Art And Literature by George William Russell

Story type: Essay


After the publication of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies the writer who ventures to speak of art and literature in the same breath needs some courage. Since the death of Whistler, his opinions about the independence of art from the moral ideas with which literature is preoccupied have been generally accepted in the studios. The artist who is praised by a literary man would hardly be human if he was not pleased; but he listens with impatience to any criticism or suggestion about the substance of his art or the form it should take. I had a friend, an artist of genius, and when we were both young we argued together about art on equal terms. It had not then occurred to him that any intelligence I might have displayed in writing verse did not entitle me to an opinion about modeling; but one day I found him reading Mr. Whistler’s Ten O’clock. The revolt of art against literature had reached Ireland. After that, while we were still good friends, he made me feel that I was an outsider, and when I ventured to plead for a national character in sculpture, his righteous anger–I might say his ferocity–forced me to talk of something else.

I was not convinced he was right, but years after I began to use the brush a little, and I remember painting a twilight from love of some strange colors and harmonious lines, and when one of my literary friends found that its interest depended on color and form, and that the idea in it could not readily be translated into words, and that it left him wishing that I would illustrate my poems or something that had a meaning, I veered round at once and understood Whistler, and how foolish I was to argue with John Hughes. I joined in the general insurrection of art against the domination of literature. But being a writer and much concerned with abstract ideas, I have never had the comfort and happiness of those who embrace this opinion with their whole being, and when I was asked to lecture, I thought that as I had no Irish Whistler to fear, I might speak of art in relation to these universal ideas which artists hold are for literature and not subject matter for art at all.

I must first say it was not my wish to speak. With a world of noble and immortal forms all about us, it seemed to me as unfitting that words without art or long labor in their making should be advertised as an attraction; that any one should be expected to sit here for an hour to listen to me or another upon a genius which speaks for itself. I was overruled by Mr. Lane. But it is all wrong, this desire to hear and hold opinions about art rather than to be moved by the art itself. I know twenty charlatans who will talk about art, but never lift their eyes to look at the pictures on the wall. I remember an Irish poet speaking about art a whole evening in a room hung round with pictures by Constable, Monet, and others, and he came into that room and went out of it without looking at those pictures. His interest in art was in the holding of opinions about it, and in hearing other opinions, which he could again talk about. I hope I have made some of you feel uncomfortable. This may, perhaps, seem malicious, but it is necessary to release artists from the dogmas of critics who are not artists.

I would not venture to speak here tonight if I thought that anything I said could be laid hold of and be turned into a formula, and used afterwards to torment some unfortunate artist. An artist will take with readiness advice or criticism from a fellow-artist, so far as his natural vanity permits; but he writhes under opinions derived from Ruskin or Tolstoi, the great theorists. You may ask indignantly, Can no one, then, speak about paintings or statues except painters or modelers? No; no one would condemn you to such painful silence and self-suppression. Artists would wish you to talk unceasingly about the emotions their pain of making pictures arouse in you; but, under lifelong enemies, do not suggest to artists the theories under which they should paint. That is hitting below the belt. The poor artist is as God made him; and no one, not even a Tolstoi, is competent to undertake his re-creation. His fellow-artists will pass on to him the tradition of using the brush. He may use it well or ill; but when you ask him to use his art to illustrate literary ideas, or ethical ideas, you are asking him to become a literary man or a preacher. The other arts have their obvious limitations. The literary man does not dare to demand of the musician that he shall be scientific or moral. The latter is safe in uttering every kind of profanity in sound so long as it is music. Musicians have their art to themselves. But the artist is tormented, and asked to reflect the thought of his time. Beauty is primarily what he is concerned with; and the only moral ideas which he can impart in a satisfactory way are the moral ideas naturally associated with beauty in its higher or lower forms. But I think, some of you are confuting me in your own minds at this moment. You say to yourselves: “But we have all about us the works of great artists whose inspiration not one will deny. He used his art to express great ethical ideas. He spoke again and again about these ideas. He was proud that his art was dedicated to their expression.” I am sorry to say that he did say many things which would have endeared him to Tolstoi and Ruskin, and for which I respect him as a man, and which as an artist I deplore. I deplore his speaking of ethical ideas as the inspiration of his art, because I think they were only the inspiration of his life; and where he is weakest in his appeal as an artist is where he summons consciously to his aid ethical ideas which find their proper expression in religion or literature or life.

