Human Figure Art
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
As applied to the human figure, and to the expression, through every part of it, of some special phase of significance, it is apparent that certain legitimate deductions from this principle are often ignored. When this is said, it must be said also, if we are to deal with the subject with perfect truth, that they are ignored almost as much in certain disguising concealments of the form characterizing some of the customs of civilization, as in certain disenchanting exposures of it characterizing some of the conventionalities of art. Viewing the subject not with the prejudice which supposes that whatever is, is necessarily right, and therefore finds fault with straight skirts on a woman merely because others are wearing hoops, and with knickerbockers on a man merely because others are wearing pantaloons; but viewing the subject in a rational way, it may be said that the human form just as it is, is God-made, whereas human clothing is man-made; and that the latter, even though it drag for yards behind the feet, especially if with just enough exposure to suggest a possibility of more exposure, may be in its tendency less humanizing, in a good sense, than a garb disclosing enough, at least, to allow free and natural expression to the soul within. The Hebrew priest was told to sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial victim—representing life that was innocent and therefore spiritual—on the vessels of the temple every time that he had occasion to use them. The people were thus taught that nothing in the world that is material, not even a consecrated implement of the sanctuary, is sacred except when made to represent the presence of spiritual life. Much less is the material clothing of human figures sacred. One might argue that it can never represent spiritual life quite as well as when it faithfully reveals the general outlines of the form which the creative power designed that spiritual life on earth should have. Or—to examine the subject in the light of its practical effects—what artist ever represented a wanton in the scanty short skirts and bare feet of a peasant? What man, so far as form in dress could affect him, would not be conscious of more kindly, tender, generous, and protective impulses awakened in him by the simple clothing of the latter, or of a young girl just entering her teens, than by the trailing silks and laces of the former? This much for one of the many mistakes of civilization. No influence is more indirectly exalting than beauty, and no beauty ought to be more exalting than that of the human form. To veil it wholly, as the Oriental women do their faces, may impair the charm of life not only, but its chastity. When much that is concealed, might, if revealed, put an end both to legitimate curiosity and to purely aesthetic desires, might it not also put an end to much that, when developed, reinforces desires of a less worthy nature? It is certainly a question whether in such cases, complete satisfaction would not often accompany that which satisfied merely the eye. The Japanese, familiar from childhood with an almost total exposure of the form, and notwithstanding traditionally low standards of conventional morality, are believed by themselves, and by others who have studied them, to be, absolutely considered, more moral by nature, in that they are less prone to morbid and soulless forms of indulgence, than are the Europeans. Is not one proof of this—as it certainly is a proof of the delicacy of their sense of propriety and, for that matter, of beauty—afforded by the fact that, in their higher art, complete nudity is never depicted? So much for a mistake of conventional fashion. Now a few words with reference to a mistake in an opposite direction made by conventional art. The true principle in art is that it should represent life, and, if dealing with human life, should represent that which is in the highest sense humanizing. But that which is in the highest sense humanizing gives principality to mental and spiritual suggestions, and keeps others subordinate. Can this be said to be done when parts of the body, which even barbarians conceal, are exposed, in conditions, as some-times happens in modern art, so different from those of natural life that one is forced to the inference that they are exposed for the sole purpose of exposure? In answer to this we are referred to Greek art. But Greek art was true to the conditions of Greek life. The legitimate deduction is that our art should be true to the conditions of our life.
The truth is that, in this, as in every other practical possibility, there is no end worth seeking, whether it be the representation of human sentiment or of skill in workman-ship, that cannot be attained without going to extremes. When one thinks of this fact, and of the liability, if it be disregarded, of having art lower its aims, or if not this, having it antagonize, through creating false impressions of its aims, thousands of those in special need of its influence,—in other words, when one thinks how much might be gained to the world, and how little can be lost, by applying in this sphere the same common sense that all men are expected to apply in other spheres, it certainly seems strange that those who wish to make the most of art should pursue a course, in either criticism or production, fitted really to make the least of it. —Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, VII.
A friend of mine once met, on a Pacific steamship, a Japanese fresh from his own country who represented him-self as greatly shocked by some framed photographs of European works of art of excessive disrobement which he had observed hanging in the Captain's cabin. " Why?"—said my friend to him. "It is only what one can see almost every day in the life of your own land." "We have it in life," replied the Japanese, "but we don't thrust it upon attention, and, by elaborating it in our art, make a public confession of how much we have been thinking and feeling about it." It is well to observe that this representative of the most artistic of living races was not influenced by ethics but by aesthetics,—by the requirements merely of delicate instinct and good taste. Essentials of Aesthetics, XVIII.