Artists: Notes on Art Making

ART, then, is charged with a spiritual message, ---in India to-day, the message of the Nationality. But if this message is actually to be uttered, the profession of the painter must come to be regarded, not simply as a means to dal-bhat, but as one of the supreme ends of the highest kind of education. Thus, an Art-school now-a-days would need to be a University; the common talk amongst the students out of hours, to cover all the accepted conclusions, all the burning questions, of the day; their reading to be marked by an insatiable curiosity for all the noble secrets of the world.

For, it is undeniable that everything great, whether for good or evil, begins with the earnestness of a group of students. When men have reached a decision on any of the critical questions of life, it is already too late for them to come together. The world-shaking confederacies are never made up of masters. One mature mind and many disciples or many young minds struggling together: these are the groups through which power developed. For proof of this, we might look at the movements which have grown up in Calcutta itself, as the result of the ferment amongst the students in the time of Keshub Chunder Sen. The whole of the Naba Bidhan with its indisputable powers of moral education, the whole of the Sadharan Brahmo Somaj, with its fearless and unselfish advocacy of every progressive movement, and the whole of the work of the Order of Ramakrishna, to name only three definite associations, are our inheritance from the students of that time.

Instances further from home abound. Who can doubt that the vicious theories of Imperialism propagated by the man Curzon and his school are the result of the stand that made itself popular amongst the sons of the privileged classes at Oxford in his student days?

Lord Ripon, on the other hand, in his young manhood, was one of the innermost circle of that, group of “Christian Socialists” that also numbered amongst its members Charles Kingsley and Tom Hughes. And it was here, as their friends knew well, that he and his wife trained and developed that noble partisanship for the defeated, that instinct of justice and equality, for which their names will shine so long in history.

The Fabian Society of Socialists is one of the central sources in London to-day of the culture of the democratic idea. And they began as a group of young and hard worked men and women, meeting on Saturday afternoons to study certain books, and discuss the social questions involved.

The London Positivists-another ganglionic centre of moral impulses in the intellectual life of England,--were, a generation or so ago, a knot of brilliant young Oxford men, captured by the great Guru, Congreve, the English clergyman who renounced so much to follow the faith of Auguste Comte.

And the Mediaeval movement in English Art, ----it’s most notable development, probably, during the nineteenth century,--began with young men, Rossetti, Morris, Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon, and others.

No. The old may have justice on their side in deprecating their own powers. But the young have no right to doubt themselves. The future is theirs. They, and no others, are born to inherit the earth.

Now, Universities are built up of thought and hope, not out of mere organisation alone. Let two men take up the study of art in the right spirit, and they will change the whole art-world of India. Let the men of a single art-school understand comprehensively the Problem before them, and the new art is already born. For of life comes forth life, but without the quickening of the spirit, there can be nothing but death.

But how can a man be a painter of Nationality? Can an abstract idea be given form and clothed with flesh, and painted? Undoubtedly it can. Indeed if we had questioned this, Mr. A. N. Tagore's exquisite picture of “Bharatmata" would have proved its possibility. But it cannot be done all at once. Such an achievement lies amongst the higher reaches of artistic attainment, and would be impossible for the beginner, with his foot on the first rung of the ladder. How is he to proceed, that lie may gradually rise to the delineation of such great ideal forms?

In the first place, it must be understood that art is concerned with the pleasure which we derive from sight. Not with the knowledge. The picture that ministers to that need is a scientific diagram, merely! The fundamental requisite, then, is a truthfulness of sense. Without the ability to decide promptly and, finally that we like or dislike a certain delineation, a certain situation, we shall inevitably go wrong in art. Not every scene is fit for a picture. And this truth needs emphasising in modern India especially, because here an erroneous conception of fashion has gone far to play havoc with the taste of the people. In a country in which that posture is held to be ill-bred, [1] every home contains a picture of a fat young woman lying full length on the floor and writing a letter on a lotus-leaf! As if a sight that would outrage decorum in actuality, could be beautiful in imagination! In a country in which romantic emotion is never allowed to show itself in public, pictures of the wooing of Arjuna and Subhadra abound.

These errors proceed from a false ideal of correctness, which leads us to be untrue to the dictates of our own feeling. Under the influence of such misconception, I have seen an Indian girl pick out of a collection of photographs the most unattractive nudities of Puvis de Chavannes, from the Paris Sorbonne, and declare that of them all she liked these best. It was evident to kindly on-lookers that she had not taken the pains to examine her choice closely, but imagined - poor child! -that they must be the correct thing because of the number of inches of bare flesh exposed. Similarly, it is not uncommon to find in the guest-room of an Indian bungalow, pictures of ladies smoking cigarettes and otherwise comforting themselves, the exposure of which, in a European house, could only be intended as a deliberate insult to the guest.

