The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
On Exhibititions *
by James Cadenhead, A.R.S.A.
Dr. Clouston told us, in his very instructive paper a month ago, that the less small children concern themselves with art, the better for them, and he gave us excellent reasons for his opinion. The subject before us has, therefore, no "nursery" aspect at all. Small children find picture galleries good for racing about in, but it is better, in decent weather, for them to run outside in the open air.
Of course, it is clear that useful lessons can be easily learned from pictures that focus their attention and arouse their curiosity, so that history, natural history, moralities, and much more may profitably enough be studied both by children and grown-ups wherever pictures are shown. But that is an aspect of exhibitions on which it is not needful to enlarge. Their value as an educational engine is obvious enough.
It may be desirable to observe in passing that this aspect of the fine arts (where they appear as an educational engine) is superficial. For one who cannot get far beyond the notion that art is the handmaid of science does not come into contact with what is essential in it.
I do not know what the average age may be at which young folk, or any folk, begin to take an interest in the fine arts. Some begin to take notice early enough, at six or seven; others never begin at all. But, probably in most cases, childhood is past when the art sense begins to assert its existence. For pictures are concerned, not with things, but with their appearances. Among keen observers none see through exactly the same eyes, or, rather, no two brains record precisely similar observations of life. Thus the interest of art is seen to consist in this, that the work of art is in the highest degree a personal expression. Its personality, the personal experience of its maker, is the essence of it; and the function of art is seen to be transmission of experience. When one comes to have experience of one's own, and becomes conscious of possessing the faculty of sympathy, the faculty that desires sympathy and craves to bestow it, then, whether young or not, one can come into touch with the fine arts in their true function. But a child who should do this, who should be troubled in this way, would be, in Dr. Clouston's estimations, pathological. So what I have to say about exhibitions concerns only "old" children.
Most people, so far as they bestow any attention on the fine arts, do so under one serious misapprehension. They come to the fine arts without having clearly, or even dimly, before their minds the fact that art and science are different, and that art is as delicate a subject as science. We all are in comfortable and friendly relations with the statements of science, knowing that they are true or untrue, and that they are probably in either case intelligible to anyone who will take the trouble to master the operations and steps that have led to the conclusions they embody. So that, in a scientific discussion, no one, finding himself confronted with a proposition that is neither obvious not promptly to be understood, will forthwith commit himself to an attitude of ridicule or hostility. On the contrary, he behaves with discretion.
But, where a work of art is concerned, the exception is to find anyone who is at all prepared to suspend his judgment. No matter what may come before him, nearly everyone appears unconscious that he ought to be discreet. And his indiscretion takes the form of an opinion at once announced. "I don't like that," or less often "I like that," is what he says. He is unaware that thus he is giving an indication, not so much of the limitations or shortcomings of the work, as of his own. For a work of art is either good or it is not. That anyone likes it or dislikes it is of small moment; the important thing is to recognise it for what it is.
It seems doubtful whether works of art can have any influence—at any rate, any good influence, on the mass of people who are in this kind of relation to them. The majority do take up just this attitude, and most of the others are in one or another very similar, due in each case to misunderstanding the nature and function of the fine arts.
But it is something to be thankful for that non-comprehension of the true situation is, among the more thoughtful minority, illuminated dimly by a notion that somehow art has a mission to do something for our advantage, though we do not know what. But we grope in a fog of mystifications after the notion that it is good for us to see pictures. They to whose consciousness the fog is a reality are thereby already in the place of hope, aware of non-comprehension, and aspiring after some clearer light, puzzled by the mystery, but confident that there must be some key to it.
The solicitude of those here present is on behalf of their children. We desire that these may have some useful light around their steps. Hence the question for us seems to be, "Can we bring the children into a better relation to the fine arts than our own?"
There is no reason to doubt that this can be done. But there is no reason for supposing that we can give the young people any points of view that are not our own. Our efforts must be first of all to put ourselves right. Better so, than that we should wait until the children grow up to impose their views upon us, a not unusual course of events, one that provides for parents such experiences as I have never seen them profess to enjoy. Anything we do for our children's benefit we had better do first for our own. They will judge our convictions by our conduct, and not by our professions. For children will not take much interest in anything to which their parents are indifferent. And we can bring them into a better relation to the fine arts than our own has been by putting ourselves into such a relation first of all.