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Watts wished to ennoble art by summoning to its aid the highest conceptions of literature; but in doing so he seems to me to imply that art needed such conceptions for its justification, that the pure artist mind, careless of these ideas, and only careful to make for itself a beautiful vision of things, was in a lower plane, and had a less spiritual message. Now that I deny. I deny absolutely that art needs to call to its aid, in order to justify or ennoble it, any abstract ideas about love or justice or mercy.

It may express none of these ideas, and yet express truths of its own as high and as essential to the being of man; and it is in spite of himself, in spite of his theories, that the work of Watts will have an enduring place in the history of art. You will ask then, “Can art express no moral ideas? Is it unmoral?” In the definite and restricted sense in which the words “ethical” and “moral” are generally used, art is, and must by its nature be unmoral. I do not mean “immoral,” and let no one represent me as saying art must be immoral by its very nature. There are dear newspaper men to whom it would be a delight to attribute to me such a saying; and never to let me forget that I said it. When I say that art is essentially unmoral, I mean that the first impulse to paint comes from something seen, either beauty of color or form or tone. It may be light which attracts the artist, or it may be some dimming of natural forms, until they seem to have more of the loveliness of mind than of nature. But it is the aesthetic, not the moral or ethical, nature which is stirred. The picture may afterwards be called “Charity,” or “Faith,” or “Hope”–and any of these words may make an apt title. But what looms up before the vision of the artist first of all is an image, and that is accepted on account of its fitness for a picture; and an image which was not pictorial would be rejected at once by any true artist, whether it was an illustration of the noblest moral conception or not. Whether a picture is moral or immoral will depend upon the character of the artist, and not upon the subject. A man will communicate his character in everything he touches. He cannot escape communicating it. He must be content with that silent witness, and not try to let the virtues shout out from his pictures. The fact is, art is essentially a spiritual thing, and its vision is perpetually turned to Ultimates. It is indefinable as spirit is. It perceives in life and nature those indefinable relations of one thing to another which to the religious thinker suggest a master mind in nature–a magician of the beautiful at work from hour to hour, from moment to moment, in a never-ceasing and solemn chariot motion in the heavens, in the perpetual and marvelous breathing forth of winds, in the motion of waters, and in the unending evolution of gay and delicate forms of leaf and wing.

The artist may be no philosopher, no mystic; he may be with or without a moral sense, he may not believe in more than his eye can see; but in so far as he can shape clay into beautiful and moving forms he is imitating Deity; when his eye has caught with delight some subtle relation between color and color there is mysticism in his vision. I am not concerned here to prove that there is a spirit in nature or humanity; but for those who ask from art a serious message, here, I say, is a way of receiving from art an inspiration the most profound that man can receive. When you ask from the artist that he should teach you, be careful that you are not asking him to be obvious, to utter platitudes–that you are not asking him to debase his art to make things easy for you, who are too indolent to climb to the mountain, but want it brought to your feet. There are people who pass by a nocturne by Whistler, a misty twilight by Corot, and who whisper solemnly before a Noel Paton as if they were in a Cathedral. Is God, then, only present when His Name is uttered? When we call a figure Time or Death, does it add dignity to it? What is the real inspiration we derive from that noble design by Mr. Watts? Not the comprehension of Time, not the nature of Death, but a revelation human form can express of the heroic dignity. Is it not more to us to know that man or woman can look half-divine, that they can wear an aspect such as we imagine belongs to the immortals, and to feel that if man is made in the image of his Creator, his Creator is the archetype of no ignoble thing? There were immortal powers in Watts’ mind when those figures surged up in it; but they were neither Time nor Death. He was rather near to his own archetype, and in that mood in which Emerson was when he said, “I the imperfect adore my own perfect.” Touch by touch, as the picture was built up, he was becoming conscious of some interior majesty in his own nature, and it was for himself more than for us he worked. “The oration is to the orator,” says Whitman, “and comes most back to him.” The artist, too, as he creates a beautiful form outside himself, creates within himself, or admits to his being a nobler beauty than his eyes have seen. His inspiration is spiritual in its origin, and there is always in it some strange story of the glory of the King.

