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Literature And Art

( Originally Published 1925 )

THE annual rotation of the earth brings to us at least once during its period the threadbare, thriceworn, stale, flat, and academic discussion of critic and artist. We believe comparisons of creator and critic are unprofitable, being for the most part a confounding of intellectual substances. The painter paints, the composer makes music, the sculptor models, and the poet sings. Like the industrious crow the critic hops after these sowers of beauty, content to peck up in the furrows the chance grains dropped by genius. This, at least, is the popular notion. Balzac, and later Disraeli, asked: "After all, what are the critics? Men who have failed in literature and art." And Mascagni, notwithstanding the laurels he wore after his first success, cried aloud in agony that a critic was compositore mancato. These be pleasing quotations for them whose early opus has failed to score. The trouble is that every one is a critic, your gallery-god as well as the most stately practitioner of the art severe. Balzac was an excellent critic when he saluted StendhaI's Chartreuse de Parme as a masterpiece; as was Emerson when he wrote to Walt Whitman. What the mid-century critics of the United States, what Sainte-Beuve, master critic of France, did not see, Balzac and Emerson saw and, better still, spoke out. In his light-hearted fashion Oscar Wilde asserted that the critic was also a creator — apart from his literary worth - and we confess that we know of cases where the critic has created the artist. But that a serious doubt can be entertained as to the relative value of creator and critic is hardly worth denying.

Consider the painters. Time and time again you read or hear the indignant denunciation of some artist whose canvas has been ripped-up in print. If the offender happens to be a man who doesn't paint, then he is called an ignoramus if he paints or etches, or even sketches in crayon, he is well within the Balzac definition — poor, miserable imbecile, he is only jealous of work that he could never have achieved. As for literary critics, it may be set down once and for all that they are "suspect." They write; ergo, they must be unjust. The dilemma has branching horns. Is there no midway spot, no safety ground for that weary Ishmael the professional critic to escape being gored? Naturally any expression of personal feeling on his part is set down to mental arrogance. He is permitted like the wind to move over the face of the waters, but he must remain unseen. We have always thought that the enthusiastic Dublin man in the theatre gallery was after a critic when he cried aloud at the sight of a toppling companion: "Don't waste him. Kill a fiddler with him!" It seems more in consonance with the Celtic character; besides, the Irish are music-lovers.

If one could draw up the list of critical and creative men in art the scale would not tip evenly. The number of painters who have written of their art is not large, though what they have said, is always pregnant. Critics outnumber them — though, the battle is really a matter of quality, not quantity. There is Da Vinci. For his complete writings some of us would sacrifice miles of gawky-pale and florid mediaeval paintings. What' we have of him is wisdom, and like true wisdom is prophetic. Then there is that immortal gossip, Vasari, a very biassed critic and not too nice to his contemporaries. He need not indulge in what is called the woad argument; we sha'n't go back to the early Britons for our authorities. Let us come to Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose Discourses are in-valuable and also to be taken well salted; he was encrusted with fine old English prejudices. One of his magnificent sayings and one appreciated by the entire artistic tribe was his ejaculation: "Damn paint!" Raphael Mengs wrote. We wish that Velasquez had. What William Blake said of great artists threw much light on William Blake. Ingres uttered things, principally in a rage, about his contemporaries. Delacroix was a thinker. He literally anticipated Chevreul's discoveries in the law of simultaneous contrasts of colour. Furthermore, he wrote profoundly of his art. He appreciated Chopin before many critics and musicians — which would have been an impossible thing for Ingres, though he played the violin and he was kind to the younger men.

Need we say that Degas is a great wit, though not a writer; a wit and a critic? Rousseau, the landscapist, made notes, and Corot is often quoted. If Millet had never written another sentence but "There is no isolated truth," he would still have been a critic. Constable with his "A good thing is never done twice"; and Alfred Stevens's definition of art, "Nature seen through the prism of an emotion," forestalled Zola's pompous pronouncement in The Experimental Novel. To jump over the stile to literature, Wordsworth wrote critical prefaces, and Shelley, too; Poe was a critic; and what of Coleridge, who called painting "a middle quality between a thought and a thing — the union of that which is nature with that which is exclusively human"? There are plenty of examples on the side of the angels. Whistler! What a critic, wielding a finely chased rapier! Thomas Couture wrote and discoursed much of his art. Sick man as he was, I heard him talk of art at his country home, Villiers-le-Bel, on the Northern Railway, near Paris. This was in 1878. William M. Hunt's talks on art were fruitful. So are John Lafarge's. The discreet Gigoux of Balzac notoriety has an entertaining book to his credit; while Rodin is often coaxed into utterances about his and other men's work. There are many French, English, and American artists who write and paint with equal facility. In New York, Kenyon Cox is an instance. But the chiefest among all the painters alive and dead, one who shines and will continue to shine when his can-vases are faded — and they are fading — is Eugθne Fromentin, whose Mattes d'autrefois is a classic of criticism. Since his day two critics, who are also painters, have essayed both crafts, George Clausen and D. S. MacColl.

