Artists: Notes on Art Making

In the relations between India and England since the beginning of the nineteenth century, two different and complementary tendencies have been at work, the relative significance of which is some-times overlooked. These are the respective influences exerted by the culture and civilisation of each country upon the other. It is true that the Anglicisation of the East has been sufficiently obvious: the corresponding Indianisation of the West is often over-looked. For the first process manifests upon the surface of things, the other in more hidden ways.

In the realm of the practical, empirical and material life, India has been roused to a realisation of the fact that, in her devotion to the highest things, she has carried too far her indifference to the concrete. Stung by a sense of her own impotence, she seeks to-day to hold her own in efficiency and in manufacture against the nations of the west. The impulse towards this mastery of the concrete; the critical and historical sense; and above all, the re-statement of her own intuitions in the more exact terms of modern science, are the things which India will owe to the west.

The complementary lesson is the 'message of the East'. The western nations, after a period of unparalleled success in the investigation of the concrete world, the 'conquest of nature,' and the adaptation of mechanical contrivances to the material ends of life, are approaching in every department a certain critical period. The far-reaching developments of commercialism are under-mining their own stability. One-tenth of the British population dies in the goal, the Workhouse or the lunatic asylum. The creasing contrast between extremes of wealth and Poverty, the unemployed and many other urgent problems point the same moral. Extreme developments of vulgarity and elfishness imply the necessary reaction. In science, the limit of possible investigation by physical means is in sight. The main body of scientific men cannot much longer avoid the necessity for the investigation of super-physical phenomena by new methods. The problems of the new psychology have made an obsolete science of the old. In all the arts, the extreme development of the critical, scientific, and observing faculties has almost extinguished creative power. Science has corrupted art, until the aims of both are confused. And while on the one hand 'scientific materialism' is already out of date, the old religious formulas are more and more rapidly losing their hold on the best and most sincere minds. Even the accepted formulae of conventional morality are questioned by the most advanced thinkers. In every department of life there is evidence of the culmination of a particular line of development, and the imminent necessity of some new synthesis. The inwardness of these circumstances has been obscured in various ways. England with a blindness characteristic of a youthful and materially successful country has conceived that it has been her mission not merely to awaken and unite, but to civilize India. Only very gradually is England realising the truth of Sir Thomas Munro's declaration, that if civilization were to be made an article of commerce between the two countries, she would soon be heavily in debt. There is already abundant evidence of that permeation of western thought by Indian philosophy which Schopenhauer so clearly foresaw. The East has indeed revealed a new world to the West, which will be the inspiration of a 'Renaissance, more profound and far-reaching than that which resulted from the re-discovery of the classic world of the west. It is the irony of fate that while the outward and visible Anglicisation of the East is only too apparent, this inward and subtle Indianisation of the West has, ask it were, stolen a march in the night, and already there are groups of western thinkers whose purposes and principles are more truly Indian than are those Of the average English educated Indian of today. The West can no longer afford to ignore the East in any single culture.

The 'new Theology' is little else than Hinduism. The "Theosophical movement is directly due to the stimulus of Indian thought. The socialist finds that he is striving for very much that for two or three milleniums has been part and parcel of the fundamentally democratic structure of Indian society. [1] Exhibitions of Indian art arc organised in London for the education of the people. The profound influence which Indian philosophy is destined to exert on Western thought and life is already evident. Indian science had a far-reaching effect on the development of certain aspects of mathematics earlier in the XIXth century, and is now exerting its influence in other ways. Much of the modern theory of Western science goes to confirm and justify the intuitions of the old Indian religious-scientific writers, [2] and there in their turn are proving suggestive to the modern worker. [3] And finally, small groups of artists and musicians - those particularly whose minds are most attuned to the great art of mediaeval Europe are turning their eyes towards the east for some renewed message. "When a new inspiration comes into European art," says a recent English writer, "it will come again from the East." It is of this 'message of the East' that I now write.

