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An essay by George Augustus Moore

The New Art Criticism

Title:     The New Art Criticism
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

Before commenting on the very thoughtless utterances of two distinguished men, I think I must--even at the risk of appearing to attach over-much importance to my criticisms--reprint what I said about _L'Absinthe_; for in truth it was I who first meddled with the moral tap, and am responsible for the overflow:--

"Look at the head of the old Bohemian--the engraver Deboutin--a man whom I have known all my life, and yet he never really existed for me until I saw this picture. There is the hat I have always known, on the back of his head as I have always seen it, and the wooden pipe is held tight in his teeth as I have always seen him hold it. How large, how profound, how simple the drawing! How easily and how naturally he lives in the pose, the body bent forward, the elbows on the table! Fine as the Orchardson undoubtedly is, it seems fatigued and explanatory by the side of this wonderful rendering of life; thin and restless--like Dumas fils' dialogue when we compare it with Ibsen's. The woman that sits beside the artist was at the Elysee Montmartre until two in the morning, then she went to the _ratmort_ and had a soupe _aux choux_; she lives in the Rue Fontaine, or perhaps the Rue Breda; she did not get up till half-past eleven; then she tied a few soiled petticoats round her, slipped on that peignoir, thrust her feet into those loose morning shoes, and came down to the cafe to have an absinthe before breakfast. Heavens! what a slut! A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face; we read there her whole life. _The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson_. Hogarth's view was larger, wider, but not so incisive, so deep, or so intense. Then how loose and general Hogarth's composition would seem compared to this marvellous epitome, this essence of things! That open space in front of the table, into which the skirt and the lean legs of the man come so well--how well the point of view was selected! The beautiful, dissonant rhythm of that composition is like a page of Wagner--the figures crushed into the right of the canvas, the left filled up with a fragment of marble table running in sharp perspective into the foreground. The newspaper lies as it would lie across the space between the tables. The colour, almost a monochrome, is very beautiful, a deep, rich harmony. More marvellous work the world never saw, and will never see again: a maze of assimilated influences, strangely assimilated, and eluding definition--remembrances of Watteau and the Dutch painters, a good deal of Ingres' spirit, and, in the vigour of the arabesque, we may perhaps trace the influence of Poussin. But these influences float evanescent on the canvas, and the reading is difficult and contradictory."

I have written many a negligent phrase, many a stupid phrase, but the italicised phrase is the first hypocritical phrase I ever wrote. I plead guilty to the grave offence of having suggested that a work of art is more than a work of art. The picture is only a work of art, and therefore void of all ethical signification. In writing the abominable phrase "_but it is a lesson_" I admitted as a truth the ridiculous contention that a work of art may influence a man's moral conduct; I admitted as a truth the grotesque contention that to read _Mdlle. de Maupin_ may cause a man to desert his wife, whereas to read _Paradise Lost_ may induce him to return to her. In the abominable phrase which I plead guilty to having written, I admitted the monstrous contention that our virtues and our vices originate not in our inherited natures, but are found in the books we read and the pictures we look upon. That art should be pure is quite another matter, and the necessity of purity in art can be maintained for other than ethical reasons. Art--I am speaking now of literature--owes a great deal to ethics, but ethics owes nothing to art. Without morality the art of the novelist and the dramatist would cease. So we are more deeply interested in the preservation of public morality than any other class--the clergy, of course, excepted. To accuse us of indifference in this matter is absurd. We must do our best to keep up a high standard of public morality; our living depends upon it--and it would be difficult to suggest a more powerful reason for our advocacy. Nevertheless, by a curious irony of fate we must preserve--at least, in our books--a distinctly impartial attitude on the very subject which most nearly concerns our pockets.

To remove these serious disabilities should be our serious aim. It might be possible to enter into some arrangement with the bishops to allow us access to the pulpits. Mr. So-and so's episcopal style--I refer not only to this gentleman's writings, but also to his style of figure, which, on account of the opportunities it offers for a display of calf, could not fail to win their lordships' admiration--marks him as the proper head and spokesman of the deputation; and his well-known sympathies for the pecuniary interests of authors would enable him to explain that not even their lordships' pockets were so gravely concerned in the maintenance of public morality as our own.

