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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/August 1914/Pleasure in Pictures

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 85‎ | August 1914

 

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Portrait of Innocent X., by Velasquez. Doria Gallery, Rome.

 

PLEASURE IN PICTURES
By ROSSITER HOWARD

I. Unaccustomed Power of Vision

OUR tastes in pictures do not by any means agree—even those of very wise critics, who ought to know the good from the bad. We might get into all sorts of difficulties with the words good and bad; but most of us look at pictures because we enjoy them, and our varying choices have some elements in common. These common factors are a sort of minimum wage which we ask in return for our attention, and our pay must be immediately convertible into pleasure.

Perhaps the requirement most nearly universal is that a picture shall look like what it is intended to represent. The popular ideal of art has always been to paint grapes so nearly like the real fruit that the birds will peck at them, and the only excuse for not responding to this widespread demand is that the artist is unskillful.

The people's doctrine has good evolutionary reason back of it. Vision was first developed in the animal by its use in recognizing objects, and recognition is still its chief function and greatest pleasure. The easier the recognition, the greater our sense of capacity; and perhaps the largest element in the enjoyment of pictures is the sense of unaccustomed capacity of vision. We notice this most easily in a portrait that is a "striking likeness;" that is, one that gives us such a sense of the person represented that we react to it more than we should to a view of the person himself, for we are not struck by the appearance of our friend. As we look at such a picture we have a visual experience keener than is our habit; our eyes have communicated to us the subject with great force and yet with ease. Though we may say that it is the artist who has been clever, the reason we believe so is that he has lent ability to our eyes. Our feeling is closely akin to the one we have in golf when with an easy swing of our club we feel the ball lifted and shot far beyond our expectation; we experience an unwonted power within ourselves, and a consequent sense of abundant life.

This portrait of "Innocent X." by Velasquez shows us a man with whom we are not acquainted; yet if we should enter the presence of this pope himself he could hardly have upon us the electrifying effect made by his portrait as we come upon it in a cabinet of the Doria Gallery in Rome. It is as though some vital fluid were poured through our veins. Admiration of the artist's ability plays no part in producing this first feeling. The forcefulness which causes our whole organism to react to

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"St. George and the Dragon," by Carpaccio, Church of San Giorgio degli Schiavone, Venice.

 

this painting is nothing else than clearness of statement. A photograph with every detail perfected lacks the clearness of this powerful portrait, where the insignificant is blurred or omitted in order that we may grasp at sight the significant. The careful reasoning of a school text-book is not as lucid as the proverbs of "Poor Richard," which cause the mind to leap to a sure conclusion. In a picture the essential quality is clarity; easy recognition is our experience of it.

This is true even in a modern landscape where the rocks and trees of nature are but half revealed by morning mists. Though it seem that the charm lies in the very opposite of clearness, really the artist has presented the clearest possible statement of the conditions of nature which are the spirit of misty dawn. Every element in the landscape which would be the same at any time of day, in all weathers, in all of nature's varying humors, these he has almost obliterated in order that we shall see and feel what he saw and felt that early morning in the shimmering light. Now a man to whom a morning mist is only an obscurity will probably seek in this picture trees and rocks, and the mist will be to him a weariness of the soul; the picture to him is not clear and he finds no pleasure in it. A photograph is more like the place. On the other hand, we might be bored by the photograph's insistent detail, which dissipates the expression of any nature quality; and we should find the painting a jewel of direct presentation of the subject.

The theories of most of those ultra-modern painters who are grouped under the meaningless term "Post-impressionist" are elaborate explanations of a similar aim to isolate some phase of our experience of nature for its simpler, and therefore clearer, presentation. Such a phrase as "the expression of our plastic consciousness" implies but the effort of the Cubist painter to communicate with extraordinary simplicity and force the perception of volume. It is of no importance to this discussion if the artist does not accomplish his purpose; it is the aim that we are seeking.

Narrative pictures introduce an extension of this principle. Here is Carpaccio's "St. George and the Dragon," told with delightful vivacity. We do not believe in dragons, and we may know nothing of St. George; but here is a fight with the hero triumphant, and if we have any imagination we push on that spear as eagerly as we lean down the course while watching a hundred-yards' dash—with this difference, that we doubt the outcome of the race, but feel sure of St. George. All the relations are clear.

Our physical vision is satisfied with easy recognition of hero, horse, dragon and rescued princess; our mental vision interprets and relates these separate objects with unusual facility. Now as intellect is no less the product of evolution than is sight; as the primitive man who enjoyed its exercise developed at the expense of the lazy man; so to-day we are led forward by delight in mental facility, and the primary pleasure in any clear narrative is the sense of unusual ease in realizing and correlating objects, figures, persons and their experiences.

