The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
On Exhibitions, Part 2
by James Cadenhead, A.R.S.A.
(continued from page 425)
Let us pass to consider the other and less select class of exhibitions—that of works of living painters; and, of these, much that has been said about exhibitions of old masters holds good.
Here we are on ground less unfamiliar, and there may be less need for us to keep our critical impulses under such careful control. Indeed, in most modern exhibitions we have to discriminate between what is and what is not worth attention; for very many works in any such exhibition are merely derivative, and of these many deserve no attention. There are always a good many imitators at work on painting, who, it may be said, are never quite themselves unless they are copying someone else—someone usually who is individual enough to present very distinctive features.
When such an individual has produced work that has secured attention and praise, at once a score of imitators proceed upon his track, reproducing what he has done with more or less success. We have to learn for ourselves to make the needful distinction between the real man and the imitators. The phenomenon is that of the groups before referred to, only as yet unsifted, and untested by time. We have to distinguish the grain from the chaff for ourselves, and set in motion the process of sifting. Broadly speaking, when any man's work cannot be mistaken for that of another, it deserves our attention; when it can be so mistaken we have to be on our guard, and, having found out the master, to confine our attention to him.
Though it is true that in modern exhibitions we are upon less unfamiliar ground, it does not follow that we can cheerfully set about applying each our own personal standard of experience as a reliable measure of the value of any given modern picture's content. The experiences recorded for us here are nearer to our own, more like our own, and we must be prepared to exercise a different kind of discrimination, to detect wherein the differences consist, and estimate their interest by an exercise of insight not less difficult. But, bearing it well in mind that no one sees just as we see, that no one is bound to feel just as we feel about anything in heaven or earth, and that in any given case there is no presumption in favour of our points of view as against those of other normally organised and sane men, we shall be preserved from the temptation to presumptuous expressions of opinion.
In this or that picture we may find nothing for us—we are none the better for it—we are not touched; yet we must reflect that perhaps the responsibility for this may not rest upon the painter; the fault may possibly be ours. Considerations such as these should make us charitable, not readily disposed to condemn. The necessity is paramount that one shall sincerely endeavour, in the first place, to come into touch with the painter's intention.
It is not necessary to repeat what has been said already. The works of dead and living artists are identical in their appeal to our emotions through our sympathies. The same attitude to both is the appropriate one for the spectator. The artist has done his part: it is for the spectator to do his. If he assumes the office of judge before he has appreciated the work he is guilty of presumption. Appreciation is the only basis of criticism.
Modern exhibitions are composed of heterogeneous elements; they are very often a jumble of abruptly contrasted things. The pictures are too often so close together that you cannot see one without being distracted by the simultaneous appeal to your eye of its neighbours all around it. This state of things is a hindrance to comfortable picture-seeing; it fatigues the eyes, and soon enfeebles the power of concentration. It is bad hanging.
The remedy would be to exhibit far fewer pictures at once, so that each could be placed a little apart from the rest, and so that all should be nearly opposite the eye. And they should be so grouped that, instead of contrasting works, complimentary ones should hang near each other. That is good hanging, and when it is seen, which is not very often, it may be thankfully noted. Such considerate arrangements promote the advantageous exhibition of pictures and the comfort of the spectator. Until the time comes when such arrangements shall be common and a matter of course instead of being quite singular, we can only advise anyone who would look at pictures in exhibitions without distress to make up his mind before he begins his rounds what he means to examine, to select some in his catalogue and look at these only, repeating the operation as often as he can, but leaving off before he feels tired.
But by all means let him look at pictures for himself. I have seen the newspaper conscientiously carried round the gallery, and each notice verified in order, and apparently identification of pictures mentioned constituted the whole process. Nothing is to be gained by a proceeding of this kind. It implies a touching confidence in the capacity of the man that does the exhibitions for the paper, a confidence rarely justified; for I have seldom yet heard of a newspaper art critic competent to guide public opinion, and a good many I have seen were imposters. Blind leaders of the blind, they are yet able to exert an influence on the fortunes and fate of artists that could not persist for a day if a reasonable number of people, or a number of reasonable people, would only surrender the delusion that impels them to put their only trust in what they see in print. The jumbled way in which modern pictures are usually shown favours an operation I would recommend to those who wish to cultivate their powers of discrimination,—I mean the operation of identifying the works of particular men. It is to be recommended as an exercise for beginners, not as an end in itself, for indeed there are some whose interest in paintings seems to begin and end with the exercise of the power of successful attribution. But it is something of an achievement to be able to do this. Carried out to its furthest power, it would imply minute acquaintance with the externals of the painter's craft.
