ANYONE may strike a fine chord now and then. But Beethoven wrote symphonies. A hand and an eye do not make an artist. Add a brain and a heart. There is a psychology of line and color. We cannot go into it at any length. But the belligerence of “seeing red” has a basis in fact. Certain shades of red undoubtedly have a disturbing influence. Possibly the bull in his warlike response to it proves that he is more sensitive to color vibration than his master. I need but mention the purity in white, the peace and repose of green, the coolness of blue and the warmth of brown. In lines, the zigzag creates a sense of speeddue perhaps to its association with the flash of lightning. Horizontal lines produce a feeling of strength and balance. Vertical lines that of solidity and aspiration. The curve gives us a sense of quiet, reposeas in the mosque or minaret.
If line and color are psychological agencies, one who has fully mastered them should be able to produce at will any given reaction. The tone poem, but recently accepted in the social register of music, may have a twin sister in painting. Here is a field for direct play on the emotions. Outlines, representations, likenesses, would be of no importance in this kind of art. It has a more direct appeal. Its sharp dagger-point goes straight to the senses. For it holds the power to soothe, to heal, to set us at peace with the universe or excite us to fearful revolt; to raise us to lofty heights or precipitate us to depths of despair.
Matisse, for example, is the apostle of the joy of living. For his effects what matter line? What if shapes are not as we know them? He seeks results too big for petty trifles. He is after our spirit. He would have us scale the heights with him, rise above and beyond form as we know it, break the fetters that bind, flee whatever annoyance may beset in things as they are and drink deep of pure joy.
We are here dealing with an abstractionist art. I have tried to present the aim of one of its disciples. There are others. For if the art may express despair as well as joy, there must needs be artists of despair. There are. Disciples of gloom, alas, are found everywhere. Some claim to present abstract philosophy, deep thought in line and color. Yet the uninitiated find their work depressing. The reason must lie in their mistaking the effect of their harmoniesone is almost tempted to say discords. The fact is, this finely psychological art affords too effective a medium for the morbid mind.
One may well ask how far art may go and still remain art. Some disciples of the Modernist school, for instance, say the world is no longer fit to live in. By portraying conditions at their worst, they would destroy all we have, make way for a new era. Must the rest of us sub-scribe to that viewpoint? Some may not be in sympathy with it. For one, I enjoy living. I see much that is worth while. I see, too, many othersnot all laughing hyenas or idiotic Polyannaswho find the world about them quite agreeable, who even thrill with sheer being alive. Such art philosophy would not ring true to them or to me. Nor is there justification for preaching despair to those who are drowning in it. “We would tear down the evil,” say these painters, “and rebuild anew.” Artist, stick to your palette. Leave the universe to other hands.
Yet extremist views notwithstanding, we must deal seriously with the more rational phases of this movement. To begin with, it is not altogether new. Its present-day exponents are disciples of Cezanne, Van Gogh and other adventurous souls of the 1870′s. Its reasoning is about as follows. The everyday facts of nature have been portrayed as completely as they ever can be. The last word in realism has been spoken by the camera. What remains? Abstract truth. The unbound and unbounded spirit of things: the essence of life unhampered by its facts: form and color idealized, divorced from subject. These are fertile sources of artistic expression.
Oriental concepts are brought to light, of line and color employed not to represent natural objects but as symbols with a direct appeal to the imagination. Thus, Western art, having been severed from Oriental influence in Byzantine days, seeks to go back. West meets East.
Much earnest experimentation along novo-art lines was done in the early years of the present century. Modernism gained considerable force after the World War. For it possesses elements of gratification for disciples of discontent. Indeed, thinking people generally should find it of interest. One must be blind not to see that the world has changed. All is not as it has been. We have had a century of machinery. And a thousand years of history in fifteen! Life moves to a different tempo. Why should not art?
Still, my dear ultra-modern, while I sympathize with you and feel for you, I cannot accept all your conclusions. Perhaps my vision is to blame. Yet though in your experiments I fail to see the ultimate in art I would fain applaud the experiments for themselves. They are bound to be fruitful. They will add to the sum total of art. You will leave your mark.
