Friday, August 12, 2005 +

Modern French Painters

More excerpts from Jan Gordon, Modern French Painters (1922/3). I quote at least once from each chapter.

The number of Art critics who have been right about the artists of their own day, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I have not the temerity to thrust myself among them. Ruskin himself, admitting the dangers of contemporary criticism, pushes up Turner to the detriment of Claude. Time has had her revenge and Turner has slipped down below Claude again, to the detriment of our faith in Ruskin’s foolhardy judgment (“Introduction”).

Following after the Gothic comes a period which I have called the European period, and which represents the time which elapsed between Giotto and the Impressionists. But it might have other names, it might be called the “nature” idiom or the “scientific” idiom, since it is characterized by what may be called a scientific curiosity in the physical appearance of nature, and comes to an end as soon as that inquiry is exhausted. As the other idioms corresponded to the permanency of their peoples, so does this scientific idiom, it changes its dialect and develops with the development of civilization (“The Languages of Art”).

The study of nature comes to a natural climax in two ways: first, exhaustion of the visual method and, secondly, invention of the mechanical method—the photograph. The visual examination of nature comes to an end in Manet, and by a natural path develops into a study of the means by which nature is visible, that is, light (ibid.).

One has been asked why not go on in the old road? Why not be content to continue that matter-of-fact representation of external fact which was so easy to understand and under which we had so much pleasure in eating our dinners? The answer is that one cannot stand still. It is contrary to the laws of nature. There is no such thing as lack of change. The mountain is falling into the valley, the earth never travels the same course twice, history, in spite of the old saw, never repeats itself. The artist is man brought to the highest point of sensitiveness to life. How, then, cannot he be the most ready to respond to the law of nature? (ibid.)

The analysis of nature as a tangible fact comes to an end about the moment when the philosophical doubt of nature as a tangible fact is becoming understood. The Impressionists’ abrupt change, from the study of the tangible to the study of the intangible—light, is not too far removed from Kant’s declaration that space is a property of the mind. I wish to make no claim that the Impressionists had any ideas of being practical philosophers; but I do suggest that ideas become commonly suitable for the human race at certain stages of development, and that these ideas appear spontaneously under different aspects (“Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism”).

At the first exhibition of Impressionism there were about a hundred exhibitors. How many of these are to-day known to the public? The three most famous were never au fond Impressionists. These three, Renoir, Degas, and Cézanne are all in direct contradiciton with one of the chief tenents of the Impressionist theory—that of taking the subject direct from nature without any artistic control or composition of the pictorial elements. Of the other painters Monet, Sisley, Guillemin and Pisarro had high talent. Of these seven men, the first three would have made their mark in any age and under any conditions. It may be doubted whether the last four would have been peculiarly remarkable but for the novelty of their research and the new technique which was inspired by it (ibid.).

The true use of knowledge is to deepen our sense of the marvelous, no revelation can do anything more than increase our sense of wonder. The self-conscious seekings of the Neo-Impressionist (Pointillist) group do not indicate that art grows necessarily more beautiful thereby. It is a truism that art does not grow more beautiful by increase of knowledge. Neither the language of Leonardo nor of Sir Joshua Reynolds helped either to be a better artist than was Botticelli or Gainsborough respectively. But this growth of self-consciousness does show one thing. It shows that art has not degenerated into a stagnant state of self-content. It shows that art is elastic enough to keep pace with the mental growth of civilization: Art, by developing, proves that it is still alive, that by growing it is, indeed, the exact contrary state to that which it has been accused of, namely, decadence. Art falls into decadence when it stagnates. Bouguereau and Poynter are the decadents, not Cézanne or Van Gogh. It is not new movement which we must fear, but lack of movement, or rather lack of movement commensurate with its period. The arts of Egypt or of China, which represent societies stable over centuries, could show stability parallel to that of their social frame. The arts of Greece grew and declined within a short period (ibid.).

