Studio: international art — 10.1897

Page: 206
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The Lay Figure


" Surely if a thing be entirely good,
you had better imitate it reverently than
endeavour to replace it by some thing
quite different! " It was the Professor who spoke,
and as he is usually paid for speaking, and rarely
wastes an idea upon us, everybody listened.

"Yet if art is nature seen through a tempera-
ment," said the Lay Figure, quoting Zola, " I
take it that it is through your own temperament
you must see, and not through that of others."

" But if others are infinitely greater, why not
sink your individual weakness, and rely on their
strength ? " the Professor replied.

" Because I fancy all imitations lose just that
vital quality which at its best is genius, or at least
personality," the Lay Figure retorted. " Who cares
for imitation Shakespeare, or imitation Rudyard
Kipling? Depend upon it, the revelation of his
own individuality, unwittingly perhaps, but still
without reservation, is what makes for art, sup-
posing, of course, technical facility, good taste, and
a hundred other qualities are present also."

" The whole question is obedience to precedent,
—wilful reliance on oneself," said the Man with
a Clay Pipe. " It sounds very modest and reverent
to abjure one's own efforts, and seek to follow a
master; but if the said master had acted in this way,
where would he have been ? "

" But how dare you expect to be a master ?"
said the Professor, sternly, " that is the conceit of
the day."

" Pardon me," the Man with a Clay Pipe replied,
in a tone of simple dignity, " I believe that no
other human being lives, or did live, an exact
replica of myself. By physical tests, such as the
French police use to identify criminals, it is proved
that no two people are precisely alike, and if the
mere body is always an unique edition, surely the
much more complex personality is likely to be
unique also."

" That is true to some extent," said the Professor,
as he thought of the matchless arguments of his
own lectures, and realised, or thought he did, how
little they owed to predecessors. " Even the least
of us has something to say that has not been said
exactly in the same way."

" Then surely it is not conceit to recognise this
simple fact," the Man with a Clay Pipe observed.
" With all respect to the masters dead and alive,
one feels that art, or beauty, or whatever term you
prefer to express the indefinable, is much more
complex than any one man, any hundred men, could

ever express fully. It seems to me while composers
can make an endless number of new melodies out
of twelve notes, so one may hope to evolve new
harmonies of colour, new devices in pattern, new
combinations of material; and unless we do so, we
stultify the whole purpose of our lives."

" Then you would have a man say, Let me be
original at any cost," the Professor broke in testily.

" Certainly not," said the Man with a Clay Pipe.
" Indeed, I go farther and believe that real
originality is quite unconscious. The artist merely
does a thing in a certain way because it pleases
him best, and if he is always eager to criticise his
work, and strives to be original at any price,
eccentricity, quaintness, and ugliness, are far more
likely to be his portion than is originality."

" I do not think your argument is a specimen of
originality, or peculiarly individual," the Professor
said in a contemptuous tone. " It seems to me
the commonest of failings to believe that one's
original shortcomings are preferable to virtues based
on precedent."

" Everything original is not new; original sin,
for instance," said the Man with a Clay Pipe, "but
look around and see whose work has survived of
the past fifty years. Certainly not the dutiful
scholars, who sank their own ideas in those of their
teachers. Look at Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Whistler ;
pick any of them, and you will see how little he
owes to his predecessors."

" I quite disagree with that," said the Professor.
" I grant that each of the artists you mention have
failings that we call their own, but their greatest
works owe all that is best in them to precedent."

" It is a man's failings that endear him to me,"
was the reply. " In him I recognise a brother."

" But if you are right, what of the noble academic
brotherhood who never tried to be other than
derivations ; where will you find your reverent and
loyal masters ? " said the Lay Figure.

" Of course you would not acknowledge them to
be great, if I quoted names," the Professor re-
torted ; " but I still maintain that originality is the
lure of the evil one."

" Let us be thankful then, how many escape it,"
said the Lay Figure, " and if fame escapes them
at the same time, why, that is also in obedience
to the best established precedent."

" I think while we all affect to prize originality,
it is mere novelty we really crave," said the Man
with a Clay Pipe. "For every old folly finds a ready
welcome when a man of taste revives it. It is the
real innovator who rarely obtains applause at first."

The Lay Figure.
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