« AnteriorContinuar »
etching needle as a medium of expression; and the second published in a collected form the various addresses and lectures on Art that he has delivered during the course of the last ten years.
Mr. Poynter was, we believe, the first Slade Professor at University College, London, and since then has become director of the Art Department at South Kensington. In both these positions he has had exceptional opportunities for studying the question of art training, and, owing to the influence he has exercised and does exercise over a large number of those who will be our future artists, his words are, as he himself says in the preface to his work, 'in some sense of importance for right and wrong.' But it is not only from such causes that our author is entitled to consideration; he is well known amongst those who are at all acquainted with art as a studious and laborious painter, as a draughtsman of exceptional earnestness and considerable skill, and as an artist who has always kept himself proudly aloof from all the popular tricks by which public applause is won, and relied for the appreciation of his art upon the sincerity of its purpose. From such a man, then, in such a position, words of counsel and warning have great power, and young artists can scarcely help following the advice of one who is not only the director of their practice, but their equal in enthusiasm, and their superior in skill. In much that Mr. Poynter says we heartily coincide-in his estimate, for instance, of the dignity of his profession, and the way in which such dignity is imperilled by production for the picture dealer; in the necessity for an artist of keeping a high ideal always before him, and being above the level of popular opinion and fashion. There is nothing new in all this, but it well bears repetition, especially at the present time, and Mr. Poynter's brief, incisive words of scorn and derision may well influence those over whom the gentler pleading of Ruskin has passed unheeded.
But, unfortunately, our author by no means confines his speech to such matters, but goes out of his way to attack, or rather to depreciate, all those artists and schools whose practice differs from his own. It is not sufficient for him to dilate upon the beauty of Michelangelo, without claiming for him a superiority above all artists, past, present, and to come. He cannot talk about figure painting without falling into disparagement, equally unjust and irrelevant, of landscape. He will not even allow that the two arts stand upon the same level. And, what we must consider to be the greatest mistake of all in a work like the present, is that in one long lecture he holds up to the contempt of his pupils the greatest art writer of the world, speaking of him in language which is almost ludicrous in its exaggeration of abuse. To say of Mr. Ruskin that he seems to have no perception whatever of beauty of form,' that he has never taken into consideration the great artistic qualities of design and harmony,' that even in his first splendid volume he is apparently blind to those higher beauties in nature which go to the making of good landscape art,' that he is ignorant of the practical side of art;'
and to apply to him such phrases as rancorous criticism,' 'depth of ignorance,' glaring perversions,' 'puerile distinctions,' and 'priestly intolerance'—all this can only recoil on the writer, and the more certainly so as the whole lecture appears to have been instigated by a very harmless criticism of Mr. Ruskin's upon a semi-decorative work of Mr. Poynter's.
But instead of dwelling on this unhappy outbreak of Mr. Poynter's, we prefer to examine the main doctrines that our author lays down for the guidance of the young artists of England. Two chief theories run throughout his book, and are reiterated again and again in one shape or another. Of these the first is the superiority of the study of Michelangelo to that of any other artist; the assertion that he is the greatest artist of the greatest school, and that all our endeavours must be made on the same method as his. The second is almost a corollary from the first-namely, the doctrine that landscape painting is a secondary art.
From both these theories we venture to dissent: we think them not only wrong, but distinctly mischievous in their tendency; and though we can hardly hope to counteract the effect that must be produced upon Mr. Poynter's students by the emphatic words of their master, we hope that if there be here and there one who has followed his theories with but a doubtful assent, who has felt angry with himself because he preferred Titian or Tintoretto to the great Florentine, whose spirit has sunk as he heard landscape painting wholly degraded from all high offices, and stigmatised as only a recording and not a creative art-if, we say, there be any such who chance to read these pages, we trust that it may be possible to show them a few reasons why they should still cling to their ancient preferences and burn their incense upon its accustomed altar. We shall try and find some ground for thinking that this fair world-beauty has a connection with our own lives, as true, though perhaps not as evident, as the sufferings of martyrs and the triumphs of archangels, and that the creative power of man's art may have as full and as fitting exercise in seeking to trace and emphasise the connection between man and the world he lives in, as in determining the more apparent, though not more sublime, truths of imaginative passion.
