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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Neo-Impressionism And Literature Post by :cwbaugh Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :3011

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Neo-Impressionism And Literature

(_8 Dec. '10_)

The exhibition of the so-called "Neo-Impressionists," over which the culture of London is now laughing, has an interest which is perhaps not confined to the art of painting. For me, personally, it has a slight, vague repercussion upon literature. The attitude of the culture of London towards it is of course merely humiliating to any Englishman who has made an effort to cure himself of insularity. It is one more proof that the negligent disdain of Continental artists for English artistic opinion is fairly well founded. The mild tragedy of the thing is that London is infinitely too self-complacent even to suspect that it is London and not the exhibition which is making itself ridiculous. The laughter of London in this connexion is just as silly, just as provincial, just as obtuse, as would be the laughter of a small provincial town were Strauss's "Salome," or Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" offered for its judgment. One can imagine the shocked, contemptuous resentment of a London musical amateur (one of those that arrived at Covent Garden box-office at 6 a.m. the other day to secure a seat for "Salome") at the guffaw of a provincial town confronted by the spectacle and the noise of the famous "Salome" osculation. But the amusement of that same amateur confronted by an uncompromising "Neo-Impressionist" picture amounts to exactly the same guffaw. The guffaw is legal. You may guffaw before Rembrandt (people do!), but in so doing you only add to the sum of human stupidity. London may be unaware that the value of the best work of this new school is permanently and definitely settled--outside London. So much the worse for London. For the movement has not only got past the guffaw stage; it has got past the arguing stage. Its authenticity is admitted by all those who have kept themselves fully awake. And in twenty years London will be signing an apology for its guffaw. It will be writing itself down an ass. The writing will consist of large cheques payable for Neo-Impressionist pictures to Messrs. Christie, Manson, and Woods. London is already familiar with this experience, and doesn't mind.

* * * * *

Who am I that I should take exception to the guffaw? Ten years ago I too guffawed, though I hope with not quite the Kensingtonian twang. The first Cezannes I ever saw seemed to me to be very funny. They did not disturb my dreams, because I was not in the business. But my notion about Cezanne was that he was a fond old man who distracted himself by daubing. I could not say how my conversion to Cezanne began. When one is not a practising expert in an art, a single word, a single intonation, uttered by an expert whom one esteems, may commence a process of change which afterwards seems to go on by itself. But I remember being very much impressed by a still-life--some fruit in a bowl--and on approaching it I saw Cezanne's clumsy signature in the corner. From that moment the revelation was swift. And before I had seen any Gauguins at all, I was prepared to consider Gauguin with sympathy. The others followed naturally. I now surround myself with large photographs of these pictures of which a dozen years ago I was certainly quite incapable of perceiving the beauty. The best still-life studies of Cezanne seem to me to have the grandiose quality of epics. And that picture by Gauguin, showing the back of a Tahitian young man with a Tahitian girl on either side of him, is an affair which I regard with acute pleasure every morning. There are compositions by Vuillard which equally enchant me. Naturally I cannot accept the whole school--no more than the whole of any school. I have derived very little pleasure from Matisse, and the later developments of Felix Vallotton leave me in the main unmoved. But one of the very latest phenomena of the school--the water-colours of Pierre Laprade--I have found ravishing.

* * * * *

It is in talking to several of these painters, in watching their familiar deportment, and particularly in listening to their conversations with others on subjects other than painting, that I have come to connect their ideas with literature. They are not good theorizers about art; and I am not myself a good theorizer about art; a creative artist rarely is. But they do ultimately put their ideas into words. You may receive one word one day and the next next week, but in the end an idea gets itself somehow stated. Whenever I have listened to Laprade criticizing pictures, especially students' work, I have thought about literature; I have been forced to wonder whether I should not have to reconsider my ideals. The fact is that some of these men are persuasive in themselves. They disengage, in their talk, in their profound seriousness, in their sense of humour, in the sound organization of their industry, and in their calm assurance--they disengage a convincingness that is powerful beyond debate. An artist who is truly original cannot comment on boot-laces without illustrating his philosophy and consolidating his position. Noting in myself that a regular contemplation of these pictures inspires a weariness of all other pictures that are not absolutely first rate, giving them a disconcerting affinity to the tops of chocolate-boxes or to "art" photographs, I have permitted myself to suspect that supposing some writer were to come along and do in words what these men have done in paint, I might conceivably be disgusted with nearly the whole of modern fiction, and I might have to begin again. This awkward experience will in all probability not happen to me, but it might happen to a writer younger than me. At any rate it is a fine thought. The average critic always calls me, both in praise and dispraise, "photographic"; and I always rebut the epithet with disdain, because in the sense meant by the average critic I am not photographic. But supposing that in a deeper sense I were? Supposing a young writer turned up and forced me, and some of my contemporaries--us who fancy ourselves a bit--to admit that we had been concerning ourselves unduly with inessentials, that we had been worrying ourselves to achieve infantile realisms? Well, that day would be a great and a disturbing day--for us.

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