I FIND A certain difficulty in knowing to whom I am to address myself in this lecture.1 The cultivated public is sharply divided by the question of Post Impressionism. I think that I may assume that there will be representatives here of three classes. First, those who, like myself, admire it with enthusiasm. Secondly, those who think that the exhibition is a colossal farce got up for the deception and exploitation of a gullible public. Some of these have expressed the desire that all the pictures now in the Grafton Gallery should be burned, and that I myself should be offered up upon that holocaust as a propitiation of the outraged feelings of the British public.
Such expressions of opinion appear to me to be somewhat hysterical, were it not that that is the word which has been applied to myself with a view to explaining the aberrations of a mind hitherto supposed to be fairly well balanced. Finally, there is the class of those who are frankly puzzled, and yet inclined to doubt the explanations of fraud or self-deception which are put forward by the second group. In the main, I mean to address myself to this last class, to the intelligent but doubting inquirer. But here let me put in a plea for tolerance. Suppose even, as is roundly declared by the adversaries, that there are in this exhibition paintings tinged with the sin of charlatanism, paintings executed by the artist, not from sincere conviction, but from a desire to flout and irritate the public. Let us suppose this for the sake of argument, even though personally I should be inclined to deny it. Now charlatanism is undoubtedly a sin on the part of an artist, it is a departure, and a lamentable departure, from the strict course of artistic probity, but even if it be a sin, another departure from the straight and narrow way, which is not only not punished, I mean the sin of compromising with the public demand for pictures which arouse curiosity or gratify sentimental longings. This sin is so frequently and so openly committed by the artists of modern times that we scarcely feel indignant at it, we certainly do not rush to denounce it in the papers in the way that has been done of late with regard to the works in this Gallery.
Honestly, it appears to me a much more dangerous and insidious sin for the artist, and I would far rather be responsible for the hanging of works intended to flout the public than of any single painting in which I detected any desire to flatter it. In the main, then, I mean to address myself to the doubting inquirer, but first a word of consolation and encouragement to the adversaries. These think that an entirely fictitious, degenerate, and irrational mode of artistic expression is being foisted upon the public by means of advertisement and all those subtle arts of corruption which modern journalism has discovered, and that this iniquitous campaign is organised by a few speculative dealers. Now I do not believe that any such adventure can succeed, I believe that even in art, Abraham Lincoln’s dictum holds, that you cannot fool all the people all the time—and we have an excellent example of this in the fate of that abortive movement known as art nouveau, which certainly had all the advantages which lavish advertisement in the more popular and less scholarly artistic reviews could give, and which has, nevertheless, so evidently and undeniably fizzled out. Let the adversary, therefore, take heart, if this movement is of the same kind I not only believe, but sincerely hope, that it will meet with a similar fate.
But naturally I do not think that it is of the same nature, that it is merely a new way of startling the public into attention and frightening it into purchasing these ingenious painters’ catch-penny wares. I believe that even those works which seem to be extravagant or grotesque are serious experiments—of course, not always successful experiments—but still serious experiments, made in perfectly good faith towards the discovery of an art which in recent times we have almost entirely forgotten.
My object in this lecture is to try to explain what this problem is and how these artists are, more of less consciously, attempting its solution. It is to discover the visual language of the imagination. To discover, that is, what arrangements of form and colour are calculated to stir the imagination most deeply through the stimulus given to the sense of sight. This is exactly analogous to the problem of music, which is to find what arrangements of sound will have the greatest evocative power. But whereas in music the world of natural sound is so vague, so limited, and takes, on the whole, so small a part of our imaginative life, that it needs no special attention or study on the part of the musician; in painting and sculpture, on the contrary, the actual world of nature is so full of sights which appeal vividly to our imagination—so large a part of our inner and contemplative life is carried on by means of visual images, that this natural world of sight calls for a constant and vivid apprehension on the part of the artist. And with that actual visual world, and his relation to it, comes in much of the painter’s joy, and the chief though not the only fount of his inspiration, but also much of his trouble and a large part of his quarrel with the public. For instance, from that ancient connection of the painter’s with the visual world it comes about that it is far harder to him to get anyone, even among cultivated people, to look at his pictures with the same tense passivity and alert receptiveness which the musician can count on from his auditors. Before ever they have in any real sense seen a picture, people are calling to mind their memories of objects similar to those which they see represented, and are measuring the picture by these, and generally—almost inevitably if the artist is original and has seen something with new intensity and emotion—condemning the artist’s images for being different from their own preconceived mental images. That is an illustration of the difficulties which beset the understanding of the graphic arts, and I put it forward because to understand the pictures here exhibited it is peculiarly necessary that you should look at them exactly as you would listen to music or poetry, and give up for once the exhibition attitude of mind which is so often one of querulous self-importance. We must return to the question of the painter’s relation to the actual visible world.