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With man and his work we must take either a spiritual or a material point of view. All half-way beliefs are temporary and illogical. I prefer the spiritual with its admission of incalculable mystery and romance in nature, where we find the infinite folded in the atom, and feel how in the unconscious result and labor of man’s hand the Eternal is working Its will. You may say that this belongs more to psychology than to art criticism, but I am trying to make clear to you and to myself the relation which the mind which is in literature may rightly bear to the vision which is art. Are literature and ethics to dictate to Art its subjects? Is it right to demand that the artist’s work shall have an obviously intelligible message or meaning, which the intellect can abstract from it and relate to the conduct of life? My belief is that the most literature can do is to help to interpret art, and that art offers to it, as nature does, a vision of beauty, but of undefined significance.

No one asks or expects the clouds to shape themselves into ethical forms, or the sun to shine only on the just and not on the unjust also. It is vain to expect it, but there is something written about the heavens declaring the beauty of the Creator and the firmament showing His handiwork. If the artist can bring whatever of that vision has touched him into his work we should ask no more, and must not expect him to be more righteously minded than his Creator, or to add a finishing tag of moral to justify it all, to show that Deity is solemnly minded and no mere idle trifler with beauty like Whistler.

I have stated my belief that art is spiritual, that its genuine inspirations come from a higher plane of our being than the ethical or intellectual; and I think wherever literature or ethics have so dominated the mind of the artist that they change the form of his inspiration, his art loses its own peculiar power and gains nothing. We have here a picture of “Love steering the bark of Humanity.” I may put it rather crudely when I say that pictures like this are supposed to exert a power on the man who, for example, would beat his wife, so that love will be his after inspiration. Anyhow, ethical pictures are painted with some such intention belief. Now, art has great influence, but I do not believe this or any other picture would stop a man beating his wife if he wanted to. Art does not call sinners to repentance; that is not one of its powers. It fulfils rather another saying: “Unto them that have much shall be given,” bringing delight to those that are already sensitive to beauty. My own conviction is that ethical pictures are, if anything, immoral in their influence, as everything must be that forsakes the law of its own being, and that pictures like this only add to the vanity of people so righteously minded as to be aware of their own virtue. We will always have these concessions to passing phases of thought. We have had requests for the scientific painter–the man who will paint nature with geological accuracy, and man in accordance with evolutionary dogmas. He will find his eloquent literary defenders enchanted to find so much learning to point to in his work, but it will all pass. The true artist will still be instinctively spiritual.

Now I have used the word “spiritual” so often in connection with art that you may reasonably ask for some definition of my meaning. I am afraid it is easier to define spirituality in literature than in art. But a literary definition may help. Spirituality is the power certain minds have of apprehending formless spiritual essences, of seeing the eternal in the transitory, of relating the particular to the universal, the type to the archetype.

While I give this definition, I hope no artist will ever be insane enough to make it the guiding principle of his art. I shudder to think of any conscious attempt in a picture to relate the type to the archetype. It is a philosophical definition, solely intended for the spectator. I wish the artist only to paint his vision, and whether he paints this, or another world he imagines, if it is art it will be spiritual. I have given a definition of spirituality in literature, but how now relate it to art? How illustrate its presence? When Pater wrote his famous description of the Mona Lisa, that intense and enigmatic face had evoked a spiritual mood. When he saw in it the summed-up experience of many generations of humanity, he felt in the picture that relation of the particular to the universal I have spoken of. When we find human forms suggesting a superhuman dignity, as in Watts’ figures of Time and Death, or in the Phidian marbles, the type is there melting into the archetype. When Millet paints a peasant figure of today with some gesture we imagine the first Sower must have used, it is the eternal in it which makes the transitory impressive. But these are obvious instances, you will say, chosen from artists whose pictures lend themselves to this kind of exposition. What about the art of the landscape painter? Undeniably a form of art, where is the spirituality?

