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Art and Some Aesthetes

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

Modem Architecture. Edited by Kenneth J. Conant. Boston: University Prints. $4.00. Form and Reform. By Paul t. Frankl, New York: Harper and Brothers. $5.00. Michelangelo. By Romain Rolland. New York: Albert and Charles Boni. $.50. The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. By Bernhard Bcrensou. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. $4.50. The Greek Tradition in Sculpture. By Walter Raymond Agard. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. $3.00. The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks. By Gisela M. a. Richter. New Haven: The Yale University Press. $35.00 and $12.00. Ancient Painting. By Mary Hamilton Swindler. New Haven: The Yale University Press. $10.00 and $5.00. Beauty. By Helen Huss Parkhurst. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.50. Aesthetic Judgment. By D. w. Prall. New York: Thomas Y. Crowetl Company. $4.00. A Primer of Aesthetics: A Logical Approach to a Philosophy of Art. By Louis Grudin. New York: Covici, Friede. $3.00. The Painter’s Terms. By Arthur Pope. Cambridge: The Harvard University Press. $3.00.

The books in the present group form a miscellany. But there is probably a right and a wrong order to be followed in commenting on them. From the titles which deal with aesthetic problems to those concerned with definite individuals or types of art would seem the most logical procedure. But a more natural progress would be from the current and tangible to the purely theoretical. By the use of this inductive method the new University Prints volume would come first, a pendant to the “European Architecture” volume of some years ago. The present title, “Modern Architecture,” is stretched to include all post-Baroque styles, and the two volumes give a valuable set of annotated photographs of European and North American structures from the dawn of history to the city of tomorrow. Kenneth J. Conant, now engaged in important investigations in the mediaeval monastic remains at Cluny, in France, is the editor of the new series. The neo-classic styles, the revivals, and especially functional designs, in the various countries, are passed in chronological review. In general, one finds the buildings one looks for, though it is obvious they could not all be included; and when dealing with contemporary work, it is clear a representative selection was all that could be attempted in less than three hundred plates. But one notes that the Harkness Quadrangle at Yale is lacking, and the Shelton Hotel in New York; and the top of the American Radiator Building is hardly intelligible seen back of the New York Public Library. Most of the photographs are clear and sufficiently detailed to illustrate the legends. A few exceptions are the Tower Building on lower Broadway, New York; the Basilica at Quebec; and the Historic Museum at Moscow. On occasion the classification of the buildings by “style” or “manner” or “revival” may be open to discussion, and one is surprised at the omission now and then of architect or date of buildings erected in the last century and a half. The most striking error was caught in time for inclusion among the errata, the facade of the Cathedral at Florence being interchanged with that of the Cathedral at Barcelona.

On heavily coated paper with startling black blocks organizing letter-press and illustrations, Paul Frankl offers a new handbook of modernistic design—”Form and Reform.” The photographs give the volume its value; they are well selected and cover the whole range of contemporary craftsmanship. The text has the voluble enthusiasm and uncertain logic of a salesman of somewhat more than average intelligence. The reader remains ignorant, however, whether the intellect or the emotions form the real basis of modern design; he hears functionalism called fundamental, yet learns, “Design of artistic work has little if anything to do with its practicability”; he reads that artists “no longer seek to startle” on a format hard on the eyes; and he is invited to query, “Why do so-called artists continue to daub oils on easel paintings?” in the light of French textile designs. Some day the rationale of modern design will be written. One suspects that neither Frankl nor Park nor Le Corbusier will be the author.

From contemporary art we turn to the period of the Renaissance with two valuable reprints for our examination. As one of the new series of Bonibooks, the translation of Ro-main Rolland’s “Michelangelo” by Frederick Street has been issued. The present paper-covered volume uses the same letter-press as the Duffield publication of 1915, but omits the illustrations. The introductory note which says the French volume belongs to Les Maitres de l’Art series and “is here translated into English for the first time” is misleading, an ambiguity which is only increased by the next sentence: “It is entirely distinct from a study of Michelangelo by Romain Rolland which appeared some time ago.” The natural inference is that the former “study” was the Duffield issue. Actually, even the bibliography is not brought down to date in the current reprint. However, this brief biography and critique of a master of the Renaissance by one of our own day deserves wide circulation in its new dress. In the light of Rolland’s recent study of Beethoven, his comparison of the latter’s genius with that of Michelangelo in this early work of his is especially interesting.