I am going to assume that you will all agree with me in saying that the artist’s business is not merely the reproduction and literal copying of things seen:—that he is expected in some way or other to misrepresent and distort the visual world. If you boggle at the words misrepresent and distort, you may substitute mentally whenever I use them, the consoling word idealise, which comes to exactly the same thing. Now it is when we come to consider how far this distortion ought to go that our difficulties begin. Mr. Sickert, in his lecture here, suggested that the distortion should be entirely unconscious, due mainly to the incapacity of the artist to reproduce visible things exactly, though he characteristically suggested that the artist ought to draw in such a manner as would inevitably produce the greatest amount of distortion—the method of drawing from point to point. At the same time, Mr. Sickert pointed out that this distortion was precisely what characterised any work of art as opposed to any machine-made object. To me there seems something of Jesuitical casuistry about this: “Distortion is inevitable, and it is even desirable as a characteristic of a work of art, but it must be always unwilling and unsuspected. Therefore, put yourself in such a position that you cannot possibly avoid it, and then try your utmost to prevent its occurrence.” Is not this rather like the Quaker’s advice to his son: Thee must not marry money, but thee had better marry where money is.
The question of how much distortion—how much unlikeness to the totality of appearance—is allowable to artist has always been a difficult one, and has been answered very differently at different times. I can remember a very sensitive judge of art, himself an artist, who belonged to the generation of Leighton and Frederick Walker, and who knew Italian art well. To him Titian and Raphael represented the minimum of naturalism possible. Being a very humble-minded man he used sadly to admit that there must be something in Botticelli and Mantegna, but for him the incompleteness of their representation was a fatal bar to accepting their revelations.
Our generation has moved on a step further in appreciation. It no longer finds any difficulty in understanding the symbols of the Italians of the fifteenth century. Rather it fully and freely enjoys them. This much distortion of nature—and do not forget that it is already a very great distortion—is perfectly allowable. We have even got, by means of a kind of archæological imagination, to give lip-service to the real primitives, to Cimabue and the Byzantines, and to the French sculptors of the twelfth century. I say lip-service because I notice almost always a kind of saving clause in people’s admiration of these things—a way of saying how wonderful they are considering the time when they were produced—how interesting as a foretaste of the great art that was to follow, and so forth. Now this way of looking at a work of art, this evolutionary method, is, I think, entirely fallacious. It is the result of false analogies taken over unconsciously from our habits of thought when dealing with science. The work of a physicist of fifty years ago—say of a man like Joule—in so far as it is true, is completely absorbed in the works of more recent physicists. It is completely subsumed in the later work, and the later work replaces it entirely. It would make no difference now to mankind if every word Joule wrote were completely effaced. The law of the conservation of energy would none the less be the accepted basis of our thoughts about physics. But if the works of Giotto were destroyed, the fact that we still possessed the works of Raphael and Titian would afford us no sort of consolation or recompense. The human inheritance would be forever definitely impoverished. A work of art can never rightly be regarded as a means to something else, it is only rightly seen when regarded as an end in itself.
