Chapter 5

Standard

58

V
MASS DRAWING

In the preceding chapter it has, I hope, been shown that outline drawing is an instinct with Western artists and has been so from the earliest times; that this instinct is due to the fact that the first mental idea of an object is the sense of its form as a felt thing, not a thing seen; and that an outline drawing satisfies and appeals directly to this mental idea of objects.

But there is another basis of expression directly related to visual appearances that in the fulness of time was evolved, and has had a very great influence on modern art. This form of drawing is based on the consideration of the flat appearances on the retina, with the knowledge of the felt shapes of objects for the time being forgotten. In opposition to line drawing, we may call this Mass Drawing.

The scientific truth of this point of view is obvious. If only the accurate copying of the appearances of nature were the sole object of art (an idea to be met with among students) the problem of painting would be simpler than it is, and would be likely ere long to be solved by the photographic camera.

This form of drawing is the natural means of expression when a brush full of paint is in your hands. The reducing of a complicated appearance 59to a few simple masses is the first necessity of the painter. But this will be fully explained in a later chapter treating more practically of the practice of mass drawing.

Plate X. EXAMPLE OF FIFTEENTH-CENTURY CHINESE WORK BY LUI LIANG (BRITISH MUSEUM) Showing how early Chinese masters had developed the mass-drawing point of view.

Plate X.

EXAMPLE OF FIFTEENTH-CENTURY CHINESE WORK BY LUI LIANG (BRITISH MUSEUM)

Showing how early Chinese masters had developed the mass-drawing point of view.

The art of China and Japan appears to have been more [influenced by this view of natural appearances than that of the West has been, until quite lately. The Eastern mind does not seem to be so obsessed by the objectivity of things as is the Western mind. With us the practical sense of touch is all powerful. "I know that is so, because I felt it with my hands" would be a characteristic expression with us. Whereas I do not think it would be an expression the Eastern mind would use. With them the spiritual essence of the thing seen appears to be the more real, judging from their art. And who is to say they may not be right? This is certainly the impression one gets from their beautiful painting, with its lightness of texture and avoidance of solidity. It is founded on nature regarded as a flat vision, instead of a collection of solids in space. Their use of line is also much more restrained than with us, and it is seldom used to accentuate the solidity of things, but chiefly to support the boundaries of masses and suggest detail. Light and shade, which suggest solidity, are never used, a wide light where there is no shadow pervades everything, their drawing being done with the brush in masses.

When, as in the time of Titian, the art of the West had discovered light and shade, linear perspective, aerial perspective, &c., and had begun by fusing the edges of the masses to suspect the necessity of painting to a widely diffused focus, 60they had got very near considering appearances as a visual whole. But it was not until Velazquez that a picture was painted that was founded entirely on visual appearances, in which a basis of objective outlines was discarded and replaced by a structure of tone masses.

When he took his own painting room with the little Infanta and her maids as a subject, Velazquez seems to have considered it entirely as one flat visual impression. The focal attention is centred on the Infanta, with the figures on either side more or less out of focus, those on the extreme right being quite blurred. The reproduction here given unfortunately does not show these subtleties, and flattens the general appearance very much. The focus is nowhere sharp, as this would disturb the contemplation of the large visual impression. And there, I think, for the first time, the whole gamut of natural vision, tone, colour, form, light and shade, atmosphere, focus, &c., considered as one impression, were put on canvas.

All sense of design is lost. The picture has no surface; it is all atmosphere between the four edges of the frame, and the objects are within. Placed as it is in the Prado, with the light coming from the right as in the picture, there is no break between the real people before it and the figures within, except the slight yellow veil due to age.

But wonderful as this picture is, as a "tour de force," like his Venus of the same period in the National Gallery, it is a painter's picture, and makes but a cold impression on those not interested in the technique of painting. With the cutting away of the primitive support of fine outline design and the absence of those accents conveying a fine form 61stimulus to the mind, art has lost much of its emotional significance.

Plate XI. LOS MENENAS. BY VELAZQUEZ (PRADO) Probably the first picture ever painted entirely from the visual or impressionist standpoint. Photo Anderson

Plate XI.

LOS MENENAS. BY VELAZQUEZ (PRADO)

Probably the first picture ever painted entirely from the visual or impressionist standpoint.

Photo Anderson

The Impressionist Point of View.

