American Painting – Summary Continued

IN the previous chapter I touched upon some of the insidious effects of the popular taste for prettiness. These, it is to be anticipated, will pass away as the American public grows in serious appreciation of what is truly beautiful in art. But even then there will remain another phase of the matter which is likely to be of perennial interest, since it strikes at the roots of our conceptions of beauty. Stated bluntly, it involves the question: How far is the conception of beauty in art compatible with ugliness?

At the outset the two ideas seem to be mutually antagonistic, and so they are reckoned by those who narrow their conceptions of beauty to the ideal purity of Greek sculpture of the golden age, and to the subsequent work of Roman, Rennaissance, and later times that tried to emulate it. With all such the ideal is to render form and feeling in the harmony of a perfect poise, to exclude the individual or irregular, and to imagine and suggest an abstract ideal of perfection. But in actual life absolute perfection of form is not to be found, still less a complete harmony of poise between the physical, the intellectual, and the emotional. Exception both to one and to the other is the rule. So the question eternally cropping up, eternally unsolved, arises out of the artist’s attitude toward life. Does he regard life itself as the end and object of his study, or merely as a rich mine from which he may extract ore to fashion it into creations of his own imagination? In the latter case he will strive to improve upon nature, in the former to represent it as it is. These two ideals of art differ so widely that it is difficult for the artists who embrace the one to have much sympathy with those in the opposite camp. For the layman, however, there need be no such difficulty, because his detachment from any preoccupation with technique enables him to view the matter from outside. Doing so, he may, if he has clear eyes, find truth in both directions. Many a layman will reach his conclusions somewhat in this fashion:

To him it seems that life is the thing of supreme importance; art being but one of the sources of higher living. He thinks of art as a magic mirror in which life is reflected, and looks to find in it a heightened impression of the things of sight, as a suggestion to the spirit or sense-imagination of the things not seen. If the mirror only gives back a repeated vision of what he can see with his own eyes, he is disappointed, for in this case art has added nothing to nature. There is no heightening of impression, no stimulus to imagination or spirit.

He may admire the skill or fidelity with which this vision has been produced, even as he admires the craftsmanship involved in the mechanism of a piece of machinery, but for him in neither case is there any evidence of creation. The mechanic, whether his tool be the brush or turning lathe, is but engaged in reproducing; he is not an inventor. And the painter is only an inventor, a creator, if he has the artist’s vision, by means of which our own may be kindled to a heightened sense of beauty.

By the time that we have learned to demand this of a painter, and to refuse him the higher title of artist, unless he comply with it, our whole attitude toward pictures is changed. Especially do we cease to concern ourselves much with the subject of the picture. The most exalted subject will not of itself impress us. It is not the subject, but the artist’s vision of it, which affects us. A pumpkin, rendered by that great French master of still-life, Vollon, may move us deeply, where an elaborate figure composition leaves us cold. And why? Be-cause Vollon’s pumpkin becomes, as it were, a symbol through which we receive a heightened impression of the sumptuousness and subtlety of nature’s colouring, the vitalising power of light, and the opulence of nature’s productive vigour. Our own sensibility is enriched; for the moment, at least, we live more abundantly. And for this effect upon ourselves we are indebted to the artist’s vision, which he has enabled us to share through his power to give it technical expression.

But if he is endowed with these qualifications of vision and expression, the artist can look upon nature and life and find in them occasions of beauty, overlooked by ordinary eyes. He will even discover beauty lurking in ugliness, or by his treatment of the latter will transmute it into a form of beauty. For, in the first place, what do we ourselves understand by ugliness? Have we in mind some such exaggerated type of physical formation as that of a toad or spider-crab, or, to take another extreme instance, that of a man of the slums who is morally as well as physically deteriorated, offensive alike to our senses and our conscience? But, as to nature’s form of so-called ugliness, I doubt if there be one, however abnormal in comparison with our ordinary standards of comeliness, but has some quality of colouring or of movement that to the searching eye of the artist’s vision may not be able to yield suggestion of beauty, which his technical skill will evolve into expression. The Japanese, in their carvings, lacquers, and prints, have abundantly illustrated this. As to the slum-man, we may turn from him with repugnance, but it is precisely to him that the Salvation Army turns, in its conviction that somewhere latent in him is still a possibility of goodness. Similarly an artist may turn to him as a source of artistic inspiration. If he does so, he has the excellent precedent, among others, of Rembrandt and Velasquez. Shall we venture to deny to those artists a sense of beauty, or shall we reconstruct our notion of beauty so as to include their example? I think the latter will seem the wiser plan. The notion, then, of beauty, so extended, involves character; both expression of character and character of expression. Character implies something ‘distinctive, individual, so far abnormal that it is a deviation from the general run, and still more so from the abstract type. It is, for example, the quality conspicuous in a locust tree, so unexpectedly original in its growth, as compared with the exquisitely balanced grace of an American elm. Really one might venture to illustrate the difference between the academic under-standing of beauty, and the extended acceptation of it to include character, by the comparison of these two trees.