It so happens that the period of art that students generally concern themselves with—the period from 1300 to 1500—is one which, as well as producing many great masterpieces, shows a continual and fairly steady progression towards the more complete science of representation. To those who undertake the paradoxical task of teaching art, this progression appears as a godsend. Among all those terribly elusive realities of human passion and feeling of which art is the triumphant but hardly decipherable record, here at least is a thing capable of easy and lucid demonstration, one upon which one may even set examination papers and give strictly judicial marks. And so art is conceived as a progressive triumph over the difficult feat of representing nature; a theory, which, if it were really believed, would put Meissonier above Raphael and Alma Tadema above Giotto. The fact is that changes in representative science are merely changes in the artist’s organs of expression. These are not the changes that matter most. The changes on which we ought to fix our attention are the changes in the feelings and sentiments of humanity, and I firmly believe that if perspective had never been invented, the art of the eighteenth century would have differed as profoundly from the art of the thirteenth as it actually does; and I am confirmed in this by the fact that Utamaro’s prints, with their rudimentary perspective, belong just as decisively to the eighteenth century as the paintings of Boucher or Fragonard.
For the sake of argument I have perhaps exaggerated a little the indifference to the essential purposes of art of representative science, the naturalism which the artist makes use of. In reality it is not quite so simple as that—first, a certain amount of naturalism, of likeness to the actual appearances, of things is necessary, in order to evoke in the spectator’s the appropriate associated ideas. If I have to express the idea of a tiger attacking a man, it is essential that the spectator should realise the animal to be a tiger and not a hippopotamus—if, however, the given idea is merely a wild animal attacking a man, such doubts are indifferent, and all that is necessary is the expression of ferocity and wildness. There is, therefore, varying according to the idea to be expressed, a real minimum of naturalness allowable—though I believe it is a very low one and corresponds fairly closely with the amount of natural appearance called up to the mind by words. But there is also a limit in the other direction. One may have too much naturalism for the expression of a particular idea. Let me take an example. Suppose the artist wishes to describe an armed crowd attacking a palace from which an emperor escapes in a carriage, dressed as a woman. Supposing he adopts a method of more of less complete naturalism which we are familiar with in modern art, he will be troubled by the fact that the policeman in the foreground, even if he does not obscure the principal actors in the drama, will occupy a quite disproportionate area of the composition. And this difficulty has made the composition of all ceremonial painting either impossible or ridiculous in modern times. But if the artist supposes himself to be suspended above the scene, and represents all the figures as seen from above, he may be able to get a composition expressing coherently the whole effect of the action; but then each individual will be seen from a very unusual and frequently ridiculous point of view, certainly one which will take away from the expressiveness of the figure. But if the artist frankly gives up any strict following of the laws of appearance, and groups the figures as though there were seen from above, and yet draws them as though seen more or less on a level, he will have a really adequate method of narrative composition. And such was the method employed by Japanese artists, and frequently by the miniature painters of mediæval times. We see here, then, the case of a dramatic idea which is much better and more lucidly conveyed by disregarding the laws of appearance than it could be by following them.
WE COME, THEN, to this, that it entirely depends upon the nature and the character of the sentiment which he wishes to convey, how much or how little naturalism the artist should employ. And I think we may say this, that those sentiments and emotions which centre round the trivialities of ordinary life—that kind of art which corresponds to the comedy of manners in literature—will require a large dose of actuality, will have to be very precise and detailed in its naturalism: but those feelings which belong to the deepest and most universal parts of our nature are likely to be actually disturbed and put off by anything like literal exactitude to actual appearance. It is not really the absence of naturalism which disturbs us, when we are disturbed, in an artist like Blake, but the introduction of a false and unfelt realism. But this is not all. When a high degree of completeness in the representation of things seen is demanded of the artist, his energies are usually exhausted in the mere process of representation. This becomes, indeed, a feat so difficult that its mere accomplishment rouses wonder and admiration at the artist’s skill, and public and artist alike, left gaping at this wonderful tight-rope performance, forget that it is only a means to some quite other end, that art ought to rouse deeper and far other emotions than those with which we greet the acrobat and billiard player.
And this worship of skilful representation has had several bad effects upon art. It has caused the artist to abandon technical skill in the strict sense of the word. Technique, is usually now applied simply to skill in representation, but I mean here the actual skill in the handling of the material, the perfection of quality and finish. And if in that point the artists whose works are here exhibited compare unfavourably with the artists of early ages, the fault must be set down, at least in part, to the exigencies of that representative science which has resulted in the loss of the tradition of craftsmanship.