I have allowed my pen to wander somewhat from the subject in hand; for before permitting myself to apologise for having hypocritically declared a great picture to be what it was not, and could not be--"a lesson"--it was clearly incumbent on me to show that the moral question was the backbone of the art which I practise myself, and that of all classes none are so necessarily moral as novelists. I think I have done this beyond possibility of disproof, or even of argument, and may therefore be allowed to lament my hypocrisy with as many tears and groans as I deem sufficient for the due expiation of my sin. Confession eases the heart. Listen. My description of Degas' picture seemed to me a little unconventional, and to soothe the reader who is shocked by everything that lies outside his habitual thought, and to dodge the reader who is always on the watch to introduce a discussion on that sterile subject, "morality in art", to make things pleasant for everybody, to tickle the Philistine in his tenderest spot, I told a little lie: I suggested that some one had preached. I ought to have known human nature better--what one dog does another dog will do, and straight away preaching began--Zola and the drink question from Mr. Richmond, sociology from Mr. Crane.

But the picture is merely a work of art, and has nothing to do with drink or sociology; and its title is not _L' Absinthe_, nor even _Un Homme et une Femme assis dans un Cafe_, as Mr. Walter Sickert suggests, but simply _Au Cafe_. Mr. Walter Crane writes: "Here is a study of human degradation, male and female." Perhaps Mr. Walter Crane will feel inclined to apologise for his language when he learns that the man who sits tranquilly smoking his pipe is a portrait of the engraver Deboutin, a man of great talent and at least Mr. Walter Crane's equal as a writer and as a designer. True that M. Deboutin does not dress as well as Mr. Walter Crane, but there are many young men in Pall Mall who would consider Mr. Crane's velvet coat, red necktie, and soft felt hat quite intolerable, yet they would hardly be justified in speaking of a portrait of Mr. Walter Crane as a study of human degradation. Let me assure Mr. Walter Crane that when he speaks of M. Deboutin's life as being degraded, he is speaking on a subject of which he knows nothing. M. Deboutin has lived a very noble life, in no way inferior to Mr. Crane's; his life has been entirely devoted to art and literature; his etchings have been for many years the admiration of artistic Paris, and he has had a play in verse performed at the Theatre Francais.

The picture represents M. Deboutin in the cafe of the _Nouvelle Athenes_ He has come down from his studio for breakfast, and he will return to his dry-points when he has finished his pipe. I have known M. Deboutin a great number of years, and a more sober man does not exist; and Mr. Crane's accusations of drunkenness might as well be made against Mr. Bernard Shaw. When, hypocritically, I said the picture was a lesson, I referred to the woman, who happens to be sitting next to M. Deboutin. Mr. Crane, Mr. Richmond, and others have jumped to the conclusion that M. Deboutin has come to the cafe with the woman, and that they are "boozing" together. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Deboutin always came to the cafe alone, as did Manet, Degas, Duranty. Deboutin is thinking of his dry-points; the woman is incapable of thought. If questioned about her life she would probably answer, _"je suis a la coule"_. But there is no implication of drunkenness in the phrase. In England this class of woman is constantly drunk, in France hardly ever; and the woman Degas has painted is typical of her class, and she wears the habitual expression of her class. And the interest of the subject, from Degas' point of view, lies in this strange contrast--the man thinking of his dry-points, the woman thinking, as the phrase goes, of nothing at all. _Au Cafe_--that is the title of the picture. How simple, how significant! And how the picture gains in meaning when the web of false melodrama that a couple of industrious spiders have woven about it is brushed aside!

I now turn to the more interesting, and what I think will prove the more instructive, part of my task--the analysis of the art criticism of Mr. Richmond and Mr. Crane.

