« AnkstesnisTęsti »
ART AND CRITICISM.
painter, Mr. Whistler, propounded not long confused by the currents of momentary favor ago his day-dream of a golden age. All would and neglect, or by the influence of the fashions be well, he told us, with art and artists, if only amid which you have grown up; it is easy to the men of letters could be induced to leave them keep a just sense of proportion-time has already alone. From such a consummation we are at brought the objects of your study into something present singularly far removed. There never like their true relations toward each other and was a time when so much was written about art their age. Whereas in contemporary criticism, and artists as is written now. In the shape of to be dispassionate, to keep a just sense of proephemeral comments on the exhibitions of the portion, and to see things as they are, apart from day, or of historical studies on the schools and fashion and prepossession, are matters of very masters of the past, or of discursive essays and considerable difficulty indeed. exhortations having the fine arts for their text Unluckily this difficult task is one to which and point of departure—in one of these shapes many have been accustomed to address themor another, English literature has of late years selves without pausing to consider whether they been full of the subject.
were qualified, either by aptitudes or study, to That literature should thus employ itself is perform it. “Art-criticism " has on the whole very natural. As the works of fine art, meaning been conducted so much at random, that a shade by the word the higher manual arts of painting, of ridicule and discredit has attached itself to the sculpture, and architecture, are of all human very word. Both before and since the days of achievements the most tangible and abiding, so Thackeray's genial creation, F. B., the “artthey are among the most interesting and most critic,” has been an accepted type of the person attractive; and to define the nature of their in- who pronounces with a light heart on matters terests and attraction, to furnish such guidance which he has been at no pains to understand. and information as may help a reader to profit We all know in what kind of consideration the by this great branch of man's activity, and to re- business is usually held by artists themselves. ceive from the works of these arts the best they Not to make too much of the views of Mr. are capable of giving, is as legitimate a literary Whistler, who is a humorist and pushes things task as any other. It is a task, at the same far, we may read how Mr. Poynter, in his volume time, which calls for special aptitudes and special of lectures lately published, denounces “the orstudy, and has methods and difficulties of its dinary newspaper ignoramus”; saying that “as own. Let us consider for a moment what those a rule English art-critics start on their career by methods and difficulties are. Since literature is criticising the exhibitions, and trust to time and not in truth likely to leave art alone, what, let us chance for learning something about art,” and ask, in dealing with the works of art, are the quoting with satisfaction an indignant protest aims which literature should keep in view, and once made by the French painter, Ingres, to a the errors which it should avoid ?
similar purport. Nor can it be said that the disAnd, first, of contemporary criticism, or litera- esteem in which newspaper criticism is thus held ture as concerned with the works of living artists. by artists is without warrant, though certainly it This may at first sight seem a much simpler had more warrant twenty years ago than now. matter than historical criticism, in which litera- It has come to pass from a variety of causes, ture concerns itself with the works and schools and not least from the stimulating power exerof the past; and simpler, indeed, it is in one par- cised by a master of letters, Mr. Ruskin, that a ticular. Contemporary criticism does not make greater amount of intelligent interest is now the same call as historical criticism on the indus- directed to the works of art in England than was try of the critic in examining monuments and ever directed before; and this interest naturally ascertaining facts; it does not, in a word, require reflects itself in current criticism. Vagaries, inhim to know as much. But in other particulars deed, occur; as when our old friend the “Pall it is far harder to write justly and to the point Mall Gazette," a journal which within the last about the work of your own, than about that of five years had been most honorably distinguished former generations. In historical criticism it is for its competent treatment of matters of this easy to be dispassionate—you are not prepos- kind, the other day amused its readers by sudsessed by personal sympathies, by the conflicts denly changing its tone, and denouncing some of theories and rivalries of groups; it is easy to fancied faults in the works of Mr. Burne-Jones
in language of the greatest extravagance. We of this kind, even where it is just, is generally must remember, however, that the ideals of that thrown away. Artists are not, in fact, much inpainter, being ideals of delicacy rather than offluenced by any criticism except by that of their strength, are displeasing to the morbidly robust; brother artists; they know that they possess and for the paroxysms of aggrieved robustness powers and dexterities which the critic does not due allowance must be made. Besides, the out- possess; and each of them in his way is generbreak in question was not a fair example of the ally conscious of devoting those powers and dexnewspaper criticism of the day.