The artist of to-day is not trying to add little by little to the list of objects [e.g. frogs, peasants, factories] which can be allowed fit matter as beauty “containers”. . . . He is trying to destroy the illusion of the picturesque, and to build up in its place a sentiment for the pictorial. . . . Cézanne is almost the first painter who dared to eschew all suggestions of the picturesque. . . . One can assert that the person who cannot perceive the beauties of Cézanne has never properly seen the beauties of the Old Masters. By understanding Cézanne all good painting seems to become more significant; and all bad painting less valuable (“Cézanne”).

The highest emotional value which Nature possesses is its spatial value. . . . Space takes us in the throat and shakes us with emotion. In the cathedral, space first moves us and on it our final remembrance lingers. Cézanne, striving to realize nature, struggles with the problem of space. The spatial value of colouring forces itself upon him, and in consequence of his solution of this problem he forces upon the spectator a realization of space which is far more poignant than our normal sensations (ibid.).

When we are actually face to face with nature the beauty which moves us is dependent upon a feeling of more or less exact proportions between the different objects in the scene. . . . When one tries to copy this in paint, one must at once make compromises. . . . The Chinese or Japanese painter does not attempt this compromise. . . . Van Gogh’s apprecation of nature is akin to that of the Chinese or Japanese . . . the intensity of his sense of space. . . (“Vincent Van Gogh”).

The eye is in continuous though almost imperceptible motion. . . . The circle is a satisfying figure, excellently complete, but the interest in it is soon exhausted. With the ellipse . . . the eye is tempted to move and to re-analyze the curves and balances. . . . We are all under the unconscious domination of gravity. . . . There is, then, in the horizontal figure an ease of grasp, and a satisfactory sense of stabilty; in the vertical we find more difficulty of grasp but a corresponding increase of interest because of balance which seems to be an inherent quality. From the former figure we get a sensation of peace, from the later a feeling of dignity and of inherent power (“Renoir”).

The quality of suggested movement is one of the most valuable in Art. The power of organizing forms which seems to possess an internal power of movement mark out the great artist from the smaller.

Owing to his power of suggesting movement to the eye the great artist can to some extent control the order in which his harmonies are appreciated. . . . The harmonious succession of shapes, of colours, of light and shade, of movement to and fro, in and out, puts us in contact with something which is more consistent, more complete, and therefore more valuable and satisfying than the often chaotic nature which we normally perceive (ibid.).

Of course the four chief controlling lines of a composition are constituted by the frame. Whatever linear harmonies we place together upon the canvas we cannot forget that these must also harmonize with the limiting edges of the picture. This institutes a great difference between nature and art, for nature has no frame. This consideration of the harmonic use of the limits of the frame is specially remarkable in Renoir. His mise-en-page is almost always superlative. In no other artist can it be studied with more ease and with more satisfaction (ibid.).

[Gauguin] desired to rid everything of accidentals and to get down to the stark innocence of nature. He thus rejects the analytical method of the Impressionists. He ignores the accidentals of light as did Cézanne, but for a very different reason. He says, “If I wish to express greenness, a metre of green is more green than a centimetre”. . . . Nobody [in European painting] had ever wanted to express “greenness” before (“Gauguin”).

The painter has now been trying to pierce down to the meat of art, to those things which depend upon painting alone. . . . The artist who is seeking for the root matters of art, the things which belong to painting and to nothing else, is trying to find something which will be beyond the chances of taste or of fashion. Owing to the cast of his civilization and to the mental bias of the present day the artist is seeking these permanencies rather within himself than from without. But he always remains an ego facing something which is external, and his ego can only communicate with other egos by means of this joint external element “nature,” therefore the artist will draw his primary inspiration from this common source. If he draws too far within himself, if he becomes too personal, he risks that danger of becoming unintelligible as a man who invents a language which nobody else can decipher. This danger faces some modern artists (“Art and the New Civilization&rdquo).

