The New Carthage/Part II/Chapter IV

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The New Carthage by Georges Eekhoud, translated by Lloyd R. Morris
Part II, Chapter IV



While strolling about the quays Door Bergmans saw a fellow whose expression attracted him. He started with astonishment. "I must be mistaken," he thought, as he continued on his way. But, having gone a few steps, he turned back, and, making sure that it really was Laurent Paridael, walked toward him with his hand outstretched.

Laurent, who was busy superintending the loading of a cargo of bales of rice contracted for by the America, was a little disconcerted, and even tried to shun him, but, reassured by the simple and kindly greeting, left his post for the moment and let himself be drawn a few feet away. When he heard the news, Bergmans teased him gently about the whim that had made him enter the service of a Nation as tally keeper, and assist the stevedores. Why had he not come to him? Bergmans offered him on the spot a place more worthy of his talents and more compatible with his education. But, to his great surprise, Laurent refused to abandon his new position. He described his new surroundings and his new friends with such lyricism and in such enthusiastic terms that he almost justified his strange vocation, and Bergmans thought better of insisting any further. He abstained from speaking of Gina. Put completely at his ease, Laurent hailed with delight the proposition that he, Bergmans, Marbol and Vyveloy should meet from time to time.

The artist Marbol, a little, dry man, all nerves, concealed beneath an anemic and delicate appearance, an extraordinary fund of energy and perseverance. Within the past two or three years he had gained something of a reputation for painting what he saw about him. Alone in this great city literally infested by daubers and studio painters, in this ancient hotbed of art now almost totally extinguished—a necropolis rather than a metropolis—he was commencing to exploit the local "plein-air," streets, scenery and types. He had left the ancient academy founded by Teniers and the delicious realists of the seventeenth century, but now fallen in the hands of false artists, as timid painters as they were intolerant teachers, with a certain eclat on the eve of the concours de Rome. In so doing, the young man had made enemies of the official coterie, the dealers, the amateurs, the critics and the collectors, those who procure bread as well as those who award renown.

To paint Antwerp, its life, its harbor, its river, its sailors, its dockers, its luxuriant women, its rosy and chubby children whom Rubens, in other days, had thought sufficiently plastic and appetizing to populate his heavens and Olympuses; to paint this human mob in its own ways, its costume and surroundings, with the most scrupulous and cherishing care for its special customs and morals, without neglecting any of the correlations which accentuate and characterize it; to interpret the very soul of the city of Rubens with a sympathy bordering upon assimilation—what a program and what an objective! It was, from the point of view of these makers and buyers of dolls and mannequins, the deed of a crazy man, of an eccentric radical.

One of Marbol's paintings, destined for a foreign international exposition, and submited before being sent to the approval of his fellow townsmen, sent them all into shrieks of laughter, and made him the object of ironic condolence and bitter and distrustful silence. This picture was "Dockers Resting."

At noon, upon an unharnessed truck close to the docks, three workmen were lying down. One lay on his back, his legs spread slightly apart, his head resting between his bent arms, in his hands clasped beneath his neck. His face was swarthy, rough, but handsome, half asleep, his eyelids slightly parted and showing the velvety black of the pupils. The two other dockers had thrown themselves down flat on their stomachs; the bottom of their leathery, smoky coats tightened across their well-developed haunches; their chests were slightly lifted; their chins rested in their calloused hands; leaning upon their elbows, they turned their backs to the spectators, showing their curly heads, their ears, the powerful muscles of their necks and their broad backs as they gaped at a corner of the roadstead that glistened amidst the forest of masts.

In Paris this audacious canvas drew forth a studio war and ferocious polemics; for years past such a hue and cry had not been raised. Marbol made as many friends as he did enemies; a goodly number of each. One of the big dealers of the chausée d'Antin, having bought the scandalous composition, the dealers of Antwerp shuddered with rage and astonishment. What honest man could have consented to hang this portrait of three ragged workmen, badly clothed, unshorn, fleshy, gross, with disquieting haunches and fists? To reveal the full extent of his horror, Dupoissy had written that the picture exhaled an odor of sweat and red herring and onions; that he scented its low debauchery.

Another exposition was held in Paris. Marbol entered a picture no less audacious than the first, and, to the redoubled stupefaction of the hostile and timorous clan, the jurors awarded him the grand medal.

Even though the high priests of painting maliciously ranged themselves in opposition to the young painter, these successes, shortly afterward ratified in Munich, Vienna and London, gave the amateurs and collectors of Antwerp high society something to brood upon. It could not be denied that the fellow was making a success. If he had been able to prove his superiority only by what is called fame; magazine articles, applause from the starving, who, when they lack food, find nourishment in dreams, had this been the case, practical people would have continued to shrug their shoulders at this blustering bungler. But from the minute that he was able to finger his gold pieces his case became interesting.

"Well, well! Surely a weird taste! Painting that isn't at all decorative; pictures that one would not wish to hang in one's home, at least not in a lady's sitting room. But he is a clever business man, and very shrewd after all. He did not make his plans so very badly, either. And what difference does it make that he paints pictures that one would not touch with a pair of tongs, since we all entertain that nice chap Vanderzeepen, even though we all know that the worthy man made his two hundred houses, his residence in the Place de Meir, and his chateau at Borsbeek out of the proceeds of a sewage collecting plant? Like Vanderzeepen, this Monsieur Marbol has found the philosopher's stone; with all due respect, he has made gold out of dung!"