However, in every century a few men actually do come through the ordeal which our rage for representation has imposed; these men do succeed in actually saying something. Hence the worship of genius. Genius alone has the right to exist in the conditions of modern art, since genius alone succeeds in expressing itself through the cumbrous and round-about method of complete representation. The rest remain, not what they should be, definite minor artists, but often in spite of much talent and individuality, entirely ineffectual and worthless. They do not produce beautiful objects, but only more or less successful imitations.
But supposing the artist to be freed from the incubus of this complete representation—suppose him to be allowed to address himself directly to the imagination—we should get a genuine art of minor personalities, we might even attain to what distinguishes some of the greatest periods of artistic production, and anonymous art.
Now it is precisely this inestimable boon that, if I am right, these artists, however unconsciously they may work, are gaining for future imaginations, the right to speak directly to the imagination through images created, not because of their likeness to external nature, but because of their fitness to appeal to the imaginative and contemplative life.
And now I must try to explain what I understand by this idea of art addressing itself directly to the imagination through the senses. There is no immediately obvious reason why the artist should represent actual things at all, why he should not have a music of line and colour. Such a music he undoubtedly has, and it forms the most essential part of his appeal. We may get, in fact, from a mere pattern, if it be really noble in design and vital in execution, intense æsthetic pleasure. And I would instance as a proof of the direction in which the post impressionists are working, the excellences of their pure design as shown in the pottery at the present exhibition. In these there is often scarcely any appeal made through representation, just a hint at a bird or an animal here and there, and yet they will arouse a definite feeling. Particular rhythms of line and particular harmonies of colour have their spiritual correspondences, and tend to arouse now one set of feelings, now another. The artist plays upon us by the rhythm of line, by colour, by abstract form, and by the quality of the matter he employs. But we must admit that for most people such play upon their emotions, through pure effects of line, colour, and form, are weak compared with the effect of pure sound. But the artist has a second string to his bow. Like the poet he can call up at will from out of the whole visible world, reminiscences and remembered images of any visible or visually conceivable thing. But in calling up these images, with all the enrichment of emotional effect which they bring, he must be careful that they do not set up a demand independent of the need of his musical phrasing, his rhythm of line, colour, and plane. He must be just as careful of this as the poet is not to allow some word which, perhaps, the sense may demand to destroy the ictus of his rhythm. Rhythm is the fundamental and vital quality of painting, as of all the arts—representation is secondary to that, and must never encroach on the more ultimate and fundamental demands of rhythm. the moment that an artist puts down any fact about appearance because it is a fact, and not because he has apprehended its imaginative necessity, he is breaking the laws of artistic expression. And it is these laws, however difficult and undiscoverable they may be, which are the final standard to which a work of art must conform.
Now these post impressionist artists have discovered empirically that to make the allusion to a natural object of any kind vivid to the imagination, it is not only not necessary to give it illusive likeness, but that such illusion of actuality really spoils its imaginative reality.
To take a single instance. In the first room of the Gallery there hangs a picture by Manet, the bar at the Folies Bergères, in which there is a marvellous rendering of still life—marvellous in the completeness and the directness of its illusive power. In that there is a circular dish of fruit. Now the top of a circle see in perspective appears as an ellipse, and as such Manet has rendered it. In a nature morte by Cézanne, hanging close by, there is also a dish of fruit, but Cézanne has rendered the top as a parallelogram with rounded corners. This is quite false to appearances, but a comparison of the two paintings shows one how much more vivid is the sense of reality in the Cézanne. I do not pretend to explain this fact, but it would seem that Cézanne has stumbled upon a discovery which was already the common property of early artists. Both in Europe and the East you will find the wheels of chariots, seen in perspective, drawn exactly in this way. It occurs in Japanese paintings of the thirteenth century. And you will find St. Catherine’s wheel drawn in the same way by Siennese painters of the fourteenth.
Or compare the girl in the Folies Bergères with Cézanne’s portrait of his wife. In the first the modelling is elaborately realistic, however brilliant the short-hand in which it is expressed. In the second there is very little attempt to use light and shade, to give illusion of plastic relief. But none the less, I find that Cézanne’s portrait arouses in my imagination the idea of reality, of solidity, mass and resistance, in a way which is altogether wanting in Manet’s picture.