How are we to proceed?
Well, I am here professedly to talk about exhibitions of pictures. The question is—What can we do with them? What sort of opportunities do existing exhibitions afford that we can use to our own and our children's advantage? And the first inquiry that seems desirable is directed to the discovery of what these exhibitions are.
There are two sorts of exhibitions of pictures (broadly speaking, since sometimes they overlap a little)—
(a) Works by the dead.
In the former class the works are carefully selected. They are those that have been considered worth careful preservation, the works of old masters.
Their value is twofold. They may be very scarce, and therefore, as all scarce things are when people are minded to compete for their custody, of great money value. And they may be good pictures, even great ones, and worth preservation on that account. If they are both scarce and excellent their value may be inestimable—their real worth I mean, not their money value. But if they are merely old and genuine, not imitations, they can hardly be else than deeply interesting and, at least, deserving of respectful attention.
Exhibitions of this class vary very much in the nature of their composition. All over Europe each has its special character, and only a far-travelled tourist indeed can hope to acquire an intimate acquaintance with them all. Some are magnificently complete and representative, but few indeed, however small and easy of access, are therefore to be despised or neglected.
For example, the Wallace collection, our property, and one of the great collections is very strong in 18th century French pictures, those of Watteau, Pater, Greuze, Fragonard and Boucher. Our Scottish national collection here is by comparison a small affair, but it is stronger than the Wallace collection in precisely that department of 18th century French works. The examples are smaller, no doubt, and fewer, but they are finer—none finer anywhere.
Again, in the National Gallery in London, Sir Joshua Reynolds can be seen in great force and quantity, but in our little National Gallery one can see the finest portrait of a lady that Gainsborough ever accomplished, and no finer portrait exists.
In most galleries in Europe there are pictures by Bassano (Ponte is what they call him now), but there is none so impressive as his "Adoration" in our gallery here.
Tiepolo's greatest picture is here, not in Venice, where he lived and did an immense amount of work. I mean the "Finding of Moses."
The most of the work of Velasquez is at Madrid, and a great portrait of his is in Rome; but his finest work is a head in the National Gallery in London.
Vandyke, in his great Genoese period, can be seen to the greatest advantage here in Edinburgh.
Glasgow has a collection of Dutch paintings of the best time, second to nothing out of London.
To come nearer our own time, David Scott was a great artist, and nowhere else but here can he be seen at all. His "Traitor's Gate" is in our national collection. And his "Vasco de Gama," a grand work, the greatest imaginative painting produced by any Scotchman, impressive in the highest degree, is in the Trinity House of Leith, a place easy of access, open to visitors. On a clear day it can be well studied.
Raeburn, hitherto scarcely known elsewhere, yet one of the greatest of portrait painters, can be seen in our national collection only.
And here is Thomson, of Duddingstone, one of the finest of landscape painters, whose work is to be seen nowhere else.
From what has been said, it is to be inferred that we ought to have a very high opinion of our National Gallery here. It seems to me one of unsurpassed interest. But do we avail ourselves of our opportunities? How many here have entered it once within the year that is past, or more than once? How many have been there to look (under difficulties, I admit) at the Turner water colours? They can only be seen (though that is difficult) in January. Or, I might ask, how many have ever gone to Leith to see David Scott's great work in the Trinity House, or have ever heard of its existence? Have all of us gone, or gone often, to see Mrs. Traquair's noble work in the Catholic Apostolic Church? Do we avail ourselves of such opportunities as are open to us?
But why, it may be asked, should we study these works of the dead and gone painters of old times? Why, I ask in answer, read and study the books of dead and gone writers? That is what we are accustomed to do, and to count it one of our greatest privileges thus to have them still at hand, if not in the body yet in the spirit, communing with us.
And we listen with a curious thrill of sympathy to the music of bygone composers, of Bach, Mozart, Handel, Weber or the old Italians, counting it a singular pleasure to hear as it were the voices of the past. It comes to us as a new privilege when we are admitted to share these emotions of the olden times.
What veil is before our eyes that need prevent us from seeing as these dead men saw? The privilege is ours. Towards them surely our sentiment can be that only of respect and thankful acknowledgement. In such exhibitions as these, we truly tread enchanted ground.
