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  ALID EX ALIOTuesday, April 23rd, 2024  
by Clive Bell

In the nineteenth century the spirit seems to enter one of those prodigious periods of incubation for a type of which we turn automatically to the age that saw the last infirmity of Roman imperialism and of Hellenistic culture. About Victorian men and movements there is something uneasy. It is as though, having seen a shilling come down "tails," one were suddenly to surprise the ghost of a head - you could have sworn that "heads" it was. It doesn't matter, but it's disquieting. And after all, perhaps it does matter. Seen from odd angles, Victorian judges and ministers take on the airs of conspirators: there is something prophetic about Mr. Gladstone - about the Newcastle programme something pathetic. Respectable hypotheses are caught implying the most disreputable conclusions. And yet the respectable classes speculate while anarchists and supermen are merely horrified by the card-playing and champagne-drinking of people richer than themselves. Agnostics see the finger of God in the fall of godless Paris. Individualists clamour for a large and vigilant police force.

That is how the nineteenth century looks to us. Most of the mountains are in labour with ridiculous mice, but the spheres are shaken by storms in intellectual teacups. The Pre-Raffaelites call in question the whole tradition of the Classical Renaissance, and add a few more names to the heavy roll of notoriously bad painters. The French Impressionists profess to do no more than push the accepted theory of representation to its logical conclusion, and by their practice, not only paint some glorious pictures, but shake the fatal tradition and remind the more intelligent part of the world that visual art has nothing to do with literature. Whistler draws, not the whole, but a part of the true moral. What a pity he was not a greater artist! Still, he was an artist; and about the year 1880 the race was almost extinct in this country.

Through the fog of the nineteenth century, which began in 1830, loom gigantic warnings. All the great figures are ominous. If they do not belong to the new order, they make impossible the old. Carlyle and Dickens and Victor Hugo, the products and lovers of the age, scold it. Flaubert points a contemptuous finger. Ibsen, a primitive of the new world, indicates the cracks in the walls of the old. Tolstoi is content to be nothing but a primitive until he becomes little better than a bore. By minding his own business, Darwin called in question the business of everyone else. By hammering new sparks out of an old instrument, Wagner revealed the limitations of literary music. As the twentieth century dawns, a question, which up to the time of the French Revolution had been judiciously kept academic, shoulders its way into politics: "Why is this good?" About the same time, thanks chiefly to the Aesthetes and the French Impressionists, an aesthetic conscience, dormant since before the days of the Renaissance, wakes and begins to cry, "Is this art?"

It is amusing to remember that the first concerted clamour against the Renaissance and its florid sequelae arose in England; for the Romantic movement, which was as much French and German as English, was merely a reaction from the classicism of the eighteenth century, and hardly attacked, much less threw off, the dominant tyranny. We have a right to rejoice in the Pre-Raffaelite movement as an instance of England's unquestioned supremacy in independence and unconventionality of thought. Depression begins when we have to admit that the revolt led to nothing but a great many bad pictures and a little thin sentiment. The Pre-Raffaelites were men of taste who felt the commonness of the High Renaissance and the distinction of what they called Primitive Art, by which they meant the art of the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. They saw that, since the Renaissance, painters had been trying to do something different from what the primitives had done; but for the life of them they could not see what it was that the primitives did. They had the taste to prefer Giotto to Raffael, but the only genuine reason they could give for their preference was that they felt Raffael to be vulgar. The reason was good, but not fundamental; so they set about inventing others. They discovered in the primitives scrupulous fidelity to nature, superior piety, chaste lives. How far they were from guessing the secret of primitive art appeared when they began to paint pictures themselves. The secret of primitive art is the secret of all art, at all times, in all places - sensibility to the profound significance of form and the power of creation. The band of happy brothers lacked both; so perhaps it is not surprising that they should have found in acts of piety, in legends and symbols, the material, and in sound churchmanship the very essence, of mediaeval art. For their own inspiration they looked to the past instead of looking about them. Instead of diving for truth they sought it on the surface. The fact is, the Pre-Raffaelites were not artists, but archaeologists who tried to make intelligent curiosity do the work of impassioned contemplation. As artists they do not differ essentially from the ruck of Victorian painters. They will reproduce the florid ornament of late Gothic as slavishly as the steady Academician reproduces the pimples on an orange; and if they do attempt to simplify - some of them have noticed the simplification of the primitives - they do so in the spirit, not of an artist, but of the "sedulous ape."

