« VorigeDoorgaan »
A YEAR OF POST-IMPRESSIONISM'
WHEN, a little over a year ago, 'Post-Impressionism 'burst upon the town, I was in no condition to take a hand in the vast discussion that followed; but I did just stagger round the Grafton Gallery before I was despatched to a safe distance from work. When I left London the critics were disconcerted, but nervously determined, after so many mistakes, to be this time on the winning side. A few bravely, if wistfully, did declare themselves fossils; some were uneasily upon the fence; the rest were practising, a little asthmatically, the phrases of an unknown tongue. As it happened, one of the few critics on the Press with anything that can be called a mind, one of the fewer with a gift for persuasion and for writing, Mr. Roger Fry, had declared for the new aesthetic, or religion, and the impressionable could but wheel desperately after him on this sudden tack. Three months later I found the new religion established, the old gods being bundled without ceremony into the lumber-room, and the ardent weathercocks of the Press pointing steadily for the moment into the paulo-post-futurum. So easy a victory for a new creed is delightful, if it is deserved, but it tempts the obstinately critical mind to ask a few questions. I propose, after the fair run that the new faith bas enjoyed, to look a little closely at its theories and its productions.
The Grafton Exhibition was not quite the beginning of things. Mr. Fry had played with the very reasonable speculation that the explorations in colour of the Impressionists might be employed by imaginative decorators not limited to a scramble for effect. It may be said, by the way, that this was precisely the programme already carried out by Puvis de Chavannes in wallpaintings like L'Hiver. But Mr. Fry, up till half-past eleven before the noon of the Exhibition struck, did not appear to bave convinced himself that the expected method and the masters had been found; for he exhibited in Suffolk Street a ceiling that looked back to Guido, of all the Pre-Impressionists : there had been indications, however, that his vote was nearly cast. In the chaste pages of the Burlington Magazine, barely tainted with modern
art, there appeared, with Mr. Fry's editorial blessing, a startling rhapsody on Cézanne. Its author affirmed a faith already orthodox in Germany, where the enthusiastic, if chaotic, Meier Graefe leads the song. The Germans, so enviably endowed for music, for science, and for business, are eager for all the arts. Denied almost entirely an instinct for the art of painting, they study it, they'encourage it,' egg it on, adore, and even buy. Nor do they stop there. They have town-planned whole towns out of the back-pages of The Studio in styles that put to shame the cosiest corners of Mrs. Barnett's architects. They dine, they sleep, they commit every act of life in · Art Nouveau.' And to their serious bosoms they have taken each extravagance of Montmartre and added an “ismus' to its name. Wonderful Montmartre, that seethes and blazes for the duller world with the fire and fevers of youth and art! I remember, one summer morning in the early nineties, climbing the sacred hill. At the summit was a little shop that was a symbol of the place. There stood, with ancient berets on their heads, "le père' and la mère Tanguy,' like two figures in the old Box-and-Cox barometers. They sold colours and canvases, if selling it could be called, since they were seldom paid. It was reported that they had long ceased to eat, so that there might be more colours for the young ferocious of that day, whose methods called for a huge quantity; and there, under their hands, was piled a heap of canvases returned with the colours thick encrusted, waiting in patient faith for the rare customer. There were flowers by ‘Vincent' (Van Gogh), and landscapes by youths from Pont-Aven, who announced day by day that ' black was red' or 'violet was green.' Then we went from one house to another, of artist and collector. We had begun in another quarter with Comte Camondo. He had just bought the picture by Degas that so shocked Sir William Richmond and all the professionally and periodically scandalisables of London who write letters to the papers. Two people were drinking absinthe and coffee : had the scene been laid in London and called ‘Afternoon Tea' no one would have been shocked; as it was, the picture was hooted out of the country and is now, by the Count's bequest, one of the treasures of the Louvre. On the hill we found Degas fuming because he had been written about in the papers, like Whistler,' and said to paint ' comme un cochon.' Last we visited the rooms of an ancient Jewish collector, and, when we had gone through them all, we crossed the street with him and plunged into a 'dive' like Mammon's, & cellar in which he had laid down' hundreds of 'Impressionist' pictures to mature, and pictures twenty years later to be ' Post-Impressionist.' There they were, stacked on trucks, and he was boarding them. Manet was then beginning to sell at Durand-Ruel's; Monet was dribbling through to America; the day of the others was
to come later, when Vollard opened shop in the Rue Laffitte and held up to admiration scores of still-lifes by Cézanne, sparely constituted of an apple or two and a metallic napkin. Anquetin had just abandoned his 'synthetic' manner, that of strong outline and flat tint, and the real master of the Japanese convention, Toulouse-Lautrec, was terrifying the hoardings.
But I must return to the Burlington. In its numbers for February and March 1910 appeared the eulogy on Cézanne by M. Maurice Denis, with reproductions of the artist's work. The main line of M. Denis' argument was that Cézanne is a' classic,' because in his painting the spectator is not preponderantly moved by the object itself, nor by the artist's personality, but by a balance of the two. This sounds a promising description of classicism, to which I will return later.. But M. Denis goes on to affirm, of this 'classic' painter, that his painting is painting and nothing more, that it 'imitates objects' without any exactitude and without any accessory interest of sentiment or thought. When he imagines a sketch, he assembles colours and forms without any literary preoccupation : his aim is nearer to that of a carpetweaver than of a Delacroix, transforming into coloured harmony, but with dramatic or lyric intention, a scene of the Bible or of Shakespeare.
