The Art of Illustration – Purely Pictorial Art

ALL traditional art has hitherto fallen into one of two categories so as to give rise to a question as to whether it is primarily concerned with the presentation or illustration of facts or of ideas—yet there is a third possibility open to the artist ; and it may perhaps be useful to explore it.

It has been said that there are only twenty-seven stories or jokes in the world ; yet the inventor of the riddle ” Why does a mouse when it spins ? ” who expected the answer to the question to be either ” Because the sooner the higher,” or ” Because the gossamer webs,” did invent a new form of humour that tickled some people and drove others to distraction. It is worth analysing since the originator of the question and answer must have been a logician, otherwise he could hardly have so volatilized all logic from his conundrum.

In an atmosphere of prevailing solemnity there is in us something that responds rapidly to the perfectly irresponsible absurdity of this form of humour ; but it does demand for its bursting effect a prevalent solemnity rather than frivolity.

In the same way that the logician had managed to invent a question and answer that, while employing words, meant nothing whatever, and on that very account was capable of stirring an emotion either of amusement or anger—so the artist may at times endeavour to sift out those elements of line and colour which, while having no meaning external to themselves, may yet be capable of stirring the purely esthetic emotions. These will always be likely to cause shock, like the riddle just quoted, to persons of set habits of mind who may consider the pride of reason to be insulted, when after all the shock is due only to surprise at being suddenly confronted by a confusing problem in esthetics.

It cannot be denied that we may receive pleasure from a single unrelated colour—for instance, the dye of a Chinese or Indian silk—or from the sweeping rhythm of a meaningless line. A handwriting may be beautiful though we cannot read or understand the language it is written in. Is it possible to evolve an art, then, from such elements as are here indicated that shall gratify the pure aesthetic emotion without calling upon the association of ideas—without representation close or remote, of observed facts ? To arrive, by means of rhythm of line and harmony of colour at an appeal to the emotions through the eye that shall be equivalent or nearly so to the pure art of music ?

It is an interesting speculation that I indulged in as a young man, to the extent of making and abandoning such experiments ; and I remember raising the question with Mr. D. S. MacColl. We were inclined at that time to conclude that organic form was the basis of all pictorial art—but of late years the new men either having more time or greater energy, or perhaps that the times are more nearly ripe for the appreciation of such efforts, seem to be experimenting along some such lines in various directions. It is doubtful if art can be so etherealized—or purified—so separated from record or symbol of external objects as to be made a means of communication of any but the most limited and faint emotions when compared with that of music. Pictorial art apart from its subject matter, makes its appeal more to the intellect than to the passions—and it will make this more simply and more intelligibly by the acceptance of the traditional means of expression, even though those means are more complex than those he proposes to employ.

It is difficult to imagine that the mind can arrive at combinations of pure form and colour at the same time more devoid of organic significance and more satisfactory aesthetically than are to arrived at by such means as are used for the marbling of paper ; and in this connection it is worth recalling that Sterne used a sheet of marbled paper by way of an illustration to a passage in Tristram Shandy—just as in another place he had quite effectively introduced a black page. Here is the passage that the marbled page refers to : ” Who was Tickletoby’s mare ? Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader ! read—or by the knowledge of the great saint Paraleipomenon I tell you beforehand you had better throw down the book at once ; for without much reading, by which your reverence knows I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motley emblem of my work I) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions, and truths which still lie hid under the veil of the black one ” (Tristram Shandy, Ch. xxxvi. The black page is given as preface to Ch. xiii.). In Chapter iv., Bk. ix, he gives a great curly pen scrawl as illustration of how the corporal flourished his stick. ” While a man is free “—cried the corporal—” a thousand of my father’s most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy ” is the author’s comment. Is this the ” significant line ” of which we now hear so much ?

It seems unnecessary to pursue the consideration of the possibilities of art in the direction of the inorganic beyond the marbled and the black pages of Yorick.