Simplification is the conversion of irrelevant detail into significant form. A very bold Pre-Raffaelite was capable of representing a meadow by two minutely accurate blades of grass. But two minutely accurate blades of grass are just as irrelevant as two million; it is the formal significance of a blade of grass or of a meadow with which the artist is concerned. The Pre-Raffaelite method is at best symbolism, at worst pure silliness. Had the Pre-Raffaelites been blessed with profoundly imaginative minds they might have recaptured the spirit of the Middle Ages instead of imitating its least significant manifestations. But had they been great artists they would not have wished to recapture anything. They would have invented forms for themselves or derived them from their surroundings, just as the mediaeval artists did. Great artists never look back.

When art is as nearly dead as it was in the middle of the nineteenth century, scientific accuracy is judged the proper end of painting. Very well, said the French Impressionists, be accurate, be scientific. At best the Academic painter sets down his concepts; but the concept is not a scientific reality; the men of science tell us that the visible reality of the Universe is vibrations of light. Let us represent things as they are - scientifically. Let us represent light. Let us paint what we see, not the intellectual superstructure that we build over our sensations. That was the theory: and if the end of art were representation it would be sound enough. But the end of art is not representation, as the great Impressionists, Renoir, Degas, Manet, knew (two of them happily know it still) the moment they left off arguing and bolted the studio door on that brilliant theorist, Claude Monet. Some of them, to be sure, turned out polychromatic charts of desolating dullness - Monet towards the end, for instance. The Neo-Impressionists - Seurat, Signac, and Cross - have produced little else. And any Impressionist, under the influence of Monet and Watteau, was capable of making a poor, soft, formless thing. But more often the Impressionist masters, in their fantastic and quite unsuccessful pursuit of scientific truth, created works of art tolerable in design and glorious in colour. Of course this oasis in the mid-century desert delighted the odd people who cared about art; they pretended at first to be absorbed in the scientific accuracy of the thing, but before long they realised that they were deceiving themselves, and gave up the pretence. For they saw very clearly that these pictures differed most profoundly from the anecdotic triumphs of Victorian workshops, not in their respectful attention to scientific theory, but in the fact that, though they made little or no appeal to the interests of ordinary life, they provoked a far more potent and profound emotion. Scientific theories notwithstanding, the Impressionists provoked that emotion which all great art provokes - an emotion in the existence of which the bulk of Victorian artists and critics were, for obvious reasons, unable to believe. The virtue of these Impressionist pictures, whatever it might be, depended on no reference to the outside world. What could it be? "Sheer beauty," said the enchanted spectators. They were not far wrong.

That beauty is the one essential quality in a work of art is a doctrine that has been too insistently associated with the name of Whistler, who is neither its first nor its last, nor its most capable, exponent - but only of his age the most conspicuous. To read Whistler's Ten o'Clock will do no one any harm, or much good. It is neither very brilliant nor at all profound, but it is in the right direction. Whistler is not to be compared with the great controversialists any more than he is to be compared with the great artists. To set The Gentle Art beside The Dissertation on the Letters of Phalaris, Gibbon's Vindication, or the polemics of Voltaire, would be as unjust as to hang "Cremorne Gardens" in the Arena Chapel. Whistler was not even cock of the Late Victorian walk; both Oscar Wilde and Mr. Bernard Shaw were his masters in the art of controversy. But amongst Londoners of the "eighties" he is a bright figure, as much alone almost in his knowledge of what art is, as in his power of creating it: and it is this that gives a peculiar point and poignance to all his quips and quarrels. There is dignity in his impudence. He is using his rather obvious cleverness to fight for something dearer than vanity. He is a lonely artist, standing up and hitting below the belt for art. To the critics, painters, and substantial men of his age he was hateful because he was an artist; and because he knew that their idols were humbugs he was disquieting. Not only did he have to suffer the grossness and malice of the most insensitive pack of butchers that ever scrambled into the seat of authority; he had also to know that not one of them could by any means be made to understand one word that he spoke in seriousness. Overhaul the English art criticism of that time, from the cloudy rhetoric of Ruskin to the journalese of "'Arry," and you will hardly find a sentence that gives ground for supposing that the writer has so much as guessed what art is. "As we have hinted, the series does not represent any Venice that we much care to remember; for who wants to remember the degradation of what has been noble, the foulness of what has been fair?" - "'Arry" in the Times. No doubt it is becoming in an artist to leave all criticism unanswered; it would be foolishness in a schoolboy to resent stuff of this sort. Whistler replied; and in his replies to ignorance and insensibility, seasoned with malice, he is said to have been ill-mannered and caddish. He was; but in these respects he was by no means a match for his most reputable enemies. And ill-mannered, ill-tempered, and almost alone, he was defending art, while they were flattering all that was vilest in Victorianism.