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I am afraid my intellect is not equal to talking up every picture that might be suggested and using it to illustrate my meaning, though I do not think I would despair of finally discovering the spiritual element in any picture I felt was art. However, I will go further. We have all felt some element of art lacking in the painter who goes to Killarney, Italy, or Switzerland, and brings us back a faithful representation of undeniably beautiful places. It is all there–the lofty mountains, the lakes, the local color; but what enchanted us in nature does not touch us in the picture. What we want is the spirit of the place evoked in us rather than the place itself. Art is neither pictured botany or geology. A great landscape is the expression of a mood of the human mind as definitely as music or poetry is. The artist is communicating his own emotions. There is some mystic significance in the color he employs; and then the doorways are opened, and we pass from sense into soul. We are looking into a soul when we are looking at a Turner, a Carot, or a Whistler, as surely as when in dream we find ourselves moving in strange countries which are yet within us, contained for all their seeming infinitudes in the little hollow of the brain. All this, I think, is undeniable; but perhaps not many of you will follow me, though you may understand me, if I go further and say, that in this, art is unconsciously also reaching out to archetypes, is lifting itself up to walk in that garden of the divine mind where, as the first Scripture says, it created “flowers before they were in the field and every herb before it grew.” A man may sit in an armchair and travel farther than ever Columbus traveled; and no one can say how far Turner, in his search after light, had not journeyed into the lost Eden, and he himself may have been there most surely at the last when his pictures had become a blaze of incoherent light.

You may say now that I have objected to literature dominating the arts, and yet I have drawn from pictures a most complicated theory. I have felt a little, indeed, as if I was marching through subtleties to the dismemberment of my mind, but I do not think I have anywhere contradicted myself or suggested that an artist should work on these speculations. These may rightly arise in the mind of the onlooker who will regard a work of art with his whole nature, not merely with the aesthetic sense, and who will naturally pass from the first delight of vision into a psychological analysis. A profound nature will always awaken profound reflections. There are heads by Da Vinci as interesting in their humanity as Hamlet. When we see eyes that tempt and allure with lips virginal in their purity, we feel in the face a union of things which the dual nature of man is eternally desiring. It is the marriage of heaven and hell, the union of spirit and flesh, each with their uncurbed desires; and what is impossible in life is in his art, and is one of the secrets of its strange fascination. It may seem paradoxical to say of Watts–a man of genius, who was always preaching through his art–that it is very difficult to find what he really expresses. No one is ever for a moment in doubt about what is expressed by Rossetti, Turner, Millet, Corot, or many contemporary artists who never preached at all, but whose mood or vision peculiar to themselves is easily definable. With Watts the effort at analyses is confused: first by his own statement about the ethical significance of his works, which I think misleading, because while we may come away from his pictures with many feelings of majesty or beauty or mystery, the ethical spirit is not the predominant one. That rapturous winged spirit which he calls Love Triumphant might just as easily be called Music or Song, and another allegory be attached to it without our feeling any more special fitness or unfitness in the explanation. I see a beautiful exultant figure, but I do not feel love as the fundamental mood in the painter, as I feel the religious mood is fundamental in the Angelus of Millet. I do not need to look for a title to that or for the painting of The Shepherdess to feel how earth and her children have become one in the vision of the painter; that the shepherdess is not the subject, nor the sheep, nor the still evening, but altogether are one mood, one being, in which all things move in harmony and are guided by the Great Shepherd. Well, I do not feel that Love; or Charity, or Hope are expressed in this way in Watts, and that the ethical spirit is not fundamental with him as the religious spirit is with Millet. He has an intellectual conception of his moral idea, but is not emotionally obsessed by it, and the basis of a man’s art is not to be found in his intellectual conceptions, which are light things, but in his character or rather in his temperament. We know, for all the poetical circumstances of Rossetti’s pictures, what desire it is that shines out of those ardent faces, and how with Leighton “the form alone is eloquent,” and that Tumer’s God was light as surely as with any Persian worshipper of the sun. Here and there they may have been tempted otherwise, but they never strayed far from their temperamental way of expressing themselves in art. So that the first thing to be dismissed in trying to understand Watts is Watts’ own view of his art and its inspiration. He is not the first distinguished man whose intellect has not proved equal to explaining rightly its sources of power. Our next difficulty in discovering the real Watts arises because he did not look at nature or life directly. He was overcome by great traditions. He almost persistently looks at nature through one or two veils. There is a Phidian veil and a Venetian or rather an Italian veil, and almost everything in life and nature which could not be expressed in terms of these traditions he ignored. I might say that no artist of equal genius ever painted pictures and brought so little fresh observation into his art except, perhaps, Burne-Jones. Both these artists seem to have a secret and refined sympathy with Fuseli’s famous outburst, “Damn Nature, she always puts me out!” Even when the sitter came, Watts seems to have been uneasy unless he could turn him into a Venetian nobleman or person of the Middle Ages, or could disguise in some way the fact that Artist and Sitter belonged to the nineteenth century. He does not seem to be aware that people must breathe even in pictures. His skies rest solidly on the shoulders of his figures as if they were cut out to let the figures be inserted. If he were not a man of genius there would have been an end of him. But he was a man of genius, and we must try to understand the meaning of his acceptance of tradition. If we understand it in Wat
ts we will understand a great deal of contemporary art and literature which is called derivative, art issuing out of art, and literature out of literature.

