Chapter 6

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68

VI
THE ACADEMIC AND CONVENTIONAL

The terms Academic and Conventional are much used in criticism and greatly feared by the criticised, often without either party appearing to have much idea of what is meant. New so-called schools of painting seem to arrive annually with the spring fashions, and sooner or later the one of last year gets called out of date, if not conventional and academic. And as students, for fear of having their work called by one or other of these dread terms, are inclined to rush into any new extravagance that comes along, some inquiry as to their meaning will not be out of place before we pass into the chapters dealing with academic study.

It has been the cry for some time that Schools of Art turned out only academic students. And one certainly associates a dead level of respectable mediocrity with much school work. We can call to mind a lot of dull, lifeless, highly-finished work, imperfectly perfect, that has won the prize in many a school competition. Flaubert says "a form deadens," and it does seem as if the necessary formality of a school course had some deadening influence on students; and that there was some important part of the artist's development which it has failed to recognise and encourage.

The freer system of the French schools has been 69in many cases more successful. But each school was presided over by an artist of distinction, and this put the students in touch with real work and thus introduced vitality. In England, until quite lately, artists were seldom employed in teaching, which was left to men set aside for the purpose, without any time to carry on original work of their own. The Royal Academy Schools are an exception to this. There the students have the advantage of teaching from some distinguished member or associate who has charge of the upper school for a month at a time. But as the visitor is constantly changed, the less experienced students are puzzled by the different methods advocated, and flounder hopelessly for want of a definite system to work on; although for a student already in possession of a good grounding there is much to be said for the system, as contact with the different masters widens their outlook.

But perhaps the chief mistake in Art Schools has been that they have too largely confined themselves to training students mechanically to observe and portray the thing set before them to copy, an antique figure, a still-life group, a living model sitting as still and lifeless as he can. Now this is all very well as far as it goes, but the real matter of art is not necessarily in all this. And if the real matter of art is neglected too long the student may find it difficult to get in touch with it again.

These accurate, painstaking school studies are very necessary indeed as a training for the eye in observing accurately, and the hand in reproducing the appearances of things, because it is through the reproduction of natural appearances and the knowledge of form and colour derived from such study 70that the student will afterwards find the means of giving expression to his feelings. But when valuable prizes and scholarships are given for them, and not for really artistic work, they do tend to become the end instead of the means.

It is of course improbable that even school studies done with the sole idea of accuracy by a young artist will in all cases be devoid of artistic feeling; it will creep in, if he has the artistic instinct. But it is not enough encouraged, and the prize is generally given to the drawing that is most complete and like the model in a commonplace way. If a student, moved by a strong feeling for form, lets himself go and does a fine thing, probably only remotely like the model to the average eye, the authorities are puzzled and don't usually know what to make of it.

There are schools where the most artistic qualities are encouraged, but they generally neglect the academic side; and the student leaves them poorly equipped for fine work. Surely it would be possible to make a distinction, giving prizes for academic drawings which should be as thoroughly accurate in a mechanical way as industry and application can make them, and also for artistic drawings, in which the student should be encouraged to follow his bent, striving for the expression of any qualities that delight him, and troubling less about mechanical accuracy. The use of drawing as an expression of something felt is so often left until after the school training is done that many students fail to achieve it altogether. And rows of lifeless pictures, made up of models copied in different attitudes, with studio properties around them, are the result, and pass for art in many quarters. Such pictures often display 71considerable ability, for as Burne-Jones says in one of his letters, "It is very difficult to paint even a bad picture." But had the ability been differently directed, the pictures might have been good.

Plate XIV. DRAWING IN RED CHALK BY ERNEST COLE Example of unacademic drawing made in the author's class at the Goldsmiths College School of Art.

Plate XIV.

DRAWING IN RED CHALK BY ERNEST COLE

Example of unacademic drawing made in the author's class at the Goldsmiths College School of Art.

It is difficult to explain what is wrong with an academic drawing, and what is the difference between it and fa fine drawing. But perhaps this difference can be brought home a little more clearly if you will pardon a rather fanciful simile. I am told that if you construct a perfectly fitted engine —the piston fitting the cylinder with absolute accuracy and the axles their sockets with no space between, &c.—it will not work, but be a lifeless mass of iron. There must be enough play between the vital parts to allow of some movement; "dither" is, I believe, the Scotch word for it. The piston must be allowed some play in the opening of the cylinder through which it passes, or it will not be able to move and show any life. And the axles of the wheels in their sockets, and, in fact, all parts of the machine where life and movement are to occur, must have this play, this "dither." It has always seemed to me that the accurately fitting engine was like a good academic drawing, in a way a perfect piece of workmanship, but lifeless. Imperfectly perfect, because there was no room left for the play of life. And to carry the simile further, if you allow too great a play between the parts, so that they fit one over the other too loosely, the engine will lose power and become a poor rickety thing. There must be the smallest amount of play that will allow of its working. And the more perfectly made the engine, the less will the amount of this "dither" be.

