Velasquez – The Dignity Of Technique

IT is not the lover of pictures, but the devotee of his own spiritual emotions who needs to be told that tech-nique is art ; that it is as inseparable from art as features from facial expression, as body from soul in a world where force and matter seem inextricably entangled. In fact, the man who has no interest in technical questions has no interest in art ; he loves it as those love you who profess only love for your soul. The concert-goers who disclaim any technical interest in music will be found to like a performance because they forget it in trains of thought about scenery, morals, or poetry. But one may walk on the hills to become healthy or to escape crowds, and yet deserve no suspicion of a fondness for beauty. Under a mistaken conception of culture as the key of all the arts and sciences, intellectual people too often feel obliged to pretend an interest in arts for which they have no natural inclination. They insufficiently distinguish men born to take pleasure in the abstract and speculative from those born to love the concrete and sensuous—the black-and-white from the coloured mind. They cannot believe that the least taught ploughman whose senses are in tune with the pulse of nature may make a better artist than the man of loftiest thought who is encased in nerves insensitive to the quality of musical intervals or the character of shapes and colours. The man of abstract mind apprehends great ideas presented in the abstract medium of literature, but in the concrete of painting he is easily deceived by associations with words into spending his admiration on mean forms, on foolish labour, on purposeless colour. He looks at the merest pretence of modelling, at the coarsest sham of colouring, at the contradiction of the whole by the part, at the burial of beauty in niggling, and his dull eyes accept the imposture on the recommendation of his humbugged hearing.

The ” apostles of culture” grant but one gift—intellect — to many-sided man, and accord but one faculty of imagination to the dweller in a house whose various windows look down five separate avenues of sense. Often some of these windows are blocked, and so many men must misunderstand each other’s reports of the external world, but the man of culture too often keeps no window clean, and from a dark chamber of the mind would explain to everyone else the true inner meaning of what they see. It is this prophet that despises technique because technique differs as the material of each art differs—differs as marble, pigments, musical notes and words differ. He hates matter ; because owing to matter the imagination in each art is a gift whose absence cannot be compensated for either by one of the other imaginations or by the abstract intellect itself. Imagination in words is not imagination in colour or form, as the cases of Turner and Goethe amply prove. Without matter there is no art ; without matter there is no stuff in which imagination may create an image. Sentiment is not imagination ; spirituality is not artistic feeling. We all cry, laugh, and put on airs ; we do not all imagine occasions and fashions of crying, laughing, and striking attitudes. We feel the excitement of a street fight, yet we cannot all come home and image that excitement as Dinet did in ” Une Bagarre,” with its tempestuous pattern of uplifted hands and swaying bodies quivering in an uncertain flicker of shadows and windy lamplight. It is a sensitiveness to the special qualities of some visible or audible medium of art which distinguishes the species artist from the genus man. We are all spirits ; it is not in spirituality that the painter differs from us, but in that sensitive perception of visible character which enables him to imagine a picture all of a piece, all tending to express the same sentiment, all instinct and alive with feeling. Moreover, any difference that may exist between the material bases of the arts, exacts a corresponding difference between the qualities of temperament and imagination in the artists who practise them, also between the aims that are legitimate to the various arts, and between the feelings and laws by which works are to be judged and admired. Arts such as painting and sculpture, that appeal to the eye and display their contents simultaneously, differ vastly from those that unfold their matter to the ear in sequence. Painting and sculpture differ between themselves more slightly, and there is still less difference between pictures, whether realistic or decorative in aim, whether worked in oil or water, tint or line, monochrome or colour.

An art of space scarcely differs more from an art of time than one used purely from one mixed with representation of life, with utility or with symbolism. There is only one quite pure art—namely, symphonic music. Every shade of the complicated emotion in a symphony by Beethoven depends entirely upon technique—that is to say, upon the relations established amongst notes which are by themselves empty of all significance. The materials of other arts are more or less embarrassed in application by some enforced dependence on life. Words, since they serve as fixed counters or symbols, cannot be wholly wrenched from a determined meaning and suggestion ; architecture satisfies a need of common life as well as an aesthetic craving, and painting not only weaves a purely decorative pattern, but also pretends to imitate the appearance of the world. None of these arts tranquilly pursue the beauties intrinsic to their medium ; none circle in their orbit undisturbed ; all upon examination appear to be, as it were, double stars, linked like Algol to a dark companion.

