Studio: international art — 30.1904

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The Lay Figure


" You all laughed very obediently," the

Critic suddenly broke out, " when the Historian of
Art repeated that old story of Rodin— that when
he was taken to see the Elgin Marbles he cried,
' I know, I feel it here,' striking his breast, ' that
these statues were never coloured.' Can any one
tell me where the absurdity of the speech lies ? "

" The Critic and his paradox, of course ! I will
explain," the Journalist said with a patient air,
" that in these days, when the history of art is a
science, like any other, and depends upon the
collection and comparison of evidence, it is absurd to
dismiss a debated point by an appeal to the feelings."

" But what do you call evidence in this case ? "

" One very obvious piece of evidence is offered
by the Tanagra figures; they prove that the Greeks
did colour their statues."

" They prove nothing of the sort. They prove
that the Greeks coloured terra-cotta. Being
nothing of a philosopher, your scientific critic
collects evidence without knowing where the point
at issue really lies. The question in this case
is not concerned with the objects made by the
artist, but with the material in which he works ; it
is not a question of statues, but of marble.
Objects made of clay—they might be bowls or
figures—were certainly coloured. Show me any
object made of marble which the Greek artist
coloured, and I will be convinced of the historical
fact. I daresay you can. I don't care much
whether the Greeks did or did not colour their
marble statues. My point is that Rodin's speech was
not ridiculous."

" A point you have still to prove."

"Well, the Historian acknowledged that Rodin
was a great artist. The great artist is the man
whose head is full, not of great thoughts, mind
you, nor yet of the observation of God's world,
but of his material. Bodin, therefore, is full of
marble, and appealing to this sense in him he
meant, ' My sense of marble tells me that marble
should not be coloured.'"

" Then whymaythe Tanagra figures be coloured?"

" Because terra-cotta has less structure, less
character than marble, it has no such crystallised
and self-sufficient existence of its own. But even
a terra-cotta figure, you will feel, should.not be
coloured very fully, whereas you experience no
reluctance at all in colouring a wax figure up to the
fullest realisation of nature, since wax has even less
structure than clay. It is, in fact, merely a lump
' 188

characterised by its want of character, and the
consequent ease with which it is moulded."

" You mean, practically, that the nobler the
texture of a material, the less you feel inclined to
hide its texture with paint."

" I think the truth lies further back than that,
and may be stated without reference to colour
at all. The less independent character and struc-
tural existence of its own a material possesses the
more does it admit, and actually demand of the
artist, a close approximation to nature, a full
realisation of her aspect. This is where the con-
temporary school of decorative oil-painting makes
its mistake. Instead of striving for such a manipu-
lation of oil paint as would enable him to realise
the most subtle variations of colour and modelling
in nature, the decorative painter simplifies his
colours, simplifies his modelling, as if oil paint had
structural character of its own, whereas it has none.

All fine art is the manipulation of a material, in
the more or less close pursuit of the appearance of
nature, according to the lesser or greater degree of
independent character and existence possessed by
the material, and it is in their omission of this factor
of the material in art that the philosophers go
so far astray when they come to the chapter of
aesthetics. They speak of subjects, they speak of
nature, and all the while the keyword of the arts is
material. The archaic statue and the Laocoon err
at the two opposite ends—the one remains still too
much a block of marble unmanipulated, the other
has been carried too far, and is too unlike a block
of marble. The furthest conceivable extremes are
represented by the wax-work of Madame Tussaud
and the shell and seaweed work of the South Sea
Islander. The wax-work is, it must be owned, a
very close approximation to the appearance of
nature, but there is no character of material in it,
and for that reason, and no other, it is not art.
The South Sea Islander makes a turtle out of real
tortoise-shell, fringes it with little shells from the
beach, decorates it with feathers, hangs it with sea-
weed, employs, in fact, in his product every object
which he can pick up. Here is ingenuity, fancy,
and a great delight in Nature's handiwork ; but
here again is no art because here is no handling of
a material, only a putting together of separate
objects, each of which has ,an existence of its own.
Here is the mystery of art, that only in pursuit of
Nature's appearance may the artist develop the
capacity of his material. A slackening of the pursuit
means a material not handled to its fullest capacity,
and exactly such a full handling of a material is what
we call art." The Lay Figure.

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