Sérusier is quoted in support :
One thing must be noted, that is the absence of subject . . . The purpose, even the concept of the object represented, disappears before the charm of his coloured forms. After these explanations we seem to be already in difficulties with our classic’ painter. The balance of object and subject we have just heard about means that the object is inexactly rendered, and that there is no subject at all. And M. Denis, a painter himself, in a pretty convention, shallow sentiment and villainous colour, of religious and legendary 'subjects,' adopts, for his eulogy of Cézanne, the theory of poetry attributed to Mallarmé, that its beauty consists mainly in sound, of painting that its beauty is limited to the 'carpet' aspect of it, and of imagination that it works properly in the vehicle of words. The name alone, 'imagination,' might have stopped him.
A scene such as is recorded in the Bible or in the pages of Shakespeare is only 'imaged' when it is seen; that is to say, when it lends itself to the art of vision, which is painting : it can only be referred to and evoked, not rendered, by the symbols of words. A scene, therefore, in the Bible or Shakespeare is at least as much the natural subject of painting as of writing, and there is nothing literary' in painting it. The real distinction between literature and painting is that writing, being indefinitely continuous, can evoke a chain of successive actions, and is therefore the fit medium of narrative; but it cannot represent those actions or any one point of them; painting can actually render a
fixed point. The stage, within certain limits, can reproduce the whole chain that narrative evokes and comments upon.
So much for the general confusion. If we take the two arts separately we shall find that their virtue is never a simple thing : it depends on a union of two elements, beauty and significance. This is easily tested, because in the case of poetry we can cut off significance and retain the mere beauty of sound. We have only to ask a good reader to recite a poem in a language known to him and unknown to ourselves. The result, if the language is sonorous, is gently pleasant for a very short time; soon, even for the most poetical, it becomes unbearably monotonous, so much is the virtue of poetry a combination of sound-beauty, fit and ingenious arrangement of words and ideas, weight of feeling and significance. The same is true of painting. The most decorative of our oil-paintings, if we see them at such an angle that the subject'is not grasped. are poor things beside a rich carpet or enamel, and the really good carpets themselves are a kind of picture, dependent for the sting of their beauty on the remote 'subject' that went to their design. If, then, Cézanne had ever succeeded in getting rid of subject, he would not thereby have become a 'classic' painter, or anything like it ; he would have ccased to be a painter at all.
But that is not all of this queer eulogy. Cézanne, it appears, abolishes tone in favour of colour, substitutes contrasts of tint for contrasts of tone. . . . In all this conversation he never once mentioned the word 'values.' His system assuredly excludes relations of values in the sense accepted in the schools. Unfortunately this is not Post-Impressionism at all, but the Impressionism of Turner and of Monet. It depends on the fact that no one, even if he wish to, can render the values truly of a sunlit landscape, because pigments do not cover so great a range. The upper notes must be sacrificed in any case, and the convention Turner and Monet adopted, to gain a general brilliance, was to omit the lower as well, to leave out not only the real sun, which no one could put in, but also the shadows, the tones, of the lower notes, rendering only their difference of colour or tint, and that in an exaggerated way. Monet's 'purple shadow' is as famous as Turner's vermilion. Our classic,' therefore, is on this ground a pure impressionist.
But there is a more mysterious business. By his modelling (or 'modulating,' for the first word is not permitted), Cézanne arrives at the volumes' of objects, and puts their contours in afterwards. These 'volumes' are an 'abstraction' from objects. That is intelligible enough, but something comes in at this point, some sort of bee in the bonnet of Cézanne or of his admirers, that was to play havoc later, and produce whole 'schools' and sects. All his faculty for abstraction,' we are told,
permits him to distinguish only among notable forms 'the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder.' All forms are referred to those, which he is alone capable of thinking. The multiplicity of his colour schemes varies them infinitely. But still ho never reaches the conception of the circle, the triangle, the parallelogram: those are abstractions which his eye and brain refuse to admit. Forms are for him volumes. On a first reading this would appear to mean that by some lesion of his classic brain our painter could not conceive a parallelogram, and that of solid bodies he could only cope with three. But probably the author expresses himself badly or is ill translated. What he means is that Cézanne thinks in the solid, not in the parallelogram but in the cube--or am I wrong, and was the cube, afterwards to be so sacred, anathema at this period? If so, the less painter he ! for the complete painter must think in both. He must imagine, extending back behind his canvas, a space containing solid bodies ; and this space and these bodies he must render on the flat surface of his canvas. But he must also remember that these solid shapes, projected on the flat, will set up a certain pattern among themselves of forms in two dimensions, and that this pattern and its relation to the frame constitute the 'decorative side of his art. Since the frame is normally either a parallelogram or a circle, he is a strange artist who cannot conceive of either; and we are more puzzled than ever by Mr. Fry's announcement, in his preface to this article, of an art 'in which the decorative elements preponderate at the expense of the representative.' The apostle of the new art is absorbed, it appears, in the 'representative 'side (the rendering of depth), and knows nothing about the 'decorative' ' (the planning of the surface).
Mr. Fry himself speaks of Cézanne's 'compact unity' built up by 'a calculated emphasis on a rhythmic balance of directions.' But M. Denis describes one of these figure-landscape pieces in the making :
The dimensions of the figures were often readjusted ; sometimes they were life-size, sometimes contracted to half: the arms, the torsos, the legs were enlarged and diminished in unimaginable proportions. Calculation was missing or erratic here : and with every variation in size the rhythmic balance of directions' must have altered.
But it is needless to pursue further these rather elementary confusions ; let us take farewell of the article with a touching little phrase of the painter himself. He spoke, not of any of the great things enumerated, but of his ' petite sensation,' the little sensation that he was trying to preserve and render. I remember, in those same early nineties, a discussion among a group of American short-story writers, very earnest, constipated artists. One of them had been out for a walk, and his contribution was the statement that in coming home through the trees he had 'quite a little mood.' 'I did not write it down at the time,' he said, ' but