Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Unknown People

YOU WILL often hear it said that it is astonishing such and such work should be present and enduring in the world, and yet the name of its author not known; but when one considers the variety of good work and the circumstances under which it is achieved, and the variety of taste also between different times and places, one begins to understand what is at first so astonishing.

There are writers who have ascribed this frequent ignorance of ours to all sorts of heroic moods, to the self-sacrifice or the humility of a whole epoch or of particular artists: that is the least satisfactory of the reasons one could find. All men desire, if not fame, at least the one poor inalienable right of authorship, and unless one can find very good reasons indeed why a painter or a writer or a sculptor should deliberately have hidden himself one must look for some other cause.

Among such causes the first two, I think, are the multiplicity of good work, and its chance character. Not that any one ever does very good work for once and then never again─at least, such an accident is extremely rare─but that many a man who has achieved some skill by long labour does now and then strike out a sort of spark quite individual and separate from the rest. Often you will find that a man who is remembered for but one picture or one poem is worth research. You will find that he did much more. It is to be remembered that for a long time Ronsard himself was thought to be a man of one poem.

The multiplicity of good work also and the way in which accident helps it is a cause. There are bits of architecture (and architecture is the most anonymous of all the arts) which depend for their effect to-day very largely upon situation and the process of time, and there are a thousand corners in Europe intended merely for some utility which happen almost without deliberate design to have proved perfect: this is especially true of bridges.

Then there is this element in the anonymity of good work, that a man very often has no idea how good the work is which he has done. The anecdotes (such as that famous one of Keats) which tell us of poets desiring to destroy their work, or, at any rate, casting it aside as of little value, are not all false. We still have the letter in which Burns enclosed "Scots wha' hae," and it is curious to note his misjudgment of the verse; and side by side with that kind of misjudgment we have men picking out for singular affection and with a full expectation of glory some piece of work of theirs to which posterity will have nothing to say. This is especially true of work recast by men in mature age. Writers and painters (sculptors luckily are restrained by the nature of their art─unless they deliberately go and break up their work with a hammer) retouch and change, in the years when they have become more critical and less creative, what they think to be the insufficient achievements of their youth: yet it is the vigour and the simplicity of their youthful work which other men often prefer to remember. On this account any number of good things remain anonymous, because the good writer or the good painter or the good sculptor was ashamed of them.

Then there is this reason for anonymity, that at times─for quite a short few years─a sort of universality of good work in one or more departments of art seems to fall upon the world or upon some district. Nowhere do you see this more strikingly than in the carvings of the first third of the sixteenth century in Northern and Central France and on the Flemish border.

Men seemed at that moment incapable of doing work that was not marvellous when they once began to express the human figure. Sometimes their mere name remains, more often it is doubtful, sometimes it is entirely lost. More curious still, you often have for this period a mixture of names. You come across some astonishing series of reliefs in a forgotten church of a small provincial town. You know at once that it is work of the moment when the flood of the Renaissance had at last reached the old country of the Gothic. You can swear that if it were not made in the time of Francis I or Henry II it was at least made by men who could remember or had seen those times. But when you turn to the names the names are nobodies.

By far the most famous of these famous things, or at any rate the most deserving of fame, is the miracle of Brou. It is a whole world. You would say that either one transcendent genius had modelled every face and figure of those thousands (so individual are they), or that a company of inspired men differing in their traditions and upbringing from all the commonalty of mankind had done such things. When you go to the names all you find is that Coulombe out of Touraine began the job, that there was some sort of quarrel between his head-man and the paymasters, that he was replaced in the most everyday manner conceivable by a Fleming, Van Boghem, and that this Fleming had to help him a better-known Swiss, one Meyt. It is the same story with nearly all this kind of work and its wonderful period. The wealth of detail at Louviers or Gisors is almost anonymous; that of the first named perhaps quite anonymous.

Who carved the wood in St. James's Church at Antwerp? I think the name is known for part of it, but no one did the whole or anything like the whole, and yet it is all one thing. Who carved the wood in St. Bertrand de Coraminges? We know who paid for it, and that is all we know. And as for the wood of Rouen, we must content ourselves with the vague phrase, "Probably Flemish artists."

Of the Gothic statues where they were conventional, however grand the work, one can understand that they should be anonymous, but it is curious to note the same silence where the work is strikingly and particularly individual. Among the kings at Rheims are two heads, one of St. Louis, one of his grandson. Had some one famous sculptor done these things and others, were his work known and sought after, these two heads would be as renowned as anything in Europe. As it is they are two among hundreds that the latter thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries scattered broadcast; each probably was the work of a different workman, and the author or authors of each remain equally unknown.

I know not whether there is more pathos or more humour or more consolation in considering this ignorance of ours with regard to the makers of good things.

It is full of parable. There is something of it in Nature. There are men who will walk all day through a June wood and come out atheists at the end of it, finding no signature thereupon; and there are others who, sailing over the sea, come back home after seeing so many things still puzzled as to their authorship. That is one parable.

Then there is this: the corrective of ambition. Since so much remains, the very names of whose authors have perished, what does it matter to you or to the world whether your name, so long as your work, survives? Who was it that carefully and cunningly fixed the sights on Gumber Corner so as to get upon a clear day his exact alignment with Pulborough and then the shoulder of Leith Hill, just to miss the two rivers and just to obtain the best going for a military road? He was some engineer or other among the thousands in the Imperial Service. He was at Chichester for some weeks and drew his pay, and then perhaps went on to London, and he was born in Africa or in Lombardy, or he was a Breton, or he was from Lusitania or from the Euphrates. He did that bit of work most certainly without any consideration of fame, for engineers (especially when they are soldiers) are singular among artists in this matter. But he did a very wonderful thing, and the Roman Road has run there for fifteen hundred years─his creation. Some one must have hit upon that precise line and the reason for it. It is exactly right, and the thing done was as great and is to-day as satisfying as that sculpture of Brou or the two boys Murillo painted, whom you may see in the Gallery at Dulwich. But he never thought of any one knowing his name, and no one knows it.

Then there is this last thing about anonymous work, which is also a parable and a sad one. It shows how there is no bridge between two human minds.

How often have I not come upon a corbel of stone carved into the shape of a face, and that face had upon it either horror or laughter or great sweetness or vision, and I have looked at it as I might have looked upon a living face, save that it was more wonderful than most living faces. It carried in it the soul and the mind of the man who made it. But he has been dead these hundreds of years. That corbel cannot be in communion with me, for it is of stone; it is dumb and will not speak to me, though it compels me continually to ask it questions. Its author also is dumb, for he has been dead so long, and I can know nothing about him whatsoever.

Now so it is with any two human minds, not only when they are separated by centuries and by silence, but when they have their being side by side under one roof and are companions all their years.

~Hilaire Belloc

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