But art has gained a new point of view. With this subjective way of considering appearances—this "impressionist vision," as it has been called—many things that were too ugly, either from shape or association, to yield material for the painter, were yet found, when viewed as part of a scheme of colour sensations on the retina which the artist considers emotionally and rhythmically, to lend themselves to new and beautiful harmonies and "ensembles," undreamt of by the earlier formulae. And further, many effects of light that were too hopelessly complicated for painting, considered on the old light and shade principles (for instance, sunlight through trees in a wood), were found to be quite paintable, considered as an impression of various colour masses. The early formula could never free itself from the object as a solid thing, and had consequently to confine its attention to beautiful ones. But from the new point of view, form consists of the shape and qualities of masses of colour on the retina; and what objects happen to be the outside cause of these shapes matters little to the impressionist. Nothing is ugly when seen in a beautiful aspect of light, and aspect is with them everything. This consideration of the visual appearance in the first place necessitated an increased dependence on the model. As he does not now draw from his mental perceptions the artist has nothing to select the material of his picture from until it has existed as a seen thing before him: until he has a visual impression of it in his mind. With the older point of view (the representation by a pictorial description, as it were, based 62on the mental idea of an object), the model was not so necessary. In the case of the Impressionist the mental perception is arrived at from the visual impression, and in the older point of view the visual impression is the result of the mental perception. Thus it happens that the Impressionist movement has produced chiefly pictures inspired by the actual world of visual phenomena around us, the older point of view producing most of the pictures deriving their inspiration from the glories of the imagination, the mental world in the mind of the artist. And although interesting attempts are being made to produce imaginative works founded on the impressionist point of view of light and air, the loss of imaginative appeal consequent upon the destruction of contours by scintillation, atmosphere, &c., and the loss of line rhythm it entails, have so far prevented the production of any very satisfactory results. But undoubtedly there is much new material brought to light by this movement waiting to be used imaginatively; and it offers a new field for the selection of expressive qualities.

This point of view, although continuing to some extent in the Spanish school, did not come into general recognition until the last century in France. The most extreme exponents of it are the body of artists who grouped themselves round Claude Monet. This impressionist movement, as the critics have labelled it, was the result of a fierce determination to consider nature solely from the visual point of view, making no concessions to any other associations connected with sight. The result was an entirely new vision of nature, startling and repulsive to eyes unaccustomed to observation from a purely visual point of view and used only to seeing the " 63feel of things," as it were. The first results were naturally rather crude. But a great amount of new visual facts were brought to light, particularly those connected with the painting of sunlight and half light effects. Indeed the whole painting of strong light has been permanently affected by the work of this group of painters. Emancipated from the objective world, they no longer dissected the object to see what was inside it, but studied rather the anatomy of the light refracted from it to their eyes. Finding this to be composed of all the colours of the rainbow as seen in the solar spectrum, and that all the effects nature produced are done with different proportions of these colours, they took them, or the nearest pigments they could get to them, for their palette, eliminating the earth colours and black. And further, finding that nature's colours (the rays of coloured light) when mixed produced different results than their corresponding pigments mixed together, they determined to use their paints as pure as possible, placing them one against the other to be mixed as they came to the eye, the mixture being one of pure colour rays, not pigments, by this means.

But we are here only concerned with the movement as it affected form, and must avoid the fascinating province of colour.

Those who had been brought up in the old school of outline form said there was no drawing in these impressionist pictures, and from the point of view of the mental idea of form discussed in the last chapter, there was indeed little, although, had the impression been realised to a sufficiently definite focus, the sense of touch and solidity would probably have been satisfied. But the particular field of this 64new point of view, the beauty of tone and colour relations considered as an impression apart from objectivity, did not tempt them to carry their work so far as this, or the insistence on these particular qualities would have been lost.

But interesting and alluring as is the new world of visual music opened up by this point of view, it is beginning to be realised that it has failed somehow to satisfy. In the first place, the implied assumption that one sees with the eye alone is wrong:

"In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing,"[2]

[2] Goethe, quoted in Carlyle's French Revolution, chap. i.

and it is the mind behind the eye that supplies this means of perception: one sees with the mind. The ultimate effect of any picture, be it impressionist, post, anti, or otherwise—is its power to stimulate these mental perceptions within the mind.