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The fact is that this kind of art in which Watts and Burne-Jones were pioneers is an art which has not yet come to its culmination or to any perfect expression of itself. There is a genuinely individual impulse in it, and it is not derivative merely, although almost every phase of it can be related to earlier art. It has nothing in common with the so-called grand school of painting which produced worthless imitations of Michael Angelo and Raphael. It is feeling out for a new world, and it is trying to use the older tradition as a bridge. The older art held up a mirror to natural forms and brought them nearer to man. In the perfect culmination of this new art one feels how a complete change might take place and natural forms be used to express an internal nature or the soul of the artist. Colors and forms, like words after the lapse of centuries, enlarge their significance. The earliest art was probably simple and literal–there may have been the outline of a figure filled up with some flat color. Then as art became more complex, colors began to have an emotional meaning quite apart from their original relation to an object. The artist begins unconsciously to relate color more intimately to his own temperament than to external nature. At last, after the lapse of ages, some sensitive artist begins to imagine that he has discovered a complete language capable of expressing any mood of mind. The passing of centuries has enriched every color, and left it related to some new phase of the soul. Phidian or Michael Angelesque forms gather their own peculiar associations of divinity or power. In fact, this new art uses the forms of the old as symbols or hieroglyphs to express more complicated ideas than the older artists tried to depict.

Watts never attempted, for all his admiration of these men, to follow them in their efforts to realize perfectly the forms that they conceived. They had done this once and for all, and repetition may have seemed unnecessary. But the lofty temper awakened by those stupendous creations could be aroused by a suggestion of their peculiar characteristics. Association of ideas will in some subtle way bring us back to the Phidian demigods when we look at forms and draperies vaguely suggestive of the Parthenon. I do not say that Watt’s did this consciously, but instinctively he felt compelled, with the gradual development of his own mind, to use the imaginative traditions created by other artists as a language through which he might find expression peculiar to himself. It is a highly intellectual art to which tradition was a necessity, as much as it is to the poet, who when he speaks of “beauty” draws upon a sentiment created by millions of long-dead lovers, or who, when he thinks of the “spirit,” is, in his use of the word, the heir of countless generations who brooded upon the mysteries.