The beginner should lay aside his catalogue, and begin with the easiest men—those who always do the same thing in the same way—soon leaving them, and gradually attaining skill enough to identify each man. Thus one may attain the power to quickly select out the most interesting work in any exhibition—the new, the unusual, the rare, the unique thing. The observation of the distinguishing features of the various works will naturally result in comprehensive comparative knowledge of pictures. The path leads on to intimate acquaintance with the whole subject and to pleasure in it. This is an exercise quite suitable for a child, and not at all to be neglected by grown-ups. One who knows pictures well and has studied them in this way will rarely be found making use of his catalogue. Probably he has none, or keeps one in his pocket. The people who carry catalogues round so carefully in their own familiar annual exhibition, are those who in church so carefully turn up and sing from the book those psalms and paraphrases they have, or should have, learned by heart in their school days. To one who knows them all, the face of each good picture is that of a friend whom he is glad to see again under some new aspect. If he meets a new man, he will know it, and he will be able to "size him up" and to "place" him, with love or with loathing, in his proper category, as one of his friends who has brought him some new and delightful glimpse of unexplored experience, or as an imposter to be ignored. No one, not himself an artist, will ever need to go much further than this, but the past is open to all, and there are none but can to their profit proceed some distance upon it.
Probably all agree that exhibitions of ostentatious vulgarity are better avoided, and should not be encouraged, and all will be unanimous in feeling that children should as little as possible be brought into contact with pictures wherein the desire of the eyes and the pride of life are flaunted in their native brutality. And so it is to be regretted that the contemplation of works devoted to the celebration of these things is usually unavoidable for those who enter exhibitions of modern pictures. For a number of the ablest portrait painters become fashionable, and their works are certain to be prominently placed in any representative exhibition, so that there is no avoiding them. All the seduction of admirable painter-craft is employed to capture our attention for the expensive jewels and costly millinery of the last new millionaire's wife and family, for the sporting magnate himself with his top boots or his guns, his hounds, his hunters, and all that is his. It is all thrust upon us life-size, trampling over our humbler aspirations, to leave us breathless with amazement at its magnitude, and disheartened by its dulness. There is no escaping these things now; they are upon us, even as his motor car is, with a whirlwind of dust, discomfort, and distraction. There is not much we can do, save beware of these things. We can turn away our eyes from viewing vanity. We must recognize that the powers of poetry are here in bondage—hewers of wood and drawers of water for the Philistines, and so pass by. But we must point out the deplorable fact to the children so that they may identify it for what it is when they behold a display of ostentatious vulgarity.
There is prettiness, too, to be avoided. We have to be on our guard against the insidious rose-watery weakening of emotion, the sugaring down of knowledge to meet the taste of such as prefer to be fed with a spoon, and dare not see without blinkers. Whatever is pretty is pretty bad. Whatever life may be it is not pretty. Whatever breathes has some force, some conviction; all that is real has some title to respect, some claim for sympathy. Manliness, temperance, sincerity, wear no blinkers. What they see they needs must see clearly, and there is not time for trifling. Distrust the pretty pictures, and do what you can to prevent your children from forming a taste for them.
It is often said to us, "We do not really require the works of artists; we like them, and admire them, but we can quite well do without them; they are superfluous things." In the phrase often heard the meaning is concisely stated thus: Art is a luxury. The proposition commends itself as a true one to most people, who really do feel that they could quite well do without any pictures. They are conscious of desiring to have such things as give them pleasure, and of their need to be pleased, or rather amused. For in so far as good pictures are not found to answer these ends, they are liable to be relegated to the category of superfluities. Not being pretty, they do not please. If they are not gay, which they are seldom, or funny, which they never can be, they are not found entertaining or amusing. The idea is based on a conception widely prevailing, wherein the function of art is considered to be that of a public entertainer or purveyor of diversions. We are apt to think that our life is dull, and are ready to welcome brave shows to take us out of ourselves. The aspiration is natural, for, to many, life is dull. But there are agencies better adapted to enliven it than are the fine arts, and it is good for us to be taken out of ourselves, provided the chosen vehicle does not rush with us violently down a steep place. Various arts may minister to the amusement of the vacuous, but not fine arts. These can indeed take us out of ourselves, but only on condition that we permit them to take us beyond ourselves, and higher. This they have always done, and can always do. Demand therefore from fine art no more, nor less, than you have been accustomed to demand from fine literature, from poetry—the widening and refining of your experience. Life is not amusing, any more than it is pretty, and we know how true it is that our singers learn in sorrow what they teach in song.
