Art Theory - Suggestion Infinite
( Originally Published 1869 )
A very large portion of the imaginative efforts which are achieved in either branch of the arts, is, as already observed, effected mainly by exciting in the mind associations of ideas connected with the subject. But there is also another very important means employed in compositions of this character, more especially those of an imaginative description, consisting in leading on the mind by making suggestions to it of different kinds, which may be done to an infinite extent, to draw certain inferences as to the existence and nature of other things not developed. Hence the imagination is set to wander forth in a particular track, being here and there urged on by objects calculated to call forth striking ideas. An illustration of this principle or mode of operation is afforded by landscape scenery. Thus, distant mountains, when from their faint mystical appearance they seem almost unearthly, especially when from their height they tower into the heavens and are capped with clouds, above all, when their peaks are crowned and are radiant with snows that never melt ; are nearly allied to, if not strictly within the sphere of the imaginative in scenery, and are at any rate highly calculated to excite our imagination, and to call forth in the mind ideas of that quality, by the suggestions which they afford as to the sublime and stupendous nature of the objects in view. Their indistinctness and indefinite appearance, the extraordinary nature of the sight, and their vast size, are what mainly contribute to endow them with this quality.
Hence also it is that a rough unfinished sketch of any very imaginative scene, will frequently prove more effective than a highly finished painting, because while it serves fully to direct the mind in a track for imagining the scene represented, which is here as it were but hinted at by leading suggestive points as to its general nature and end; it is left to the imagination to complete the enterprise in question, by means of new associations exciting suitable topics for this purpose; while on the other hand it places no bounds to, and imposes no restraint on the imaginative ranges and wanderings of the mind. Among the poets Shakespeare is eminently successful in the use of suggestion, and by a few bold and well-directed expressions contrives to set the mind at work, and to produce a current of thought which almost inevitably leads on to the production of the ideas sought to be excited. Milton, too, in his highest flights,—those imaginative scenes which are beyond the province of direct distinct description, as in his portrayal of death and hell,—by a few mysterious hints impels the imagination, and urges it forward and upward in its sub-lime flight. A very fine illustration of Shakespeare's skill in efforts of this kind, is afforded by the following quotation from his ` Measure for Measure,' in the description of death, which is exceedingly forcible, and which is entirely obtained by leading the mind on by certain inferences to ideas of various kinds. The account here given by Claudio of the vague uncertainty-and terror with which he contemplates the futuro unknown mysterious state of being, is most powerful, and moving, and, indeed, harrowing. It is the finest specimen of suggestion infinite in description, where all the main points are left to the imagination to supply.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where ;
The extract which follows from the same great writer may, however, be deemed defective, owing to its not adhering to the principles to which I have alluded, and from attempting to describe minutely objects and circumstances which do not admit of this effort, but which are merely to be inferred, and can be supplied in this mode only to the imagination. The description is certainly in many respects very imaginative, but it is too fanciful; the comparisons and ideas used as illustrations are too commonplace, too ordinary, to set off so visionary and unreal a scene as this. The materials are, moreover, too gross and familiar. The representations are also too minute, and too much in detail, and blanks are filled up which the imagination should have been left to supply. It is. the speech of Mercutio in ` Romeo and Juliet.'
" Oh, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you
In the following very beautiful and imaginative description by Dante,* of an approaching angel, much is left for inference and suggestion ; and to which, as also to its very vagueness and indistinctness, it mainly owes its efficiency :
"The goodly shape approach'd us, snowy white
Painters will sometimes cause the personages they represent to hide their faces, where the expression they should possess is beyond what they are able to effect. But this is but an acknowledgment of incapacity to accomplish the most important part of the design which they have undertaken.
A large portion of the ideas called forth in each representation by either art are in reality conveyed by suggestion. The province of suggestion has, indeed, a far wider range than that of description or imitation, inasmuch as all subjects of what-ever kind are capable of being suggested, while but a limited number only admit of direct imitation or representation.
It is, in fact, even in painting, only the most finished and perfect efforts that effect the representation otherwise than by creating associations of ideas with the subject, and by exciting the same ideas in the mind as an actual view of the transaction itself would do.
Sculpture effects its object rather by suggestion than by direct representation ; and poetry and eloquence do so almost entirely. Music is eminently suggestive in its nature, as are also architecture and costume as regards the designs in them. In acting, too, much may be suggested which cannot be exhibited ; and even in designs in landscape gardening, by a skilful arrangement suggestions may be afforded, more especially as to space, and the extension of objects concealed from our view.
Hence, the more ideal any art is, the better is it fitted for imaginative representation; and the more imitative it is, the less is it adapted for this end. Moreover, the more imaginative any effort is, the more should be allowed to the imagination to supply by leaving the design imperfect. The mind, when once excited and directed in the path which leads to the imaginative, will of itself effect far more than the art of the painter or poet can ordinarily do by exact description, unless his power be very great indeed. But even in this instance, he will do well to leave much to the imagination of each individual to fill up the details of the picture, as is the case in that powerful description of a spirit in the Book of Job, already quoted in this chapter. Milton, on the other hand, has perhaps sometimes failed here by describing too definitely what ought to be left obscure and incomplete.
The suggestions excited must of course be of the same nature as the elements which conduce to the imaginative, and should serve to supply such portion of them as is not directly contributed. Much, indeed, may be suggested, and if aptly done with great effect too, which cannot be described.
If, as not unfrequently happens, the imagination of the spectator is more powerful than that of the painter, by leaving ideas to be suggested the artist allows latitude to the imagination of the former which he has impelled into action in a proper direction. If he leaves nothing to be suggested, he confines the spectator's imagination to his own narrow limits. As has already been remarked, slight sketches and engravings are sometimes, especially in imaginative compositions, of more value than finished paintings, because they admit of so much being suggested, while the latter allow no scope for this purpose.
Many objects owe their effect and beauty to the ideas which they serve to suggest, possessing in themselves but little to move us. Thus the representation of a human figure under intense emotion may in itself, in certain instances, be less pleasing than one in repose ; but the ideas suggested by the former of anguish or passion, render it far more exciting than the other. Hence also the representation of a dead body may be more striking than that of a live one, full of vigour, and in the intensity of action, on account of the suggestions which it calls forth.
The suggestion of ideas by which our mind is referred to some object or quality not actually existent in the one before us, has a powerful influence in determining the direction both of our mental operations and our emotions, in the case alike of works of nature and those of art. We are influenced on observing the countenance of a man by the ideas of virtue or talent suggested ; and on viewing a building or a statue, by a consideration of the uses to which the one is appropriated, or of the individual which the other represents. Many works of art depend entirely, indeed, on the ideas they serve to suggest, not on those they directly call forth. Such ideas are to them their very soul. The work itself is but the body or frame for the intellectual principle or being. To suggestion of this nature there is, indeed, no limit. It is as infinite in its efforts as is the range of imagination itself.