terities to the production of the best which it is Criticism of a more temperate and clear- in him to produce. The artist, by the very nasighted kind is not wanting; and for such criti- ture of his vocation, is more likely than other cism, with reference to the works of living artists, men to be continually doing his best. His vothere is abundance to do. In comparison with cation is simply to produce a representation or the literary fine arts of poetry and romance, in report of something which he has noticed and comparison even with music, the manual fine preferred in life and nature, or imagined conarts play as yet but a small part in our English cerning the things transcending life and nature; civilization. Painting is the best understood of and as his representation or report has no ulterior those arts, and in painting a great, and, as we object except to delight and impress, so there is said, a constantly increasing number of persons everything to induce him to make it as delightful are interested. But of the multitudes who in- and impressive as he knows how. Nay, it may terest themselves in painting, and flock to the be said, his work has an ulterior object—to sell ; yearly exhibitions, the interest of a great many and of course it is true that an artist may, for neither goes, nor professes to go, beyond the money's sake, be false to the ideal within him, or curiosity and amusement of the hour. It is not that petty cares may drag him down, or that he the pictures in the exhibitions that they care for, may have mistaken his vocation, and his best but the life, the greetings, and the gossip. And be after all not worth having. But even so, the even of those who really care for the pictures, criticism of those who can not do as much as he and are anxious to understand and enjoy them, does, will have little direct influence in changing few feel that they can perfectly understand and his way of work. Criticism may, indeed, indienjoy them unaided. It is common, though not rectly affect the practice of artists, by drawing so common as it was, to find in persons other- favor away from work that is trivial or mistaken, wise full of cultivation a real insensibility, ac- to work that is serious and in the right direction; knowledged or unacknowledged, to the effects by opening the eyes of readers to faults to which and pleasures of this art. Picture-blindness in a habit had made them indulgent, or excellences. greater or less degree—the condition of those which they could not have found out for themwho have not the faculty or the habit of seeing selves; in a word, by helping to form the public and feeling for themselves what there is to see taste, and to create, so to speak, a market for the and feel in the combination of lines and colors best kinds of things. But it is essentially to the before them-is certainly the condition of the public, and not to artists, that the critic has to majority. The only cure for picture-blindness address himself—to those who know less than lies in habitual and rightly directed looking, and he does, and not to those who know more. it is the business of criticism to teach people how The question next arises, What kind and to look. Comparatively few people are able of amount of knowledge entitles a person to critithemselves to receive and discriminate the visual cise the works of art at all? Two extreme views impressions offered by the works of art, with the are held on this question. According to the one, accuracy and sensitiveness necessary to their it is absurd for any person not a practical painter right enjoyment; but most can apprehend the to give an authoritative opinion about a picture force of words. Criticism employs words to as- at all; according to the other, painting is an art sist and reënforce visual impressions; and the which addresses not specialists only, but every mission of criticism, as applied to the works of one, and about which, therefore, every one has a art, is fulfilled when it has defined and analyzed right to form and to express an opinion. the qualities of the object before it in the way If the first of these views were true, and only best calculated to help a reader to see them for painters had a right to speak about painting, then himself.