Prejudice began to give way. The captains of high finance commenced to bow to this person whom they had formerly thought a mangy tatterdemalion; they even risked mentioning his name before their very prudish wives, a thing which, a few months before, would have seemed most unconventional. Not being decently able to extol his incendiary and anarchistic art, they pretended to praise Marbol's commercial genius and ability in raising cash with such facility upon his disagreeable daubs and scarecrows from rich Parisians, jocular Yankees, or Englishmen, who, as every one knows, are partial to monstrous and peculiar scenes.

The musician Rombaut de Vyveloy, Door Bergmans' other friend, brought to mind, because of his height, his robust build, his leonine head, and its abundant shock of hair, and his ruddy complexion, the figure of the chief of the gods in the Jordaens "Jupiter and Mercury at the house of Philemon and Baucis." This Brabantian was, if not a pagan, at least a man of the Renaissance. There was nothing about him, either physically or morally, that suggested the dull sanctity of the emaciated types to be found in the work of primitives like Memling or Van Eyck. He had transformed old Bach's Christian oratorio into one of pantheism.

The passionate and essentially plastic art of Vyveloy was bound to make a deeper impression upon Laurent Paridael than Marbol's paintings, which, although strong in conception, were a little weak and a little frigid in realization, and which, ^as he began to feel more and more undeniably as time went on, were not vibrant enough.

That year Antwerp inaugurated the celebration of the tercentenary of Rubens' birth with a cantata by Rombaut de Vyveloy, sung one evening in the Place Verte in the open air. Laurent did not fail to attend this performance.

Near the statue of the great Peter-Paul, the chorus and the orchestra occupied a semi-circular grand stand, in the center of which the composer was enthroned. The square, which had been roped off, was allotted to the bourgoisie. The common people, crowding into the surrounding places, respected the demarcation, and the converging streets vomited forth increasing mobs in vain; the appalling multitude appeared more dignified and more calm than the privileged spectators, and less riotous than the obnoxious police or the cumbering mounted gendarmes. There were no scuffling and no murmuring. For hours past workmen and poor people had stamped about in their places without losing any of their good humor or serenity. What fluid had silenced these riotous tongues and turbulent pates? Arms crossed themselves placidly on breasts that were panting with curiosity. Did not these Antwerpians of robust stock but lowly rank anticipate the unique splendor of the celebration which they were preluding with such impressiveness? The infants on the housewives' arms abstained from wailing, and the street dogs circulated amidst the compact plantation of legs without being molested by their natural tormentors, the street boys.

And in this impressive and magnetic silence, above the flowing sea of curdling surges, upon which the blue shadows, descending gently, caressingly, had stretched an additional peace and solemnity, there fell from the highest gallery of the structure, where the eye tried in vain to discern the heralds at arms, the martial fanfare of trumpets playing in unison. And the soprani of the sister cities, Bruges and Ghent, hailed and acclaimed the Metropolis again and again. Their salutations, ever warmer and more strident, were followed by the hoarse blasts of the aerial fanfare. After this dialogue the carillon began to tintinnabulate, slowly and muted at first, like a covey awakening at dawn in the dew of a coppice, then springing into life, elevating their voices, darting forth in flight with a shower of chords of jubilation. A burst of sunshine. Then the orchestra and the choruses entered the lists. And this was the apotheosis of Wealth and Art.

The poet extolled the Great Market in virulent strophes, in hyperbolical and sonorous commonplaces to which the mise-en-scéne, the ecstacy of the crowd, and Vyveloy's music lent a sublime import. The four quarters of the globe came to salute Antwerp, all the nations of the globe were paying her humble tribute, and, as if modern times and the middle ages were not enough to swell the triumphant sails of the proud city, the cantata went back to antiquity and enlisted the forty centuries of the Pyramids as mace-bearers and lictors. Everything, time and the universe, geography and history, the infinite and the eternal, blended, in this work, into a celebration of the city of Rubens. And in closing one's eyes one could have imagined the passing of a majestic cortège before the throne of the preeminently triumphant painter.

When it was over and the garrison band, at the head of the torchlight procession, took up, as they began to march, the principal theme of the cantata, Laurent, tingling to his very marrow, his nerves coursing with an indefinable and contagious enthusiasm, momentarily beside himself, locked step with the soldiers and pushed on with the equally enthusiastic and excited mob in which bourgeois and workmen, entangled arm in arm, struck up in full voice the dithyrambic chant.

Tirelessly Laurent marched with the procession over the whole of its route.

The flowing escort renewed itself with fresh relays at every corner, but in vain, for in his intense excitement he could not bring himself to leave it. Vyveloy's music would have carried him to the end of the world. Although others were used up by the heroic measures of the torchlight procession and disappeared in the cross streets, he was conscious of an even-increasing intrepidity in his legs and flame in his heart. New marchers, however, were always replacing those who had dropped out, and the character of the procession varied with the quarters that it traversed. Along the roadstead and the basins Laurent felt the elbows of sailors and dockers; in the heart of the city he became one of a crowd of salesmen and shop girls; on the boulevards of the new city he found himself again with young men of good family and the clerks of the largest firms; finally, in the labyrinths of the Quartier Saint Andre, the habitation of the beggars, waifs and strays, bareheaded wantons took his arm familiarly, and tawny young blackguards, perhaps runners, carried him off in their farandole. All for Antwerp, all for Reubens. Laurent heard only the cantata; he was filled and saturated with it. He accompanied the bands to their last halting place, sad and almost frustrated when the gunners, having dismounted, blew out the Venetian lanterns hung upon their wooden lances, and trampled the last resin torches under their heels.