The Art of Illustration – Automatic Drawing And The Power Of Suggestion

IN experiments in automatic drawing, a tendency to a repetition of similar shapes and penstrokes is visible on analysis ; and this may be set down rather to the fact that the fingers taking the line of least resistance, will be affected by the alternate play of the flexors and extensors in such a manner that, while the forearm remains at rest, a radiation of strokes becomes inevitable if the line is to remain continuous. From this will arise suggestions of many organic forms in which radiation is a principle of growth—as shells, wings, hands feet, fur, and so on. The process seems to big rather mechanical than mental ; and the thought is inevitable, no matter how suggestive such drawings may be to their creator or others after they are done, that the ” Dreams and Memories of the Gods,” referred to by the authors, have little to do with them. It is muscular rather than intellectual automatism ; its interest lies in its suggestion of known forms or organisms, although in its production all thought or intention of representation was carefully suppressed. There does come now and again at long intervals a happy state of mind and body when the critical faculties are dormant, when without effort of will or exercise of choice a drawing seems almost to do itself, and the happy artist feels he could go on thus for ever. The hand and brain are in exact harmony ; the hand is in no rebellion, so that the mind itself seems to be in the hand rather than dictating to it from a distance, and to be carrying through a transaction as smooth as thought itself, the emotional, physical, and intellectual faculties all collaborating. It may be that genius has the secret of this co-ordination and can induce it at will—it is certain that this state does approach the ideal condition for the production of a work of art.

While every work of art calls for an amount of intelligence equivalent in its way to the artist’s in order fully to appreciate it, a picture or drawing that leaves all the creative work to be done by the imagination of the spectator is a work rather more of artifice and less of art. There is in the reminiscences of Emily Soldene a story of Marius the singer and his top note that was the wonder of his time. Having sung the passage leading up to it he ran forward to the footlights, extended his arms, threw back his head and opened his mouth the fiddles screamed—and the audience applauded with all their might the top note that existed only in their imagination. Marius, having got as high as he could go, indicated the rest.

The public, in fact, was hypnotized en masse—and always demanded an encore !

I have known a case of the most besotted hypnotism to happen in broad daylight, in Park Street, Camden Town, close to the trams and ‘buses. A man I knew, of quite ordinary Cockney intelligence, who was in the habit of buying and selling all sorts of things on commission, from grand pianos to a bankrupt stock of red braces, and who ” knew his way about,” told me that he had been offered a picture painted by an old Dutch painter, Van Stern—did I know the name ? The picture, he said, was remarkable, in that while at a ‘first glance it looked like an ordinary piece of still-life just a bunch of grapes on a board, on a closer view on every grape could be seen landscapes, mountains, and, most extraordinary of all, crowds of tiny monks in procession, or carousing, all made out in the most wonderful and minute fashion. He had been offered the picture for fifteen pounds, and thought it must be a bargain—but before closing with the offer he would like my opinion—and my curiosity being aroused, I went with him. The furniture and curio defiler, I thought, cast on me no very friendly eye, ‘Out the picture was produced for my inspection, and my friend, the prospective buyer, brought out a pocket magnifying glass to aid me to discover the monks and the mountains. There they were truly enough just like Marius’ top note, in his own hypnotized imagination. The picture was the poorest daub, not worth the grubby frame in which it was. As we walked away he owned that he hadn’t liked to contradict the fraudulent old thief by himself, and had ended by believing what he was told, though he couldn’t really see it, but had been ashamed to admit his own lack of vision.

Of recent years it has been possible to account for a great deal of the work that passes muster with the critics and the public on no other grounds than this. The critics who found out how absurd they had in the bulk made themselves over Whistler, appear to have been afraid of committing themselves again—” Once bitten twice shy “—and, knowing their ignorance, have been anxious to conceal it, not by a critical cautiousness, but by running cheering by the side of any band that happened along with a big drum.

It is a curious thing that pictures are more generally appreciated through the ear than through the eye.

People like to be told all about them—” observe this ” and ” observe that,” and the other—generally insignificant or irrelevant detail or ” finish ” or ” likeness.”

Artists have endeavoured to purify art by leaving out all such sops to the uncultivated intelligence ; and in their endeavour to appeal to the aesthetics of the eye only did at first bewilder the crowd and the critics who belong to it. At first sight a thing that is simply beautiful must appear empty to an eye that has grown to value a picture as it would appraise a bazaar stall, by the multitude of objects it contains. But once having been brought to the point of seeing that beauty must be simple, this attribute, simplicity, may be mistaken for beauty itself. The door is then open to the charlatan, who has no more to do than to scrawl or blot a sheet of paper, and bid the public, through the voice of the critic, to find the naked soul and body of Truth and Beauty displayed in all its purity.

Here we have Marius’ top note and the Camden Town monks and mountains all over again ; the public listening, enraptured, to nothing, and staring spell-bound into vacancy I Doing, in fact, everything itselfand calling ” encore ! ” It is hypnotism pure and simple, and the artist is in danger of becoming involved with the charlatan, the crystal gazer, and the quack.