Skip to main content

The Arts - 1930 and Earlier

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

Art in America. By Suzanne Lafollette. New York: Harper Brothers. $6.00. Contemporary American Portrait Painters. By Cuthbert Lee. W. W. Norton and Company. $10.00. Philosophy of Art. By C. J. Ducassc. New York: Lincoln MacVeagh. $3.50. Early American Portrait Painters. By Cuthbert Lee. New Haven: Yale University Press. $10.00. The New Arts. Edited by P. N. Youtz. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. 5 vols. $6.00. $1.25 each. Idols Behind Attars. By Anita Brenner. New York: Payson and Clarke. $5.00. Modem Architecture. By Henry-Russell Hitchcock. New York: Payson, and Clarke. $5.00.

The point of view of an author of art history is generally indicated by his choice of illustrations—a method of approach particularly suggestive when examining Suzanne Lafollette’s “Art in America,” for the text is plentifully interleaved with fine aquatone process prints. Another device, used we are told too freely by reviewers, is to employ the index as the point of departure, when under Menckenian or other influence one is included. That method also would be illuminating in the present instance, especially if a running notice be taken of where in the body of the text the references fall. Lastly, and again with pleasant satisfaction in the case of the book before us, one might read the book. I do not believe the preface by Walter Pach need be included, except as an act of supererogation.

The frontispiece is Sullivan’s Getty Tomb, clearly announcing the platform of the author as that of the modernist, for the eclecticism of the nineteenth century styles is here apparent in novel and abstract simplifications. The course of architecture in its mediaeval, Georgian, and Early Republic phases appears in representative interiors and exteriors, and the minor arts also receive attention. Cret’s Indianapolis Public Library and Rogers’ New York Medical Center come next! The series closes with examples of creative abstractions by Saarinen, Wright, and Goodhue. Miss Lafollette, one concludes, illustrates what she can discuss with satisfaction, those designs which to the modernist are aesthetically potent.

If we try the index method with sculpture, our results are apt to point to similar conclusions. Saint-Gaudens comes near the middle of the text, and receives qualified approval, Manship is quickly dismissed as academic, and Lachaise, Epstein, and Hammer with their distortions of mass, surface, and line are accepted as significant.

The development of painting, as usual in such a survey, receives major attention. The taste of the author is here more catholic, or perhaps only more sympathetic to the attitude of the layman. Copley, receives the appreciation which rightly places him in the forefront of America’s portrait painters. Stuart and the men of the early Republic are treated in the usual manner, as also those who first brought foreign influences to bear on native talent. The author’s tendencies toward less conservative points of view reappear, however, before long. Ryder and Eakins gain especial emphasis, and Whistler is said to have reached his climax with the Little White Girl of 1864. One of the distinctions of the book is the adequate incorporation of the modern painters, and all the later pages are devoted to them. It is here alone that the author unfortunately becomes propagandist rather than critic. We are perhaps still too near the Armory Show of 1913 to feel free to appreciate modernity without challenging and invidiously comparing. Llenri, Glackens, Prendergast, Davies, Marin, and O’Keefe are all there and mix uncommonly well with their academic predecessors, and even contemporaries. The style of the book is readable, the stressing of cultural background is admirably handled, and, as common in current criticism, the chapter headings are descriptive to the author alone-

In a format which has gained a place for the volume among the fifty crowned books of the year, a former secretary of the American Federation of Arts, in “Contemporary American Portrait Painters,” has selected fifty portraits by, as many contemporary painters, and supplied a page of biography for each of the artists. The reproductions are done by aquatone process resulting in a soft uniformity of effect, but not always in an equally successful representation of the varied techniques. As one leaves through the pages, the uniformity of effect is found also to depend on the generally high excellence of the craftsmanship illustrated, as well as the relative lack of individuality. It is true an occasional master appears—Henri, Speicher perhaps, Dickinson with his neo-realism. But speaking by and large the reader is apt to wonder why, if American painters in this exacting field do not more than ably represent the studios from which they come, the editor limits his selection to portraits, or to Americans, or why he did not choose a smaller number, and then give more than one illustration to each. In fact, except to committees on presentation portraits one imagines this academic Who’s Who will lack utility, let alone inspiration. For after all, an editor of such a volume is responsible to his audience for more than an adequate survey of his field. There is the implied debt of actual intrinsic value to be expected in the works chosen. And judged by such a high standard, many, in the present case fall short. The biographical notes are uniformly laudatory. The style is journalistic, and no dates are given; so that perhaps the major interest in the text lies in the fact, once more emphasized, of how much our contemporary painters owe to the Julien Academy abroad and to the Chase Studio at home. That fact and the not infrequent literary “howler”—”When about twenty-two he returned to Chicago and received a professorship at Cooper Union in New York”; So-and-so was born “at the site of Hotel Claridge during a blizzard.” The format deserves a better letter-press and a less catholic point of view in the choice of portraits. The prospective reader of Ducasse’s iconoclastic dialectic in the field of aesthetics is invited to turn to the appendix first. With his wits sharpened and his emotions humored by the author’s clever destruction of his faith in Clive Bell’s “significant form,” he will more boldly plunge into the early chapters where the aesthetic positions of many another aesthetic philosopher from Plato to Dewey are stormed, with or without an exchange of prisoners resulting. Before the assaults are over, however, one finds the writer adopting some of the disreputable methods of the enemy. He too likes to coin words to avoid confusing connotations, and when there is logic chopping to do he works with a will. To give examples—he expresses amusement in a footnote at Lalo’s suggestions that aesthetic, inaesthetic, and anaesthetic be used to avoid the ambiguous Beautiful, Ugly, and Neutral, but later on, in order to distinguish in his turn between two uses of Beauty, finds it necessary to employ such expressions as “Beauty (n. s.)” and “Beauty (w. s.),” thereby indicating a “narrow sense” and a “wider sense.” Further, he ventures on occasion to “peripathize,” and in a lighter mood, to “emilypost.”