In proportion as a picture surpasses the usual in the clarity with which it presents its contents—things, thoughts and their relations—do we react to it, feel its force in our own enhanced physical and mental vision. Before a great work our powers seem so much more than adequate that limitation vanishes, and we have a glimpse of the infinite.

 

II. Constructive Emotions

The largest part of our pleasure in pictures is to see clearly and without effort, but still it makes a difference what we see. A painter, preoccupied with his craft, may care little about the subject, and a critic not infrequently assumes the artisan's viewpoint; but the people have decided wishes. They require pleasantness, and their preference is the result not of stupidity but of instinct. To them an unpleasant subject forcefully portrayed is but the more revolting; their aversion is reflex, and based upon a principle they do not need to understand in order to feel. It is as true in art as it is in nature, that the normally pleasant is what is constructive of life, and the unpleasant is the destructive. Nature's encouragements and warnings which have prevented the animal kingdom from being wiped off the earth ages ago and which have developed man, have been at work also in art among all peoples at all times, producing similar results in absolutely unconnected schools.

Individual tastes may be warped or even perverted by prejudice of education or other accident of time or place, but underneath is the broad principle that men like what they feel is life-giving. The more life we can get at the least expenditure of effort, the better we like it; decadents and degenerates are in this respect only abnormally near-sighted, looking constantly for bargains in experience, though it shortly kill them. Mere suffering, for example, is an art subject for a decadent; the intensest experience may be had for little effort, but is inevitably followed by a loss of vitality, or by a hardening of the sensibilities, which means enfeebled capacity for life. On the other hand, suffering as a necessary condition of heroism may produce an experience of genuine life. It is less popular than the obviously pleasant only because it requires greater art to make the heroism easily distinguishable as superior to the suffering and because it requires greater intellectual vision to see it. In such art the principle is more subtly used, but it is not ignored.

We may see this most plainly in dramatic paintings. This "Pietà" "left unfinished by Titian was reverently completed by Palma," as Palma himself has inscribed it. It may stand as the type of the beautiful in tragedy. In conception it is supreme art, despite the faults of the lesser painter who finished it. The mother of Jesus looks on the body of her son with the deep, calm grief of heroic character; Joseph of Arimathea, a strong man of the formal sect of the Pharisees, is on his knees looking into the face of Jesus with the tenderness of a woman; Mary Magdalene, in uncontrolled passion. Brings into relief the self restraint and power of the Virgin; and the marble statues of the Old and New Dispensations are raised in cold contrast with the human emotions below. We are not simply shown a harrowing incident; we are led into the experience of profound love, impossible to know without this suffering and expressed in monumental power. We feel each character in relation to the others, and the incident itself becomes inseparable from these characters.

In looking on this picture we live much, live deeply and rightly. We see far more than we ever could with our own eyes. We are lifted out of the circle of our habitual thoughts, and experience the deepest emotions that have led mankind from the animal into his high estate.

In great dramatic pictures, closely associated with this principle of constructive emotions there is the element of heightened mental power. The easy grasp of the relations among the persons, and between them

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"Pieta," by Titian and Palma the younger. Academy of Fine Arts, Venice.

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"Portrait of the Artist," by Rembrandt. Louvre Museum.

 

and the incident; the sense of the relations of all the thoughts in the picture—objects, figures, persons, characters, action, with the motives and results of action—built into an indissoluble organism, the infinite complexity of elements forming one great unit of thought, compelling in its clarity—this astonishing intellectual grasp which we have without effort is strongly stimulating. Our capacity is made to abound in renewed strength.

Both of these elements are present in our enjoyment of portraiture—eminently so in this picture of Rembrandt painted by himself when he was an old man. Knowing ones may pay their attention to the manner of the painting, but we laymen must feel that we are face to face with a man whose years have been rich in life.

Yet we have here sure signs of poverty and weakening physical powers. Even if we had read nothing of Rembrandt's life we might guess from this picture that he was poor and had little of the gentleman about him. No one would be better pleased, however, if he were handsome or richly clothed; and this fact is so plain that we must at once accept those unpleasant conditions as a positive factor in creating our enjoyment. These very ills clear away the conventionalities of life and help to show us the real man. The hardships, the struggles, the failures which develop man also reveal him. It would indeed be impossible to conceive of this character apart from its faults—a man led by profound desires athwart every rule of art and society into a vision calm, warm and powerful.