The word "dither" will be a useful name to give 72that elusive quality, that play on mechanical accuracy, existing in all vital art. It is this vital quality that has not yet received much attention in art training.

It is here that the photograph fails, it can only at best give mechanical accuracy, whereas art gives the impression of a live, individual consciousness. Where the recording instrument is a live individual, there is no mechanical standard of accuracy possible, as every recording instrument is a different personality. And it is the subtle differences in the individual renderings of nature that are the life-blood of art. The photograph, on account of its being chained to mechanical accuracy, has none of this play of life to give it charm. It only approaches artistic conditions when it is blurred, vague, and indefinite, as in so-called artistic photography, for then only can some amount of this vitalising play, this "dither" be imagined to exist.

It is this perfect accuracy, this lack of play, of variety, that makes the machine-made article so lifeless. Wherever there is life there is variety, and the substitution of the machine-made for the hand-made article has impoverished the world to a greater extent than we are probably yet aware of. Whereas formerly, before the advent of machinery, the commonest article you could pick up had a life and warmth which gave it individual interest, now everything is turned out to such a perfection of deadness that one is driven to pick up and collect, in sheer desperation, the commonest rubbish still surviving from the earlier period.

But to return to our drawings. If the variations from strict accuracy made under the influence 73of feeling are too great, the result will be a caricature. The variations in a beautiful drawing are so subtle as often to defy detection. The studies of Ingres are an instance of what I mean. How true and instinct with life are his lines, and how easily one might assume that they were merely accurate. But no merely accurate work would have the impelling quality these drawings possess. If the writer may venture an opinion on so great an artist, the subtle difference we are talking about was sometimes missed by even Ingres himself, when he transferred his drawings to the canvas; and the pictures have in some cases become academic and lifeless. Without the stimulus of nature before him it was difficult to preserve the "dither" in the drawing, and the life has escaped. This is the great difficulty of working from studies; it is so easy to lose those little points in your drawing that make for vitality of expression, in the process of copying in cold blood.

Plate XV. FROM A PENCIL DRAWING BY INGRES Photo Bulloz

Plate XV.

FROM A PENCIL DRAWING BY INGRES

Photo Bulloz

The fact is: it is only the academic that can be taught. And it is no small thing if this is well done in a school. The qualities that give vitality and distinction to drawing must be appreciated by the student himself, and may often assert themselves in his drawing without his being aware that he is doing aught but honestly copying. And if he has trained himself thoroughly he will not find much difficulty when he is moved to vital expression. All the master can do is to stand by and encourage whenever he sees evidence of the real thing. But there is undoubtedly this danger of the school studies becoming the end instead of the means.

A drawing is not necessarily academic because it is thorough, but only because it is dead. Neither 74is a drawing necessarily academic because it is done in what is called a conventional style, any more than it is good because it is done in an unconventional style. The test is whether it has life and conveys genuine feeling.


There is much foolish talk about conventional art, as if art could ever get away from conventions, if it would. The convention will be more natural or more abstract according to the nature of the thing to be conveyed and the medium employed to express it. But naturalism is just as much a convention as any of the other isms that art has lately been so assailed with. For a really unconventional art there is Madame Tussaud's Waxworks. There, even the convention of a frame and flat surface are done away with, besides the painted symbols to represent things. They have real natural chairs, tables, and floors, real clothes, and even real hair. Realism everywhere, but no life. And we all know the result. There is more expression of life in a few lines scribbled on paper by a good artist than in all the reality of the popular show.

It would seem that, after a certain point, the nearer your picture approaches the actual illusion of natural appearance, the further you are from the expression of life. One can never hope to surpass the illusionary appearance of a tableau vivant. There you have real, living people. But what an awful deathlike stillness is felt when the curtain is drawn aside. The nearer you approach the actual in all its completeness, the more evident is the lack of that movement which always accompanies life. You cannot express life by copying laboriously 75natural appearances. Those things in the appearance that convey vital expression and are capable of being translated into the medium he is working with, have to be sought by the artist, and the painted symbols of his picture made accordingly. This lack of the movement of life is never noticed in a good picture, on the other hand the figures are often felt to move.

Pictures are blamed for being conventional when it is lack of vitality that is the trouble. If the convention adopted has not been vitalised by the emotion that is the reason of the painting, it will, of course, be a lifeless affair. But however abstract and unnaturalistic the manner adopted, if it has been truly felt by the artist as the right means of expressing his emotional idea, it will have life and should not be called conventional in the commonly accepted offensive use of the term.