"Corruptio optimi pessima" [corruption of the best is the worst of all] is a faithful saying, and it holds true of the arts, which are among the very best of things. Let us not, and let our children never think of them as ministers to pleasure, but seriously let us approach them in the knowledge that the business in hand is not, whatever it may be, the amusement of an idle moment, nor the condescending patronage of superfluous works by men whose production has little relation to our appetite for agreeable distractions.
In conclusion, it may be noted how, in certain respects, our big modern picture shows, and our method of showing an interest in them, have an influence the reverse of encouraging to the producers of works of art. We are all interested in the fine arts, and we show our interest by making a point of visiting the exhibitions; but there, commonly, our sense of duty ends. We have paid our shilling at the gate, and so discharged the whole duty towards the encouragement of fine art that we conceive to be laid upon us. We depart, satisfied that at our door, at least, the reproach cannot be laid that we have failed to do our part therein. Wonderfully few people think of going the length of buying a picture out of an exhibition. Yet, upon the sale of their works depends the livelihood of their producers. This anomalous and, for artists, disastrous situation is upon us. We have a public quite interested in its living artists, and flocking to exhibitions of their works; and we have artists, the average quality of whose work is higher, and whose numbers are greater than ever before; but we have this public not thinking of taking the said work, anxious rather to compete, at extravagant prices, for the works of artists who died long ago. The net result of interest in fine art thus displayed is the reverse of encouraging, disaster, indeed, to the majority of living artists.
Twenty years ago the situation was quite different, and at that time there was nothing to indicate that the lively interest then displayed in the work of living artists would so soon entirely change its character for the worse.
The big exhibitions also act unfavourably upon the works themselves of the painters, because, since the picture that "shouts" most loudly for notice receives the most, the strongest temptation is in them offered to painters to make violent efforts. They are tempted to secure attention by exaggerations of all sorts, by mere size, by extravagance of subject, of treatment, by forcing the note in all directions—"shouting," we call all that. The finest things, which are never big and never violent and never "shout," are apt to escape the notice of all save those few experienced ones who are aware of how the matter stands. In a modern exhibition the reserved things often attract no attention at all; and yet it is among them that the best are certain to be found. The big picture show is liable to degenerate into a show of big pictures, into a competitive rough-and-tumble, wherein the striking pictures jostle each other, and the delicate ones produced in solitude, without regard to exhibition conditions, get unmercifully "kicked" to death or smothered out of sight. Such a state of affairs is almost an inducement to painters to do their worst, when it is a question of producing work intended for an exhibition.
It might be suggested, therefore, that young people should be carefully instructed about this, "put up" to the state of matters, and cautioned against forming the notion that these large frame-to-frame competitive annual exhibitions are the best, or anything like the best, that can be done in the way of adequately presenting pictures to the public view. Take the young people to "one-man-shows," where never more than forty or fifty pictures are to be seen at once, where the placing of each with reference to the others is sure to have been more or less carefully considered and skilfully carried out, and where the effect of Babel, of confusion of tongues, of a hundred brass bands all playing different tunes at once, can never be encountered.
To sum up shortly. Let us remember, and let us impress upon our children, that the use of the study of fine art, as it may be carried on with the help of exhibitions of works by painters living and dead, is to enable us to gain insight, to make contact with out environment in the wide sense, as life presented to us in human documents; to increase our knowledge in the sense of expanding our emotional experience by including that of others, and so to infinitely extend our horizon; to exercise one of our particular privileges, a human prerogative—our faculty of sympathy, that enables us to share with the most sensitive of our fellow-mortals, not only the joy of life, its purest pleasures and aspirations, but its burdens of sorrow as well.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008
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