There can be no more painfully absurd result of art teaching than that we should have a generation of artists growing up around us, half Italians of the sixteenth, half Englishmen of the nineteenth century, striving to graft the beliefs of the present day on the theories and practices of the Renaissance. Because an artistic nation, in a certain phase of their national life, surrounded by peculiar influences, produced a peculiar and singularly refined art, are we bound therefore to conclude that another nation, with a life wholly different, and creeds wholly changed, must form their art upon the same lines to attain a corresponding perfection? Yet this assumption is one which Mr. Poynter considers to be so certain, that he enunciates it as beyond dispute.
But let us look at his arguments. If there be one thing more than another that is necessary for a young student to be warned against, it is exaggeration, which is chiefly caused by losing sight of relative proportion. Yet if there be one master in the world who is more likely to lead a student into an exaggerated and onesided view of art than another, it is the great Florentine of whom we are speaking. As might be expected, Mr. Poynter anticipates this objection, calls it a common misconception (that Michelangelo's works are exaggerated), and accounts for it by asserting that it is due to two causes. The first is that the Last Judgment,' which is the best and most universally known' of his works, is somewhat exaggerated, as it was done when he was sixty years old, by which time his magnificent manner had possibly developed into something of mannerism;' the second cause is that every engraver has consistently exaggerated his drawing of limbs and muscles in a way which they would never dream of using with another man's work; in fact, they think it necessary to import into their work every exaggerated defect which they find in the works of his imitators, or rather the defects of exaggeration to be found in schools formed on Raphael after his death. Raphael himself is not exempt from having made exaggerated imitations of the great master.'
Now, it will, we think, be as evident to our readers as it is to us that of these two statements the first is a partial admission of the truth of the charge, and the second is a gratuitous assumption which is exceptionally difficult of belief; for it is always difficult to believe that a class of independent men should uniformly agree in acting in a way contrary to their usual practice. But, even supposing this assertion and the following one, which accuses Raphael of the same error, to be correct, does it not prove our case almost as well as if incorrect? For if the works of any master are of such a kind that the whole body of engravers, and with them one of the greatest artists of the world, cannot copy those works without exaggeration, can we hope that students of our own day, far removed from the spirit of the master's work, and confessedly inexperienced, can hope to succeed where Raphael failed? Must there not be something exaggerated in that painting which necessitates exaggeration in all those who have tried to copy it? And is it not more likely to be the case, that the gigantic genius of the original painter is sufficient to obscure the exaggeration of his method, than that this should be due to wilful misrepresentation by all subsequent imitators? The genius being absent, the method reveals its inherent defects, and the popular misconception is no misconception at all, but only the statement of a partial truth. Nor is this the only technical drawback to Michelangelo's example being a good one for our students to follow; another is to be found in the comparative absence of pure colouring. Between Giotto on the one hand and Michelangelo on the other—that is, between a great artist whose work was entirely in pure colour and one whose work was almost wholly in secondary
tints-Titian preserves the exact mean. He is as pure though not as light a colourist as Giotto himself, and he has all the beauty of tone that forms so great an element in Michelangelo's pictures. Now, at the present day, the love of pure colour has almost disappeared from the world-at all events from that part of the world that is represented by schools of art. After spending many days of careful examination, at the late Universal Exhibition at Paris, in last year's Salon and Academy, and later still at the International Art Exhibition at Munich, we have been struck by no single fact so much as the deliberate refusal of the great schools of art to attempt to deal with the intricacies of pure colouring. The French, the Belgian, the Düsseldorf, the Berlin, the Russian, the Swedish, and Norwegian have, roughly speaking, ceased to attempt it; the Italian and Spanish attempt only to reproduce the glittering effect of colour without study of its gradations; and there is but a very small section of the English school that make colour their primary object.
