Picture Composition – Suggestiveness

Breadth, so often accountable for mystery, leads to suggestiveness. It is at this point that graphic art touches hands with the invisible,—where the thing merges into the idea. Here we deliver over our little two by four affair with its specifications all marked, into the keeping of larger hands which expand its possibilities. If then Imagination carries us beyond the limits of graphic art let us by all means employ it. Upon this phase of art the realist can but look with folded arms. The dwellers in the charmed world of Greek mythological fancy came on tip-toe to the borders only of the daily life of that age.

The still-life painter has to do with fact, and for many other subjects also the fact alone is sufficient. It is generally so in portraiture where rendition of externals is attempted, but the portrait may suggest revery and reflection, or, by intimate accessory, provoke a discursive move-ment in thought.

The realist is a man of drawing and how to do it, of paint and putting it on, of textures and technique ; he is a painter ; and stops with that. But the maker of pictures would step to another point of sight. He would so aim as to shoot over the hilltop. He would hit something which he cannot see.

Suggestion is both technical and subjective. There is suggestion of detail, of act and of fact. In producing the effect, instead of the detail, of a bunch of grass or a mass of drapery, we substitute suggestion for literalism.

Fortuny, as a figure painter, was master of this art, his wonderful arrangements of figures amongst drapery and in grasses bearing evidence. Here, out of a fantastic crush of color, will be brought to view a beautifully modelled hand and wrist which connect by the imagination only, with the shoulder and body. These however, are ready to receive it and like other parts of the picture are but points of fact to give encouragement to the quest for the remainder. The hide and seek of the subject, the “lost and found” in the line, the subsidizing of the imagination for tribute, by his magic wand stroke were the artifices by which Fortuny coquetted with nature and the public, fascinating the art world of his day.

Fortuny, however, never took us beyond the bounds of his picture. It was his doctrine that avoidance of detail was artful ; that to carry the whole burden when imagination could be tricked into shouldering some of it was fool’s drudgery. Millet, who was his antipode as a clumsy handler of his tools, declared himself fortunate in being able to suggest much more than he could paint.

In one of the competitions at the Royal Academy in England, the prize was awarded to that rendering of the expression of Grief which showed the face entirely covered, the suggestion being declared stronger than the fact.

In the realm of suggestion however the landscape artist has much the wider range. Who has not experienced the fascination of a hilltop ? The hill may be uninteresting—on your side,—but there is another. There is a path winding over it, telling of the passing of few or many ; your feet have touched it and imagination has you in her train, and you follow eagerly to the beck of her enchantment.

Suppose the scene at twilight on one of the great plains of northern France where beets are the sole crop. A group of carts and oxen shut out the background and no figures are seen. If however against the sky are the silhouetted forms of two handfuls of beets, the sight of a figure or even a part of him would seem unnecessary to a casual observer who wished to know if there was any one about. These inanimate things moving through the air mean life. The painter has created one figure and suggested the likelihood of others by these few touches. Herein we have the suggestion of a fact. The suggestion of an act, may further be developed by showing the figure, having already finished with the handful, bending to pick up others. Such a position would be an actual statement regarding the present act but a suggested one concerning the former, the effect of which is still seen. If then the figure were represented as performing something in any moment of time farther removed from that governing the position of the beets than natural action could control, he has forced into his figure an accelerated action which ranges any-where between the startling, the amusing, and the impossible.

The power of implied force or action by suggestion is the basis of the Greek sculptured art of the highest period. Much of the argument of Lessing’s elaborate essay on the “Laocoon” is aimed at this point, which is brought out in its completeness in his discussion of Timomachus’ treatment of the raving Ajax. “Ajax was not represented at the moment when, raging among the herds he captures and slays goats and oxen, mistaking them for men. The master showed him sitting weary after these crazy deeds of heroism, and meditating self-destruction. That was really the raving Ajax, not because he is raving at the moment, but because we see he has been raving and with what violence his present reaction of shame and despair vividly portrays. We see the force of the tempest in the wrecks and the corpses with which it has strewn the beach.”

In the photographic realm of the nude, this quality is compulsory. We don’t want to have offered us so intimate a likeness of a nude figure that we ask, ” Who is she, or he ? ” The general and not the particular suffices ; the type not the person. The painter’s art contains few stronger touches through this means than the incident of the sleeping senator in Gèrôme’s ” Death of Cæsar” (page 176).

In the suggestion of an idea, graphic and plastic art rise to the highest levels of poetry. The picture or the poem then becomes the surface, refracting the idea which stretches on into infinity.

The dying lion of Lucerne, mortally pierced by the shaft, the wounded lion of Paris, striking under his forepaw the arrow meant for his destruction are symbols memorializing the Swiss guard of Louis XVI, and the unequal struggle of France against Germany in ’72.

At the death of Lorenzo the arts languished and Michel Angelo’s supine and hanging figures in his tomb are there to indicate it.