If we examine and reflect upon these pictures in the appropriate spirit of self-surrender, of self-forgetfulness, leaving outside of the gallery our superior wisdom and our critical proclivities; and if at the same time we do not neglect to avail ourselves of what information is to be had, in catalogues and elsewhere, that tells us when, where, and by whom the pictures were made, we shall not fail of profit. It is quite needful that this should be gone about in the self-forgetful attitude of mind, so that we may come closely into contact with the spirit, the essence, of each picture, not mistaking it for something it is not nor was meant to be, but trying seriously to make out what indeed it really is. As the result of such contemplation, insight is sure to follow, and more insight with more knowledge. One's interest is engaged, and one's curiosity is aroused increasingly the more one gives oneself to the contemplation of the pictures of old time. We find that we are mastering chapters of history, not here presented in printed pages, but in documents that we read by the exercise of a sense quite other than that we are accustomed to use in dealing with our books of poetry and romance. It is still poetry and romance we are engaged upon, the poetry and romance of life; the life of the men of old, presented here in visible images of these men's own invention. We have to remember the central and important fact that the function of fine art is, an always has been, transmission of experience, and not to forget that it is his own experience only that any man can express in it. When a picture is before us, it is not our own experience we are primarily concerned about. The matter that does concern us is whether we can succeed in grasping the intention of the painter and thus come to share his experience.
Later, perhaps soon, it may be in our power to enter into his feelings wholly, and compare these with our own, if perchance comparison be possible, or to realize a contrast if there be indeed no common ground. And that will assuredly be interesting, and may be profitable for reproof and edification. For, where fine works are in question, the result of contemplation will not be flattering to one's egotism. 'Twere better to pocket one's own prepossessions, and be as receptive as possible in the select society of the masters. There is no need for us to reprove and admonish them; they are beyond the reach of our praise or our mockery. Neither ourselves nor our possible prejudices were thought of by the painters of the olden time.
It is for us to comprehend and appreciate so as to avail ourselves of this the only way whereby our emotional experience may include that of men long passed away. I believe it to be of the utmost importance that this fact should be generally taken into account, that the function of fine art is transmission of experience, and that to the fine arts only is this function committed, one with which science is not concerned. There is not time, here and now, for me to attempt to expound and enforce this fact. It is not generally admitted, or, at any rate, its importance is not generally understood. So far as I know, it has not been asserted by authorities anywhere. Art critics have not made anything of it, and doctors of aesthetics have been engaged in dialectics about beauty, and the characteristic, and what not, to the exclusion of any attempt to co-ordinate observed facts. It has not, at all events, been contradicted. But I offer it as the key to the mystery, the mystification referred to before, adding only to what I have ventured to advance this, that the human faculty of sympathy is the effective agent in this process I have called transmission of experience—the faculty, the gift, that impels us to express our emotions in our desire for sympathy (an inordinate desire in some). And the same faculty that enables us to understand each other's emotions expressed even imperfectly, and to get the utmost satisfaction out of doing so.
The play of this faculty, the exercise of sympathy, positive and negative, giving and receiving, has produced and sustains the fine arts, and that in spite of constantly recurring attempts by philosophers to make out that art is a science, and to impose canons and principles upon its producers. But in our more individualistic times authorities have less prestige, and it may be that this view I recommend has a chance of establishing a claim on the amount of attention it deserves from those who feel certain that art is neither science, nor religion, nor the handmaid of either, or of anything else, but that it is self-justified, and to be recognised as the agency concerned in the record and transmission or human experience.
In most collections of old masters, the works are now so well arranged that it is easy for the student to co-ordinate his observations. For painters have always worked in groups. In certain places at certain times we find them producing under common impulses. Some commanding personality emerges somewhere, and around him group themselves those others who share his enthusiasm and partake the common experience, each recognisable as one of the group, but more or less distinguished by his own personal contribution.
The method of thus following in the arrangement of collections, this natural order of grouping by locality and time is of great value in simplifying the work of the student. The relation of the groups to each other, and of the individuals within the groups, is the more readily observed. This special business of accurate attribution and correct placing amounts to something quite scientific in our time, and constitutes almost the only art criticism (so-called, for it is really antiquarian research) for which any substantial usefulness can be claimed.
(To be continued.)
*Lecture delivered to Edinburgh Branch of the P.N.E.U.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008
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