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An essay by Oscar Wilde

The Close of the Arts and Crafts

Title:     The Close of the Arts and Crafts
Author: Oscar Wilde [More Titles by Wilde]

(Pall Mall Gazette, November 30, 1888.)

Mr. Walter Crane, the President of the Society of Arts and Crafts, was greeted last night by such an enormous audience that at one time the honorary secretary became alarmed for the safety of the cartoons, and many people were unable to gain admission at all. However, order was soon established, and Mr. Cobden-Sanderson stepped up on to the platform and in a few pleasantly sententious phrases introduced Mr. Crane as one who had always been 'the advocate of great and unpopular causes,' and the aim of whose art was 'joy in widest commonalty spread.' Mr. Crane began his lecture by pointing out that Art had two fields, aspect and adaptation, and that it was primarily with the latter that the designer was concerned, his object being not literal fact but ideal beauty. With the unstudied and accidental effects of Nature the designer had nothing to do. He sought for principles and proceeded by geometric plan and abstract line and colour. Pictorial art is isolated and unrelated, and the frame is the last relic of the old connection between painting and architecture. But the designer does not desire primarily to produce a picture. He aims at making a pattern and proceeds by selection; he rejects the 'hole in the wall' idea, and will have nothing to do with the 'false windows of a picture.'

Three things differentiate designs. First, the spirit of the artist, that mode and manner by which Durer is separated from Flaxman, by which we recognise the soul of a man expressing itself in the form proper to it. Next comes the constructive idea, the filling of spaces with lovely work. Last is the material which, be it leather or clay, ivory or wood, often suggests and always controls the pattern. As for naturalism, we must remember that we see not with our eyes alone but with our whole faculties. Feeling and thought are part of sight. Mr. Crane then drew on a blackboard the naturalistic oak-tree of the landscape painter and the decorative oak-tree of the designer. He showed that each artist is looking for different things, and that the designer always makes appearance subordinate to decorative motive. He showed also the field daisy as it is in Nature and the same flower treated for panel decoration. The designer systematises and emphasises, chooses and rejects, and decorative work bears the same relation to naturalistic presentation that the imaginative language of the poetic drama bears to the language of real life. The decorative capabilities of the square and the circle were then shown on the board, and much was said about symmetry, alternation and radiation, which last principle Mr. Crane described as 'the Home Rule of design, the perfection of local self-government,' and which, he pointed out, was essentially organic, manifesting itself in the bird's wing as well as in the Tudor vaulting of Gothic architecture. Mr. Crane then passed to the human figure, 'that expressive unit of design,' which contains all the principles of decoration, and exhibited a design of a nude figure with an axe couched in an architectural spandrel, a figure which he was careful to explain was, in spite of the axe, not that of Mr. Gladstone. The designer then leaving chiaroscuro, shading and other 'superficial facts of life' to take care of themselves, and keeping the idea of space limitation always before him, then proceeds to emphasise the beauty of his material, be it metal with its 'agreeable bossiness,' as Ruskin calls it, or leaded glass with its fine dark lines, or mosaic with its jewelled tesserae, or the loom with its crossed threads, or wood with its pleasant crispness. Much bad art comes from one art trying to borrow from another. We have sculptors who try to be pictorial, painters who aim at stage effects, weavers who seek for pictorial motives, carvers who make Life and not Art their aim, cotton printers 'who tie up bunches of artificial flowers with streamers of artificial ribbons' and fling them on the unfortunate textile.

Then came the little bit of Socialism, very sensible and very quietly put. 'How can we have fine art when the worker is condemned to monotonous and mechanical labour in the midst of dull or hideous surroundings, when cities and nature are sacrificed to commercial greed, when cheapness is the god of Life?' In old days the craftsman was a designer; he had his 'prentice days of quiet study; and even the painter began by grinding colours. Some little old ornament still lingers, here and there, on the brass rosettes of cart-horses, in the common milk-cans of Antwerp, in the water-vessels of Italy. But even this is disappearing. 'The tourist passes by' and creates a demand that commerce satisfies in an unsatisfactory manner. We have not yet arrived at a healthy state of things. There is still the Tottenham Court Road and a threatened revival of Louis Seize furniture, and the 'popular pictorial print struggles through the meshes of the antimacassar.' Art depends on Life. We cannot get it from machines. And yet machines are bad only when they are our masters. The printing press is a machine that Art values because it obeys her. True art must have the vital energy of life itself, must take its colours from life's good or evil, must follow angels of light or angels of darkness. The art of the past is not to be copied in a servile spirit. For a new age we require a new form.

Mr. Crane's lecture was most interesting and instructive. On one point only we would differ from him. Like Mr. Morris he quite underrates the art of Japan, and looks on the Japanese as naturalists and not as decorative artists. It is true that they are often pictorial, but by the exquisite finesse of their touch, the brilliancy and beauty of their colour, their perfect knowledge of how to make a space decorative without decorating it (a point on which Mr. Crane said nothing, though it is one of the most important things in decoration), and by their keen instinct of where to place a thing, the Japanese are decorative artists of a high order. Next year somebody must lecture the Arts and Crafts on Japanese art. In the meantime, we congratulate Mr. Crane and Mr. Cobden-Sanderson on the admirable series of lectures that has been delivered at this exhibition. Their influence for good can hardly be over-estimated. The exhibition, we are glad to hear, has been a financial success. It closes tomorrow, but is to be only the first of many to come.

[The end]
Oscar Wilde's essay: Close of the Arts and Crafts