Vivid Vision Of Facts
( Originally Published 1921 )
THE pendulum swings perpetually between an acceptance and recreation of the visible world, and the imposition of a world of idea from which, no matter how much it has derived from the world of fact, the visible world has been put away as far as may be.
There is a point in the swing, where, to the happy, the world of fact and the world of vision coincide.
These are the golden moments of art, when the mind can bask as in a high-walled garden. Everyone has his his own garden of delights, in which he can surrender to a secret enchantment.
To some Uccello's great battle scene, Botticelli's Madonna and Child, Nicolo Pisano's St. Eustace, Millais' Autumn Leaves or Sir Isumbras, a Chinese vase or a Japanese print, Whistler's Little White Girl, or the Music Room—a blue landscape by Patinirany or all of these may bring the sense of glamorous contentment.
There is a moment now and again vouchsafed when seeing does in itself approach to ecstasy, when the thing seen is felt to contain the divine essence communicated by sight. In these moments of happy receptivity the commonest object discharges its most vivid significance, and it may be from repeated experiences of this kind that the Pantheistic idea takes its origin ; and that later these ideas being simplified, the idea of One universal God and the Immanence of God came about. With these states of vivid experience goes the sense of the community of life with a flower, an animal or a tree, a sense sometimes of the infinite intelligence peering through some tiny keyhole as in a game of " I spy " so vividly felt that it is as though it were a glowing secret shared with the object through or by which it appears to be communicated. Children start with this intensity of vision, which too often fades with the years, or becomes clouded in the crash. " The world is too much with us " ; but the Pre-Raphaelites, mediaeval and modern, had this vision which gives their work its value. It is not the multitude or the " finish " of the facts presented, but the intensity with which they have been seen that lifts such work from the prose of Menzel to the poetry of Millais' early work.
A house agent with whom I fell into a chance conversation told me that when serving in the war he was in Italy ; and in training there, practising a bayonet charge and yelling, when the Tommy next to him suddenly gasped out, " My God ! isn't it just like a picture in the National Gallery—all them little trees on them hills." His own thought was simultaneous ; he had thought the " backgrounds to those Madonnas," a bit on one side of a brocaded canopy and a bit on the other, some " squint-eyed " convention, till he came upon the reality in this vivid way himself. Probably now it is not so much Nature but Art that has taken a new significance for him. But something must have got home to these two independent Cockney minds making a bored stroll through the National Gallery on a wet half-holiday, for it to strike again in such a situation when the senses might be expected to be little open to impressions from outside. Tennyson's observation : " Strange that the mind when fraught With a passion so intense That it should from being so overwraught Suddenly strike on a sharper sense For a shell or a flower—little things That else would have been passed by "—is well borne out here, although the battle was only a mimic one.
In art all the desirable qualities of craftsmanship combined may not suffice to convey this emotion without some such passionate quality of vision, which seems to accept all, rather than to select and reject, yet is never mechanical in its acceptance. I have heard J. F. Lewis spoken of as having the Pre-Raphaelite qualities. He had more than all their qualities of exact and minute representation, probably a more subtle vision and certainly a more facile brush, and something that remains aromatic in the mind after many years. He could introduce and keep in its place there, with apparent ease, more detail to the square inch than any of them. He had more than all their qualities, but this one of intensity , and, exquisite as some of his pictures are, they do not convey that sense of fervid ecstasy and significance which is derivable from this highest type of objective vision, in which a definite yet elusive something more is communicated than the physical effect on the eye. This high objective vision is more truly imaginative than many pontifical works that lay pompous claim to that high title—which frequently enough are simply a combination of the stock in trade of fancy—justice, Fortitude, and such, in shining armour, and wings and things by the glibly oiled machinery of the high-artist.
Imagination does not necessarily fly away from " facts." But there are two kinds of imagination—one that looks outward for its image, and another that looks inward. Blake's work would have been the richer and the better could he have used his objective vision with greater reverence, instead of with a saintly contempt for it, as a hindrance. It was the great defect of his great quality. At another period than the one in which he worked, when exactitude of observation was as nothing to the " grand manner " and strict draughtsmanship at a discount, he might by absorption of another atmosphere have been able to express himself with no less torrential a passion, perhaps with greater force, and certainly with more lucidity than he generally employed. It cannot be insisted on too much that imagination is not a woolly affair outside reason ; but pointed and sharp-edged. It is not a matter between waking and sleeping—a confusion of misty moons and dim stars, but of clear hard day, to which all the faculties of the mind contribute. The misconception must be guarded against that what has been written about the highest qualities of " objective vision " and " significance " is intended to convey the idea that art has any " preaching " or moralizing mission. On the contrary, any attempt on the part of the artist at what in America is called " uplift " is damnable. Art has, or may have, indirectly a civilizing influence, but that is accidental and has nothing to do with the artist. The artist who goes into the pulpit goes into competition with the scold, and he should compete with nothing.