Theatre Of Today - The Artistic Forces: Pure Design

( Originally Published 1914 )

PURE design in works of representative art (such as pictures), is an artificial abstraction from practical artistic problems. It performs for us the service which abstraction and generalisation perform for us in any case helps us to find our way about in a maze of apparently unrelated facts. The "rules" of political economy or ethics are only abstractions which enable us to order our minds in facing the facts of wealth-production or human conduct. But they must be regarded as reflecting facts, not as governing them; they must be held constantly subject to revision. If we stop with our abstract deductions we are often false to the facts. On the other hand, we cannot en-visage the facts except through the help of abstract deductions. Abstraction helps us to think; it must not tyrannise over our thinking.

This is the value of "pure design." It helps the artist to grasp many facts about the pictures he has studied and to order his mind while he makes new ones. An artist, for instance, looks at a picture, say an interior with a seated figure. In the first instance the picture is a representation of a natural scene. But after looking at it for a time, he ceases to see the window, the table, the seated figure (perhaps he gets bored with these facts) and sees only the outlines. He sees vertical lines and horizontal lines, a curve here gently contrasting with a solid mass there. These please him and he wonders how to produce a similar pleasing effect in his picture. Now to go through a process of experimentation, painting many doors, tables, and seated women until he finds a beautiful combination of lines, would be an unwise waste of energy. So he abstracts from the actual facts, regards the lines as values in themselves, and experiments with these values, exactly as a mathematician abstracts from the numbers in a group of arithmetical problems and uses letters to rep-resent the similar terms in each problem. And just as the mathematician reaches thereby a result which can easily be applied to all his problems, so the artist, experimenting with abstract (or "pure") design, reaches a set of conclusions, which he will call laws or principles, which he can apply to all his pictures.

But the working artist may not stop here. He may become fascinated with his abstract problem and consider it the whole problem. He may say, as Whistler did, that the thing represented is of no value (can be seen, in fact, every day in the real world) ; what is of value is the relations of the abstract qualities. He will see all his pictures merely as problems in pure design, pure colour, and so on. This is what Whistler meant when he said that a portrait should be just as beautiful upside down as right side up. And the layman can get a glimpse of his feeling by studying a good picture —say Whistler's portrait of Sarasate; here the delicately poised violin bow, contrasting with the vertical line of the picture, the gentle but organic outline of the figure, all can be felt as things of beauty in themselves.

The workers in all the arts must make use of these abstractions to avoid frittering away their time. But the layman while benefiting from their results need not accept the abstract "laws" any more than he would accept those of the theoretical ethicist or economist. In the modern theatre the artists' influence has been so strong that we begin to feel pure design as a value in itself. But we ought to regard it only as a means of envisaging and ordering the practical facts.

"Design" is a technical word precious to the working artist, because it represents things which to him are precious. But we can give it a true every day meaning. "Design" in art is simply what it is in life concrete purpose. Once the artist has abstracted from the door, table, and seated figure, he finds he must do some-thing with the lines which remain. What he will do (always, remember, in terms of the lines themselves, since he has abstracted from everything else), what his purpose is with these lines to create a certain centre of interest, with rhythm and balance, or what not this is his design.

It is evident that the older stage settings totally lacked any design in this sense. The only function which was given them was a representative one. And perhaps the stage designers would never have thought of giving purpose to their lines except for the growing simplicity of stage settings demanded by the taste of the time. Once we have reduced the "Faust" Prison-scene to a wall, a door, a gate, and the open sky, we find ourselves limited to a few lines and surfaces. No producer with an artistic sense can resist using these lines with some purpose. This pressure of simplicity we may take to be the origin of pure design in modern stage-settings.