I will grant you, my friend, that there is something radically wrong with a world in which such a cataclysm as the war of 1914 is possible. But not in its art. If certain undesirable elements in this world be deserving of destruction, please leave art alone. For art has been rather uplifting than otherwise. The trouble is, not enough of the world’s folks have received its benefits. Art is truth. And truth is not easily overthrown. Speaking of truth, oh enthusiastic revolutionary, there is much of it in your work. It will seep into and run on with the great stream of art. You will add much, as your impressionist ancestors have done. But you will not overthrow. You will be absorbed.
At this point I would call my reader’s attention to the fact that I am “foot-loose and fancy-free.” I shall not go into detail concerning recent art happenings in Europe, but try to give you a bird’s-eye view of more conservative American painting today. Yet it is so difficult to portray the present. One needs omniscience. That is a quality possessed only by writers of the novel. If, however, in these pages you fail to find enough on present-day art to suit you, seek the rest of your information from art galleries and museums.
The 1929 summer exhibition of the North Shore Art Association at Gloucester, Massachusetts, brought forth a highly interesting collection from various parts of the United States and Canada. “There is nothing there but a lot of pretty pictures,” said a modernist artist to me. He was seconded by another of his ilk. Pretty pictures, forsooth? If that were indeed all, the crime of it was not evident to my untutored mind. Since when had beauty been divorced from art?
The Rationalistsand they may as well have a special designation as their more radical contemporariesare doing a great deal more than merely making pretty pictures. Taken by and large they are as earnest a crew of men and women as one may find in America. They are experimenting, seeking, striving in this field of pictorial art. The difference between them and the modernists is that they find much left to talk about in the world of the known. And for the most part they attempt to pick interesting subjects, to portray beauty of form and color.
Conservative tradition has its greatest strongholdand the paradox is typical of many things historicalin the city of the Tea Party and Bunker Hill, Boston. Edmund C. Tarbell, Frank Benson and Philip L. Hale hold the fort, ably assisted by painters like William Pax-ton, Aldro T. Hibbard, Marie Danforth Page, Lillian Westcott Hale and Leslie P. Thompson. New York furnishes moral support with Dodge Macknight, Childe Hassam, Leopold G. Seyffert, Charles W. Hawthorne and other academicians or pseudo-academicians. Frederick Clay Bartlett and an interesting and motley crew represent Chicago and the West. These, bear in mind, are but a few names picked at random. Some of them occasionally stray from the path of academic righteousness.
Yet they do not wander too far from nature as nature sees itself.
On reflection, I must not leave contemporary American painting without adding a few more names to the list. It would not be doing justice to our own time, even in a book which covers so much ground, to leave out artists like Eugene E. Speicher, Charles H. Woodbury, Charles Hopkinson, Gertrude Fiske, Yarnall Abbott, Harry Leith-Ross, Aiden L. Ripley, Marian P. Sloane, Margaret Fitzhugh Browne. Equally important are names like Frederick J. Waugh, Horatio Walker, W. Lester Stevens, Harry A. Vincent, Charles H. Davis, Anthony Thieme, Karl Anderson, John E. Costigan, Hobart Nichols, Richard Miller, Carl Rungius, Henry W. Parton, John Lavalle, Lillian Genth and Frederick C. Frieseke.
Many worthy names are of necessity omitted, yet you have here a cross-section of American painting today. Though most of these artists lean toward the academic, they are, on the whole, unbound and unfettered. They show considerable breadth. They seek beauty every-where. And find it. To delightful harmonies in light and shade they add a refreshing freedom of spirit.
American painters of today will stand comparison with those of any year in any land. Genius is not always in the past. No, not any more than is the latest necessarily the best. The newest picture, like the latest novel, may be as good or as bad as the earliest. Future critics will place some of the names above mentioned with the great of all time. America may well take pride in all of them. And in the other nine-tenths, whose names are not here for lack of space.
