UNREST is not a modern state of being; and it is not confined to a special country or people. Unrest is both destructive and constructive. If, like the prodigal son, it wastes itself in riotous living it retards progress and comes to naught. If, on the other hand, like the pioneer it conserves as it breaks into new fields, it comes to fruition.
Progress, therefore, depends upon the character of the spirit of unrest. That a certain amount of destructive unrest is necessary for healthful advance is true, but it is equally true that the inconoclastic spirit often works disaster for lack of steadying qualities.
Unrest in the art world began with the beginnings of the race. In fact its very being sprang from the desire to tell others the where-abouts of the restless seekers for new fields of action. Down through Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, and Greece came this spirit of unrest, at times reaching, through construction, states of perfection that stand out as mountain peaks, and again leaving direst wastes in its path.
It is not surprising that with such an inheritance America should feel unrest stirring in its very vitals. “Up-and-doing” is the watchword in every branch of life in this vast country. Not always does the doing come to fruition, yet the whole body politic is the bet-ter for action. Possibly the beginnings of the present unrest in art came from the Paris of the last century when scores of our artists, eagerly receptive, were absorbing the insurgent spirit of new France. That this insurgent spirit in the final reckoning spells progress no one will question, yet it is true that the workings of the spirit are generally misunderstood. This misunderstanding is often due to ignorant misinformation and lack of explanation by the workers themselves. It is not fair to the public to keep it in ignorance, for the average mind is capable of judging.
In approaching the new movement of the ultra-modern artists one must ever bear in mind that these men are dealing with fundamental principles. Unvarnished, unadorned elemental truths, as they see them, are ex-pressed in all their works. The six representative men chosen stand for different phases in the development of Modern American Art; and in these painters’ own words and works I present them to my readers. Also I advocate public inspection of the works of these modern painters. “The establishment of galleries is desirable,” says Mr. Robert Henri, “where small groups of artists, self-selected and self-organised, might have space on demand to present their works for public inspection, where the people would be invited to come, see, and in the act of personal judgment develop the taste that is latent in them, rather than accept the dictates of those who have assumed authority as juries of admission, juries of award, and critics.”
In the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, the spring of 1916, the exhibitors not only exhibited their paintings but gave the reasons for the faith that is in them.
To appreciate “Marin’s Island (Maine),” by John Marin (Fig. 224), we must read what the painter himself says of his works :
“These works are meant as constructed expressions of the inner senses, responding to the things seen and felt. One responds differently toward different things; one even responds dif ferently toward the same thing. In reality it is the same thing no longer; you are in a different mood, and it is in a different mood.”
“If you follow a certain path you come to something. The path moves toward direction, and if you follow direction you come to some-thing; and the path is through something, un-der something and over something. And these somethings you either respond to or you don’t. There are great movements and small movements, great things and small things – all bearing intimacy in their separations and joinings. In all things there exists the central power, the big force, the big movement ; and to this central power all the small factors have relation.”
“Thus it is in life. Life is like a path which one follows. All things one meets are relative and interdependent. They may be good or bad, but they are never perfect. It is the same with the artist’s expression: it, too, may be good or bad, but it is never perfect.”
“However, the paths and the factors of life may broaden. They may become more and more revealing. Some may travel and find, others may travel and never find the things relative to them. Thus the journey may be sensed or not sensed, expressed or not ex-pressed.”
“So, in all human consciousness there are the seekers and those who do not seek, the finders and those who do not find.”
“Coming down to my work, you have these pictures. They are the products of a seeker or finder, or of a man who neither seeks nor finds.”
We turn to “Figure Organisation” (Fig. 225), by Thomas H. Benton, and read:
“My experience has proved the impracticability of depending upon intellectualist formulas for guidance, and I find it therefore impossible to ally myself definitely with any particular school of esthetics, either in its interpretative or constructive aspect.”