If the most profound impulse of humanity were towards realism, towards imitation of nature, successive genius would be continually at work regenerating pattern back to nature. There would result a sort of see-saw, the easy careless artistic kind of workmen debasing the work through slovenly copying, the great and real artists drawing it back to realism. In practice this does not occur. It is true that careless artists debase the pattern, and that the good artists revivify it, but this process of revivification is not through a return to nature, but usually by means of reasserting the value of proportion, space, and rhythmic harmony. Like the tale in Russian Scandal we will find some good artists who make elaborations and complexities, while others strip down to the bare bones of structure. The one aims at the Beautiful, the other at the Sublime. But the process of revivification sometimes even helps to carry the pattern even farther from nature. A return to nature is always conscious. When, however, a partial return to nature is shown—and it occurs from time to time—it will usually be found to be coincident with a general decadence; when the moving spirit which dictated the major outline of the art is no longer a living force, when faith is dead, and when humanity has unconsciously to find some other background and a new reason for its art. In periods of decadnce, complexity for the sake of complexity and a return to nature are almost inevitable (“The Designing Instinct”).

To more than a small extent beauty of design is enshrined in suitability, in a proper respect for the artistic medium employed. Thus, large works in stone must be more compact than large works in bronze, since stone is more breakable; and from this comes the fact that many broken fragments of Greek statuary are more beautiful than the completed figures, the processes of nature having reduced the work until it is suitable to the material (ibid.).

Every kind fo adventure should be applauded. If the results are valueless the future generations will judge them: posterity can always be left to deal with results; but for humanity the encouragement of even futile adventure will have a real value; amongst the futile must also spring up the real (ibid.).

When we contrast the scientific spirit with the creative we realize that science is at root an extension of the monkey habit; curiosity is strongly marked in animals, as is also the imitative element. One does not deny to science a creative element, nor does one deny an aesthetic content in scientific work. But the moving spirit behind science is curiosity; analysis, not creation. This is but an extension of the animal. Creation is human. Art and not science most profoundly marks our separation from the rest of the animal world (ibid.).

Artists can be divided into two classes. The creative impulse can develop from two centres: either the artist has a spiritual driving force, which compels him to find a means of expression, or else he is greatly gifted with craft, and has to struggle to find some motive upon which to work. El Greco and Blake are examples of the first; Holbein, Veronese or Tiepolo are examples of the second [Matisse an example of a third type: the gifted craftsman who seeks a spiritual force.] (ibid.)

The result of the use of mental realities—instead of carefully studied aspects—to produce artistic effect, is that the artist may with them more powerfully create the genius loci of his object. We do not, as a rule, remember things which are fugitive as easily as those which are permanent. Thus, a landscape such as that in the background of Piero della Francesca’s “Nativity” recalls the actual quality of Southern Europe more forcibly than does either Corot or Turner. The latter artists are often only interested in a study of light effects, in an analysis of nature&rquo;s appearance at a particular moment. Therefore, if we do not catch her again at such a moment something has gone out of the likeness. But Piero is concerned with the placing of two or three trees upon the side of a hill over a particular kind of stream. These features are recognizable no matter what light may play over the object. All primitive art, because it deals with mental symbols, has this vivid power of awakening belief. We are more ready to credit the Angels of Fra Angelico than those of Veronese; Botticelli’s goddesses are more divine than those of Rubens (“Henri Rousseau and Utrillo”).

From Leonardo until the Impressionists the only ancient art which had any general recognition was the art of Greece, and, within architectural limits only, the art of the Gothic. During Napolean’s day that gigantic masterpiece of Egyptian culture, the Sphinx, was massacred by the soldiery of the “most intelligent nation of Europe.” It was, however, almost an accident that this Greek art became the ideal of the Renaissance. The art of Fra Angelico, of Botticelli and of the French Primitives indicates a line upon which the arts of Europe might have developed, had ancient Greece and imperial Rome been a little more effectively obliterated by the Turks or by the Goths. This art was in principal an architectural and a coloured art rather than an attempt a naturalistic imitation. It was an art which depended upon spirit rather than upon material, thus fulfilling the first law of the Chinese artistic canon, “Ch’i yun shen tung,” which has been translated as “Spirirtual rhythm expressed in the movement of life.” But this art was turned into the materialistic development which reaches a climax with Veronese and France Hals (“Savage Art and Modigliani”).