I might sum these statements in one or two principles. First, Art is not Life ; for life is first-hand passionate emotion, while art deals with emotion second-hand, retrospective and disinterested. Life is variable, and a mixture of all materials—space, time, sound, colour, form, etc. ; art is limited, partially controllable by the artist, and comparatively permanent. Second, Sentiment is not Imagination ; for sentiment precedes art, and is common to all men, while imagination is a special power to arrange the material of some art in harmony with a mood. Third, There are as many separate faculties of imagination as there are separate mediums in which to conceive an image—clay, words, paint, notes of music. Fourth, The materials of the arts may be used with a double aim, or solely for their own direct and immediate qualities —as notes and intervals in music, which derive their character solely from the relations in which the artist chooses to place them ; they have no fixed meaning, and a dominant and a tonic are interchangeable.

Our faith in any art reposes, however, upon the belief that its material, even if unavoidably adulterated with foreign significations, is nevertheless as capable as the sounds of music of expressing character in virtue of artistic arrangement. Otherwise, no medium of expression but the symphony should deserve the name of art. Now, as paint serves both to record impressions of the external world and to decorate a given space and shape, an artist, however partial to either, must give some measure of attention to each of these aims. He must study how the eye takes in nature, and how it takes pleasure in a canvas ; and he must learn to reconcile these two ways of seeing when they disagree, as they sometimes may. When you look at nature, nothing remains absolutely fixed in appearance. Size, colour, pattern, and proportion seem to fluctuate as you change your point of view, move your focus, widen or narrow your angle of vision. No object seems big but by relation to a smaller, no mass simple except when viewed as a whole in contrast to another, and no tone so bright that a brighter cannot make it dark. But when you see forms and colours set in the one plane of a picture, confined to its scale of pigment, and permanently bounded in size, proportion, and place by its four obstinate sides, then you see them fixed in unalterable relations, and always bound to express one and the same point of view. The laws by which one pictures an effect on the flat consequently differ from those that regulate ordinary sight. Many collocations of form or colour that please in a sunlit space of three dimensions with fluctuating borders become intensely disagreeable in a flat, framed panel. When he leaves nature for art, a man leaves bright boundless space where he has no dominion for a dark cloistered place where he is master—master of a medium susceptible of arrangement by harmony, contrast, and gradation ; master to make his material speak in character, follow a vein of sentiment, express a mood of seeing. But he must learn to obey what, for want of a better word, one may call the laws of decorative effect.

Plainly, then, there are two interests to be reconciled in a picture, the facts and impressions of nature on one hand, and, on the other, the beauties and exigencies of the framed pictorial world. A modus vivendi must be established between the imitative and the decorative, and the compact between these two may be called the convention of the art of painting. To object to the conventionality of art is to believe in absolute realism, which, if possible, would be a science and not an art. As things are, when you merely draw a line on an empty canvas you commit yourself to art, for you have given the line a positive character by placing it in some relation to the four sides of the canvas. To show a line quite unconditioned or uncomposed, one would require a canvas without limits—that is to say, nature. Convention, then, there must be, but it need not be rigid ; it may vary with the impressions of artists, with the facts of nature, and with the characters of the mediums employed. The introduction of perspective, for instance, was a notable change in the convention of painting, since it implied a limitation in the use of our general know-ledge of an object to what can be seen from one point of view. Different readings of the convention by men of genius give rise to various styles of painting, and successively attach a varying importance to the elements of technique as they deal with ideal form or real form, local colour or atmospheric, detail or general aspect.

This description of technique, compressed as it is of necessity, is intended for those who hate ” mere technique” and despise ” matter.” Matter does not level man with the beast or the stone ; technique is not hateful, but only the point of view it expresses. There is a silly, unimpassioned mind which looks on nature without choice between things, which seems choked with trifles, which possesses no touchstone in its emotions wherewith to distinguish the important from the foolish. There may be such a thing as mere technique, but it is not what the vituperator of realism would have it. In words, it is nonsense verses ; in paint, mere decorative consistency, without the meaning or emotion of truth to nature.

Technique in painting, then, must be understood as the method of using any medium of expression so as to bring out the character of a decorative pattern, or to convey the sentiment with which you regard some appearances of the external world. The two aims become one when the decorative pattern to be enforced is suggested by the mood in which you happen to look, at your motif. If this be granted, then tech-nique is as important to an art as the body to man. Both of them appear and act for two hidden questionable partners, sentiment and soul. Through them these silent invisible partners can speak with the outer world and influence the minds of men. When we would infer the soul of another man or the sentiment of a picture, we may do so only through the material senses and their analogies.

Technique, then, is the indivisible organic body of a man’s conceptions, and cannot be rightly apprehended when studied in fragments. Yet, since the exigency of words forces us to present things in sequence, we must separate these living parts, and, as it were, dissect them dead. This necessity we will face, and will look separately at the qualities of Velasquez’s technique—such as composition, colour, modelling, and brushwork.