the public would have to do without guidance of This may seem but a humble office to claim any kind in the matter, since members of the for the critic of art, who is apt to give himself same profession are in good feeling debarred airs, and to address his observations less to the from expressing dispraise of one another. Morepublic than to the artist, whom he tells of his over, though on the technical points on which faults, admonishing and putting him right with alone a painter himself wants advice, the critimuch frankness and confidence. But criticism cism of another painter is the only criticism worth
having, yet the kind of criticism wanted for the though not the same, as those which determine public is a kind which painters are very seldom its authenticity or its spuriousness; and to apqualified to give. For the public, what is wanted preciate them with certainty, and at once, deis a criticism that shall be able to sympathize mands powers of observation almost as thorwith the most various ideals, and to define, inter- oughly trained. Why, then, should we listen to pret, and do justice to the most opposite kinds the judgment as to what is beautiful or excellent of excellence; whereas an artist, if he has a in art, of persons who have never trained their true vocation for his art, is generally so consti- powers of observation or appreciation at all, and tuted as to see life and nature under special as- to whose judgment we should never listen for a pects, and in a manner personal to himself. moment as to what was genuine or false? We Those aspects he can not choose but report; ac- have the right to ask from any one who wishes cording to that manner, he can not choose but to be heard on these things that he should do work; and it is the most difficult thing in the more than go through the exhibitions each year, world for him fully to sympathize with the aims having perhaps frequented the studios of a few of a brother artist who sees life and nature in a friends in the interval, and write down whatever different light. Once or twice, indeed, in a gen- crosses his mind during the progress. We have eration, there appears a painter accomplished in the right to ask, at least, that the study of the his art, yet without personal instincts or predilec- works of art shall have been a real part of his tions strong enough to narrow his sympathies ; life, that he shall have taken trouble to educate and these are the ideal critics. Sir Charles East- his eye, and that he shall have steadied and prelake, in England, and M. Fromentin, in France, pared his judgment for the appreciation of conmay be mentioned as distinguished cases in point; temporary work in the familiarity of that of other but as these men were working artists, so they days and other schools. necessarily abstained from contemporary, and Starting with this for the least amount of limited themselves to historical, criticism. qualification which will be required of him, the
The second view, according to which the nat- critic has next to be on his guard against his own ural man is competent, without study or experi- literary ambition. If he is to be useful in his ence, to judge and to express his judgment of proper capacity, he must remember that his writworks of art, is one that hardly needs discussion. ing is but auxiliary to the works of that art which The judgments so formed and expressed are, in he criticises. The artist is the creator and infact, worth no more than the utterances of inex- ventor, the critic is but the commentator and perience are worth on any subject whatever. Let exponent; and an indifferent poem, picture, or them be heard with courtesy, but by no means statue is a higher achievement than the criticism with deference. The faculty of the eye for ac- which points out why it is indifferent. Fine art, curately and sensitively discriminating the quali- whether manual or literary, reports directly conties of the combination of lines and colors be- cerning life and nature; criticism only interprets fore it, both in themselves and in relation to the and characterizes the report, and makes it more natural objects which they are intended to recall, intelligible and better known. If any one has is, as we have said, a comparatively rare faculty, great and new things to say concerning life and and one which comes to most people only by nature, let him say them in the appropriate arcultivation. If any one proposes to instruct others tistic or didactic form; let him be a writer of concerning pictures or works of art in general, poetry or romance, an essayist, or a moralist. the first thing of which he has to make sure is But if he only has things to say concerning art, that he be not himself, like the majority, half or let him be careful to keep to the point. In disthree parts picture-blind. The chances are that cussing, in any given case, the artistic result into he is so, unless he has made the pleasures of fine which the materials of life and nature have alart a large and serious portion of the pleasures ready been worked up by another, let the critic of his life, and unless he has spent much time keep his attention fixed on the actual qualities of and trouble in the pursuit and discrimination of the work before him, and on the precise message those pleasures. In the practical matter of buy- which the artist has intended to convey. The ing a work of art or a curiosity, no one would temptation is very great to wander, and to make offer advice who was not conscious of having excursions of his own into life and nature in ditrained his eye to the perception of those niceties rections not relevant to the case. -those minute material differences of form, color, It is impossible to lay down a law for genius; substance, and surface—which distinguish a gen- and the greatness of Mr. Ruskin's achievement uine thing from a false, an original from a copy, in literature depends, it may be said with truth, and which to the untrained eye are imperceptible. on nothing so much as on the very range and The beauty and excellence of a work of art frequency of his excursions, on the rousing and depends on visible conditions almost as subtile, illuminating utterances concerning life and na