The middle chapters of the book reveal the outlines of his own “dogmatico-liberal” position. “Aesthetic art” is defined as “the conscious objectification of one’s feelings”; the aesthetic attitude involves aesthetic contemplation, or “a ‘listening’ to our capacity for feeling”; and the aesthetic object is “the natural, immediate, and unique symbol of an aesthetic feeling.” Herein Santayana is admittedly approached. The last chapters lead the reader out of the dialetic woods, and the monologue takes on the air of a discussion. Aesthetic values and standards of criticism provide topics about which everyone has opinions. It is admitted that the “instrumental goodness” of an object is subject to proof, but it is affirmed that the “immediate goodness” is an entirely individual matter. If the artist has objectified his emotion successfully, you are the sole judge of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of your aesthetic experience. The emphasis on “design” elements at the expense of “dramatic” elements now prevalent in the work of modern painters comes in for some apt criticism, but because of the one-sided basis of expression on the part of the artist, not because of the goodness or badness of the results. The author believes that psychological search for aesthetic standards will be as futile as the metaphysical. For even if Munro questionnaires are tabulated indefinitely, the liberal will merely query, What of it? My experience differs, and with equal validity, for “Beauty is relative to the individual observer.” The teaching of the history of art is thus beside the point, the teaching of appreciation fraught with danger, and the teaching of technique likely to distort the whole perspective of the unhappy student. Only when Beauty is related to accuracy of representation in the last pages is the rigorous liberal caught napping. “What is important for beauty is not truth but plausibility,” we read. El Greco may distort, but not beyond plausibility. The reader who has followed thus far with disciple-like docility can only repeat the query he now knows so well, Why not?

Professor Ducasse is to be congratulated on having students able to follow his more abstract reasoning, and his students are to be felicitated on a lecturer who sees humor in the midst of aesthetic experiences.

Cuthbert Lee has also written a useful compilation of our current knowledge of American “primitives” in “Early American Portrait Painters.” The connoisseur will doubtless consider his modification of such completeness as might be desired by the scholar a courtesy, and the general reader will perhaps skip judiciously, enjoying the illustrations betimes. In “The New Arts,” a five-volume series of lectures delivered at the Peoples Institute in New York City, and edited for the second time by P. N. Youtz, poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, and music of recent years are criticized. If Joseph Hudnut, in the volume, “Modern Sculpture,” would only stress the structural rather than the architectural aspect of sculpture, he would have less confusion to confute; if Miss Babette Deutsch would revise her title, “Potable Gold,” the reader might know the volume had to do with poetry, and so on. John Mason Brown, in “The Modern Theatre in Revolt,” is discursive, and therefore interesting. Alfred J. Swan in “Music—1900-1930,” is admittedly and defiantly prejudiced; while the most pat cliche in the series occurs in the Mary Cecil Allen volume, “Painters of the Modern Mind,” wherein Cezanne is said to tower above his contemporaries in that he used three-dimensional color as well as form.

Miss Brenner’s “Idols Behind Altars” opens the vista of a great IIispano-American school of art, if the ideals and tentative achievements of contemporary Mexico are followed to the South. The soul of Mexico is described in terms of religion, history, and art, and such familiar names as Orozco, Rivera, and Covarrubbias, are given their native setting.

Architecture is traced in its historical evolution from mediaeval times in “Modern Architecture” by Llenry-Russell Hitchcock. Oud, LeCorbusier, and Gropius are hailed as the New Pioneers, perhaps of a post-modern school of design. But the reader will probably feel free to absorb the interesting discussions of the younger men and their startling work, and classify them to suit his own theories, remembering that pigeon-holes to be useful must be familiar.

MR. SITWELL’S NOVEL By Vincent Sheean

THE novels of Mr. Osbert Sitwell must be received with hopeful interest by those who care anything about fiction as a form of literature. Mr. Sitwell has, it is true, disappointed us twice—first in “Before the

The Man Who Lost Himself. By Osbert Sitwell, New York: Coward-Mc-Cann. $2.50.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading