A Peep at the Art Galeries
|Saints and Sinners|| A Peep at the Art Galeries
written by Barker Fairley
|From The Canadian Forum October 1920, p.19|
After several years in Canada, there was considerable elation in the prospect of a descent on some of the European galleries. Not an organised attack on them, of course, but merely a series of skirmishes. We knew that something solemn was under way in the studios of London and Paris. Were not the art critics holding their own with politics and literature in our favourite weeklies? How would it all look, we asked, to Canadian eyes? And how would the "home stuff" look when we came back.
London is full of art shows, big and little. We had to choose and sample. The Royal Academy was like some large, glittering reception, prosperous, overcrowded, and exhausting. The chandeliers tinkled incessantly. And we perspired. At the other extreme was some X, Y, or Z show, very self-conscious and rather conceited. In such company we were reminded everywhere of the underlying, half-whispered statement, "Aren't we devils?" It was clear in a [p. 20] moment that all these people smoked cigarettes from which they flicked the ash with their little fingers. But it was at the New English Art Club that we were tempted to pause and consider, interested, if not exactly spell-bound. Here was a more tolerable mood, neither fatuous nor flaunting. It was fully alive, strenuous, reflective, modern. It was like a novel by J. D. Beresford or a copy of the New Statesman. We foregathered there with other Canadians and we all wondered why we were not more appreciative. We had expected to be a little more enthusiastic. But we couldn't disapprove.
We remembered opening nights at the O.S.A. which had warmed us more than this exhibition. And yet there were many worthy names before us. What was wrong? Perhaps it was all a little too coldly conceived, too intellectual, too theoretical. We cannot quarrel with theory. It is part of the natural fodder of an artist. But theory is not enough to produce great art. It is only one side of the story and the other side is some objective world in which the theory can lose itself, find itself, dissolve itself. Call it what you will. The place for theory in the finished work is that of the skylark that loses itself in the blue, heard but not seen, forgotten yet flooding the air with melody. In many of these modern paintings the theory sits on the fence and croaks. Or it just stares at you coldly, which is still worse.
Is it not a fact that artists of the great epochs always had some objective field to work in, some embodied religion, some landscape region, some varied human type? In a word, something more or less circumscribed to interpret? There is no such feeling abroad in London. The theory and talent and training are there but the subjects have to be fished for. Hence they are nearly always odd and unusual, odd corners of a room, odd angles of a face, odd lighting, odd gestures — always odd. One feels of some of these younger painters that given a run of bad luck they might fail to find anything at all that they wholeheartedly wanted to paint for its own sake and so stop painting from sheer lack of affection for the tangible world. In England, possibly, it is hard to be an original landscapist, because the field is, in a sense, overworked. Philosophies and human societies are curiously jumbled and incoherent. The artist cannot immerse himself in them. And so he feels his way from oddity to oddity,
- " Unloading hell behind him step by step."
There is after all little native inspiration in English art at present. It is the French who pull the strings, and turning to the modern Frenchmen, who are usually represented inadequately in London but less inadequately in Paris where we went in pursuit, we found in them the same "discontinuity of vision", the same jumping from oddity to oddity. It was more interesting here because it was less derivative. Picasso, Van Goch(sic!), and others stick in one's mind longer than the Londoners. But there was not yet the final satisfaction that comes frcm contemplating some organic movement of the human spirit. It may come any time and the seed is possibly sown. But it hasn't sprung up yet. It is most likely to spring up somewhere in Europe or America where there is not only someone who wants to paint but also something wanting to be painted.
It was here that we Trans-Atlantics harked back to Eastern Canada. Is there not a great artistic prospect for Canada? There are enough scrupulous artists in the country to carry the seed of Cézanne — if that be the name for it — and it would appear that there is also the soil in which it can lose itself and grow. Take the case of Lawren Harris, who is in some ways peculiarly North American. If he lived in London he would be playing leap-frog with oddities like his artist contemporaries there, Nevinson and others. In Canada he can vent his theories just as freely, but he does so with more consistent results, because there are definite fields of work to hold him. And so he throws his theories into the Ward, which is older than he, and leaves the Ward only to return to it again. Or he goes repeatedly to the North and makes hundreds of sketches in one relatively small area at one brief season of the year. This makes for balance and for healthy art.
All this by way of pointing to Canada's opportunity. A mild adventure in intellectually risky generalisations. No more. Perhaps what looks like a movement in prospect becomes in retrospect the emergence of one or two uncommon individuals. Certainly in looking back over our little excursion the many disappear and the few remain. In London Augustus John sticks out. His recent portraits are forceful and a little defiant, but for energy and subjective penetration they make the National Portrait Society a rather tame affair and in general character they convincingly fit in with the turbulent war period in which they were executcd. In that sense they mirror English society of this decade. It is an exciting mirror, not always, however, quite clean. One could wish that some of his really sympathetic studies of Canadian soldiers could be brought to Canada and perhaps kept here in their appropriate home. There is a vigorous portrait of Sir Robert Borden, too, that ought to come.
Other individuals who stay in the memory are Forain, the Parisian illustrator and etcher, and Wilson Steer in his swift watercolour sketches. A trip to [p. 21] Norwich and a trip to Switzerland added a name or two. At Norwich there was a good showing of the old Norwich school to which the Studio has devoted a recent supplement. But for Crome the National Gallery, admirably managed at present by the way, is the best place. And for Cotman the Print Room of the British Museum, where — again, by the way — there is just now a wonderful showing of old Chinese paintings, which have all the technical wonder of the Japanese and none of their cold-bloodedness.
Our meanderings may be terminated in Switzerland with a peep at the Holbein drawings in Basel, a town which has something of Holbein's character to this day; another peep at a couple of impeccable Segantinis, about which there is simply nothing to be said; and a third peep at the less famous work of Ferdinand Hodler, who only died two or three years ago, much honoured in Switzerland. He made his name in Germany, where he was later ostracized for protesting against the bombardment of Rheims Cathedral. A large historical picture of his in the University of Jena was in consequence boarded up during the war by the authorities. The students have since pulled down the boards. As a philosopher, a Platonist, in paint Hodler is worth serious examination. He has rendered the largest of themes, day, night, love, truth, rapture, disillusion in mural paintings wholly devoid of literary fallacy, full of expressive rhythm and colour, and intensely original. Compared with most of his twentieth-century contemporaries in Paris and London his work seems peculiarly complete and independent. He would seem to have a certain message for artists and critics of today, but this is not the place to be positive about it.
His message is not likely to be magisterial. It will be all the healthier for that. A great deal is talked nowadays about movements and influences in art. The fact may be that there has been too much movement, too much influence of one man upon another, too little personal initiative. Perhaps this is being felt in London where one-man shows and smaller group shows are rapidly multiplying. It is these specialized exhibitions that attract. Toronto has seen the beginning of such exhibitions in the last year or two and it is to be hoped that more will be held in the near future. One or two smaller galleries or show-rooms somewhere in the city would be a great help in this direction.
We hear too that a Canadian exhibition is likely to go to London shortly. It might score a real success, but it will have to be select. If it is in the nature of an academy show it will probably fall flat. What is wanted is some principle of close selection, so that few pictures go and these the very best and most recent and most peculiarly Canadian. It isn't easy to say how this is to be done, but it is worth strenuous thinking. There is a great opportunity in London and it must not be trifled with. It might not be offered again. Certainly not for many years.
- Barker Fairley.
- 1. ↑ The Borden and soldiers' portraits are now in Canada with the War Records.