Professor Clausen is a temperate critic, MacColl a brilliant, revolutionary one. The critical temper in either man is not dogmatic. Seurat, the French Neo-Impressionist, has defended his theories; in-deed, the number of talented Frenchmen who paint well and write with style as well as substance is amazing. Rossetti would no longer be a rare bird in these days of piping painters, musicians who are poets, and sculptors who are painters. The unfortunate critic occasionally writes a play or an opera (particularly in Paris), but as a rule he is con-tent to echo that old German who desperately ex-claimed: Even if I am nothing else, I am at least a contemporary."

Let us now swing around the obverse side of the medal A good showing. You may begin with Wincklemann or Goethe — we refer entirely to critics of paint and painters — or run down the line to Diderot, Blanc, Gautier, Baudelaire, Zola, Goncourt, who introduced to Europe Japanese art; Roger Marx, Geoffroy, Huysmans, Camille Mauclair, Charles Morice, and Octave Mirbeau. Zola was not a painter, but he praised Edouard Manet. These are a few names hastily selected. In England, Ruskin too long ruled the critical roast; full of thunder-words like Isaiah, his vaticinations led a generation astray. He was a prophet, not a critic, and he was a victim to his own abhorred "pathetic fallacy." Henley was right in declaring that until R. A. M. Stevenson appeared there was no great art criticism in England or English. The " Velasquez " is a marking stone in critical literature. It is the one big book by a big temperament that may be opposed page by page to Fromentin's critical masterpiece. Shall we further adduce the names of Morelli, Sturge Moore, Roger Fry, Perkins, Cortissoz, Lionel Cust, Colvin, Ricci, Van Dyke, Mather, Berenson, Brownell, and George Moore who said of Ruskin that his uncritical blindness regarding Whistler will constitute his passport to fame, "the lot of critics is to be remembered by what they have failed to under-stand." Walter Pater wrote criticism that is beautiful literature. If Ruskin missed Whistler, he is in good company, for Sainte-Beuve, the prince of critics, missed Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, and to Victor Hugo was unfair. Yet, consider the Osrics embalmed in the amber of Sainte-Beuve's style. He, like many another critic, was superior to his subject. And that is always fatal to the water-flies.

George III once asked in wonderment how, the apples get inside the dumplings. How can a critic criticise a creator? The man who looks on writing things about the man who does things. But he criticises and artists owe him much. Neither in "ink-horn terms" nor in an "upstart Asiatic style" need the critic voice his opinions. He must be an artist in temperament and he must have a credo. He need not be a painter to write of painting, for his primary appeal is to the public. He is the middle-man, the interpreter, the vulgariser. The psycho-physiological processes need not concern us. One thing is certain — a man writing in terms of literature about painting, an art in two dimensions, cannot interpret fully the meanings of the canvas, nor can he be sure that his opinion, such as it is, when it reaches the reader, will truthfully express either painter or critic. Such are the limitations of one art when it comes to deal with the ideas or material of another. Criticism is at two removes from its theme. Therefore criticism is a makeshift. Therefore, let critics be modest and allow criticism to become an amiable art.

But where now is the painter critic and the professional critic? "Stands Ulster where it did?" Yes, the written and reported words of artists are precious alike to layman and critic. That they prefer painting to writing is only natural; so-would the critic if he had the pictorial gift. However, as art is art and not nature, criticism is criticism. and not art. It professes to interpret the artist's work, and at best it mirrors his art mingled with the personal temperament of the critic. At the worst the critic lacks temperament (artistic training is, of course, an understood requisite), and when this is the case, God help the artist! As the greater includes the lesser, the artist should permit the critic to enter, with all due reverence, his sacred domain. Without vanity the one, sympathetic the other. Then the ideal collaboration ensues. Sainte-Beuve says that "criticism by itself can do nothing. The best of it can act only in concert with public feeling. we never find more than half the article in print — the other half was written only in the reader's mind." And Professor Walter Raleigh would further limit the "gentle art." "Criticism, after all, is not to legislate, nor to classify, but to raise the dead." The relations between the critic and his public open another vista of the everlasting discussion. Let it be a negligible one now. That painters can get along without professional criticism we know from history, but that they will themselves play the critic is doubtful. And are they any fairer to young talent than official critics ? It is an inquiry fraught with significance. Great and small artists have sent forth into the world their pupils. Have they always — as befits honest critics recognised the pupils of other men, pupils and men both at the opposite pole of their own theories ? Recall what Velasquez is reported to have said to Salvator Rosa, according to Boschini and Carl Justi. Salvator had asked the incomparable Spaniard whether he did not think Raphael the best of all the painters he had seen in Italy. Velasquez answered: "Raphael, to be plain with you, for I like to be candid and outspoken, does not please me at all." This purely temperamental judgment does not make of Velasquez either a good or a bad critic. It is interesting as showing us that even a master cannot always render justice to another. Difference engenders hatred, as Stendhal would say.

Can the record of criticism made by plastic artists show a generous Robert Schumann? Schumann discovered many composers from Chopin to Brahms and made their fortunes by his enthusiastic writing about them. In Wagner he met his Waterloo, but every critic has his limitations. There is no Schumann, let the fact be emphasised, among the painter-critics, though quite as much discrimination, ardour of discovery, and acumen may be found among the writings of the men whose names rank high in professional criticism. And this hedge, we humbly submit, is a rather stiff one to vault for the adherents of criticism written by artists only. Nevertheless, every day of his humble career must the critic pen his apologia pro vita sua.


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