The Negro art concentrates in general upon the idea of creating images of mystic import in harmony with the religion of “Tabu”. . . . The representation of humanity is more and more conventionalized, more and more simplified and withdrawn from realism. We find images of extraordinary power, full of subconscious suggestion, among these carvings. They solve in the simplest and frankest way many of the problems confronting the artist of to-day; yet in spite of this simplicity they convey to the fullest extent the effect intended. These masks of War God or Devil Dancers convey their meaning in a more powerful and more direct manner than all the tortured humanity of the naturalistic European school. These sculptures in wood reaveal what are called plastic qualities of the highest order, that is to say, their values lie in their shapes, in the curves and in the contrasts of their surfaces. They are the works of men who have thought only as sculptors; there is no literary preconstruction. Sometimes these images become so conventionalized that all sembance to representation is lost, yet without sacrifice of the meaning. They thus become abstract works of art, depending upon qualities which are those of painting alone, thus speaking the pure language of the painter’s art, as music speaks with its own tongue, borrowing from no other art, nor requiring to be explicit in order to be intelligible (ibid.).

For the recognition of certain properties of objects the power of picturing without imitating results in a heightening of consciousness. By this means art can make sensible to us even in small things that magic value of space which by nature we perceive only before the vista or in the cathedral (“‘Space’ and ‘Life’ in Painting”).

Real life is not an external property of living things; but life must be an external, visible property of Art. . . . In a non-living thing the property of apparent life, the mystic sensation that this inanimate mass will move if we but turn the eyes away from it, is so remarkable that the meaning of life as life acquires an extraordinary value (ibid.).

We have . . . two powerful factors in sculpture which owe their value to the aesthetic use of space; the delight of the eye in proportions of plane and of mass, and the illusion of life properties which spatial proportions can induce. Both of these are due to design. The pleasure which likeness to a known real object brings must be recognized as a factor in art, but such a pleasure is less vivid and less lasting, and suffers a speedy decay if we realize that in an attempt to gain imitation the suggestion of life has been sacrificed. The aesthetic factor of life is the work of the artist, it depends upon his sense of design, upon what he draws from within himself, and depends much less upon what he copies from nature. We may say that nature is the bucket in which the water is drawn from the well, but nature is not the water. Space in painting has value similar to that in sculpture. The Chinese artists ascribe to space (or infinity) the greatest value in painting as an art; and, because landscape gives to them the best opportunity of space suggestion, they name landscape the most profound of the plastic arts. In painting, space is produced by three means: first, by imitation of the usual effects of nature; secondly, by the spatial properties of colour; thirdly, by spatial qualities of line, perspective, proportion, and so on. The eye can delight in proportions of suggested space in painting even more than it does in sculpture. In painting, space has a value more positive than it has in actual life. The sense of space is distilled out—it becomes a more concentrated draught. Mr. Berenson, the founder of most modern criticism, in his excellent work on the Florentine Painters calls this sense of space in painting “tactile value,” because the sense of space, as we have explained, is allied with the muscles of touch. He says:

How is it that an object the recognition of which in nature may have given me no pleasure becomes when recognized in a picture a source of aesthetic enjoyment? The answer, I believe, depends upon the fact that art stimulates to an unwonted activity psychical process which are in themselves the source of most (if not all) of our pleasures and which here, free from disturbing physical sensations, never tend to pass over into pain. For instance, I am in the habit of realizing a given object with an intensity of two; if I suddenly realize this familiar object with an intensity of four, I receive the immediate pleasure which accompanies a doubling of my mental activity. . . . This is what form does in painting; it lends a higher co-efficient of reality to the object represented, with a consequent enjoyment of accelerated psychical processes and the exhilarating sense of increased capacity in the observer.


