From, The Land of The Blessed Virgin; Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia (1905)

After one has left a country it is interesting to collect together the emotions it has given in an effort to define its particular character. And with Andalusia the attempt is especially fascinating, for it is a land of contrasts in which work upon one another, diversely, a hundred influences.

In London now, as I write, the rain of an English April pours down; the sky is leaden and cold, the houses in front of me are almost terrible in their monotonous greyness, the slate roofs are shining with the wet. Now and again people pass: a woman of the slums in a dirty apron, her head wrapped in a grey shawl; two girls in waterproofs, trim and alert notwithstanding the inclement weather, one with a music-case under her arm. A train arrives at an underground station and a score of city folk cross my window, sheltered behind their umbrellas; and two or three groups of workmen, silently, smoking short pipes: they walk with a dull, heavy tramp, with the gait of strong men who are very tired. Still the rain pours down unceasing.

And I think of Andalusia. My mind is suddenly ablaze with its sunshine, with its opulent colour, luminous and soft; I think of the cities, the white cities bathed in light; of the desolate wastes of sand, with their dwarf palms, the broom in flower. And in my ears I hear the twang of the guitar, the rhythmical clapping of hands and the castanets, as two girls dance in the sunlight on a holiday. I see the crowds going to the bull-fight, intensely living, many-coloured. And a thousand scents are wafted across my memory; I remember the cloudless nights, the silence of sleeping towns, and the silence of desert country; I remember old whitewashed taverns, and the perfumed wines of Malaga, of Jerez, and of Manzanilla. (The rain pours down without stay in oblique long lines, the light is quickly failing, the street is sad and very cheerless.) I feel on my shoulder the touch of dainty hands, of little hands with tapering fingers, and on my mouth the kisses of red lips, and I hear a joyous laugh. I remember the voice that bade me farewell that last night in Seville, and the gleam of dark eyes and dark hair at the foot of the stairs, as I looked back from the gate. ‘Feliz viage, mi Inglesito.’

It was not love I felt for you, Rosarito; I wish it had been; but now far away, in the rain, I fancy, (oh no, not that I am at last in love,) but perhaps that I am just faintly enamoured–of your recollection.

But these are all Spanish things, and more than half one’s impressions of Andalusia are connected with the Moors. Not only did they make exquisite buildings, they moulded a whole people to their likeness; the Andalusian character is rich with Oriental traits; the houses, the mode of life, the very atmosphere is Moorish rather than Christian; to this day the peasant at his plough sings the same quavering lament that sang the Moor. And it is to the invaders that Spain as a country owes the magnificence of its golden age: it was contact with them that gave the Spaniards cultivation; it was the conflict of seven hundred years that made them the best soldiers in Europe, and masters of half the world. The long struggle caused that tension of spirit which led to the adventurous descent upon America, teaching recklessness of life and the fascination of unknown dangers; and it caused their downfall as it had caused their rise, for the religious element in the racial war occasioned the most cruel bigotry that has existed on the face of the earth, so that the victors suffered as terribly as the vanquished. The Moors, hounded out of Spain, took with them their arts and handicrafts–as the Huguenots from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes–and though for a while the light of Spain burnt very brightly, the light borrowed from Moordom, the oil jar was broken and the lamp flickered out.

In most countries there is one person in particular who seems to typify the race, whose works are the synthesis, as it were, of an entire people. Bernini expressed in this manner a whole age of Italian society; and even now his spirit haunts you as you read the gorgeous sins of Roman noblemen in the pages of Gabriele d’Annunzio. And Murillo, though the expert not unjustly from their special point of view, see in him but a mediocre artist, in the same way is the very quintessence of Southern Spain. Wielders of the brush, occupied chiefly with technique, are apt to discern little in an old master, save the craftsman; yet art is no more than a link in the chain of life and cannot be sharply sundered from the civilisation of which it is an outcome: even Velasquez, sans peer, sans parallel, throws a curious light on the world of his day, and the cleverest painters would find their knowledge and understanding of that great genius the fuller if they were acquainted with the plays of Lope de la Vega and the satires of Quevedo. Notwithstanding Murillo’s obvious faults, as you walk through the museum at Seville all Andalusia appears before you. Nothing could be more characteristic than the religious feeling of the many pictures, than the exuberant fancy and utter lack of idealisation: in the contrast between a Holy Family by Murillo and one by Perugino is all the difference between Spain and Italy. Murillo’s Virgin is a peasant girl such as you may see in any village round Seville on a feast-day; her emotions are purely human, and in her face is nothing more than the intense love of a mother for her child. But the Italian shows a creature not of earth, an angelic maid with almond eyes, oval of face: she has a strange air of unrealness, for her body is not of human flesh and blood, and she is linked with mankind only by an infinite sadness; she seems to see already the Dolorous Way, and her eyes are heavy with countless unwept tears.

One picture especially, that which the painter himself thought his best work, Saint Thomas of Villanueva distributing Alms, to my mind offers the entire impression of that full life of Andalusia. In the splendour of mitre and of pastoral staff, in the sober magnificence of architecture, is all the opulence of the Catholic Church; in the worn, patient, ascetic face of the saint is the mystic, fervid piety which distinguished so wonderfully the warlike and barbarous Spain of the sixteenth century; and lastly, in the beggars covered with sores, pale, starving, with their malodorous rags, you feel strangely the swarming poverty of the vast population, downtrodden and vivacious, which you read of in the picaresque novels of a later day. And these same characteristics, the deep religious feeling, the splendour, the poverty, the extreme sense of vigorous life, the discerning may find even now among the Andalusians for all the modern modes with which, as with coats of London and bonnets of Paris, they have sought to liken themselves to the rest of Europe.

And the colours of Murillo’s palette are the typical colours of Andalusia, rich, hot, and deep–again contrasting with the enamelled brilliance of the Umbrians. He seems to have charged his brush with the very light and atmosphere of Seville; the country bathed in the splendour of an August sun has just the luminous character, the haziness of contour, which characterise the paintings of Murillo’s latest manner. They say he adopted the style termed vaporoso for greater rapidity of execution, but he cannot have lived all his life in that radiant atmosphere without being impregnated with it. In Andalusia there is a quality of the air which gives all things a limpid, brilliant softness, the sea of gold poured out upon them voluptuously rounds away their outlines; and one can well imagine that the master deemed it the culmination of his art when he painted with the same aureate effulgence, when he put on canvas those gorgeous tints and that exquisite mellowness.

 

 

W.S. Maugham

W.S. Maugham

William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), English author and playwright is most noted for his works The Hero (1901), Mrs. Craddock (1902), The Merry-Go-Round (1904), The Explorer (1907), Of Human Bondage (1915), Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), and The Painted Veil (1925). His plays include Lady Frederick (1907), Jack Straw (1912), The Unknown (1920), The Circle (1921), Our Betters (1923), The Constant Wife (1927) and Sheppey (1933). The Land of The Blessed Virgin; Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia was published in 1905. During World War II Maugham was temporarily posted in Switzerland and Russia as a secret agent of the British Intelligence Services—an experience which culminated in his Ashenden: Or, the British Agent (1928).

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