I do not pretend altogether to explain these facts; we have to find out empirically what does impress the imagination, the laws of that language that speaks directly to the spirit.
BUT THERE IS perhaps one fairly obvious reason why the imagination is not readily impressed by anything approaching visual illusion, namely, that the illusion is never quite complete, never, indeed, can be complete, for the imaged reality has not the same proofs of coherence and continuity which appertain to actual life; it follows that recognising how near to actuality the illusive vision is, the mind inevitably compares the picture with actuality and judges it to be less complete, less real. It has for us only the reality of a reflection or echo. Now the world of the imagination is essentially more real than the actual world, because it has a coherence and unity which the actual world lacks. The world of the imagination, though more real, is much less actual, and the intrusion of actuality into that world of imagination tends to disturb the completeness of our acquiescence in it.
A great part of illusive representation is concerned with creating the illusion of a third dimension by means of light and shade, and it is through the relief thus given to the image that we get the sensual illusion of a third dimension. The intrusion of light and shade into the pictures has always presented serious difficulties to the artist; it has been the enemy of two great organs of artistic expression—linear design and colour; for though, no doubt, colour of a kind is consistent with chiaroscuro, its appeal is of quite different order from that made when we have harmonies of positive flat colour in frank opposition to one another. Colour in a Rembrandt, admirable though it is, does not make the same appeal to the imagination as colour in a stained-glass window. Now if it should turn out that the most vivid and direct appeal that the artist can make to the imagination is through linear design and frank oppositions of colour, the artist may purchase the illusion of third dimensional space at too great a cost. Personally I think he has done so, and that the work of the post impressionists shows conclusively the immense gain to the artist in the suppression or re-interpretation of light and shade. One gain will be obvious at once, namely, that all the relations which make up the unity of the picture are perceived as inhering in the picture surface, whereas with chiaroscuro and atmospheric perspective the illusion created prevents our relating a tone in the extreme distance with one in the near foreground in the same way that we can relate two tones in the same plane. It follows, therefore, that the pictures gain immensely in decorative unity. This fact has always been more or less present to the minds of artists when the decoration of a given space of wall has been demanded of them; in such cases they have always tended to feel the need for keeping the relations upon the flat surface, and have excused the want of illusion, which was supposed to be necessary for a painting, by making a distinction between decorative painting and painting a picture, a distinction which I believe to be entirely fallacious; a painting of any kind is bound to be decorative, since by decorative we really mean conforming to the principles of artistic unity.
But in regard to this question of three dimensional space in the picture, another curious fact becomes apparent when we look at the pictures in the Grafton Gallery. We find, for instance, that a painter like Herbin, who goes to the utmost extreme in the denial of light and shade and modelling, who makes all his tones in perfectly frank flat geometrical masses, actually arouses in the imagination the idea of space more completely than those pictures—of which we may take Valtat’s and Marquet’s as examples—in which the gradations of tone, due to atmosphere, are taken as the basis for the design. I confess that this is a result which I should have never anticipated, but which seemed to me undeniable in front of the pictures themselves.
It appears then that the imagination is ready to construct for itself the ideas of space in a picture from indications even more vividly than it accepts the idea when given by means of sensual illusion. And the same fact appears to be true of plastic relief. We do not find, as a matter of empirical fact, that the outlines with which some of these artists surround their figures, in any way interfere with our imaginative grasp of their plastic qualities—particularly is this the case in Cézanne, in whom the feeling for plastic form and strict correlation of planes appears in its highest degree. His work becomes in this respect singularly near to that of certain primitive Italian artists, such as Piero della Francesca, who also relied almost entirely upon linear design for producing this effect.
Many advantages result to art from thus accepting linear design and pure colour as the main organs of expression. The line itself, its qualities as handwriting, its immediate communication to the mind of gesture, becomes immensely enhanced, and I do not think it is possible to deny to these artists the practice of a particularly vigorous and expressive style of handwriting. It is from this point of view that Matisse’s curiously abstract and impassive work can be most readily approached. In his “Femme aux Yeux Verts” we have a good example of this. Regarded as a representation pure and simple, the figure seems almost ridiculous, but the rhythm of the linear design seems to me entirely satisfactory; and the fact that he is not concerned with light and shade has enabled him to build up a colour harmony of quite extraordinary splendour and intensity. There is not in this picture a single brush stroke in which the colour is indeterminate, neutral, or merely used as a transition from one tone to another.