Mr. Richmond says "it is not painting at all". We must understand therefore that the picture is void of all accomplishment--composition, drawing, and handling. We will take Mr. Richmond's objections in their order. The subject-matter out of which the artist extracted his composition was a man and woman seated in a cafe furnished with marble tables. The first difficulty the artist had to overcome was the symmetry of the lines of the tables. Not only are they exceedingly ugly from all ordinary points of view, but they cut the figures in two. The simplest way out of the difficulty would be to place one figure on one side of a table, the other on the other side, and this composition might be balanced by a waiter seen in the distance. That would be an ordinary arrangement of the subject. But the ingenuity with which Degas selects his point of view is without parallel in the whole history of art. And this picture is an excellent example. One line of tables runs up the picture from left to right, another line of tables, indicated by three parts of one table, strikes right across the foreground. The triangle thus formed is filled by the woman's dress, which is darker than the floor and lighter than the leather bench on which both figures are seated. Looking still more closely into the composition, we find that it is made of several perspectives --the dark perspective of the bench, the light perspective of the partition behind, on which the light falls, and the rapid perspective of the marble table in the foreground. The man is high up on the right-hand corner, the woman is in the middle of the picture, and Degas has been careful to place her in front of the opening between the tables, for by so doing he was able to carry his half-tint right through the picture. The empty space on the left, so characteristic of Degas's compositions, admirably balances the composition, and it is only relieved by the stone matchbox, and the newspaper thrown across the opening between the tables. Everywhere a perspective, and these are combined with such strange art that the result is synthetic. A beautiful dissonant rhythm, always symphonic _coulant longours de source_; an exasperated vehemence and a continual desire of novelty penetrated and informed by a severely classical spirit--that is my reading of this composition.

"The qualities admired by this new school are certainly the mirrors of that side of the nineteenth-century development most opposed to fine painting, or, say, fine craftsmanship. Hurry, rush, fashion, are the enemies of toil, patience, and seclusion, without which no great works are produced. Hence the admiration for an art fully answering to a demand. No doubt impressionism is an expression in painting of the deplorable side of modern life."

After "forty years of the study of the best art of various schools that the galleries of Europe display", Mr. Richmond mistakes Degas for an impressionist (I use the word in its accepted sense); he follows the lead of the ordinary art critic who includes Degas among the impressionists because Degas paints dancing lessons, and because he has once or twice exhibited with Monet and his followers. The best way--possibly the only way--to obtain any notion of the depth of the abyss on which we stand will be by a plain statement of the facts.

When Ingres fell down in the fit from which he never recovered, it was Degas who carried him out of his studio. Degas had then been working with Ingres only a few months, but that brief while convinced Ingres of his pupil's genius, and it is known that he believed that it would be Degas who would carry on the classical tradition of which he was a great exponent. Degas has done this, not as Flandren tried to, by reproducing the externality of the master's work, but as only a man of genius could, by the application of the method to new material. Degas's early pictures, "The Spartan Youths" and "Semiramis building the Walls of Babylon". are pure Ingres. To this day Degas might be very fairly described as _un petit Ingres_. Do we not find Ingres' penetrating and intense line in the thin straining limbs of Degas's ballet-girls, in the heavy shoulders of his laundresses bent over the ironing table, and in the coarse forms of his housewives who sponge themselves in tin baths? The vulgar, who see nothing of a work of art but its external side, will find it difficult to understand that the art of "La Source" and of Degas's cumbersome housewives is the same. To the vulgar, Bouguereau and not Degas is the interpreter of the classical tradition.

'Hurry, rush, fashion, are the enemies of toil, patience, and seclusion, without which no great works are produced.'

For the sake of his beloved drawing Degas has for many years locked himself into his studio from early morning till late at night, refusing to open even to his most intimate friends. Coming across him one morning in a small cafe, where he went at midday to eat a cutlet, I said, "My dear friend, I haven't seen you for years; when may I come?" The answer I received was: "You're an old friend, and if you'll make an appointment I'll see you. But I may as well tell you that for the last two years no one has been in my studio." On the whole it is perhaps as well that I declined to make an appointment, for another old friend who went, and who stayed a little longer than he was expected to stay, was thrown down the staircase. And that staircase is spiral, as steep as any ladder. Until he succeeded in realising his art Degas's tongue was the terror of artistic Paris; his solitary days, the strain on the nerves that the invention and composition of his art, so entirely new and original, entailed, wrecked his temper, and there were moments when his friends began to dread the end that his striving might bring about. But with the realisation of his artistic ideal his real nature returned, and he is now full of kind words for the feeble, and full of indulgence for the slightest artistic effort.