It is not that we learn about this man out of histories of art and then apply our knowledge to the picture, nor is it that we deduce the character from the facts that are told us in the painting; rather, though our interpretation may be indefinite, we feel it—that is, we apprehend it with our whole nervous system. Our eyes rest in quiet contemplation on the eyes of the old philosopher; if we look away, led by the line of the arm to the hands holding palette and brushes, we inevitably look back again at the head—longest and most meditatively at the far-seeing eyes. We seem to take on something of the old man's personality; involuntarily we feel ourselves standing as he is standing, though our actual physical position may not change; we forget, as he forgets, the material conditions of his life; we assume his mood and something of his larger character. Our individual readings of this picture will differ widely, according to our several temperaments and the knowledge and associations of art and life we bring to it; nor can we hope to come to an agreement through any analysis of facial expression. Even if we had a common science by which we could judge of character, Rembrandt had none; he was neither physiognomist nor phrenologist, but as he saw with the inner eye so he painted. This is true of every great painter. To analyze their works gives us no sure interpretation, but to

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"Creation of the Sun and Moon," by Michel Angelo. Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

 

analyze our experience of their works intensifies it and clarifies our vision. So in viewing any portrayal of character it is not our conscious reading of it that is significant; rather it is our subconscious imitation of the character that counts, bringing out some latent quality of our own—some quality which we feel to be good, agreeable because it is life-giving.

Again: in portraiture, great painters give us an insight into essential life beyond that which we ordinarily have. While waiting for a train in a railway station we may spend our time "studying life," but how many of us, with or without great effort, can ever penetrate beneath the thinnest superficialities? Not only are we unpractised; we are bound by the accepted judgments of society, and the most we can do is to pigeonhole the several types. But these great painters present to us a person we have never before seen, and give us an immediate and strong sense of his personality. Even though we disagree about him, we do so rather less than we do about our friends; for in relation to our neighbor our sight is distorted by a hundred influences. Rules of dress, etiquette and morals have blinded us to the eternal man who lives behind and above what we can see of him. Man strives outwardly to appear as his own society would have him, the perfect type of provincial—the New Yorker of 1914, the Parisian of such and such a period, or whatever; while within him is a life at once unique and universal. The illustrator gives us the provincial man. But the great character-painters show us through imperfections and through struggles, a life based on the everlasting instincts of the race and the principles that never change with our mutable standards; through unsymmetrical development and through wreckage, we see supreme man. We put off our blinding limitations and discern clearly.

Where this heightened vision is combined with the emotions which nature has made us to enjoy because they are creative, our experience is one of abounding life.

 

III. Harmony

Every picture, and indeed every work of art, is like a song in that it consists of words and music—a statement and the sound, or form, through which the idea is conveyed. Half the world listens to the words and is more or less affected in mood by the music; the other half listens to the music and receives the words only as a suggestion to make definite the spirit of the music. It is not an analogy but a translation to say that the sensuous elements of a picture—lines, colors, lights—are visual music.

Michael Angelo's fresco "The Creation of the Sun and Moon" gives us a feeling of overwhelming power. A titanic figure, accompanied by a whirl of cherubim and preceded by a speeding seraph, represents the creative force of Jehovah. Infinite Deity is not reduced to the figure of a man, but divine power is expressed in transcending harmony of line and movement. The head is great, but it would hardly satisfy us as a symbol of the Creator; the body is super-human, but physical strength can never mean God: the effect on us is rather in the uniting of these elements, and above all, of the lines of the figures and draperies, into a symphonic pattern of crashing harmonies.

Let us see just what this means within ourselves, see how we react to harmony of design. The mechanical process of eye and brain we may leave to the psychologist, but we can recognize a certain sensation which we have before all things we call beautiful. It need not trouble us if we can not agree on a definition of the word "beautiful." We may not be able to bound the town we were brought up in, but we know the look of it. We know that the appearance of a flower, a Persian rug, or a great picture, entirely apart from any meaning or association, produces in us a feeling of pleasure which for the moment drives out of us physical fatigue, desire or any sense of limitation. Beauty of design has been called "supreme order," and harmony, if not the only principle involved, is by far the most important. "The Creation of the Sun and Moon" is an example of such beauty, and an analysis of the picture is helpful.