Please bear with me for my neglect of the “left wing.” The modernist movement in America is too new for me to pick its representative names. Furthermore, since absolute individualism is one of its principles, I should be obliged to name the entire school. For that there is not enough space.
But do not get the impression that I consider present-day realists the acme of perfection. They leave much to be desired. Not in doing pretty pictures, however, lies the weakness in their armor. The trouble is, being en-grossed in the mechanics of beauty, they often show the lack of an ideal.
It is not easy to put your finger on this. Influenced by master craftsmen like Sargent and Zorn, some of our worthy painters seem to lose their soul in the search after mechanical perfection. Yet at their worst they serve a purpose more worthy than that of their brethren who would not stoop to the making of pretty pictures. For they are teaching the appreciation of beauty to the mass of the people. Through them folks not of the intelligentsia are learning to see art.
Consider this a moment, you modernists who would project our beings into heaven or hell. Except in the Church, the enjoyment of art pet- se prior to the middle nineteenth century was one of the privileges of a privileged few. The great middle class and the toilers whom you so passionately love, had little or none of it. With the advent of the lithograph, then the museumyour masses began to get a faint inkling of the richness of pictorial artunmixed with religious lesson, superstition or fearand through it a little more enjoyment of nature. Their education scarce begun, would you tear them away from it and bring them into realms of pigment psychology and formless metaphysics?
A while back I stated that the principles of Modern-ism will be absorbed in the more conservative stream. That is what always happens to revolutionary movements. Revolution is swallowed by evolution. Impressionism left its mark in the principle of diffused or distilled light and color. The separation of light into its spectral units made possible added glow and brilliancy in painting. Something will remain for future art from the Modernist movement. What?
Not the principle of distortion. That dates back to other days. Rodin was a master at it. Michelangelo used it with wonderful effect. The Laocoon group, two thou-sand years old, distorts to great advantage. Insofar as it serves a useful purpose, then, a bit of distortion is always acceptable. But there is nothing new in it. Distortion for its own sake can never have a place in art.
And yet one feels the presence of a new note in all art. Everywhere a new rhythm is in evidence, a new vibration. Color is treated differently, even by stand-patters. The new movement may in a measure be responsible for all this.
There is a color principle in modernist work which in my judgment will find a permanent place in art. In the opening of this chapter I spoke of psychological reactions from color harmonies or discordsand for my purpose it matters not which. Effects such as I had in mind have always been produced by some painters. The method, however, was one of hit or miss. The newcomers may develop a set of principles for producing emotion through color. The artist of tomorrow may be able with color as the composer does through musical notes to in-spire any given mood. Yet I do hope that he will keep both feet on the ground, and remember that his mission is to help make life more livable.
One is impressed with the sincerity and honesty of purpose in all artist groupsbarring the hangers-on of the craft, the poseurs, of whom, alas, there are always too manyboth in radical and conservative ranks. Yet art is ever the mirror of its time. In an age in which quantity production is among the leading virtues, in which sophistication passes for wisdom, it is not surprising to find something lacking even in the flower of its products.
Despite the frivolity of this jazz age, it is not in thought. Patience, effort, these often fail of their mark. Too many canvases are incomplete. Here the artist has put together a physical structure and has failed to put in soul or whatever it is which makes up the rest. Another shows a flash of spirit which cries out for a body to hold it. One suspects many painters to be within the abstractionist ranks because they do not possess the fundamentals of drawing. The “soul of things” is easier to forge than the body. Both sides, you see, show a lack of finish characteristic of an age bent on getting things done and over with.
Here is a statement on the point from Philip L. Hale, an outstanding authority: “The trouble with many painters today is that they leave off where they should begin. Radical faddists begin where they should leave off. If an architect planning a cathedral should show me sketches and these would merely portray the fine lace-work in stone constituting its ornamentation I should tell him that a cathedral requires more substantial things to make it stand up. If then he should return with a new set of sketches showing foundation, walls, buttresses, steel beams, columns and all that is required for solidity I should say that this likewise would make anything but a cathedral. It is in the very nature of a cathedral that it have both solidity of structure and sublimity of ornamentation.