“I may speak generally of my aim being to-ward achievement of a combat, massive and rhythmical composition of forms in which the tactile sensations of alternate bulgings and re-cessions shall be exactly related to the force of the line limiting the space in which these activities take place. As the idea of form cannot be grasped without mental action on the part of the beholder; as its comprehension, that is, implies the necessity of a more intense mental state that is requisite for the enjoyment of simple loveliness of colour, I value its development, manipulation, etc., as by far the most important element entering into the construction of a work of art.”
“The generation of the idea of form depends upon comparison of contoural or linear extension, their force, direction and the like; this generation is caused by attention to boundaries of shapes; the pre-eminent stimulus to realising a cubic existence is line – therefore I make the production of interesting line relations the first business in my painting. Colour I use simply to reinforce the solidity and special position of forms predetermined by line.”
“I believe the importance of drawing, of line, cannot be overestimated, because of its above-mentioned control of the idea of form, and I believe that no loveliness of colour can compensate for deficiency in this respect. While considering colour of secondary constructive importance, I realise, nevertheless, its value in heightening the intensity of volume, and am, to a certain extent, in accordance with all those developments which, emanating from Cézanne, tend to accentuate its functioning power.”
“I believe that particular attention to consistency in method is bad, and for this reason em-ploy any means that may accentuate or lessen the emotive power of the integral parts of my work.”
“In conclusion I wish to say that I make no distinctions as to the value of subject-matter.
I believe that the representation of objective forms and the presentation of abstract ideas of form to be of equal artistic value.”
William Zorach’s word picture of “Spring” as it appeals to him in nature is represented in his painting “Spring” (Fig. 226). He says:
“It is the inner spirit of things that I seek to express, the essential relation of forms and colours to universal things. Each form and colour has a spiritual significance to me, and I try to combine those forms and colours within my space to express that inner feeling which something in nature or life has given me.”
“The moment I place one line or colour upon canvas, that moment I feel the need of other lines and colours to express inner rhythm. I am organising a new world in which each form and colour exists and lives only in so far as it has a meaning in relation to every other form and colour in that space.”
“In the spring one feels the freshness of young growing things, the ascending stream of life, the expanding of leaves and trees, the spirit and passions in the lives and volumes of rolling hills. All these are wonderful forms that act and react upon each other like sounds from a violin. I see the young child and its mother, I see the flowers, the birds, the young calf born in the field, I see the young calf prancing and feel the wild blood rushing through my veins. Then again, it is the strangeness of mountains, their bigness and solemness and depth, their height, and the strange light upon them. I go into a farm house; the people sit silently around a room, a girl picks foolish tunes from a zither, the feeble-minded grand-father wanders from window to window asking for the sun. And in all these things there is a bigger meaning, a certain great relation to the mountains and to the primary significance of life. One feels the relation of the forms of birds, flowers, animals, trees, of everything that grows and breathes to each other and to the earth and sky.”
“This I get from the world about me, and this I seek to give back again through my pictures.”
We look at “Dance Interpretation – Invention” (Fig. 227), by Man Ray, and then read the explanation of its meaning. Mr. Ray says:
“Throughout time painting has alternately been put to the service of the’church, the state, arms, individual patronage, nature appreciation, scientific, phenomena, anecdote and deco-ration.”
“But all the marvellous works that have been painted, whatever the source of inspiration, still live for us because of absolute qualities they possess in common.”
“The creative force and the expressiveness of painting reside materially in the colour and the texture of pigment, in the possibilities of form invention and organisation, and in the flat plane on which these elements are brought to play.”
“The artist is concerned solely with linking these absolute qualities directly to his wit, imagination and experience, without the go-between of a `subject.’ Working on a single plane as the instantaneously visualising factor, he realises his mind motives and physical sensations in a permanent and universal language of colour, texture and form organisation. He uncovers the pure plane of expression that has so long been hidden by the glazings of nature imitation, anecdote and the other popular subjects.”
“Accordingly the artist’s work is to be measured by the vitality, the invention and the definiteness and conviction of purpose within its own medium.”