The sweeping line of the Creator's figure gives the theme of the composition. Around it is a system of repetitions of that theme, in different lengths and positions. The movement through this group and through the. seraph is a larger development of the same curve. About the seraph is another system of lines, partial repetitions of the drapery fold from the left foot under the arm and continued over the back. The little folds over the seraph's back are angular, but each discord is repeated in slight variation so that we feel a clear relation between them. The great black line of Jehovah's arms is in discordant contact with the movement of the body, but the shock is a repetition of the crossings of the drapery about the figure, and the line is echoed in certain opposite diagonals. But what of it? Surely esthetic pleasure is not to be had in such dry analysis of line. Certainly not; the analysis is but a slow and painful following of what the eye feels at once,—a simple relationship of many elements. Harmony is an extraordinarily simple relationship of parts, and our experience of it is an unwonted feeling of clear vision.

It might seem at first, then, that two or three squares set side by side would constitute the most perfect harmony. They would do so only in the sense that an octave is the.most perfect harmony in music. Such an arrangement would not be extraordinarily simple, but ordinary in the last degree; the eye sees it with habitual recognition. But if those squares should change their proportions so that two of them should seem to be supporting the central one, we should begin to be interested. As the complexity increases the eye finds exercise; as the simplicity increases the eye finds ease: it is the comparative simplicity of the exercise that is our experience of harmony. When our perception of this simplicity is so effortless as to give us a sense of unused capacity we feel an influx of life which we call an esthetic experience; its cause we call harmony.

We may consider the work of art as a fraction in which the denominator is the number and variety of the elements presented to us, and the numerator is the simplicity of their relationship; the effectiveness varies as the value of the fraction. Of course each of the elements of the harmony must in its turn be considered as a fraction, and so on.

When in place of an influx or life we have from harmony the pleasurable languor of an artificial nervous fatigue, the design will certainly at some time be called decadent. I once went in to the Alhambra in company with a keen-minded physician. For a moment he looked about the sensuously lovely court, and then said, "Dope; that is the explanation of all this. The delight of those old sultans was in the nervous fatigue caused by this infinite, inextricable, beautiful detail. We have the same effect in certain modern music.

"But after all this talk about harmony," says some student of theory, "the effectiveness of this picture by Michael Angelo is caused as much by rhythm." Rhythm is one form of harmony. We find it simplest in a swinging walk or easy run, in which we feel that the left foot treads stronger than the right. A child makes the form clearer by elaboration when he puts in a little shuffling hop after each step, and calls the movement "skipping." Rhythm is no more nor less than harmony between groups of impulses. The principle is the same in the simplest drum-beat and the most elaborate rhythms of Richard Straus, Botticelli, Isadora Duncan, or Shakespeare; the feeling of it communicated to you through your ear, your eye, physical action, or pure thought. The excitement of movement is changed to the stimulation of rhythm by the principle of harmony.

As with rhythm, so with all harmony—it may be expressed in lines, colors, sounds, ideas. Different systems of harmony in these and other realms, are caused by the thought-habits of their authors; and so with the different theories which explain conflicting systems. We have most of us had this difference between senses of order brought home to us. Our books and papers are arranged according to their contents; the maid comes in to clean; when we return we find everything nicely arranged according to size and color. There is some such difference between the classical painter and the impressionist; both are right and neither can hope to enjoy the harmony of the other.

But the design in "The Creation of the Sun and Moon" is not merely beautiful; it is also strongly expressive. This is so partly because when we are given the right suggestion for our feelings by the subject and by the great physical and spiritual power of the Creator and the rushing host of heaven, our sense of these things and of the mood they suggest is vastly increased by the inrush of life we experience from the harmony. Many a painter has used the same color scheme for a Nativity and a Crucifixion. But in this fresco of Michael Angelo's the lines have a tremendous sweep; we do not merely judge them appropriate; as our eye swings through them, meeting successive shocks from the cross movements, our nervous reaction is similar to that which we have in watching a stormy surf on the rocks. The expressiveness of lines and colors in a picture is in the awakening of physical reaction similar to that accompanying the moods of real life. More; if we accept the modern theory that the feeling of reflex physical reaction constitutes emotion, we must find this method of expression even more direct than that of statement, which has to pass through our intellect before we feel it. The physical causation of emotion is a separate principle from that of harmony, though the two are interactive.

In Nos. I. and II. I have tried to show that the most universal enjoyment of pictures is in the enhancement of life felt in a heightened power of vision when we see any object presented with compelling clarity; that a general element in our experience of narrative pictures is simply an enlargement of this principle to the mental perception of persons and their actions; that a further extension is found in the increased spiritual vision given us in the portrayal of character; and again in the relation of characters and events in dramatic painting. The principle of harmony is based on the same evolutionary fact—the sense of abundant life resulting from enhanced perception. It is a powerful factor in leading mankind beyond the mechanical vision of logic into the unfathomable relations of the universe.