If there is one thing more than another that needs impressing upon students and the art world generally, it is the supreme beauty of the great Italian masters of colour, above all of Titian, Giorgione, and Bellini, and therefore we hold it to be a most serious and culpable error of Mr. Poynter to claim such entire preeminence for Michelangelo's work, and thereby leaving his pupils to imagine that it excels in subtlety and gorgeousness of colour, as well as in masterly delineation of form. It does not do so when compared with the oil paintings of the other Italian masters; nay, the very conditions of fresco are fatal to the finer qualities of great colouring, and it is wholly by fresco that Michelangelo must be judged. Oil painting he professedly despised, and despised for the very reason that it admitted of this elaboration of detail and subtlety of colour.
But our present business is not with the comparative merits of fresco and oil painting. We are only concerned to show that it was not to be expected that all the greater qualities of colouring could be found in a master who chose by preference the medium in which they were least expressible; and it is to be noticed that those qualities of sober richness, and broad masses of light and shade, of which fresco is especially capable, have an especial worth of their own quite outside and different to that of the great Venetian colourists, and are as powerful and suitable for works on a grand scale, and of great subjects, as is the more delicate beauty of any finer variety of painting for works on a smaller scale and simpler or more ordinary subjects. It must be remembered that those to whom Mr. Poynter mainly addresses his words, are students of oil painting, not of fresco, and that, therefore, to claim their chief admiration and closest study for a master who chose fresco under conditions of art quite different from the present, is as appropriate as if a goldsmith should send his apprentices to study the manufacture of horse-shoes.
Lastly, and chief of all the drawbacks to Michelangelo's example
being the safest guide for the pupil, we have this certain fact, that his is the most personal of methods. His compositions impress us more as works of one special man than as records of a special subject. Instead of losing sight of the man in the work, we rather reverse the process, and in our wondering admiration at the giant imagination and the daring strength of his genius, we forget his work in contemplating himself. He is at once the most striking and the least enthralling of painters. He is above the ranks of men on the mountain height, as Mr. Poynter says, but he forgets that there is a humanity beneath his feet; he reigns apart, grand but solitary. We can fancy that Raphael's women were clasped in tender arms, and his children nursed on soft maternal breasts; we can follow and sympathise with Titian's deification of love and beauty, penetrated as it is with a but too evident human feeling; we can rejoice in the pride of life with Veronese and Rubens, and feel quiet kinship with the dreaming eyes that gaze at us out of Giorgione's pictures; for in all these there is the touch of human fellowship, and even of human weakness. But it is not so with Michelangelo's works. In those vast designs, grand as is the imaginative conception, there is scarcely a trace of the humanity of which we speak, nor have the figures, as a rule, any personality, other than that bestowed upon them by the artist himself, the reflection of his overpowering genius. The spectators move, as it were, in a world of shadows, in which, as in the fabled under-world, all expectancy, passion, and feeling have faded away beneath the cold hands of Proserpina
Here where the world is quiet,
Here where all trouble seems
It is this intense self-concentration, this absence from his pictures of all trace of social feeling and interdependence, that renders Michelangelo so perilous an example for students of painting, and especially for those of the present day; for the great fault of modern art is its lifelessness, its want of vital feeling, its perilous approach to manufacture. One side of this practice may be seen in those works of mere costume and historical detail that Mr. Poynter scorns so heartily; but another, and possibly a more perilous one (more perilous because it seduces a better body of artists), is to be found in the theory which inculcates the reproduction of ancient styles of art, and imagines that by the imitation of the ancient form, there can be gained the inspiration of the ancient spirit.
Before quoting Mr. Poynter's words as to the inferiority of landscape, let us first notice the error into which he and others of the same school constantly fall, in putting figure and landscape painting in opposition to one another, and assigning to either a distinct and separate preeminence. It is easy to understand the origin of such an error, and it is obvious that the field of art is so wide as to render it almost