ture to which the consideration of the works of run, his criticisms may be injurious to art itself. art continually draws him on. But the greatness Finding that the public are led to care only about of a writer's general achievement is not the mea- the story or the ideas presented in a picture, sure of his contributions to sound criticism; and artists may attend only to these, and neglect the even of Mr. Ruskin it is surely true his in- quality of the presentment. It is not long since terpretations of the works of art would, as such, this neglect of the essence of the artist's busihave been more just and final had he been ableness was the prevailing characteristic of English to keep them more severely to the point; while art. Let us take a case in point, the case of a for writers not of genius the observance of this picture which is typical of many, and which had law is essential. To observe it is a matter of no in its day so famous a success that to disparage small self-denial ; since the considerations sug- it now can hurt nobody-I mean Mr. Frith's gested by a work of art, but not relevant to its “Railway-Station.” The principle upon which true appreciation, are often the considerations a picture like this is painted is the principle of most effective to write and pleasant to read about putting together as many episodes and anecdotes This is not true of the works of literary art, as the scene will hold, of a kind which everywhich deal with life in its sequence and duration, body can recognize, and about which, when recwith the stir and movement of thought, passion, ognized, it is easy to write and entertaining to and event; things which criticism can always read. But criticism, in thus entertaining the discuss in an interesting way. But it is true of reader with a narration of the episodes in the the works of painting and sculpture, which deal scene, draws him altogether away from the main not with the stir and movement of life, but with point-namely, the presence or absence of picits stationary aspects, imprisoning visibly for ever torial power and refinement in their visible presome crisis of event or passion, or perpetuating sentment. And if about the qualities of pictosome felicitous moment of repose. In the works rial power and refinement neither critics nor the of these arts the point of the performance, the public trouble themselves, why then should the value of the message conveyed, lies precisely in artist ? considerations which are not the best to write The class of subject which Mr. Frith dealt about. The ideas or story represented must not with in this and some other famous pictures is tempt the critic away, as they are very apt to do, one perfectly legitimate for art to treat. There from the mode of their representation. By the are schools of criticism, indeed, which maintain mode of representation I mean the aspect of the that the only legitimate enterprise of art is to work as it meets the eye; its general character represent the modern world as it really is. We and conception, the types and expressions of the shall certainly not join the cry of those who, in personages, their arrangement and composition, France or elsewhere, uphold this doctrine, and the beauty and justice of the design and color, declare that no other art is genuine or worth atthe conduct of light and shade, the charm or tempting than that which devotes itself to la want of charm of the parts and of the whole, vérité vraie and la vie vivante-that is, to the their relations to natural fact, their harmony literal rendering of facts without compromise or among each other, their degrees of finish or neg- embellishment, and to the representation of life lect, of force or refinement, the particular fash- in its daily agitation and commonness. To say ion of the presentation and quality of the execu- this is, on the one hand, to deny the rights of the tion. It is in these visible and palpable terms imagination, and on the other to forget that paintthat painting delivers its report of life and na- ing, with its limitation to a single point of time, ture, and upon their quality in each case that the has, after all, but a feeble hold on the bustle of power and significance of the report depend. life and its realities. But without joining the But these are things which it is far from easy to fanatics of realism and modernism, we can at write about without being vaguely technical on least welcome their experiments when they are the one hand, or luxuriantly descriptive on the made with a due regard to the conditions of the other, and in either case uninteresting.