The elements, we have said, are lines and masses nothing more. Lines and masses can come to have a very great meaning not meaning in the layman's sense, as the "meaning" of a sentence, but meaning in terms of pure design. What wonders can be done with a few lines, or with a few masses of black or of colour, or with one or two details important ones ! Stand before some Gothic cathedral — close to it. Look against its wall and upward, and let those lines engrave themselves upon your eyeballs lines one after another pressing tirelessly up into space. Forget that life is made of facts, forget that there is a cheap café just behind you. Let the world blot itself out and let only those lines remain. You seem to ascend with them whither? That you cannot tell; upward! that is the whole of it. The noises of the city are a blur ; your thoughts become misty. Only those lines remain, striving upward. And they will remain and strive, most likely, after half a dozen governments, liberal, revolutionary, and reactionary, have frittered themselves away.

Something like this is the effect of line pure line, in the theatre. The house is dark ; only through a mystic frame, "a sheet of paper but two inches square," throbbing in a subdued light, are seen lines which seem "to tower miles in the air." This is the sort of stuff to make infinity visible.

But this is not all. Behind the aspiring lines of the cathedral, airy and thread-like in themselves, was a solid mass of masonry, hauled from a distance and built up with we know not how much weary labour of men. What firmly supports lines and gives them their meaning, is mass. Imagine yourself rested, passive, looking into this wonderful theatre frame, seeing be-sides a few mighty lines, two or three great masses, one narrow and rising out of sight on one side, and another shorter, more compact and limited, to balance with the other masses solid, impenetrable, and eternal. There is something in these primitive natural forces which speaks to us as ideas cannot. They are of the very stuff of earth and of nature out of which all ideas and refinements grow. In their simplicity they feed our senses, as a great idea feeds the mind.

These abstract elements have to the artist a meaning, not as we say that a Gothic cathedral expresses a "sense of aspiration," or a Greek temple a "sense of completeness," but a definite sensuous reaction for each element, like the various chords in music. These elements are more or less definite units of value, which can be contrasted and compared with other units, producing new combinations, new complex values, and new sensuous experiences. Thus the artist can build up a whole language out of his lines and surfaces, as rich, as varied, as flexible, as our language of words and syntax.

In the strict sense, pure design can exist only by and for itself, else it is not "pure." In this sense, only decorations composed of lines and surfaces, representing nothing, can be called pure design. Pure decoration is abstract, though perhaps only in a philosophical sense an "abstraction." In the present chapter, how-ever, we are considering only the pure-design element in stage pictures, which are all to some extent representative. This has become a conscious element, and is easily to be felt by a sensitive observer. Therefore we are justified in speaking of it as pure design, though it is only a subsidiary factor in a representative picture.

Pure design is "intensive" in spirit in that you get an additional value from it not by adding a new detail but by looking a second time at the old. The subtle interplay of relations that can be obtained from the balance and rhythm of a few selected straight lines, curves, and masses, is enormous. But that is the artist's affair.

On the stage a pure design usually has some representative function. Or rather the design is the abstract vision of the representative stage picture; it can only theoretically be separated from the thing represented. And this picture finds its representative function enhanced and not diminished when the feeling for pure de-sign is introduced into it. For the spirit of pure de-sign, which always desires order and rejects any additional detail that might destroy balance and orderliness, lends to the carefully selected lines and masses a greater importance and emphasis, enabling the designer to point the poetic effect or to centre the interest upon some spot in the scene with much more accuracy and delicacy than would be possible if the picture were cluttered with unpurposed details.

Suppose the stage to consist merely of low steps, with gigantic curtains rolling in from either side, and in many folds (each forming a high vertical line), re-treating toward the open sky just visible between the cleft which the converging curtains leave. This is a rough description of Gordon Craig's design for Act I, scene iv, of the famous "Hamlet" which was produced at the Art Theatre in Moscow. Here we have essentially a pure design in vertical lines nothing more. With an irregular persistence these lines carry upward into space. The only horizontal lines are those of the steps, which contrast with and accentuate the vertical lines. This is all simple enough, but it is on record that the preparation for the production occupied full two years' time, not a little of which was devoted to arranging the exact folds of the curtains.