But it must be remembered that the artist comprehends character as a functional quality. He deals primarily with externals, and, while he may not be unconscious of the psychological import of character, it is primarily its effect upon the physical aspect that he notes and renders. If he is really a nature-student, it is character in a human being, affecting the latter’s form, the functions of the limbs and joints, the disposition and texture of the flesh, the very kind and carrying of the clothes, that form a large portion of his study. Or, if he is a landscape painter, the effect of permanent environment and temporary conditions upon the forms of objects. Always he feels the forces working through nature and declaring themselves in form. It is the beauty of nature’s law of cause and effect, illustrated in a myriad aspects, that at-tracts him, rather than man’s invention of an abstract perfection of beauty. And it is because that law is working in the slum-man that he claims the right, if he will, to make him the subject of artistic study. We may shudder at the evidences of functional degradation presented in the picture, but do not let us forget that there are the physical and moral counterparts of this in the tragedies of OEdipus and Othello. But, you will say, these are clothed in a splendour of diction, that dignifies the theme. Quite so, and it is precisely a corresponding splendour of technical presentation that justifies the treatment of horrible subjects in pictures. There should be character of expression as well as expression of character.

The foregoing analysis of the place of so-called ugliness in art has been suggested by the effort of a few of our younger painters to shake them-selves free from the fetters of prettiness and sentimentality in which much American art is confined. They are men who are interested in life as well as art, and who use the one to interpret the other.

One of these is John Sloan, a native of Philadelphia, and a pupil of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He is now a resident of New York, whose crowded avenues, especially on the West Side, supply the subjects of his choice. For it is what the Japanese call the ” Ukiyoye ” that attracts him—the ” passing show ” of shops and streets, overhead and surface traffic, and the moving throngs of people, smart and squalid, sad and merry —a phantasmagoria of changing colour, form, and action. Out of the multiplied features of the scene, by eliminating some and emphasising others, he produces a synthesis of effect, in which confusion has disappeared, but the suggestion of vivid actuality remains. His pictures are excellent examples of modern impressionism; but, while the rendering of the spectacle presented to the eye is his first concern, his mind also is busy with the human comedy and tragedy that beats below the surface. It is the humanity of the scene, as well as its pictorial suggestions, that interests him. Not, however, in the way of telling a definite story, but by inference and suggestion. It is an impression of the human interest that he has received, and he renders it impressionistically. A writer, for example, if he were attracted by one of these scenes with its incidental suggestion, might make it the subject of a story, inventing a past and present for the person-ages and a sequel to what they are engaged in; investing them and the situation with detailed motive and conduct, and elaborating a dénouement. Many a painter also, mostly of the old-fashioned kind, might attempt to force upon your attention a corresponding definition of detailed incident. But he would operate under the serious limitation of being able to represent only one single phase of the story. Sloan, like other impressionists, recognising this limitation, avoids all competition with the verbal artist, and renders exclusively a painter’s impression both of the scene and of its underlying human interest. He grasps the actual moment of appearance and suggestion.

In the rendering of these scenes line is superseded by masses ; the whole is viewed as a collection of coloured patches, differing in hues, in the amount of light which they receive, and in the quantity of atmosphere which intervenes between them and the eye of the observer. Is it necessary to add that this impressionistic vision is, after all, the normal way in which the eye receives impressions of a scene? We are not conscious of hard lines enclosing objects, but of contours more or less blurred and blending; forming masses of light and dark, or of light and less light, of various hues and shapes. But in the actual scene, especially if it be laid in a crowded thoroughfare, flanked by the irregularities of buildings, the masses, both in their variety and shape, will present a good deal of the bizarrerie of a crazy quilt. It is a part of the artist’s vision to draw these conflicting elements into “a harmony of colour, lighting, tone, and atmosphere; so that the impression rendered may be one of artistic ensemble. By the time that the work has gone through the artist’s two processes of receiving and rendering his impressions, it will partake of the unity of his own individuality and temperament. It will still give a suggestion of variety and busy action, but the different features of activity will be busy toward a common end, the modes of variety will be harmonised. The scene itself, composed of a great number of independent units, will have become unified into a picture that represents the impression of a single mind.

Now, our appreciation of the picture will depend, not only upon the artist’s ability to create this ensemble of impression, but upon our own willingness to accept it. We may fail of the latter for two reasons: a general dislike of the impressionistic method, or a particular one of the kind of subject affected by Sloan and others. With neither is it any use to argue, since likes and dislikes are largely the product of temperament. Yet, if possible, they should be fortified by judgment, based upon understanding. Especially should this be the case in the matter of impressionism, since it plays so large a part in modern art.