art. A most interesting series of such experiIf, instead of sticking carefully to the point, ments, depending entirely on qualities proper to and running thereby the risk of failing to inter- the painter's art, and offering little temptation est, a critic determines to interest at all costs, he to the excursions of literary criticism, has been may very easily do so by writing, not about the shown this season in London. I allude to the picture itself, but about thoughts more or less exhibition of M. de Nittis, an accomplished Italclosely connected with it. But then he will have ian master who has lived both in Paris and in forfeited his reason to exist ; he will not have our own country, and has caught and turned to performed his proper function of interpreting the pictorial account the physiognomy of modern works of art to those who can not sufficiently cities with a justice and an insight that hardly judge of them for themselves; and, in the long any other painter of similar subjects has equaled. One picture was taken at the level of the Thames judgment, whereby he is saved from praising or beneath one of the great railway-bridges, and blaming at random, and the second, the habit showed the very color and flow of the muddy of literary self-denial, whereby he is on his guard tide overshadowed by the black mass of the against writing that which shall be readable but bridge ; bringing out with admirable effect the irrelevant, what is now the third thing which we grimy grandeur of the great black girders over- shall require of him? The third thing is that he head, their hard outlines softened with straggling shall be, so far as possible, impartial. This does waifs of black smoke, while across a space of not mean that his writing shall never be controopen, copper-colored sky on either hand drifted versial, since false tendencies and unfounded pretrails of more black smoke and white steam from tensions may need to be discouraged, and since passing engines. In another picture we looked for new and unfashionable kinds of excellence it from the parapet of the Thames Embankment is impossible, without controversy, to gain recogin a fog; and the value and power of the work nition. But it does mean that he shall be quick depended entirely upon the subtile sense of space to appreciate not one kind only, but all kinds of and mystery expressed in the color of the dense real excellence. atmosphere, with its shifting gleams of lilac or It is unreasonable to quarrel about matters coppery light, and in the perfect physiognomical which have no practical consequences; but contruth of the three laborers who were represent- troversy is so much the habit of our lives, and ed, with precisely the right measure of force, we are so eager to impose our predilections by definition, and value in the atmosphere, as they argument and theory, and still more our averleaned smoking on the parapet, and a gleam sions, that we often refuse to recognize more from the sky caught the wreaths which issued than one kind of artistic excellence at a time. from their pipes. A third exhibited the very life The theory to which I have already alluded, the of the city crowd as it may be seen on any wet theory of the fanatical realists and modernists, day looking across from the Mansion House to- who will have it that all art is obsolete and false ward the Bank of England. But in all this which is not modern and realistic, is a signal case medley of rich passengers and poor, policemen in point. This theory has been defended with and shoeblacks, crossing-sweepers, cabs, vans, great force and ingenuity, and with reference to and omnibuses with their freights and drivers, in the works of literature as well as to those of the all this familiar turmoil of human life and char- manual arts, over and over again in France, and acter the artist has not thought it worth while to chiefly by those whose views on the new funcintroduce a single episode the narration of which tions of art are bound up with their views on could render entertaining a literary description the new order of society. But all such exclusive of the picture. An artist in literature, dealing theories are obviously shallow. Ever since the with the same scene and the same human mate- proscriptions of the Catholic ages were broken rials, might naturally have found in it sugges- down by the revolutionary Dutch school of the tions for a hundred stories; he would have seventeenth century, the aims of modern art have thought of the fortunes and destinies of the become diverse and many-sided, and diverse and actors before and after their momentary appear- many-sided they will continue to the end. Some ance in the crowd, and his imagination would minds will be most impressed by the actual life have woven for them in the past and future round about them, and their reports will be nodramas without number. But the painter is not thing but reports of life and nature as they literconcerned with their past or future, but only ally are. Others will be most impressed with the with their momentary appearance and visible thoughts and imaginations of the past, and their relations. Each type is an admirable and un- reports will be reports, based only on what is forced study of English character, physiognomy, choicest in life and nature, of things imagined as attitude, and, if the critic wishes to convey a existing in a brighter world. The tendency of sense of the excellence of the work, it is these modern life is to assume aspects less and less points he must drive home in words as he best capable of yielding occasion for the more potent can—these, and the surprising justness of obser- and enchanting effects of art. The great devation and rendering by which the retreating fig- partments of portrait and landscape will always ures are dimmed and softened in the atmos- remain ; but the collective life of our communiphere, and the architecture and gas-lamps re- ties can yield at best, if they are to be quite literceive their exact value against the sky, and the ally represented, some such results as we have colored wares on the wagons and umbrellas of described in the works of M. de Nittis. Interthe omnibus-drivers serve as points of color amid esting as these results are—full of truth, anithe grayness and the wet.