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Perspectives in the Arts

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

The Arts. By Hendrick Willcm Van Loon, New York: Simon and Schuster. $3.95. A World History of Art. By Sheldon Cheney. New York: The Viking Press. $5.00.

Through increasing knowledge in the field of

public health and wisdom in its application and

through a growing appreciation of art forms that transcend times and places, the world of the mid-twentieth century seems to be achieving a form of stability. The Oxford Conference of 1937 and the League of Nations are also full of promise, but at present health and youth movements and a developing appreciation of art, as evidenced by the two books under discussion, appear to be the more immediately hopeful signs of a return to sanity. The reader of Hendrick Van Loon’s “The Arts” has an experience even if he is already well informed about art; the reader of the Sheldon Cheney’s “A World History of Art” participates in an exploration even if he has already formed standards of judgment. In both cases, the authors stress appreciation rather than history, and aesthetic form rather than subject-matter and techniques.

With the aid of drawings and designs in color, Mr. Van Loon vividly and suggestively tells the story of the arts as he himself understands it—an account that is prejudiced, inaccurate, and journalistic, but stimulating to such an extent that the envious scholar is apt to forget his reference books and the layman is apt to keep on reading and to visit museums until he no longer “knows what he likes.” Such a post-adolescent confusion marks a necessary step in the development of his mature appreciation, but with as robust a guide as Mr. Van Loon the transition is likely to be painless. Even if the reader were to list a much greater number of queries and exclamations than the present reviewer has, the time taken in perusing the volume would be well spent—it would be an exciting, a first-rate, adventure.

But now, adjusting our horn-rimmed glasses and clearing our throat, let us point out that nicknaming the Pharaoh “the Big Chief” is a bit anachronistic, and that the parallel between the modern worship of “that mysterious yellowish metal,” gold, and the ancient worship of the Egyptian god in his “town residence,” is hardly cogent. Yet the Egyptian chapter is memorable for the pregnant idea that the dweller in the Nile valley pretended that death did not exist, and for those ten or more striking paragraphs beginning, “They went on tilling their fields,” which make real the immemorial centuries of Egyptian culture. Again, there is no mention of the ziggurat in the discussion of Mesopotamian art; the archaic grin of the Greek kouroi is hardly analogous to the smile of the Mona Lisa; and even to achieve a short cut in diagramming architectural history it is not accurate to say that the “Gothic builders . . . invented the pointed arch.” Nor can the Charioteer of Delphi be used as a contrast to the Trajan Column in an effort to distinguish Greek simplicity and Roman ornateness. The Charioteer once belonged to a chariot group. Moreover, the suggested origin of still-life painting is rather naive when the increasing “cosiness” of the late Gothic interior is instanced, and the natural desire of the home-owner to have his favorite brasses and pots represented in pictorial form is pointed out.

But enough of carping. By the time one reaches the latter part of the generous volume one only marvels at the skill with which the beginner’s point of view is caught in the explanation of Oriental art, at the plausible way rococo art is saved from the charge of triviality, and at the assurance with which photography is called an art. We gather that Mr. Van Loon does not care for Delacroix or Gauguin and that he does care for both music and the formal arts, though perhaps he does not quite integrate his discussion of the two. To be sure, dogmatic opinion stimulates, whereas carefully weighed statements bore. And who cares about facts on a holiday? The amateur in the Machine Age needs to be guided in his use of leisure. Yes, Mr. Van Loon has done a grand job.

Sheldon Cheney has been the most successful purveyor in recent years of the “new arts” to the general reader, from “The Primer of Modern Art” to “Art and Expressionism.” In the new volume he undertakes to review the entire history of art from the point of view of the modernist. To him the artist creates for the joy to be obtained and shared, and the spectator responds through understanding the expressive values involved. Mr. Van Loon’s escapade here gives way to serious and consistent reflection. And if the reader finds himself on occasion in substantial disagreement with the author, the value of the exploratory expedition is not thereby lessened. This reader wonders, for instance, if it is necessary for the modernist to insist that “Greek art is above all explainable, reasoned, sight-bound,” or if such a phrase as “the pretty mantel-piece art of Praxiteles” is quite fair. One wonders if the modernist would not further his cause more effectively by ignoring classical art, if he wishes to do so, than by devoting pages to refutation of its traditional claims. Is such a writer not confusing a history of taste with a history of art? Histories of art are necessarily rewritten during each cultural period.

With unusual skill Mr. Cheney discusses the plastic values of Oriental art and he appropriately stresses the new importance of Iranian art. Yet to relate the art of Persia to that of the steppes, and to show its kinship to the art of the Norsemen and the Celts on the one hand and to the art of the Chinese and Japanese on the other, seems to be a case of oversimplification. For instance, it does not leave room for the realistic art of north Europe during the Gothic centuries. Again, in his poetic appreciation of mediaeval art, Mr. Cheney writes inspired pages, while singular clarity marks the survey of the last century. The classification of painters from David to Cezanne as classical, romantic, and photographic realists, and the division of expressionists into those who express self (Van Gogh), those who express plastic order (Cezanne), and those who express decorative qualities (Gauguin), provides an admirable background for the discussion of Matisse, Picasso, and the non-objective artists of our own day.

Mr. Cheney does not confuse his readers with chapters on music, but his sentences are filled with the plastic analogues of melodies, orchestration and counterpoint, fugues and symphonies. A culture tends to find itself when its thought forms approach a one-to-one correspondence.


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