Or imagine a small dark room. In it are only two light spots one the window in the upper left hand corner of the picture, the other the face of an old man, toward the lower right hand corner. This is Martersteig's design for the thirteenth scene of the second part of "Faust" produced at Cologne in 1907. The large, square, dead light spot contrasts with the small tortured face. The living intensity of the small spot balances with the blankness of the large one This latter is off in one corner of the picture, the former (the centre of interest, of course) is well toward the centre. This is essentially a pure design in mass. A single straight candlestick on the table contrasts with Faust's bent figure, and this adds a touch of pure de-sign in line.

Or imagine a stage with two square pillars at each side and a row of steps between. An ill-defined mass, perhaps a coffin, rests in the middle on the platform, and on each side stands a tall torch shooting three thin flames upward into space. On the top step a woman sits, weeping. Here is a very simple arrangement of vertical and horizontal lines, against a supporting mass the great mass of darkness at the back. But the vertical lines dominate witness the living flames of the torch. This is G. Wunderwald's design for the "Cathedral scene" in Hebbel's "Die Niebelungen."

To the artist such scenes are first of all arrangements in lines and masses. But their chief value on the modern stage lies in their ability to carry poetical suggestion. Here is a set of simple cathedral piers, grouped in a semicircle as a sort of apse. The piers join high above the stage into noble Gothic arches. That is all. It is Linnebach's setting for the German version of "Everyman," at the Royal Theatre in Dresden. Here we have the ecclesiastical tone of the drama shadowed forth in its simplest form, with its most direct symbols. A Gothic pier and arch what suggests the church's spiritual motherhood more powerfully than this?

Or here is a huge doorway, two and a half times as high as it is wide, set in a bare stone wall and approached by steps. It is Gordon Craig's design for Sophocles' "Elektra." What can more immediately suggest the classic severity of the play, with its mystery of immense things beyond, than this stark doorway?

Or here is the exterior of a prison tower, apparently set on a parapet, out in the open sky. The lines some-how converge to carry the interest toward those barred gates from which a woman will presently step forth. It is the last scene of the first part of "Faust," Martersteig again, in the famous Cologne production.

The apse and the door "represent" nothing; the prison represents a prison. But all three take the essential features of the scene, combine them so that the lines and masses shall have beauty and meaning, and order them so that the scenes shall with simple materials have the maximum of poetic suggestiveness. And all three make use of what the artists have provided for our use through their device of the abstraction of pure design.

But nearly all stage pictures, which we have been analysing according to the view of the designer, are fundamentally poetic and dramatic. The Hamlet scene, by its designer's own confession, is meant to suggest "a lonely soul in a dark place." The scene from the second part of "Faust" is meant to make us feel the apartness of Faust from "all things transitory," which are perhaps just suggested by the window, behind which, though dimly, the world still lives. The Hebbel scene may suggest the oppressive blackness of the woman's soul. In short, pure design on the stage, though it has a value of its own, should not be regarded as a language of beauty unapplied to the values of life.

Many artists want to consider pure design, or de-sign and colour, as the whole of a picture. Don't sup-pose that the stage is free from this tendency. A sincere artist will be astonishingly selfish in the things that concern his art. If we put one of the abstract artists in charge of our theatre we may expect to see the drama distorted into violent shapes, or even robbed of all its proper meaning, for the sake of making the stage designs "pure." Many excellent producers are doing this now. There will probably always be this danger that pure design will try to monopolise the stage picture. It is for the audience everywhere to like what it likes, to listen open-mindedly to what a sincere artist has to say, but then to accept its own judgment instead of that of any specialist.

But though pure design can become a most tyrannical master we must not forget its constant service to art. Every picture will contain the elements of pure design, whether or no. We want these elements to be beautiful. And while no stage picture, perhaps, should be "just as good up side down," each should be artistically satisfying to one who feels the values of pure design.

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