There is a general tendency to preach that work is noble, leisure useless and on the whole degrading. The practice of the world contradicts this statement. There is a unanimous tendency to struggle towards a position in which labour becomes no longer a necessity. . . . Only because it is so potently necessary do we elevate it to a virtue in order to take the edge from its undesirablility. . . . In reality leisure is the desirable thing in life, and in spite of the fears of moralists it is rightly to be so considered. If man were habitually of a lazy nature, then leisure would be, no doubt, the evil which it is depicted. But very few men, save in enervating climates, can survive the infinite boredom which continued inaction brings. The man whom fortunate circumstances relieves from the slavery of compulsory work fills it with some activity. It is curious that this activity usually takes the form of some kind of pursuit of which the aim is the enhancement of the consciousness of life or the development of faculties which indirectly lead to life enhancement (“The Value of Art”).

The function of all good art and, indeed, of all forms of real beauty, is to increase the sense of the value of life (ibid.).

In the arts . . . perceptions by which we make our way through the world are suddenly relieved from the mere demands of existence itself. In ordinary life the demands of existence weigh down upon our perceptive powers in the same way that the power of gravity limits us in the use of our strength. On the moon we should suddenly get the sensation of extraordinary force [“If we were to seize a rock which would weigh upon earth a hundredweight, and hurl it from us, we should have almost as much pride in the feat as though the rock were really a hundredweight heavy.”]; in the arts we receive a sense that the powers of perception are doubled or quadrupled in penetration. This reaction produces the feeling of more power to overcome existence; a sense of superior life is communicated to us (ibid.).

Though in life colour is not intensely necessary, yet the colours have quite definite physiological reactions—the excitement of red, the calmness of blue, etc.—by means of which a mood can be evoked, and by means of which the other aesthetic values may be enhanced. Form and movement are the two visual functions of life which are most positively useful. These are, in consequence, the most commonly potent of the life-communicating qualities. In a non-representative (or abstract) art the problem of form reduces itself to a fusion of fine shapes with the suggestions of movement. As soon as realism is allowed, as in sculpture or pictorial art, two other factors come into play in the imitative quality of form and what we may call the aesthetic paraphrase. . . . In the compromise which is undertaken between imitative form and harmonious form, that quality which possesses the least absolute value, the imitative, is the first which is (or may be) discarded. The frankness with which this has been recognized by the present-day artists is the chief factor which so dismays the public (ibid.).

Passing from shape and movement we come to the third perception of use to life, that of space, which is the last developed, as well as the last to be consciously used in painting. . . . In Western painting, the spatial value has been appreciated and used by a few artists of genius. Actually, it is the most important of the visual qualities in the function of life for the spectator. . . . Owing to its importance, the spatial quality when dissociated from the needs of life has a most vivid life-communicating value for the spectator. The sensation of organized space produces in the observer the effect of Infinity in art [distinguish between this and Renaissance perspective] (ibid.).

An artist does not wish to be misunderstood; for if he is not understood his whole artistic life is a failure. Nor, in spite of popular belief, does the artist really delight in shocking the public. The true end and aim of the artist’s effort is appreciation; he is pathetically eager to be loved. But he wishes to be loved at a proper level, at his own level. He is like a women who is bold enough to persist that her husband like her for herself; and not because she becomes merely a sort of human cushion upon which the man can leave his own imprint (“Derain and Vlaminck”).

It is a common reproach levelled at modern artists that they despise the Old Masters, that they do not understand what realistic drawing is. In truth, Picasso and Derain, the leaders of two schools of modern thought in art matters, have always been the most most persistent students of the past and probably know far more about the Louvre than most of their academic opponents (ibid.).

Derain was probably the first who produced studies showing that the novel structure of Cézanne&rquo;s compositions had been understood by a painter, and who thus revealed a new path along which pointed the finger of the old man of Aix (ibid.).

It is, I think , possible that Derain, like Picasso, knows his art galleries too well. The great arts of the past arose to their peculiar excellencies because they despised the arts of their own past. Thus a Renaissance architect, contemptuous of the Gothic, would restore a Gothic church with Renaissance additions. There is in this attitude a certain truth to one’s culture and social conditions which is very healthy, and I feel that these harkings back to the past, on the part of artists like Derain and Picasso, would be the equivalent of a harking back by Renaissance to Gothic (ibid.).