The other reprint gives in one volume Berenson’s four classic studies of Renaissance painting in Italy (Putnam. 1894-1900). A dozen or more illustrations are provided, but the lists of attributed works are omitted, a factor which makes our friend, the bookseller, rejoice. The new issue is called a “revised edition,” but the use of the preface of the first edition of the “Venetian Painters” volume makes one suspicious, and a comparative examination of topic sentences here and there reveals only one change, and that merely a verbal one. Inasmuch as Berenson has long since championed line as a fundamental element of design, a real revision would seem to have called for some modification of the celebrated exaltation of the “tactile values” in Florentine painting, dating from his early days as a critic. Since none appears, one concludes that a reprint rather than a new edition is being offered. Some day, publishers may flatter their readers to the extent of dealing frankly with them in such matters. There was no apparent reason for not doing so in the present case. The small Putnam volumes were going out of print, and the revision of the lists of attributions would probably entail unnecessary labors, duplicating in many cases data already available in more recent monographs. The need for a reprint of the text alone was thus apparent; and the new issue will be welcomed without doubt.

From the ancient world come volumes on Greek sculpture, the Greek tradition in later sculpture, and on ancient painting. The second of these books is a well illustrated and annotated issue in the Johns Hopkins series, Studies in Archaeology, by Professor Agard of Wisconsin. The fifty pages of text offer a good example of a task well done which was scarcely worth doing. It is possible to trace influences along such devious paths and so far from the starting point that they are no longer significant. To summarize the history of sculpture in such a limited space is in itself a temptation to superficiality, and when this survey is designed to prove a preconceived thesis, the odds are all against the critic. For pedagogical purposes it may be legitimate, although dangerous, to trace all the art, science, and philosophy of later times from Greek sources; but when one has descended from the Pentelic groves, one wonders if Rome’s chief contribution to sculpture was the spread of the Greek tradition, if Greek influence in the Far East is of more than historical interest, if the figures on the Medici Tombs are examples of “classical repose” in any significant sense, if Baroque sculpture was really, “an adaptation of Hellenistic variety and charm,” and if Meunier and Saint-Gaudens are comparable to the Greek sculptors along any but analogous lines. Finally, I would submit that a critic has closed his eyes who finds in “My Mother” by Mestrovic an example of the modern debt to Greek sculpture. The superficial similarity of the drapery here to that of archaic Greek work calls for contrast rather than comparison. One is conscious stylization, abstraction; the other is naive simplicity, reaching toward realism. But further, the whole spirit of the Mestrovic work is expressive, whereas the Greek spirit was essentially humanistic.

Last year the Yale Press issued “The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks,” by the distinguished Curator of Classical Art at the Metropolitan Museum, in an elaborate limited edition to retail at thirty-five dollars. There were nearly eight hundred illustrations, it is true, and several colored plates by the Viennese expert, Max Jaffe, but still the price made its general purchase impossible. This fall, having apparently defrayed the production charges, the Yale Press is reprinting the book at a third the original cost. Miss Richter had already established her authority by her catalogs and monographs in the field of the classical minor arts—bronzes, pottery, and furniture. When several years ago she had occasion to prepare a course of lectures in the well-worked field of Greek sculpture she had the alternatives of writing another handbook as Gardner had already done, or of arranging her material to provide original cross sections, as Deonna and Ridder had already done. Having these alternatives she adopted both, but from an individual, even a controversial, point of view. And here the facilities of the Metropolitan collections provided bibliographical and photographic support of enormous value. The result is an invaluable compendium of controversy for the advanced student, or for the layman who enjoys sinking as well as swimming. The text provides chronological surveys, discussion of types and classes of sculpture, technique (including modern forgeries), and biographical summaries. The plates provide a mine of material for the support of the theories advanced. A sidelight on the type of scholarship the reader is dealing with is given in the introduction where one is told of the author’s study of modelling and stone-cutting in preparation for her criticism.

Of another sort of scholarship is the volume on “Ancient Painting” by Professor Swindler of Bryn Mawr, issued albeit with nearly seven hundred plates at the amazing prices of ten and five dollars. In this case there was no handbook which covered the whole field in the light of current knowledge. The need—and the result justifies it—was for a thorough summary, with controversy relegated to footnotes and bibliography. For fifteen years the author has assembled her enormous body of data, and in the text and illustrations gives the reader the benefit of her researches. Already reports tell of its acceptance as the standard text in seminar courses. It is not often a real need is so adequately filled at the first effort.

Our three volumes on aesthetics form a progressive program. Miss Parkhurst’s very feminine and purple-patched introduction to the subject would appropriately fall in undergraduate days. Prall’s masterful study of the philosophical basis of our appreciation of the surface of our world might well take us into graduate years, while Grudin’s extremely abstract Primer, prolegomena to a terminology suitable for a discussion of aesthetics, might tax more than one unwary expert in the professional world. That the development of thought in these studies may be circular rather than tangential to any starting point, however, is suggested by the reflection that Grudin may, some day recall the limitation of the human intellect, and turn, as has his favorite dialectic sparring partner, Bertrand Russell, from writing a “Principia Mathematica” to an “Education and the Good Life.”

