The Art of Illustration – Object And Subject

ANY art that contains or suggests a reference to something outside itself to the extent that it depends for its interest upon that reference may be said to be an illustration whenever the reference is to a fact or to an idea expressible in other terms. The idea contained may be entirely original to the artist, yet it will be none the less an illustration, and it is difficult to name a work short of a meaningless pattern that does not fall into the category. A drawing that suggests something like a man in some distant way, but depends mainly for its interest on rhythm, pattern or colour, may be almost able to escape falling inside our definition ; but let it pretend to likeness or portraiture of a particular man or place, part of its interest being external to its lines, tones or colours, yet expressed by them, and it immediately becomes an illustration. If this is granted of facts, it will the more readily be accepted as true of ideas, conveyed by the same means, so long as there is any attempt at precision of expression on the part of the artist.

The cricket captain hardly realizes to what an extent his fate depends upon objective and subjective art ; yet the mighty question of ” winning the toss ” depends on whether objective or subjective art shall fall uppermost—the illustration of fact or the illustration of idea—” Heads “—objective ; ” Tails “—subjective. This is worth while examining a little further.

Let us take a coin of Queen Victoria, 1886 or earlier, and examine the head—it was doubtless somewhat like her once—but in spite of a certain objectivity, the artist has so modified this, that, and the other, in his presentment that till the coinage was modernized at the time of the Jubilee, objectivity threatened to yield almost entirely to subjectivity.

On the other side of the coin we have Britannia-, an abstract idea presented in concrete terms—the ideal realized to a certain extent ; but it is to be supposed that the artist had a sitter, and may even have made n exact portrait of the lady, probably more like her, while making no profession of being so, than the so-ailed portrait of Queen Victoria was like the Queen.

The portraits of Gainsborough at times contain so much of the painter and so little of the sitter that we may frequently enough be in doubt whether to class them primarily as objective or subjective ; yet the blowsy goddesses of Rubens, while professedly subjective, leave us in no doubt whatever as to which side of the fence their weight will fall.

All illustrative art will be found to contain varying proportions of these two factors. Though one or the other may be found to be almost entirely absent, some slight infusion of one into the other is inevitable, even in work so subjective, let us say, as Beardsley’s or so objective as Menzel’s, though in both cases this infusion is as nearly as possible absent. It is the varying balance that is maintained between these two factors which will decide the sympathetic or antagonistic attitude of the spectator, as it answers to his own mood or otherwise. The work of Beardsley may annoy to fury the matter-of-fact ; yet be beloved of the sophisticated. The work of Menzel may contain nothing for the spiritual minded and mystic, while delighting the prosaic historian. Charles Keene and Phil May, standing midway and dealing with aesthetic problems of expression in different ways, were each popular, for their humour appealed to the mass ; but the problems of impressionism which Charles Keene dealt with at times, interfered to some extent with his popu larity ; while Phil May, by dealing with atmospher effect in so summary a manner as almost introduced no disturbing element, and require subtlety on the part of the spectator to see cellence. Feminine grace will naturally appeal to majority, and the nearer this approaches to the common idea, fashionable at the moment, the wider will be the appeal.

No artist’s work is dull if this tug-of-war is going on inside his brain ; if the rope is kept taut between the objective and the subjective. The slacker it becomes the nearer we get to uninspired craftsmanship, which is the machinery of art and not art itself. The craftsmanship may be perfect, as in the work of Bartolozzi, who was as glib as possible at great expense of meaning, or to seek, as in the work of Blake, with whom it was a perpetual stumbling block, landing him nearly into incoherence, like an insufficiently educated person who has not the words to convey his meaning. But no matter how perfect the craftsman may be, he can never give more delight by his craft alone than the cabinetmaker’s perfect drawer work.

Craftsmanship can be learnt ; and is taught, but its employment is a spiritual matter peculiar to the artist, whose language it is—his means of expression and not his aim.

Idealism and Realism

Art has generally been divided roughly under twcp headings, Idealism and Realism ; but these terms have been so frequently misapplied as to be consequently in danger of being misunderstood. There was endless controversy over the exact meaning of the word Im pressionism, maintaining as it did a nice poise between the objective and the subjective elements, but this is now well understood. Idealism came to stand, with most people, for something that amounted to no more than an alteration and falsification in the representation of an object along the lines of a preference. The leaving out in a portrait of a lady’s wrinkles and double chin is not ” idealization,” but flattery. Flattery does not produce an ideal, and will not in itself make the result either good or bad art. Our concern is to discover whether the artist looks primarily outwards or inwards for his subject matter—whether for an abstraction of thought, or for an aspect of an external thing seen. For the expression of abstract thought it will be found necessary to employ some recognisable object or objects as a symbol or symbols in such a relation as to enforce the idea—these symbols may be expressed in terms of the closest realism—while the artist’s primary aim has not been to record the impression caused through his eye, still less a deceptive realism of effect ; his concern having lain with their inner meaning and not their aspect. Under this head will be placed the work of Michael Angelo, Durer, and Blake, in descending scale to Beardsley, and the cartoonist of the daily press. The other great division is that in which the artist is concerned primarily with the aspect of external things rather than with any meaning they may possess for him or for others. His emphasis will generally fall where his preoccupation lies—on form, light, colour, tone, extracting from the infinite variety of the spectacle such things as most gratify his sense of sight, and in such a manner that he can communicate his impression of them to other minds. Under this head would most naturally fall the work of Velasquez, Rembrandt, Gainsborough to Menzel, Charles Keene, and Phil May. There is a large class of work lying midway with a tendency balancing more or less between one side or the other—as example Hogarth—who might be matched in literature with Bunyan, two curiously prosaic minds stringing their facts together on the thread of a moral and dramatic idea, and both peculiarly English in the compromise. Whistler looked upon Hogarth as the father of English art, or at least as the first great and typically English artist. It is interesting that Blake and Whistler should combine in this point of appreciation.

The English love of a picture that tells a recognisable story, where the people are represented as doing, having done, or about to do something even though it is expressed in the crudest and least aesthetic terms, may date from Hogarth, and this love has frequently been indulged to the detriment of the true aesthetic functions of the pictorial artist.