Just as in Millet, the painter of peasants, there was a religious spirit shaping all things into austere and elemental simplicities, so in Watts there was an intellectual spirit, seeking everywhere for the traces of mind trying to express the bodiless and abstract. With Whitman he seems to cry out, “The soul for ever and ever!” It is there in the astonishing head of Swinburne, whom he reveals, if I may use a vulgar phrase, as a poetic “bounder,” but illuminated and etherealized by genius. It is in the head of Mill, the very symbol of the moral reasoning–mind. It is in the face of Tennyson, with its too self-conscious seership, and in all those vague faces of the imaginative paintings, into which, to use Pater’s phrase, “the soul with all its maladies has passed.” In his pictures he draws on the effects of earlier art, and throws his sitters back until they seem to belong to some nondescript mediaeval country, like the Bohemia of the dramatists; and he darkens and shuts out the light of day that this starlight of soul may be more clearly seen, and destroys, as far as he can, all traces of the century they live in, for the mind lives in all the ages, and he would show it as the pilgrim of eternity. Because Watts’ art was necessarily so brooding and meditative, looking at life with half-closed eyes and then shutting them to be alone with memory and the interpreter, his painting, so beautiful and full of surety in early pictures like the Wounded Heron, grows to be often labored and muddy, and his drawing uncertain. That he could draw and paint with the greatest, he every now and then gave proof; but the surety of beautiful craftsmanship deserts those who have not always their eye fixed on an object of vision; and Watts was not, like Blake or Shelley, one of the proud seers whose visions are of “forms more real than living man.” He seemed to feel what his effects should be rather than to see them, or else his vision was fleeting and his art was a laborious brooding to recapture the lost impression. In his color he always seems to me to be second-hand, as if the bloom and freshness of his paint had worn off through previous use by other artists. It seemed to be a necessity of his curiously intellectual art that only traditional colors and forms should be employed, and it is only rarely we get the shock of a new creation, and absolutely original design, as in Orpheus, where the passionate figure turns to hold what is already a vanishing shadow.

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Watts’ art was an effort to invest his own age, an age of reason, with the nobilities engendered in an age of faith. At the time Watts was at his prime his contemporaries were everywhere losing belief in the spiritual conceptions of earlier periods; they were analyzing everything, and were deciding that what was really true in religion, what gave it nobility, was its ethical teaching; retain that, and religion might go, illustrating the truth of the Chinese philosopher who said: “When the spirit is lost, men follow after charity and duty to one’s neighbors.” The unity of belief was broken up into diverse intellectual conceptions. Men talked about love and liberty, patriotism, duty, charity, and a whole host of abstractions moral and intellectual, which they had convinced themselves were the essence of religion and the real cause of its power over man. Whether Watts lost faith like his contemporaries I do not know, but their spirit infected his art. He set himself to paint these abstractions; and because we cannot imagine these abstractions with a form, we feel something fundamentally false in this side of his art. He who paints a man, an angelic being, or a divine being, paints something we feel may have life. But it is impossible to imagine Time with a body as it is to imagine a painting embodying Newton’s law of gravitation. It is because such abstractions do not readily take shape that Watts drew so much on the imaginative tradition of his predecessors. Where these pictures are impressive is where the artist slipped by his conscious aim, and laid hold of the nobility peculiar to the men and women he used as symbols. It is not Time or Death which awes us in Watts’ picture, but majestical images of humanity; and Watts is at his greatest as an inventor when humanity itself most occupies him when he depicts human life only, and lets it suggest its own natural infinity, as in those images of the lovers drifting through the Inferno, with whom every passion is burnt out and exhausted but the love through which they fell.

Life itself is more infinite, noble, and suggestive than thought. We soon come to the end of the ingenious allegory. It tells only one story but where there is a perfect image of life there is infinitude and mystery. We do not tire considering the long ancestry of expression in a face. It may lead us back through the ages; but we do tire of the art which imprisons itself within formulae, and says to the spectator: “In this way and in no other shall you regard what is before you.” No man is profound enough to explain the nature of his own inspiration. Socrates says that the poet utters many things which are truer than he himself understands. The same thing applies to many a great artist, who, when he paints tree or field, or face, or form, finds that there comes on him a mysterious quickening of his nature, and he paints he knows not what. It is like and unlike what his eyes have seen. It may be the same field, but we feel there the presence of the spirit. It may be the same figure, but it is made transcendental, as when the Word had become flesh and dwelt among us. His inspiration is akin to that of the prophets of old, whose words rang but for an instant and were still, yet they created nations whose only boundaries were the silences where their speech had not been heard. His majestical figures are prophecies. His ecstatic landscapes bring us nigh to the beauty which was in Eden. His art is a divine adventure, in which he, like all of us who are traveling in so many ways, seeks, consciously or unconsciously, to regain the lost unity with nature and the knowledge of his own immortal being, and it is so you will best understand it.


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