The Art of Illustration – Introduction

NOW that mechanical and photographic means of reproduction make it possible for an illustrator to employ practically any graphic means he may prefer, from a full-bodied oil colour to the most delicate pencil point, it is hardly necessary to limit our consideration in speaking of ” Illustration ” in general to any particular medium—and an Academy picture will serve as readily for an example as the cartoon in this week’sPunch. Michael Angelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos are magnificent illustrations; it is even probable that his preoccupation with their subject matter interfered with their decorative function. His desire to produce a microcosm of his thought led him to pack the walls beyond their capacity as though in a book his drawings had run into the margin.

Rhythm pursued for its own sake will lead to excess and weakness, unless stiffened with at least an infusion of character and thought, and will arrive at a meaningless banality—as in the exercise of making Latin nonsense verses where words are used solely for rhythm regardless of meaning. ” Content ” on the other hand may land its pursuer into a formless ejaculatory catalogue without coherence, as it did with Walt Whitman. The two must be brought into harmonious relation to evolve a work of art—until one can hardly be said to exist without the other, ‘as though they had been worked up together into an indissoluble paste.

The use of the word ” Illustration ” calls immediately for the consideration of what is the content proper to pictorial art—presuming Art to contain anything but itself—of what means it has at its disposal, and what these are best fitted to express.

Since among the greatest artists of all time have been many who have been but ill content with the realization of Beauty alone, but have charged their art with a burden of fact, story, symbol or idea, the carrying of which in many cases has been the first motive impelling them to expression in graphic or plastic form, it might seem hardly necessary to defend the position of the illustrator to-day. But there has been of late years a tendency to explore anew the purposes and possibilities of art ; and some endeavour to re-cast art itself in accordance with new conceptions and the changing requirements of the times—even with a fear that art itself is already exhausted, and that nothing but repetition is possible.

The craftsman’s skill in producing a likeness of an external object true in form, colour, and tone, no longer satisfies the more intelligent portion of the public ; and among artists themselves there has been much ferment and searching of heart. In London the exhibitions of the International Society, the life-work of Whistler (who had remained till his death something of a mystery to the public), the vogue of Beardsley, followed some years later by the Post-Impressionists, Futurists, and Cubists, has had the effect at least of widening the horizon of a public that had looked upon the National Gallery as a museum of curiosities of a dead Art, and the Academy as representative of modern and living truth and idealism. The Academy walls had for long taken the place of a huge story annual or ” summer number ” illustrated in colours—a seasonal gratification in which the content, paltry as it generally was, had become all important and art negligible. The ” esthetic movement ” of the eighties had had a certain effect ; but the excesses into which it was carried had discredited the use even of the words ” esthetics ” and “aestheticism,” as though these belonged exclusively to that taste in ” dirty greens ” and the false mediaevalism which Gilbert had so delightfully ridiculed in”Patience.” Professors of ” High Art ” turned to Greece, Rome or Pompeii for their subject matter—and Leighton’s suave grace and Alma Tadema’s marbles were regarded as ” classic ” because the figures introduced were clothed in chiton and peplum instead of the fashions of the period. Mode of expression meant nothing. Most of the ” subject ” painters of the time were inclined to look away from the life surrounding them to other periods and other places ; or if they looked at it at all it was with a view to extracting from it some forced situation of family affection or distress, or of some other anecdotic interest. ” Once bitten twice shy ” (a picture of a dog and a little girl with a mustard pot) had been a great popular success ; but this style of picture culminated in the still remembered tableau vivant of the ” Doctor ” by Luke Fildes.

The quality of presentation had come hardly to matter so long as an appeal could be made to the love of an idealized feminine grace, sentiment or dramatic situation. Distinction of vision, of aesthetic expression, of artistic selection in form, colour and tone—” style” in short, was at a discount as of no interest. This requires training for its full enjoyment—whereas the story interest and the love of pretty things and people, is open to the lowest intelligence.

In so far as style was depressed in favour of the content, or because indeed the content had become its sole raison d’être—a natural reaction set in, and ” subject painting ” fell into a well-merited disrepute. Old formulae of picture making were discarded ; artists turned to the science of vision ; there was great talk of ” values,” of open air painting and so on, in the pursuit at least of truth to observed Nature—ending in a more or less photographic and dull result—and since simple ” truth to Nature ” is always bound to lead to this point it became and still is necessary to pause now and again to examine the artistic map in order to set out with some idea of the road to go in order to get to the desirable end.