Some Aspects of Modern Art.
L’Art Moderne, By J.-K. HUYSMANS.
Taking M. Huysmans’ records of Paris exhibitions of 1879-1882, when the works of the new school claimed, as more or less novelties, a close and detailed criticism, three or four names amongst the painters of subject-pictures stand out, all more or less familiar to English readers of the literature of art. Setting aside M. Manet — who, according to his critic, had at that epoch sacrificed his principles at the altar of compromise — the names of MM. Degas, Raffaëlli, Caillebotte, and Forain appear recurrently as examples of the most impeccable originators or disciples of the new art. And to these names may be added that of M. Toulouse-Lautrec, examples of whose work — described by M. Geffroy — were shown at the inauguration of International Exhibitions in London.
The gift of description has been liberally bestowed on M. Huysmans. The brush of the artist could scarcely create a more vivid — if not a more just — impression of the nature of works than that produced by his pen. So far, however, as the group of artists is concerned as exemplifying the school of the rigidly and strictly modern naturalist, the works of M. Raffaëlli would seem occasionally to have transgressed the bounds prescribed by a code which logically prohibits the dominant expression of generalities common to all ages. If M. Huysmans has not done his pictures an act of happy injustice, the ’peintre des pauvres gens et des grands ciels’ is one in whose works the sentiment, however localised, implies — to borrow a felicitous phrase used by M. Geffroy in another connexion — ’un souvenir et une synthèse ajoutés au réel.’ The painter-specialist of the desolate suburbs of Paris, of their denizens, of the city vagabond, of the drifting concourse, howsoever habited, that reveals itself as the race of the disinherited, if he has painted the lives of to-day’s misery, has no less recorded the undated misery of life, and the squalors of localised individual suffering are lost in the sense of that infinity of universal tragedy.
M. Huysmans’ paraphrase of ’Un retour de Chiffonniers’ records one such impression:-
’Le crépuscule est venu dans l’un de ces mélancoliques paysages qui s’étendent autour du Paris pauvre, des cheminées d’usine crachent sur un ciel livide des bouillons de suie. Trois chiffonniers retournent au gîte accompagnés de leurs chiens . . . M. Raffaëlli a évoqué le charme attristé des cabanes branlantes, des grêles peupliers en vedette sur ces interminables routes qui se perdent, au sortir des remparts, dans le ciel. En face de ces malheureux qui cheminent éreintés, dans ce merveilleux et terrible paysage, toute la détresse des anciennes banlieues s’est levée.’
And whether it be in such miseries as those portrayed in M. Raffaëlli’s early workmanship, or whether in the later works described by M. Geffroy, when in some ripened mood of the artist’s genius misery would appear to have signed an armistice with life, we may well recognise the ’tendance cette humanitairerie qui gâte les paysans de Millet’ — for M. Huysmans.
To no such reproach is the work of M. Degas subjected. For M. Huysmans ’un peintre de la vie moderne était né,’ and we may legitimately seek here for some ideals of the school of disillusionment, questioning what is the nature of those ballet themes in which M. Degas’ peculiar gifts have found their most congenial expression. That the art of movement, of posture, of rhythm — the art which preeminently is the art of physical vitality — should afford a great painter subject-material is in the natural course of things. But dancing, like all other arts, is a muse of many masks. M. Huysmans is careful to leave us in no danger of error concerning the aspect under which M. Degas has for the most part registered her features. His eulogies make us aware of the conscientious exactitude of the reproductions of ’les dislocations de clowns,’ of ’la torture des membres,’ of ’l’embêtement de la fatigue’ undergone in the great training classes of the ballet, of the mental and physical aspects of the scene, ’notés avec une perspicacité d’analyste à la fois cruel et subtil;’ of the infinite dexterity with which the artist has caught ’les éclats des rampes devant lesquelles braillent, en décolleté, des chanteuses, ou s’ébattent, en pirouettant, des danseuses;’ of the certainty with which he has poised his acrobats, of the skill with which he has obtained his effects of ’la vraie chair poudrée de veloutine avec son grenu éraillé, vue de près, et son maladif éclat vue de loin.’ With equal precision he has given
’une curieuse étude de l’organisme de chacune d’elles . . . Ici l’hommasse qui se dégrossit et dont les couleurs tombent sous le misérable régime du fromage d’Italie et du litre it douze; lit les anémies originelles, les déplorables lymphes des filles couchées dans les soupentes, éreintées par les exercises du métier, épuisées par de précoces pratiques avant l’âge; là encore les filles nerveuses dont les muscles saillent sous le maillot, de vraies danseuses, aux ressorts d’acier, aux jarrets de fer.’