The story of these terrible years of striving is written plainly enough on every canvas signed by Degas; yet Mr. Richmond imagines him skipping about airily from cafe to cafe, dashing off little impressions. In another letter Mr. Richmond says, 'Perfect craftsmanship, such as was Van Eyck's, Holbein's, Bellini's, Michael Angelo's, becomes more valuable as time goes on.' It is interesting to hear that Mr. Richmond admires Holbein's craftsmanship, but it will be still more interesting if he will explain how and why the head of the old Bohemian in the picture entitled "L'Absinthe" is inferior to Holbein. The art of Holbein, as I understand it--and if I do not understand it rightly I shall be delighted to have my mistake explained to me--consists of measurements and the power of observing and following an outline with remorseless precision. Now Degas in his early manner was frequently this. His portrait of his father listening to Pagan singing whilst he accompanied himself on the guitar is pure Holbein. Whether it is worse or better than Holbein is a matter of individual opinion; but to affect to admire Holbein and to decline to admire the portrait I speak of is--well, incomprehensible. The portrait of Deboutin in the picture entitled "L'Absinthe" is a later work, and is not quite so nearly in the manner of Holbein; but it is quite nearly enough to allow me to ask Mr. Richmond to explain how, and why it is inferior to Holbein. Inferior is not the word I want, for Mr. Richmond holds Holbein to be one of the greatest painters the world ever knew, and Degas to be hardly a painter at all.

For three weeks the pens of art critics, painters, designers, and engravers have been writing about this picture--about this rough Bohemian who leans over the cafe table with his wooden pipe fixed fast between his teeth, with his large soft felt hat on the back of his head, upheld there by a shock of bushy hair, with his large battered face grown around with scanty, unkempt beard, illuminated by a fixed and concentrated eye which tells us that his thoughts are in pursuit of an idea--about one of the finest specimens of the art of this century--and what have they told us? Mr. Richmond mistakes the work for some hurried sketch--impressionism--and practically declares the painting to be worthless. Mr. Walter Crane says it is only fit for a sociological museum or for an illustrated tract in a temperance propaganda; he adds some remarks about "a new Adam and Eve and a paradise of unnatural selection" which escape my understanding. An engraver said that the picture was a vulgar subject vulgarly painted. Another set of men said the picture was wonderful, extraordinary, perfect, complete, excellent. But on neither side was any attempt made to explain why the picture was bad or why the picture was excellent. The picture is excellent, but why is it excellent? Because the scene is like a real scene passing before your eyes? Because nothing has been omitted that might have been included, because nothing has been included that might have been omitted? Because the painting is clear, smooth, and limpid and pleasant to the eye? Because the colour is harmonious, and though low in tone, rich and strong? Because each face is drawn in its distinctive lines, and each tells the tale of instincts and of race? Because the clothing is in its accustomed folds and is full of the individuality of the wearer? We look on this picture and we ask ourselves how it is that amongst the tens and hundreds of thousands of men who have painted men and women in their daily occupations, habits, and surroundings, no one has said so much in so small a space, no one has expressed himself with that simplicity which draws all veils aside, and allows us to look into the heart of nature.

Where is the drawing visible except in the result? How beautifully concise it is, and yet it is large, supple, and true without excess of reality. Can you detect anywhere a measurement? Do you perceive a base, a fixed point from which the artist calculated and compared his drawing? That hat, full of the ill-usage of the studio, hanging on the shock of bushy hair, the perspective of those shoulders, and the round of the back, determining the exact width and thickness of the body, the movement of the arm leaning on the table, and the arm perfectly in the sleeve, and the ear and the shape of the neck hidden in the shadow of the hat and hair, and the battered face, sparely sown with an ill-kempt beard, illuminated by a fixed look which tells us that his thoughts are in pursuit of an idea--this old Bohemian smoking his pipe, does he not seem to have grown out of the canvas as naturally and mysteriously as a herb or plant? By the side of this drawing do not all the drawings in the gallery of English, French, Belgian, and Scandinavian seem either childish, ignorant-timed, or presumptuous? By the side of this picture do not all the other pictures in the gallery seem like little painted images?