With Gleizes, Cubism pursues its way to a logical development. This art of abstract flat surfaces is an art which, in its way, can reach to the highest points of pictorial purity. It is parallel with the music of the tone poem from which all melody is banished. There is, however, a further development of this abstract painting which I foresee. This is an art of moving shapes and colour, produced by some process akin to the cinema. This art, which has been hinted at in some dramatic productions, still needs the artist who can employ its possibilities. An art of moving abstract colour and form would place painting upon the same footing as music. At present the painting of Gleizes appears to me an arrested moment in a colour-form symphony which as no beginning and no end (“Cubism”).

The modern Realistic school is that which to-day is gaining ground and strength more than its rival, the Cubist, non-representative school. And, indeed, upon analysis the former conforms most nearly to the present stage of civilization. I am afraid that Cubism in art must lie on a level with ideals in politics; universally possible only with a re-created humanity—it is, in fact, the art of Utopia (“The Modern Realists”).

Marie Laurencin is as much an innovator as Matisse. Her line undoubtedly derives much from the Negro art—that simplified source of so much of the direct expression of personal vitality to-day—and something to Botticelli. Her colouring is purely her own. It is said that the most difficult task for the painter is to produce beautiful greys. Marie Laurencin’s silvery tints can only be called neutral because they are greys, but they seem to imply a new gamut of unpaintable colours, and they give an exquisite quality to the reds and blues which she contrasts with them. We may, perhaps, consider that women’s most valuable contribution to civilization has been the raising of taste. Marie Laurencin’s taste is impeccable. Was it not Peter Pindar who said, “Give me one man of taste and I will find you twenty men of genius”? (“The Women Painters”).

The Russian school is dominated by two factors: the peasant feeling for applied art, and the practice of Icon painting, which is a direct descendant from Byzantine decoration. We who live in the heterogeneous interiors to which bad taste, no taste, and manufactured taste have condemned us, can scarcely realize what it means to have been brought up in the midst of surroundings which have a uniform character and which belong to a national and therefore natural scheme of decoration. We cannot realize what it meant to be a Gothic, or an Egyptian, or a Greek, nor can we realize what it means to be a Russian (“The Slavonic Influence”).

The influence of Slavonic household art shows immediately when the Slav sets himself to painting. Roughly speaking, the Slavonic school possesses in the highest degree in Europe the power of colour as design. Even in great French colorists, such as Cézanne and Renoir, one finds that the beauty of the colour is a general beauty of interharmonized tints. If one stands so far away from a Renoir that all detail disappears one finds that the colour is distributed in vague patches, which are usually pleasing, but which are not very definitely organized into what one can call pattern. This power of colour design has of course struck the public in the Russian Ballets. . . (ibid.).

The second quality which stands out in the Slavonic shool is the heritage from the Byzantine which comes through the Greek Church and through Icon painting. In this art the artists can consider personages and objects as symbols rather than as representation; the symbol must be made recognizable, and once this necessity has been fulfilled the artist may take what liberties he likes. . . . Chagall may be considered as the pre-eminent representative of this element in Slavonic art, though it is is keenly present in the work of Gontcharova and Larianoff, as well as in that of the extremely versatile Madame Vssilieff (ibid.).

Cézanne ends logically in Gleizes or Picasso. Van Gogh ends logically in Dufy and the Polish painter, Kandinsky. But logical conclusions may be a little difficult for humanity to swallow; nor, indeed, it it necessary that logical conclusions be right. After all, the logical conclusion is only the logical conclusion of one aspect, it must neglect a host of other points of view. Human existence is possible because we are not receptive to logical but prefer harmonized or balanced conclusions (“Conclusion”).

One can assert almost with confidence that the public may expect no new shocks for a very long while. New genius will arise of course, but it will be within the limits of the new tradition. If the public can assimilate all that it has recently received, it will be able to assimilate all that it will receive for a century or so (ibid.).