Transitional Times And Opinions
( Originally Published 1921 )
THE nineties was a time of rapid transition from an order that seemed to have set in like a wet night after a summer afternoon. The great Victorians, such as survived, had outlived their work ; but they still cast a shadow over their descendants so that these seemed to belong to a smaller generation.
Meredith and Hardy did not come into their own out of the shadow of the names of Dickens and Thackeray till then. Even Hardy had felt himself compelled out of deference to the public opinion of the time, as expressed by the Editor of the Graphic, if not to make a happy ending, at least to modify it, on the serial appearance of " Tess." Kipling had a stiff battle to fight against the ridicule of the elder men, and he also had the same experience as Hardy with " The Light that Failed " on its appearance in serial form.
Serious art that aimed at something more than simple entertainment or at showing life as anything but a smugly pleasant undertaking ending only in a beautiful death-bed scene was still supposed to show " tendencies " better suppressed.
It is somewhat sad, in going through the illustrated journals and magazines of the time, to remember and realize how much nerve and effort went to produce so much grey futility, particularly in the way of news supply, that is so much better done in every way now Shows his sense of solidity of form, obscured by vivid use of significant texture.
Simply by turning a handle, leaving the artist free to devote his time and thought to the production of things other than the mere making of records. By their exactness of observation and their skill in setting it down they had anticipated the later triumph of the camera and the cinema, which is now catching up and passing the artist who saw no higher aim than the making of an exact record of appearances, and who was hailed by the public as successful in exact proportion as his art approached the deceptive, like the policeman in wax at Madame Tussaud's.
It is strange to think that Whistler's work and not the wax policeman had till that time been resented as a practical joke by the public. In one case, they were deceived, and loved the deception : in the other they were annoyed because there was no attempt at deception. They did quite honestly look upon deception as the highest function of the artist, and blamed the artist for their own defect of vision. It was apparently a difficult time for the artist to be born into.
The attitude of the typical Victorian towards Impressionism was as antipathetic as that of later days towards Post-Impressionism, Futurism and Cubism, and can be illustrated by a true story.
Dr. Hislop had read a paper. and shown slides at the Art Workers' Guild at Clifford's Inn Hall upon " The Art of the Insane," about the time of the exhibition of Post-Impressionist Art at the Grafton Galleries, and in the discussion following the two subjects were as thoroughly twisted into one as the strands of a cord, as though lunatic and Post-Impressionist were interchangeable terms. The Master of the Guild called upon Mr. J. W. North, one of the few survivors of the illustrators of the 'sixties. The back of my chair was gripped, and, turning round, I saw the venerable white hair and beard of the old artist as he dragged himself up and bent forward, his pink face blazing to crimson. " Sir," he began slowly, " I—think—I—had—better not trust myself to speak on this subject "—all the latter part unattempted before and unsurpassed since.
The air of the whole art world had become so stagnant that a good draught was needed to enliven it again, and nothing for many years had so much effect in London as the incursion of the Futurists, the Cubists, and the Post-Impressionists. The way had been prepared for them, so far as the Press was concerned, by Whistler, who even until about 1890 was the general laughing-stock. W. L. Thomas at the " coming of age " dinner of the Graphic, speaking of the new venture, The Daily Graphic, and of the young lion-cubs upon it, said that what it was proposed to put steadily before the public was " None of your Whistler ' effects,' " and there was unspeakable scorn in the accent on " effects," " but good, honest pen and ink," at which there was loud applause. At Christies' would be heard laughter and hisses when his works were put up—possibly organized by interested persons who could pick up " bargains " for a few guineas; works afterwards worth hundreds or thousands.