“Beauty” deserves to form the basis of many delightful discussions in those colleges where student and teacher still gather to discuss matters of mutual interest and undertake to settle to everyone’s satisfaction the ultimate problems before the supply of cigarettes gives out, or tea is brought in. The illustrations provide delightful oases of contemplation. The style is poetic, at times breathless, and, at least in the emphases made now and then, the thought is original. But vagueness is too constant, even for a treatise in the field of aesthetics; as in the discussion of the place of unity in the arts. Statements are made which can only arouse opposition, as when we are told that movement is not the essence of drama. Page Mr. Roy C. Mitchell, please. We are asked, in another context, to see the relations between architecture and atmosphere on the one hand, and music and the producing instrument on the other. And architecture, we are told, in some supersensuous sense resolves itself into metaphor. Yes, one ought to have gorgeous discussions with undergraduates over “Beauty.”

Professor Prall of California in “Aesthetic Judgment” makes a systematic investigation of the surface qualities of our world and the appropriate reactions in terms of appreciation to them. It is a distinctly important study. A reference or two to ,his wealth of material is all that is possible here. Perhaps the chapter on “Rhythm as Temporal Structure” is the most stimulating, wherein rhythm is described as “imposed temporal order, felt, but not seen or heard.” Roger Fry’s interpretation of rhythm as spatial is thus flatly controverted. But I imagine the most practical resuit of a careful reading of the text will be a renewed faith in the fundamental bases of art appreciation, freed from many of the current fallacies. Of dynamic symmetry, for example, we read: “Some general form any specific form must of course approximate, but to confuse the complex specific form which is perhaps beautiful, with the simple approximations given by triangles, or suggested by theories of dynamic symmetry in terms of simple geometrical proportions, is the adoption of such a royal road to beauty as no intelligent mind could very, well travel on the way to an adequate theory of the aesthetics of space.” Another example of the sanity which is reached when clear thinking precedes is found in his defence of portraiture as a legitimate type of representation in painting, and his insistence on the realistic basis of the style of Cezanne. Sentences are long, and in at least one case, without apparent structure. Summaries are sometimes repeated with confusing completeness. But the effect of the reading of such a book on aesthetics, rigorous yet concrete, is refreshing.

“A Primer of Aesthetics” will appeal to the logician. In an attempt to correlate our thinking with a universe of time-space relations, the author finds Russell and Whitehead fallacious and such mediaeval thinkers as Bergson and James unsafe guides. In the essay on “A Definition of Poetry” he applies his own dialectics. Hamlet is the illustration. “In the context consisting of one such phase [i. e. ‘the author is, like any object, himself reduced at any one time to some phase or aspect of his duration . . .’] and the written poem by which it is ‘expressed,’ the author has been reversed from a phase of himself into a phase of that poem; its causal antecedent, a constituent of its duration, its contextual symbol. The ‘onlie begetter’ of the poem is the author reduced to such a phase or aspect as to be indistinguishable from the ‘idea of the poem’ itself, ‘what it expresses.’”

The latter half of the book is devoted to an introduction to a theory of aesthetics. The discussion moves from Will to Act, to Effectuality, to Work of Art. This Work of Art may be variously or co-ordinately considered as in an actual world, or a real world, or a wished for world, or a laboratory world, approximating thereby the region where science and psychology find a common basis of discussion.

The last volume on our shelf necessitates reference to an announced series, An Introduction to the Language of Drawing and Painting, by Professor Pope of Harvard. The first number in the series, “The Painter’s Terms,” is the book before us. The second, “The Modes of Drawing and Painting,” is announced for fall publication. The series undertakes to present in practical form a methodology of the painter’s craft, as originated by Denman Ross, and modified and reorganized by the further experiments of the author. That the program here outlined, based on thoroughgoing scientific investigation as it is, is practical, becomes evident to anyone who has watched its operation at the Fogg Museum, and in the hands of the graduates at Yale, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. Even on the basis of a reading of the text, one would conclude it would admirably serve the purposes of the general college student, the future connoisseur, and the later dilettante. Would it be equally useful to the future artist? The answer is partly found in the reflection that few future artists pause for a college education. But those who do, and the number may well increase, could hardly find anything but stimulation and encouragement to experimentation in its use. The practice of art has been reduced to a science, it is true, but when was it anything else, pedagogically speaking? And even Leonardo might have saved time if he had had access to such a laboratory studio as is here indicated. A single reference will suggest the amazing cogency of some of the interpretations. Monet is shown to have “crowded his lights” as Rembrandt “crowded his darks,” in the attempt to approximate with a palette the range of values of nature. In the light of this obvious explanation, to insist on the thorough-going and scientific realism of the Impressionists is rather irrelevant.


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