Again, this use of line and colour as the basis of expression is seen to the advantage in the drawing of the figure. As Leonardo da Vinci so clearly expressed it, the most essential thing in drawing the figure is the rendering of movement, the rhythm of the figure as a whole by which we determine its general character as well as the particular mood of the moment. Now anything like detailed modelling or minute anatomical structure tends to destroy the ease and vividness with which we apprehend this general movement; indeed, in the history of painting there are comparatively few examples of painters who have managed to give these without losing hold of the general movement. We may say, indeed, that Michelangelo’s claim to a supreme place is based largely upon this fact, that he was able actually to hold and to render clear to the imagination the general movement of his figures in spite of the complexity of their anatomical relief; but as a rule if we wish to obtain the most vivid sense of movement we must go to primitive artists, to the sculptors of the twelfth century, or the painters of the early fourteenth.
Now here, again, the Post Impressionists have recovered for us our lost inheritance, and if the extreme simplification of the figure which we find in Gauguin or Cézanne needed justification, it could be found in this immensely heightened sense of rhythmic movement. Perfect balance of contrasting directions in the limbs is of such infinite importance in estimating the significance of the figure that we need not repine at the loss which it entails of numberless statements of anatomical fact.
I must say a few words on their relation to the Impressionists. In essentials the principles of these artists are diametrically opposed to those of Impressionism. The tendency of Impressionism was to break up the object as a unity, and to regard the flux of sensation in its totality; thus, for instance, for them the local colour was sacrificed at the expense of those accidents which atmosphere and illumination from different sources bring about. The Impressionists discovered a new world of colour by emphasising just those aspects of the visual whole which the habits of practical life had caused us to under-estimate. The result of their work was to break down the tyranny of representation as it had been understood before. Their aim was still purely representative, but it was representation of things at such a different and unexpected angle, with such a new focus of attention, that its very novelty prepared the way for the Post Impressionist view of design.
How the Post Impressionists derived from the Impressionists is indeed a curious history. They have taken over a great deal of Impressionist technique, and not a little of Impressionist colour, but exactly how they came to make the transition from an entirely representative to a non-representative and expressive art must always be something of a mystery, and the mystery lies in the strange and unaccountable originality of a man of genius, namely, Cézanne. What he did seems to have been done almost unconsciously. Working along the lines of Impressionist investigation with unexampled fervour and intensity, he seems, as it were, to have touched a hidden spring whereby the whole structure of Impressionist design broke down, and a new world of significant and expressive form became apparent. It is that discovery of Cézanne’s that has recovered for modern art a whole lost language of form and colour. Again and again attempts have been made by artists to regain this freedom of imaginative appeal, but the attempts have been hitherto tainted by archaism. Now at last artists can use with perfect sincerity means of expression which have been denied them ever since the Renaissance. And this is no isolated phenomenon confined to the little world of professional painters; it is one of many expressions of a great change in our attitude to life. We have passed in our generation through what looks like the crest of a long progression in human thought, one in which the scientific or mechanical view of the universe was exploited for all its possibilities. How vast, and on the whole how desirable those possibilities are is undeniable, but this effort has tended to blind our eyes to other realities; the realities of our spiritual nature and the justice of our demand for its gratification. Art has suffered in this process, since art, like religion, appeals to the non-mechanical parts of our nature, to what in us is rhythmic and vital. It seems to me, therefore, impossible to exaggerate the importance of this movement in art, which is destined to make the sculptor’s and painter’s endeavour once more conterminous with the whole range of human inspiration and desire.
Roger Fry was a British painter and critic, and a champion of formalism. This essay was first published in The Fortnightly Review (May 1, 1911) and republished here in the New Series, along with Walter Sickert’s “Post Impressionists” and Marnin Young’s “Roger Fry, Walter Sickert and Post-Impressionism at the Grafton Galleries“.
This transcription © 2017 The Fortnightly Review.
- Author’s note: This article forms the substance of a lecture delivered at the Grafton Gallery, at the close of the Post Impressionist Exhibition. ↩