As I have tried to show in another place, it is not very difficult to find a flaw in the theory that beauty is the essential quality in a work of art - that is, if the word "beauty" be used, as Whistler and his followers seem to have used it, to mean insignificant beauty. It seems that the beauty about which they were talking was the beauty of a flower or a butterfly; now I have very rarely met a person delicately sensitive to art who did not agree, in the end, that a work of art moved him in a manner altogether different from, and far more profound than, that in which a flower or a butterfly moved him. Therefore, if you wish to call the essential quality in a work of art "beauty" you must be careful to distinguish between the beauty of a work of art and the beauty of a flower, or, at any rate, between the beauty that those of us who are not great artists perceive in a work of art and that which the same people perceive in a flower. Is it not simpler to use different words? In any case, the distinction is a real one: compare your delight in a flower or a gem with what you feel before a great work of art, and you will find no difficulty, I think, in differing from Whistler.

Anyone who cares more for a theory than for the truth is at liberty to say that the art of the Impressionists, with their absurd notions about scientific representation, is a lovely fungus growing very naturally on the ruins of the Christian slope. The same can hardly be said about Whistler, who was definitely in revolt against the theory of his age. For we must never forget that accurate representation of what the grocer thinks he sees was the central dogma of Victorian art. It is the general acceptance of this view - that the accurate imitation of objects is an essential quality in a work of art - and the general inability to create, or even to recognise, aesthetic qualities, that mark the nineteenth century as the end of a slope. Except stray artists and odd amateurs, and you may say that in the middle of the nineteenth century art had ceased to exist. That is the importance of the official and academic art of that age: it shows us that we have touched bottom. It has the importance of an historical document. In the eighteenth century there was still a tradition of art. Every official and academic painter, even at the end of the eighteenth century, whose name was known to the cultivated public, whose works were patronised by collectors, knew perfectly well that the end of art was not imitation, that forms must have some aesthetic significance. Their successors in the nineteenth century did not. Even the tradition was dead. That means that generally and officially art was dead. We have seen it die. The Royal Academy and the Salon have been made to serve their useful, historical purpose. We need say no more about them. Whether those definitely artistic cliques of the nineteenth century, the men who made form a means to aesthetic emotion and not a means of stating facts and conveying ideas, the Impressionists and the Aesthetes, Manet and Renoir, Whistler and Conder, &c. &c., are to be regarded as accidental flowers blossoming on a grave or as portents of a new age, will depend upon the temperament of him who regards them.

But a sketch of the Christian slope may well end with the Impressionists, for Impressionist theory is a blind alley. Its only logical development would be an art-machine - a machine for establishing values correctly, and determining what the eye sees scientifically, thereby making the production of art a mechanical certainty. Such a machine, I am told, was invented by an Englishman. Now if the praying-machine be admittedly the last shift of senile religion, the value-finding machine may fairly be taken for the psychopomp of art. Art has passed from the primitive creation of significant form to the highly civilised statement of scientific fact. I think the machine, which is the intelligent and respectable end, should be preserved, if still it exists, at South Kensington or in the Louvre, along with the earlier monuments of the Christian slope. As for that uninteresting and disreputable end, official nineteenth-century art, it can be studied in a hundred public galleries and in annual exhibitions all over the world. It is the mouldy and therefore the obvious end. The spirit that came to birth with the triumph of art over Graeco-Roman realism dies with the ousting of art by the picture of commerce.

But if the Impressionists, with their scientific equipment, their astonishing technique, and their intellectualism, mark the end of one era, do they not rumour the coming of another? Certainly to-day there is stress in the cryptic laboratory of Time. A great thing is dead; but, as that sagacious Roman noted:
"haud igitur penitus pereunt quaecumque videntur, quando alid ex alio reficit natura nec ullam rem gigni patitur nisi morte adiuta aliena."
And do not the Impressionists, with their power of creating works of art that stand on their own feet, bear in their arms a new age? For if the venial sin of Impressionism is a grotesque theory and its justification a glorious practice, its historical importance consists in its having taught people to seek the significance of art in the work itself, instead of hunting for it in the emotions and interests of the outer world.

This article is a chapter from the classic book Art, by Clive Bell , published in 1913. It is in the public domain.

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