In all these cases alike, the mistake arises from the cold-blooded endeavour to make ourself like a given thing because it is supposed to be 'high art', instead of for the simple reason that it affords pleasure. Pictures of the nude and semi-nude are always best avoided In India, since it is almost impossible here, at present, to attain the education necessary for their true discrimination, and mistakes in taste on such a subject are dangerous to moral dignity. There is, nevertheless, a certain grandeur of reverence-a tense of the impersonal--in such ancient works as the Venus of Milo, in the mediaeval `Girl taking a Thorn out of her Foot' by Donatello, and in the modern Triptych of Love by G. F. Watts, which lifts the human form out of the realm of the merely physical, and suffuses it with spiritual meaning. But to those whofindin themselves no perception of this fact, and to those, who have had no experience in foreign art, such a statement must sound like wordy veneering, and the expert rule undoubtedly is that the nude be passed by altogether.

This training and heightening of sense-perception, till the eye becomes like a perfectly regulated instrument, reliable as to what it chooses and what it rejects is more important and more difficult than would readily be suspected. In Indian art, particularly, there is a tendency to become too intellectual, -or too technical, which is apt periodically to override the artistic instinct, and destroy art. Thus in the Lahore Museum, after series of exquisite ancient sculptures may or may not show the influence of or Chinese craftsmen, we come with a gasp upon the emaciated figure of the Buddha. In Jaypore, also, we hear of a skeleton Kali. Now these things are wrong. They mark the dying power of an art-period. Art is not science. The pursuit of the beautiful -not necessarily the sensuously beautiful, always the beautiful,-is her true function. The artist has a right to refuse, as not suitable to his purpose all that to his particular temperament appears as unbeautiful. Indeed we instinctively assume him to have done this, and believe that we may praise or condemn his taste and judgment accordingly.

In nature, then, there is much which is not beautiful, and the artist must judge continually between her diverse elements. In a picture we want neither the mean, nor the muddy, nor the confused. Hardly any scene can be counted lovely that is without light. Even water is as meaningless in a picture as huddled crowns of coconut palms, if it be unlighted. I had long admired certain Dutch pictures in the London National Gallery, without being able to discover the secret of their spell. They were by a man called De Hoogh, and consisted of little courts and cooking-rooms with red pavements. Nothing very striking in the subjects, for as a matter of personal taste, I immensely prefer Madonnas and Angels to kitchens. At last I took my puzzle to a great artist. "De Hoogh is one of the few people who have ever known how to paint sunlight", was his reply to my question. At last the mystery of the curious up-lifting of spirit was explained! I returned to De Hoogh and found it true. His red brick floors lay always in the light.

Contrast of various sorts, is, again, a great element in beauty, contrast within unity. So of course is colour amongst studies by Indian art-students. I have seen many oil-paintings of dull unlighted tanks lined by thatched huts, the whole overshadowed by heavy forbidding trees, painted in blue-green. Now these depressing renderings of depressing scenes were true enough to the fact, even to the fact of many a place we love. In outline, they were good enough. Yes, but a single luminous touch, on house or pond or leaves, would perhaps have changed the whole, as by the stroke of miracle. There is another picture often seen, of the child Dhruva making his way into the forest. It is a picture of confusion, without one point of radiance. Wild undergrowth in muddy blue-green does not make a picture. To the child Dhruva, as he actually went by the forest-ways to his heart's desire, there was, it appears to me, some great sense of overarching loftiness, of spreading starlit sky, of open path, a wondrous call and invitation of the Infinite leading him on and on into the sleeping silence in the depth of the forest. These things are not suggested by the picture we know. Moreover, if the artist had realised that his duty was to paint what gave him joy, instead of that, merely, which he had often seen, that picture would have been very different.

Thus a true picture must be luminous, and it must be suggestive. It must, moreover, have a beautiful subject, which at once rouses our love and aspiration. Now Indian roads and streets and river-banks are full of subjects which would make such pictures, only We must have a heart to see them by. It is through the heart that the artist must do all his seeing. Indian women with their incomparable draperies; the beggars with the staff and begging-bowl that hints of Siva; labour, beautiful in all lands, but here still further dignified by its wonderful gentleness and refinement; the priest in the temple, the boatman on the river, the mother with her child, the bride stepping forth to the bridal, do you Indian students of Indian art see nothing in any of these that you long to record? Can you not go through life seeking for the glimpses that open up the great vistas? They are seen oftener in this country than anywhere in Europe! In almost any home one might find the group from which one could paint the Nativity of Christ and the Nanda-Utsab of Krishna. Have you not felt the beauty of the little earthen lamp set alight at evening beneath the tulsi plant? Have you not breathed the peace of the Santi-jal ceremony in the gathering dusk? Is there for you no mystic significance in the Baran dala? Believe me, without some such interpretation, some such appeal, the mere technical excellences of which you learn to prate in English schools, are bone without flesh; they are worse than valueless.

Notes

[1] I ought to state here, that I do not know of any country in which a young lady may stretch herself on the floor in public
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