The chief characteristic of the bulk of modern European art the art of the Salons and the Royal Academy is a great development of imitative power. The exhibition walls are hung with studies in still life - studies of landscapes, of trees and animals and of human beings in every sort of situation and moved by every kind of feeling. Much of this is the expression in art of a comparatively new appreciation of nature in all her varying moods, an appreciation which (though characteristic of early Keltic literature) in modern times found just expression only in the Romantic Revival of the early XIXth Century, represting a healthy reaction, from the false sentiment of the preceding century. At the same time the love of nature in all her moods has increased by a natural compensatory tendency, in proportion as human life has been divorced from nature. It is the absence of nature, in the artificial life of towns, that we need pictures of nature’s outward form to call up within us the memory of far-off peace and beauty. No one in the constant presence of his mistress needs at the same time her picture. It is only in absence that a picture is desired - and even so, perhaps he is the better lover who needs no picture in concrete form having a more perfect memory picture in his heart. The modern habit of dolling the walls of a house with framed pictures of beautiful things was un-known in the days when all the accessories of life itself were beautiful.

Such realistic art, however, when we consider so much of it as selects, appreciates and emphasizes the beautiful and the true, is educative alike to artist and to public, in the sensethatwe 'love things best first when we see them painted,' This is also a necessary stage towards a higher synthesis. I cannot better express the significance, immediate and future, of this 'return to nature', than in the following words taken from a letter lately received from an English artist friend: "What you say about design and the need for the type rather than the realistic nature study so exactly fits my own theory of design that I am at once flattered and confirmed. Yet I would not for worlds discourage the affectionately interested, often passionate study of natural forms which one sees in young students' work now-a-days, because not only would that deprive them of a world of pleasure and a source of real education, it would perhaps shut the door on what I feel is the beginning of a great advance in artistic achievement. It is true that this artistic achievement may not be attained by these same students, but it will be largely the result of their studies. The racial mind will be anew ‘trempe dans le vrai', and out of the infinitely various studies, the type image will emerge.” Realism, thus regarded, marks a necessary i.e 'steeped in truth' stage in a return from artificiality to truth India merely cannot remain untouched by the necessity for a similar transition period. At the same time, there is an ever present danger of finding permanent satisfaction in the perfecting of this lesser ' appreciative' art, of becoming so absorbed in the concrete and phenomenal as to wholly forget the abstract and the ideal. Those who defend realism as an ultimate aim make this mistake. Even more fatal is the view that makes the significance of art lie solely or primarily in the perfection of its own technique, the subject matter becoming until at last many realists depict equally willingly the hideous and the beautiful, sometimes apparently by definite choice preferring the former, so that the term ‘realistic’ art and literature has come to mean the detailed presentation of the unpleasant. But even apart from this obvious evil, satisfaction in the development and exercise of the imitative powers, carried to excess, precludes the evolution of the creative.

The essential limitation of this realistic presentation of natural beauty lies in the restriction to a definite point in space and time and in the mingling of desire with emotion: "the impression of the beautiful fades away in proportion as any relation of the beautiful object to the desires of the subject enters his consciousness." The element of sensuous tends to prevail over that of emotional de-light and there is degradation from an attitude of disinterested exaltation, to that of desire to experience the pleasure associated in the mind with the objects represented. This is particularly obvious, for example, in the treatment of the nude, where the realistic manner excites or tends to excite desire and draws us "away from aesthetic contemplation to the sphere of individual willing." The same is equally true of a landscape picture that rather suggests a desire to be back again in so fair a place, than conveys a disinterested emotion or idea. Desires thus awakened, it should be noted, may be very far from wrong, but their awakening does not belong to the best that art can give us. What that best is, we shall see later.

Notes

[1] See 'The Indian Craftsman,' by A. K. Coomaraswamy, with preface by C. R. Ashbee, London, 1909

[2] Consider for example the Tamil text: "One Lord is the dancer, who like the heat latent in firewood, diffuses his power in mind and matter, and makes them dance in their turn." This is intensely 'modern.'

[3] 'Two new worlds' by Fournier d' Albe and review by present writer in ‘Siddhanta Deepika.'
Courtesy Swaraj - The Art Archive
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