In “Adolescence” (Fig. 228), by S. Macdonald-Wright, is illustrated the underlying principle in Mr. Wright’s paintings. He says :
“I strive to divest my art of all anecdote and illustration, and to purify it to the point where the emotions of the spectator will be wholly aesthetic, as when listening to good music.”
“Since plastic form is the basis of enduring art, and since the creation of intense form is impossible without colour, I first determined, by years of colour experimentation, the relative spatial relation of the entire colour gamut. By placing pure colours on recognisable forms (that is, by placing advancing colour on objects, and retreating colours on retreating objects), I found that such colours destroyed the sense of reality, and were in turn destroyed by the illusive contour. Thus, I came to the conclusion that colour, in order to function significantly, must be used as an abstract medium. Otherwise the picture appeared to me merely as a slight, lyrical decoration.”
“Having always been more profoundly moved by pure rhythmic form (as in music) than by associative processes (such as poetry calls up), I cast aside as nugatory all natural representation in my art. However, I still adhered to the fundamental laws of composition (placements and displacements of mass as in the human body in movement), and created my pictures by means of colour-form which, by its organisation in three dimensions, resulted in rhythm.”
“Later, recognising that painting may extend itself onto time, as well as being a simultaneous presentation, I saw the necessity for a formal climax which, through being ever in mind as the final point of consummation, would serve as a point from which the eye would make excursions into the ordered complexities of the picture’s rhythm. Simultaneously my inspiration to create came from a visualisation of abstract forces interpreted, through colour juxtapositions, into terms of the visual. In them was always a goal of finality which perfectly accorded with my felt need in picture construction.”
“By the above one can see that I strive to make my art bear the same relation to painting that polyphony bears to music. Illustrative music is a thing of the past: it has become abstract and purely aesthetic, dependent for its effect upon rhythm and form. Painting certainly need not lag behind music.”
Morgan Russell, in “Cosmic Synchromy” (Fig. 229), has given clearly the keynote of his art. Mr. Russell says:
“My first synchromies represented a personal manner of visualising by colour rhythms; hence my treatment of light by multiple rainbow-like colour-waves which, expanding into larger undulations, form the general composition.”
“In my next step I was concerned with the elimination of the natural object and with the retention of colour rhythms. An example of this period is the Cosmic Synchromy. The principal idea in this canvas is a spiral plunge into space, excited and quickened by appropriate colour contrasts.”
“In my latest development I have sought a `form’ which, though necessarily archaic, would be. fundamental and permit a steady evolution, in order to build something at once Dionysian and architectural in shape and colour.”
“Furthermore I have been striving for a greater intensity of pictorial aspect. In the Middle Ages cathedral organs were louder than the sounds then heard in life; and men were made to feel the order in nature through the dominating ordered notes of the organ. But to-day the chaotic sounds and lights in our daily experience are intenser than those in art. Therefore art must be raised to the higher intensity if it is to dominate life and give us a sense of order.”
“Much has been said concerning the rôle of intellect in painting. Common sense teaches that the mind’s analytic and synthetic powers, like vigorous draughts of fresh air, kill the feeble and invigourate the strong. The strong assimilate the suggestions of reason to their creative reactions: the feeble superimpose reason on their pictures, thus petrifying their work and robbing it of any organic unity. This unity is a necessity to all great art and results only from a creative vision handling the whole surface with supple control.”
“I infuse my own vitality into my work by means of my sense of relations and adjustments. The difference between a picture produced by precise formulas and one which is the result of senesibilité, is the difference between a mechanical invention and a living organism.”
“While there will probably always be illustrative pictures, it cannot be denied that this century may see the flowering of a new art of forms and colours alone. Personally, I believe the non-illustrative painting is the purest manner of aesthetic expression, and that, provided the basic demands of great composition are adhered to, the emotional effect will be even more intense than if there was present the obstacle of representation. Colour is form; and in my attainment of abstract form I use those colours which optically correspond to the spatial extension of the forms desired.”