But even from the point of view of the true visual perception (if there is such a thing) that modern art has heard so much talk of, the copying of the retina picture is not so great a success. The impression carried away from a scene that has moved us is not its complete visual aspect. Only those things that are significant to the felt impression have been retained by the mind; and if the picture is to be a true representation of this, the significant facts must be sorted out from the mass of irrelevant matter and presented in a lively manner. The impressionist's habit of painting before nature entirely is not calculated to do this. Going time after time to the same place, even if similar weather conditions are waited for, although well enough for studies, is against the production of a fine picture. Every 65time the artist goes to the selected spot he receives a different impression, so that he must either paint all over his picture each time, in which case his work must be confined to a small scale and will be hurried in execution, or he must paint a bit of today's impression alongside of yesterday's, in which case his work will be dull and lacking in oneness of conception.

And further, in decomposing the colour rays that come to the eye and painting in pure colour, while great addition was made to the power of expressing light, yet by destroying the definitions and enveloping everything in a scintillating atmosphere, the power to design in a large manner was lost with the wealth of significance that the music of line can convey.

But impressionism has opened up a view from which much interesting matter for art is to be gleaned. And everywhere painters are selecting from this, and grafting it on to some of the more traditional schools of design.

Our concern here is with the influence this point of view has had upon draughtsmanship. The influence has been considerable, particularly with those draughtsmen whose work deals with the rendering of modern life. It consists in drawing from the observation of the silhouette occupied by objects in the field of vision, observing the flat appearance of things as they are on the retina. This is, of course, the only accurate way in which to observe visual shapes. The difference between this and the older point of view is its insistence on the observation of the flat visual impression to the exclusion of the tactile or touch sense that by the association of ideas we have come to expect in things seen. An 66increased truth to the character of appearances has been the result, with a corresponding loss of plastic form expression.

On pages 66 and 67 a reproduction of a drawing in the British Museum, attributed to Michael Angelo, is contrasted with one in the Louvre by Degas. The one is drawn from the line point of view and the other from the mass. They both contain lines, but in the one case the lines are the contours of felt forms and in the other the boundaries of visual masses. In the Michael Angelo the silhouette is only the result of the overlapping of rich forms considered in the round. Every muscle and bone has been mentally realised as a concrete thing and the drawing made as an expression of this idea. Note the line rhythm also; the sense of energy and movement conveyed by the swinging curves; and compare with what is said later (page 162) about the rhythmic significance of swinging curves.

Then compare it with the Degas and observe the totally different attitude of mind in which this drawing has been approached. Instead of the outlines being the result of forms felt as concrete things, the silhouette is everywhere considered first, the plastic sense (nowhere so great as in the other) being arrived at from the accurate consideration of the mass shapes.

Notice also the increased attention to individual character in the Degas, observe the pathos of those underfed little arms, and the hand holding the tired ankle—how individual it all is. What a different tale this little figure tells from that given before the footlights! See with what sympathy the contours have been searched for those accents expressive of all this.

Plate XII. STUDY ATTRIBUTED TO MICHAEL ANGELO (BRITISH MUSEUM) Note the desire to express form as a felt solid thing, the contours resulting from the overlapping forms. The visual appearance is arrived at as a result of giving expression to the mental idea of a solid object.

Plate XII.

STUDY ATTRIBUTED TO MICHAEL ANGELO (BRITISH MUSEUM)

Note the desire to express form as a felt solid thing, the contours resulting from the overlapping forms. The visual appearance is arrived at as a result of giving expression to the mental idea of a solid object.


Plate XIII. STUDY BY DEGAS (LUXEMBOURG) In contrast with Michael Angelo's drawing, note the preoccupation with the silhouette the spaces occupied by the different masses in the field of vision; how the appearance solid forms is the result of accurately portraying this visual appearance. Photo Levi

Plate XIII.

STUDY BY DEGAS (LUXEMBOURG)

In contrast with Michael Angelo's drawing, note the preoccupation with the silhouette the spaces occupied by the different masses in the field of vision; how the appearance solid forms is the result of accurately portraying this visual appearance.

Photo Levi

67 How remote from individual character is the Michael Angelo in contrast with this! Instead of an individual he gives us the expression of a glowing mental conception of man as a type of physical strength and power.

The rhythm is different also, in the one case being a line rhythm, and in the other a consideration of the flat pattern of shapes or masses with a play of lost-and-foundness on the edges (see later, pages 192 et seq., variety of edges). It is this feeling for rhythm and the sympathetic searching for and emphasis of those points expressive of character, that keep this drawing from being the mechanical performance which so much concern with scientific visual accuracy might well have made it, and which has made mechanical many of the drawings of Degas's followers who unintelligently copy his method.