ANENT ART PRODUCTION. -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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Yesterday, at Bordighera, I strolled up the hills behind the town to Sasso. It is a queer little cluster of gleaming white-washed houses that top the crest of a steep ridge; and, like many other Italian villages, it makes a brave show from a distance, though within it is full of evil smells and all uncleanness. But I found it had a church—a picturesquely ugly and dilapidated church; and without and within, this church was decorated by inglorious hands with very naïve and rudimentary frescoes. The Four Evangelists were there, in flowing blue robes; and the Four Greater Prophets, with long white beards; and the Madonna, appearing in most wooden clouds; and the Patron Saint tricked out for his Festa in gorgeous holiday episcopal vestments. That was all—just the common everyday Italian country church that everybody has seen turned out to pattern with manufacturing regularity a hundred times over! Yet, as I sat among the olive-terraces looking down the steep slope into the Borghetto valley, and across the gorge to the green pines on the Cima, it set me thinking. 'Tis a bad habit one falls into when one has nothing better to turn one's mind to.

We English, coming to Italy with our ideas fully formed about everything on heaven and earth, naturally say to ourselves, "Great heart alive, what sadly degraded frescoes! To think the art of Raphael and Andrea del Sarto should degenerate even here, in their own land, to such a childish level!" But we are wrong, for all that. It is Raphael and Andrea who rose, not my poor nameless Sasso artists who sank and degenerated. Italy was capable of producing her great painters in her own great day, just because in thousands of such Italian villages there were work-a-day artisans in form and colour capable of turning out such ridiculous daubs as those that decorate this tawdry church on the Ligurian hilltop.

We English, in short, think of it all the wrong way uppermost. We think of it topsy-turvy, beginning at the end, while evolution invariably begins at the beginning. The Raphaels and Andreas, to put it in brief, were the final flower and fullest outcome of whole races of church decorators in infantile fresco.

Everywhere you go in Italy, this truth is forced upon your attention even to the present day. Art here is no exotic. It smacks of the soil; it springs spontaneous, like a weed; it burgeons of itself out of the heart of the people. Not high art, understand well; not the art of Burne-Jones and Whistler and Puvis de Chavannes and Sar Peladan. Commonplace everyday art, that is a trade and a handicraft, like the joiner's or the shoemaker's. Look up at your ceiling; it's overrun with festoons of crude red and blue flowers, or it's covered with cupids and graces, or it bristles with arabesques and unmeaning phantasies. Every wall is painted; every grotto decorated. Sham landscapes, sham loggias, sham parapets are everywhere. The sham windows themselves are provided, not only with sham blinds and sham curtains, but even with sham coquettes making sham eyes or waving sham handkerchiefs at passers-by below them. Open-air fresco painting is still a living art, an art practised by hundreds and thousands of craftsmen, an art as alive as cookery or weaving. The Italian decorates everything; his pottery, his house, his church, his walls, his palaces. And the only difference he feels between the various cases is, that in some of them a higher type of art is demanded by wealth and skill than in the others. No wonder, therefore, he blossomed out at last into Michael Angelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel!

To us English, on the contrary, high art is something exotic, separate, alone, sui generis. We never think of the plaster star in the middle of our ceiling as belonging even to the same range of ideas as, say, the frescoes in the Houses of Parliament.

A nation in such a condition as that is never truly artistic. The artist with us, even now, is an exceptional product. Art for a long time in England had nothing at all to do with the life of the people. It was a luxury for the rich, a curious thing for ladies' and gentlemen's consumption, as purely artificial as the stuccoed Italian villa in which they insisted on shivering in our chilly climate. And the pictures it produced were wholly alien to the popular wants and the popular feelings; they were part of an imported French, Italian, and Flemish tradition. English art has only slowly outgrown this stage, just in proportion as truly artistic handicrafts have sprung up here and there, and developed themselves among us. Go into the Cantagalli or the Ginori potteries at Florence, and you will see mere boys and girls, untrained children of the people, positively disporting themselves, with childish glee, in painting plates and vases. You will see them, not slavishly copying a given design of the master's, but letting their fancy run riot in lithe curves and lines, in griffons and dragons and floral twists-and-twirls of playful extravagance. They revel in ornament. Now, it is out of the loins of people like these that great artists spring by nature—not State-taught, artificial, made-up artists, but the real spontaneous product, the Lippi and Botticelli, the hereditary craftsmen, the born painters. And in England nowadays it is a significant fact that a large proportion of the truest artists—the innovators, the men who are working out a new style of English art for themselves, in accordance with the underlying genius of the British temperament, have sprung from the great industrial towns—Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester—where artistic handicrafts are now once more renascent. I won't expose myself to further ridicule by repeating here (what I nevertheless would firmly believe, were it not for the scoffers) that a large proportion of them are of Celtic descent—belong, in other words, to that section of the complex British nationality in which the noble traditions of decorative art never wholly died out—that section which was never altogether enslaved and degraded by the levelling and cramping and soul-destroying influences of manufacturing industrialism.

In Italy, art is endemic. In England, in spite of all we have done to stimulate it of late years with guano and other artificial manures, it is still sporadic.

The case of music affords us an apt parallel. Till very lately, I believe, our musical talent in Britain came almost entirely from the cathedral towns. And why? Because there, and there alone, till quite a recent date, there existed a hereditary school of music, a training of musicians from generation to generation among the mass of the people. Not only were the cathedral services themselves a constant school of taste in music, but successive generations of choristers and organists gave rise to something like a musical caste in our episcopal centres. It is true, our vocalists have always come mainly from Wales, from the Scotch Highlands, from Yorkshire, from Ireland. But for that there is, I believe, a sufficient physical reason. For these are clearly the most mountainous parts of the United Kingdom; and the clear mountain air seems to produce on the average a better type of human larynx than the mists of the level. The men of the lowland, say the Tyrolese, croak like frogs in their marshes; but the men of the upland sing like nightingales on their tree-tops. And indeed, it would seem as if the mountain people were always calling to one another across intervening valleys, always singing and whistling and shouting over their work in a way that gives tone to the whole vocal mechanism. Witness Welsh penillion singing. And wherever this fine physical endowment goes hand in hand with a delicate ear and a poetic temperament, you get your great vocalist, your Sims Reeves or your Patti. But in England proper it was only in the cathedral towns that music was a living reality to the people; and it was in the cathedral towns, accordingly, during the dark ages of art, that exceptional musical ability was most likely to show itself. More particularly was this so on the Welsh border, where the two favouring influences of race and practice coincided—at Gloucester, Worcester, Hereford, long known for the most musical towns in England.

Cause and effect act and react. Art is a product of the artistic temperament. The artistic temperament is a product of the long hereditary cultivation of art. And where a broad basis of this temperament exists among the people, owing to intermixture of artistically-minded stocks, one is liable to get from time to time that peculiar combination of characteristics—sensuous, intellectual, spiritual—which results in the highest and truest artist.

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