Compared with this drawing, would not Holbein seem a little geometrical? Again I ask if you can detect in any outline or accent a fixed point from whence the drawing was measured, calculated, and constructed. In the drawing of all the other painters you trace the method and you take note of the knowledge through which the model has been seen and which has, as it were, dictated to the eye what it should see. But in Degas the science of the drawing is hidden from us--a beautiful flexible drawing almost impersonal, bending to and following the character, as naturally as the banks follow the course of their river.

I stop, although I have not said everything. To complete my study of this picture we should have to examine that smooth, clean, supple painting of such delicate and yet such a compact tissue; we should have to study that simple expressive modelling; we should have to consider the resources of that palette, reduced almost to a monochrome and yet so full of colour. I stop, for I think I have said enough to rouse if not to fully awaken suspicion in Mr. Richmond and Mr. Crane of the profound science concealed in a picture about which I am afraid they have written somewhat thoughtlessly.

* * * * *

In the midst of a somewhat foolish and ignorant argument regarding the morality and the craftsmanship of a masterpiece, the right of the new art criticism to adversely criticise the work of Royal Academicians has been called into question. I cull the following from the columns of the _Westminster Gazette_;--

'Their words are practically the same; their praise and blame are similarly inspired; the means they employ to gain their object identical. So much we can see for ourselves. As for their object and their _bona-fides_, they concern me not. It is what they do, not what they are, that is the question here. What they do is to form a caucus in art criticism, and owing to their vehemence and the limitation of their aim, a caucus which is increasing in influence, and, to the best of my belief, doing cruel injustice to many great artists, and much injury to English art. It is for this reason, and this reason only, that I have taken up my parable on the subject. I have in vain endeavoured to induce those whose words would come with far greater authority than mine to do so. I went personally to the presidents of the two greatest artistic bodies in the kingdom to ask them to speak or write on the subject, but I found their view to be that such action would be misconstrued, and would in their position be unbecoming.'

The meaning of all this is that the ferret is in the hole and the rats have begun to squeak already. Soon they will come hopping out of St. John's Wood Avenue, so make ready your sticks and stones.

In April 1892 I wrote: 'The position of the Academy is as impregnable as Gibraltar. But Gibraltar itself was once captured by a small company of resolute men, and if ever there exist in London six resolute art critics, each capable of distinguishing between a bad picture and a good one, each determined at all costs to tell the truth, and if these six critics will keep in line, then, and not till then, some of the reforms so urgently needed, and so often demanded from the Academy, will be granted. I do not mean that these six critics will bring the Academicians on their knees by writing fulminating articles on the Academy. Such attacks were as idle as whistling for rain on the house-tops. The Academicians laugh at such attacks, relying on the profound indifference of the public to artistic questions. But there is another kind of attack which the Academicians may not ignore, and that is true criticism. If six newspapers were to tell the simple truth about the canvases which the Academicians will exhibit next month, the Academicians would soon cry out for quarter and grant all necessary reforms.'

I have only now to withdraw the word "reform". The Academy cannot reform, and must be destroyed. The Academy has tried to reform, and has failed. Thirty years ago the pre-Raphaelite movement nearly succeeded in bringing about an effectual shipwreck. But when Mr. Holman Hunt went to Italy, special terms were offered and accepted. The election of Millais and Watts saved the Academy, and instead of the Academy, it was the genius of one of England's greatest painters that was destroyed. "Ophelia", "Autumn Leaves", and "St. Agnes' Eve" are pictures that will hold their own in any gallery among pictures of every age and every country. But fathomless is the abyss which separates them from Sir John Millais' academic work.

The Academy is a distinctly commercial enterprise. Has not Sir John Millais said, in an interview, that the hanging committee at Burlington House selects the pictures that will draw the greatest number of shillings. The Academy has been subventioned by the State to the extent of three hundred thousand pounds, and that money has been employed in arrogant commercialism. The Academy holds a hundred thousand pounds in trust, left by Mr. Chantry for the furtherance of art in this country; and this money is spent on the purchase of pictures by impecunious Academicians, and the collection formed with this money is one of the seven horrors of civilisation. The Academy has tolerated genius when it was popular, it has trampled upon genius when it was unpopular; and the business of the new art criticism is to rid art of the incubus. The Academy must be destroyed, and when that is accomplished the other Royal institutes will follow as a matter of course. The object of the new art criticism is to give free trade to art.

[The end]
George Moore's essay: New Art Criticism