“So with painters of today. There are those who have sufficiently mastered the fundamentals of technique to produce a faithful representation of a scene or subject, and stop there. There are others who concern themselves entirely with lace-work and either will not give it the necessary foundation of fact or do not know how.”
Nevertheless a high order of painting is being produced in America today. And through the maze of opposing forces and controversies may be seen the dawn of better things. A greater art than ever will emerge. Even a machine age must express itself. When it does it will be in terms of grandeur. It must speak in accents conforming in bigness to the things it does. Future generations will thrill to the saga of this machine age.
Prophets of gloom notwithstanding, we are at the beginning of a Renaissance. Evidences of it are all about us. We see it in homes, in clothes. In the expression of taste in all that everyday people are doing. It is evident in what folks think or talk about. Also in what they read. Gossip circles have become book-reading groups. Cards as a means of entertainment are giving way to lectures and musicales. Scientific works in popular language roll up tremendous printings. Books on philosophy are among the best sellers. Artists of America, a wonderful market is in the making for your productions.
Indeed, American painters have the opportunity of leading in a world-wide rebirth of art. They were less hit than their European contemporaries by the World War. They have no open wounds to heal. They may de-vote themselves to their high calling without being led astray by bitterness and despair. With them is the power to help the rest of the world to regain its equilibrium.
What, then, shall the American artist do? First and foremost, strive with all that is in him to produce better and still better work. Use, oh artists, the splendid technique which you have so strikingly attained as a foundation for bigger things. Emulate the great art movements of the pastsend forth a message. Say something? And be sure it is worth sayingworthy of the best in you. Help to educate an eager public to the value of your product by offering the best you have.
At this stage it may be well for painters to re-introduce a system which played so great a part in the last Renaissance. I refer to the artists’ guilds. These, as you know, did much during the Middle Ages in creating and maintaining the right relationship between artist and public. No painter could hope to get anywhere without being a member of a guild. The guilds as a matter of self-protection imposed very high standards on their members, which in turn justified the public’s confidence in them. Naturally, a condition precedent to member-ship was that an applicant come up to definite professional qualifications. And after being permitted to join the guild and receive commissions for pay it was mandatory upon him to give value.
Consider the present situation in these United States. There are no fixed standards. An art school diploma may mean almost anything. Besides, no one ever questions its existence. Artists do not hang framed certificates conspicuously in their studios like doctors or lawyers. I almost wish they might. A one-man show seems to establish professional standing. In New York, I am told, dealers charge non-profitable artists a flat rate of five hundred dollars for one-man shows. That is little more than a year’s tuition towards a sheepskin in any other profession. Then there are charitable souls who, thinking they advance the cause of art, provide raw students with wall-space on which to exhibit. They do perhaps the most harm. A premature swelled-head is fatal to budding genius. It needs work and study.
Artists, strengthen and multiply your local associations. Increase your facilities for public exhibitions. And in each of them make your members put their best foot forward. Have juries strong enough to command respect, then insist on the highest professional quality. Get up the best possible shows; make every effort to have the public come, and come again. Remember, the unwashed of today are the newly-rich of tomorrow. Your ultimate market is every home in America.
A word to non-artists. I have done my best to point out by example and by harangue what in my opinion is good in pictures. Aside from furnishing you with an evening’s reading matter, my aim was to arouse your interest in and love of worth-while art. Let me now make a request of you. Help to spread the good cause.
Art is a public good. It should be a public matter. Municipalities look after education. They provide schools for their inhabitants. They should also provide them with art museums. This, for public education, and happiness as well. Every city or town of ten thousand or more should have a municipally-owned art museum. Why not a municipal theatre and concert hall, you ask? You are right. Although both could be under one roof. People are interested in art as never before. Nor is this a passing phase. It is here to stay. Thus far, to my knowledge there is only one city in the United States with a municipal art museum. Let us have them everywhere. Let all our people reap the full benefit of art.