Our understanding and possible appreciation of it depends entirely—to go back to the point from which we started—upon our attitude toward the relation between art and life. For some painters the call of life is so urgent and alluring that they are not satisfied to make pictures about life, but try to render life in their pictures. The distinction is an important one. In the one case the scene within the frame, having had its origin in the de-sire to make a picture, continues to affect us as a picture, while in the other case we may be made to forget the canvas, paint, and frame, and find ourselves looking, as through a window, out upon a pageant of real life. Has this a fascination for us, as it had for the painter? We may agree that it has, and yet demur to the kind of life that the painter has chosen to render. If so, we are again brought back to the attitude of art toward life. Shall the painter confine his study to idealising life, or at least to presenting only its comely aspects, or may he have the whole run of life for his field, as the writer has; trusting to the sincerity of his purpose and the beauty of his technique to justify the ugliness of his theme? Whatever may be our individual answer to this question, let us recognise that the work of Sloan and a few others, such as Robert Henri, C. W. Hawthorne, William G. Glackens, Jerome Myers, and George Luks, is a natural and wholesome reaction from the vogue of frippery, tameness, and sentimentality. It has, however, its own inherent shortcoming when it reveals a tendency to be overoccupied with the appearances of life, and makes little or no appeal to the imagination or spirit. Based practically, if not avowedly, upon the assumption that ” seeing is believing,” that the painter’s domain is that of the eye, it may easily ignore the at least equally important aspect . of life which is made up of things not seen. It may take no account of the mystery that is in us and everywhere about us. It may be in its own superior way an exploitation of the obvious.

One should understand that its appearance in American painting is rather belated; for it is but repeating what Courbet and Manet did for the refreshment and invigoration of French art forty years ago. They, however, were the leaders in painting of the theories and practices entertained by the writers of the period; and painters and writers alike were a part of the realistic movement that was affecting the thought of the time. But since then the wheel has revolved ; realism is no longer a motive; it is now only one of other means to an end. People, indeed, have grown a little weary of the diet, discovering that they cannot live by bread alone. Once more the spiritual needs of man are awake and calling to be fed. Abroad, especially in Germany, the more progressive of the painters have realised this reaction from materialism, and are responding to it. It is for a similar recognition and response on the part of the painters of this country that we are waiting.

Not that American painting can show no ex-ample of such progress. In a previous chapter we have noted that, while Whistler may be studied under many aspects, the most important and abiding one was his habit of evolving from material appearances their essence, the intangible element in them—in fact, the spirituality inherent in matter. The same is true of Thayer, Dewing, Lock-wood, and some others among figure-painters. In their diverse ways these artists have treated the actual appearance as a symbol of moods and apprehensions of the imagination and spirit. A similar tendency may also be detected in a few of our landscape painters, notably in Twachtman, Winslow Homer, Dwight W. Tryon, Edward T. Steichen, and Ben Foster. Broadly speaking, how-ever, the prevailing characteristic of American painting is materialistic rather than spiritual.

That the latter quality is necessary for the highest form of expression in modern art seems to me undeniable. For there was a time when spirituality and religion were practically one. The cravings of the spirit grew out of and found expression in the religious consciousness; and those were the great days of painting. The common and collective need of the people was to have its faith and soul-experiences bodied forth by art in terms of religion ; and the artists, whether as men they were religious or not, responded to the need with a nobility of design and execution, the influence of which extended also to the portrayal of subjects not religious. But in our time religion and spirituality, if not exactly divorced, are at least very far from being one. Much religion is mainly a system of doctrine and ethics; a great deal of spirituality exists among people not attracted to any specific formula of religion. This general lack of union between spirituality and religion is of itself quite sufficient to account for the absence of noble religious art in these days. There exists no common and collective need demanding it and making it possible. Since, then, modern art is debarred by circumstances from revealing the great art of the past along the latter’s own lines, the question arises : Can it find some new motive growing out of the conditions of the present? Only, I feel assured, if a common and collective recognition of the claims of the spirit results in a need on the part of the public, so strong as to encourage and compel its realisation in art.

Belief in humanity is the practical religion of to-day, and it works for man’s physical, material, and intellectual uplifting. But, as a motive for art, its influence is almost purely materialistic and sensuous. It is only when this new religion shall become impregnated with a correspondingly practical belief in the facts of spirit, that the possibilities of a great art in modern times will arise. Symptoms of this new movement, as I have said, can already be detected in American painting. Whether they shall multiply and replenish the earth depends in a final analysis upon the public.