF MATTER work of art has for us before it attains its ultimate form — in the analysis, that is, of the preliminary ideas, the sketches, the rough drafts that precede the finished statue or painting. These rapidly changing, impatient metamorphoses, coupled with the earnest attention given them by the artist, develop a work of art under our very eyes, exactly as the pianist’s execution develops a sonata, and it is of the first importance that we should take heed of them, as they move and react within something that is still apparently static. With what do they provide us? Points of reference in time? A psychological perspective? A jumbled topography of successive states of consciousness? Far more than these: What we have here is the very technique of the life of forms itself, its own biologi- cal development. An art that yields particularly rich secrets in this reSpect is engraving, with its different “states” of the plates. For the amateur, these states are mere curiosities; for the student they hold a much more profound meaning. When we examine a painter’s rough draft - reduced to itself alone, and irrespective of its past as a sketch or its future as a painting -— we feel that it already carries a genealogical significance and that it must be interpreted, not as an achievement in and of itself, but as an entire movement. To these investigations on genealogy must be added those on variations and, also, those on interferences. As regards variations, it is plain that the life of forms often seeks different channels for itself within a single art and within the work of a single artist. Harmony and equilibrium are, to be sure, attained, but it is also true that this equilibrium is not only subject to disruption but that it may also invite new experiments. The question is much too easily simplified if we read into these nuances (which are, in reality, oftentimes perfectly distinct and clear) merely the poetic transposition of the tumults ofhuman existence. For, what nec- essary relationship exists between the limitations, the physical 105 THE LIFE OF FORMS heaviness of old age and the youthful Freedom that Tintoretto, Hals and Rembrandt (Figure 14) display at the end of their lives? Nothing exhibits better than do such powerful variations the impatience of technique in respect to its craft. It is not that mat- ter oppresses technique, but that technique must extract from matter forces that are still vital and not vitrified beneath a flaw- less varnish. Nor is it, again, Full possession of the “means to an end”; for, no longer are such means adequate. Nor is it, finally, virtuosity, since the virtuoso is above all else a kind oitightrope walker. So absorbed is he in his mastery over equilibrium that his dancing is but the endless repetition of the same step — a step whose rhythm he is in constant danger oflosing as he slides back and forth along his thin, taut wire. As for interferences, that is, the phenomena of chiasma and of exchange, these may be interpreted as a reaction against the formal vocation of the substances of art or, better, as a working of technique upon the relationships between techniques. It would be interesting to study the history of this process, in order to determine how the law oftechnical primacy would here behave, and how those notions oi‘unity and necessity, that impose them- selves to a greater or lesser degree on the various “crafts” of art, have been first built up and then Overthrown both in practice and in teaching. It would, however, be much more profitable for us to pass Over historical movements involving great ensembles and instead to analyze closely, and from this very point of View, the drawings and paintings ofsculptors or the sculptures ofpainters. How is it p055ible, for example, to disregard Michelangelo the sculptor while studying Michelangelo the painter? How can one fail to perceive the close relationships that unite the painter and the etcher in Rembrandt? It is not enough to say that an etching by Rembrandt is simply a painter’s etching (a concept that has itself-undergone some remarkable variations); it must further be 106 ...
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Focillon(1) - Forms in the Realm of Matter Henri Focillon,...

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