Under such semblances M. Degas presents the special phase of life with which, presumably, his art finds closest affinity. Technically his works may possess the highest order of interest, and may serve as a lesson in resources and possibilities. Moreover, in them some may find a beauty invisible to others, for who shall assume to see with the eyes of all? and amongst much which is wholly unbeautiful M. Degas may here and there fashion from the ’mire of the street the grace of a woman.’ But as a representation of life, whether in sight of the pictures themselves or in reading the pages of the critic, the conviction forces itself upon the mind that M. Degas, like many of his fellows, has confused reality — the reality claimed as the Alpha and Omega of modernism — with truth. Life, like the impressionist landscape, must be viewed at a little distance to be justly estimated, and only so viewed does it balance its own proportion of light and shadow, grossness and nobility, of the poverty and the riches of human nature, harmonising the discords of fractional actualities in the atmosphere of general truths. From this distance M. Degas has not regarded life. Further to pursue the analogy, as the eye needs due space between it and the canvas if it is to possess itself of that unsubstantial colour, ’la couleur absente,’ created by the optical blending of the pallet’s cruder hues, so the eye of the mind, too, needs space in which to generate the ’couleur absente’ of truth, the evasive quality that inarticulately asserts, whether in the circus-tent or the opera green-room, the kinship of saint and prodigal contingent on the solidarity of humanity. It is a quality without which all representations of life lack at least one element of reality.
So the chronicles of the new art pass onwards through pages which tell of ’le coin de l’existence contemporaine, fixé tel quel,’ by M. Caillebotte, with his dreary levels of scenes from middle-class intérieurs, the disillusionment where with impatience or resignation ’le couple s’ennuie — comme cela arrive dans la vie’ of the gentler art of the painter of girls, M. Renoir, ’un galant et aventureux charmeur,’ and other lesser lights. And then once more the theme changes to sombre earnest, and in M. Forain the déclassée has found a specialist, while in the squalid series of Moulin-Rouge [Exhibited at the International Exhibition, 1898.] episodes M. Toulouse-Lautrec takes for his province ’la basse humanité.’ It is an attitude by itself in the art of the moment which, as a spreading tendency, may give rise to many and various questions concerning the responsibilities of public galleries. But even setting aside such questions, in both man and woman there is an instinctive chivalry which, while it may pass by with indifference libels true or false launched broadcast against the ranks of virtue and prosperity, will revolt from such delineations, time brutal exposition of the features of a class who above all other classes pay the last farthing of moral and physical degradation. That it is a class that can appeal to no defender, and hope for no apologist save amongst those members, Catholic or Protestant, of the world’s great confraternity of pity who have succoured, tended, and felt for outcast and pariah the tie of personal relationship and the bond of human kindness, should in itself make the act of those who exploit and exhibit its miseries an act of cowardice and betrayal. It is possible for a man in all good faith to hold the doctrine that even the grosser moral and physical maladies of civilisation are fit subjects for art. Possible in good faith to apply broadcast the maxim ’la vérité contient la moralité.’ [Préface de Marie Tudor. Victor Hugo.] The conscience of one is not as the conscience of another, individually or nationally. But while every man, according to his best ability, must write his own Decalogue, when he embodies its results the artist must not complain if the hard saying of M. Charles Baudelaire be remembered: ’Le choix des sujets c’est l’homme.’