It is only when a painter consciously chooses a manner not his own, which he does not comprehend and is incapable of firing with his own personality, that his picture is ridiculous and conventional in the dead sense.

But every age differs in its temperament, and the artistic conventions of one age seldom fit another. The artist has to discover a convention for himself, one that fits his particular individuality. But this is done simply and naturally—not by starting out with the intention of flouting all traditional conventions on principle; nor, on the other hand, by accepting them all on principle, but by simply following his own bent and selecting what appeals to him in anything and everything that comes within the range of his vision. The result is likely to be something very different from 76the violent exploits in peculiarity that have been masquerading as originality lately. Originality is more concerned with sincerity than with peculiarity.

The struggling and fretting after originality that one sees in modern art is certainly an evidence of vitality, but one is inclined to doubt whether anything really original was ever done in so forced a way. The older masters, it seems, were content sincerely to try and do the best they were capable of doing. And this continual striving to do better led them almost unconsciously to new and original results. Originality is a quality over which an artist has as little influence as over the shape and distinction of his features. All he can do is to be sincere and try and find out the things that really move him and that he really likes. If he has a strong and original character, he will have no difficulty in this, and his work will be original in the true sense. And if he has not, it is a matter of opinion whether he is not better employed in working along the lines of some well-tried manner that will at any rate keep him from doing anything really bad, than in struggling to cloak his own commonplaceness under violent essays in peculiarity and the avoidance of the obvious at all costs.

But while speaking against fretting after eccentricity, don't let it be assumed that any discouragement is being given to genuine new points of view. In art, when a thing has once been well done and has found embodiment in some complete work of art, it has been done once for all. The circumstances that produced it are never likely to occur again. That is why those painters who continue to reproduce a picture of theirs (we do not mean literally) that had been a success in the first instance, never 77afterwards obtain the success of the original performance. Every beautiful work of art is a new creation, the result of particular circumstances in the life of the artist and the time of its production, that have never existed before and will never recur again. Were any of the great masters of the past alive now, they would do very different work from what they did then, the circumstances being so entirely different. So that should anybody seek to paint like Titian now, by trying to paint like Titian did in his time, he could not attempt anything more unlike the spirit of that master; which in its day, like the spirit of all masters, was most advanced. But it is only by a scrupulously sincere and truthful attitude of mind that the new and original circumstances in which we find ourselves can be taken advantage of for the production of original work. And self-conscious seeking after peculiarity only stops the natural evolution and produces abortions.

But do not be frightened by conventions, the different materials in which the artist works impose their conventions. And as it is through these materials that he has to find expression, what expressive qualities they possess must be studied, and those facts in nature selected that are in harmony with them. The treatment of hair by sculptors is an extreme instance of this. What are those qualities of hair that are amenable to expression in stone? Obviously they are few, and confined chiefly to the mass forms in which the hair arranges itself. The finest sculptors have never attempted more than this, have never lost sight of the fact that it was stone they were working with, and never made any attempt to create an illusion of real hair. And in the same way, when working in bronze, the fine artist 78never loses sight of the fact that it is bronze with which he is working. How sadly the distinguished painter to whom a misguided administration entrusted the work of modelling the British emblem overlooked this, may be seen any day in Trafalgar Square, the lions there possessing none of the splendour of bronze but looking as if they were modelled in dough, and possessing in consequence none of the vital qualities of the lion. It is interesting to compare them with the little lion Alfred Stevens modelled for the railing of the British Museum, and to speculate on what a thrill we might have received every time we passed Trafalgar Square, had he been entrusted with the work, as he might have been.

And in painting, the great painters never lose sight of the fact that it is paint with which they are expressing themselves. And although paint is capable of approaching much nearer an actual illusory appearance of nature than stone or bronze, they never push this to the point where you forget that it is paint. This has been left for some of the smaller men.

And when it comes to drawing, the great artists have always confined themselves to the qualities in nature that the tool they were drawing with was capable of expressing, and no others. Whether working with pen, pencil, chalk, or charcoal, they always created a convention within which unlimited expression has been possible.

To sum up, academic drawing is all that can be really taught, and is as necessary to the painter as the practising of exercises is to the musician, that his powers of observation and execution may be trained. But the vital matter of art is not in all this necessary training. And this fact the student 79should always keep in mind, and be ever ready to give rein to those natural enthusiasms which, if he is an artist, he will find welling up within him. The danger is that the absorbing interest in his academic studies may take up his whole attention, to the neglect of the instinctive qualities that he should possess the possession of which alone will entitle him to be an artist.