Some Brief Suggestions of My Main Beliefs in Art, 1922
I shall attempt to write some brief suggestions of my main beliefs in art. If they seem vague, I can plead that the artist is filled with the desire to express through vision alone. When he speaks, it is with the good (though perhaps unfortunate) intention of bridging, however inadequately, the gap which exists between the aesthetic and rationalistic extremes. When he speaks he is painfully aware of the strangeness of his medium and that his muse is displeased at the digression. That, in a word, he is perilously close to talking rubbish.
Since the thirteenth century there has been a steady decline in art. Individuals here and there, it is true, have not floated downstream. Some have breasted the current: El Greco, for example, is an extreme outstanding figure which comes to mind. But, generally speaking, as the natural sciences were developed and man became more and more practical, superseding his more balanced progenitor, art declined. A balanced man, I believe (I make the statement with some timidity today) is one who recognizes two coexisting realities: the reality of the divine law and the reality of the natural law, and furthermore (a most important point) knows the former reality as the greater, uninterrupted and eternal. I am concerned then with the Christian culture.
Now art in its essence is neither practical nor religious. It is play. For play is that unique activity of man which, in itself, is neither holy nor unholy. If it is either it is not. That play is a record of the soul’s life united with the life of the body (with their intermediates—emotion and intellect). That record is great in proportion as it shows a greater or lesser mystical (or spiritual) life in relation to the physical life. Mary and Martha.
We are pretty well aware of the record of material life: in painting, the tactile and optical reality. This “optical reality” alone does not express life: the content, the soul is missing.
Let me explain. The picture most enjoyed up till today was a “likeness” and a “likeness only.” It described but it did not express, it was dead. It may have been technically wonderful, yet that picture was dead. Why? Because the soul of the painter was dead. By and large, the dead painting—painting which is wonderfully realistic description and description alone – has been praised, bought, and generally bothered about very seriously for many years. With the fine exceptions here and there this development of description alone in a painting has been going on for several centuries. The first break came in the fourteenth century. By “break” I mean that the more important part of painting (or any art)—the expressive—began to be the less important. Why was this? I believe it was because the more important part of man—his soul—began to be the less important. I believe that the soul is the one important, central, permanent part of man. I believe that it is form, objective, and a reality. I believe that there is no living form in nature (what an artist goes out to with his sketching trips) except the living form which man’s living soul gives to it. I believe that soul is one with the body, and consequently one with the emotion and the intellect, but also more important than any of these.
When the soul functions, the play of the artist becomes serious play imbued with a mysterious power—the power of the imagination. The imagination may be defined as the esthetic counterpoint of the soul. Its life is fed utterly by the vitality of the soul. It records the immanent and transcendental life of the soul.
How is this life of the soul evident in a painting? What do I mean when I speak of this expression which is embedded in, and at one with description? I mean exactly that in painting, side by side with description, runs this abstract design which informs the work, unifies it, and gives it life. When there is a unity of form in a painting we call it design. Many draw but few design. After our first enjoyment of whatever descriptive, optical pleasure (the sensuous and the tactile) there may be in a work of art, comes the delight of the imagination: “reading” the rhythm, overtone with, on and against overtone.
The varieties of rhythm are infinite. They are personal and they are the permanent stuff of this our world, the delight of the lovers of beauty. The loves, victories, or defeats, triumphs, all movements of the soul, in fact live for us in the rhythms of our peers, the artists. A living history is rhythm, not the obvious description. This description often belies the content man and faery-like, confuses the dull.
There is the rhythm sympathetic. The opening rhythm of the first life of the soul, a mood, a thing of crescendos and of love: fluid and yielding, of soft modulation, gently warm and full of light. Without this rhythm all rhythms fail. One plane, the unity of one.
Then there is the rhythm measured and spacial, steady, of clear vision, slow and processional, central and objective, the cool rhythm of the horizontal and the vertical, the unity of two. The tranquil rest before the battle. The balanced pause; the morning epic.
Comes the rhythm dramatic to strike when loves grows warm and cloys. Like a bolt of lightning it comes, the harmony of opposition, the balance of three. The prism which splits the song and shatters it crashing into a thousand dancing shapes. A brilliant Gothic thing, full-band with crystal air and feather edge, the tonic of the soul. The mind has entered.
Here I hesitate. I am concerned with this thing, the Gothic, the dramatic. It is literally the crux of the affair, the gateway to the promised land. Through this gate, and only through it, may we hope to come to the meadows and hills of the high gods. Artists we have had, armed with the wrath of Moses or the stoicism of Greece and Rome. They loom large and the muse knows them not.