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Going To Art Exhibitions Post by :e-spired Category :Essays Author :Robert Cortes Holliday Date :October 2011 Read :2541

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Going To Art Exhibitions

There are two opposing views as to going to art exhibitions. And much with a good deal of reason may be said on both sides. There is one very vigorous attitude which holds that the pictures are the thing. This, indeed, is a perfectly ponderable theory. But it may be questioned whether in its ardour it does not go a little far. For it affirms that people are a confounded nuisance at art exhibitions, and should not be permitted to be there, to distract one's attention from the peaceful contemplation of works of art, and to infuriate one by their asinine remarks in the holy presence of beauty. I have heard it declared with very impressive spirit, and reasoned with much force, that only one person, or at most only one person and his chosen companion, should be allowed in an art gallery at a time. It is debatable, however, whether this intellectually aristocratic idea is altogether practicable. On the other hand, was it not even Little Billie who found the people at art exhibitions frequently more interesting than the pictures?

Anyhow, persons who write about art exhibitions confine themselves exclusively to the subject of art. When they gossip it is about the pictures, the painters, and the sculpture. True, of course, this is their job, and then, these persons go on press days and so only see, outside of that which is intentionally exhibited, other critics.

Now, there is nothing in all the world quite like art exhibitions. Beyond any other sort of show they possess a spirit which (to use a pet and an excellent critical expression of one of our foremost art critics) is "grand, gloomy, and peculiar." You feel this charged atmosphere at once at an art exhibition. You walk softly, you speak low, and you endeavour to become as intelligent as possible. Art exhibitions, in short, present various features indigenous to themselves which, so far as I am aware, have not before been adequately commented upon. The principal observations which they solicit are as follows:

First, art exhibitions are attended by two classes of people: very fine-looking people, and funny-looking people. There is a very striking kind of a young man goes to art exhibitions that I myself never accomplish seeing anywhere else, though sometimes I see pictures of him. This young man is superbly patrician. You may have remarked this singular phenomenon. All the young men in all the advertisements in the magazine Vanity Fair are the same young man, whether riding in a splendid motor car, elegantly attending the play, or doing a little shooting of birds. You know him, for one thing, by his exquisite moustache. This fastidiously groomed, exclusively tailored young man, to be seen in the pages spoken of and at art exhibitions, is certainly not of Art, nor is he of business. He takes no account whatever, apparently, of time, as men of business do; and manifestly one could not work in such a moustache and such clothes without mussing them. He is, in fine, of Vanity Fair. Oscar Wilde was, as usual, wrong when he said that all beautiful things were quite useless. This immaculate young man's practical function at art exhibitions, as perhaps elsewhere, is that of escort.

He is escort to groups of very handsome and very expensive-looking young ladies; and these fragrant, rustling groups, with the waxen, patrician young man in tow, stroll slowly about, catalogues unnoticed in hand, without pause skirting the picture-hung walls. They are very still, and they gaze upon the art that they pass with the look of a doe contemplating the meaning of the appearance of a man. The perfect escorts of these groups, who would seem naturally to be rather gay young men, look very serious indeed. Now one of them gracefully, though as if careful not to make any noise, bends to one of the young ladies; and, indicating by a solemn look one of the paintings, he whispers to her apparently concerning it. She silently nods: it is, evidently, quite as he says. When an art exhibition is so undertakery a thing you wouldn't think that one would come. Though perhaps it is that one ought.

At any rate, there is quite a turn-out to-day moving beneath the ghostly glow of the shrouded sky-light ceiling. Half the Avenue seems to be here. What a play it is, this highly urban throng! Let us sit here on this divan down the middle of the room. With what a stately march the pictures go in their golden frames along the symphonious, burlap walls! There, by that copious piece of intelligence, Manet's "Music Lesson," is--

But see! What has come over our earnest group? Those who compose it are all quite changed. They look as happy as can be, all beaming with smiles, their backs to the neighbouring walls. Friends, it seems, have greeted them. How they all bubble on, all about the outside world! But goodness! Now what is the matter? Suddenly one of the newcomers is struck by a startled look. She sees, that is it, one of the pictures. In an arrested voice she says: "Oh, isn't that perfectly lovely!" At once the happy light fades from the faces of all. An awed hush falls upon them as stiffly they turn their heads in the direction of her view. "Charming!" one of the young men breathes, staring intently at the painting which has come upon them. That it is awkward for everybody is plain. But, happily, there is much rebound to youth. One of the young ladies, at length, shakes herself free from the pall upon her spirits; the mesmeric spell is broken; and presently all are chatting again, gaily oblivious to Art.

By the way, there is the proprietor of the gallery, just before the three Renoir pastels. Is there anything about art exhibitions that more enlists the imagination than the study of the "dealers" themselves? The gentlemen who preside at art exhibitions fall, rather violently, into three, perhaps four, classes. You have, I dare say, been repeatedly struck by the quaintly inappropriate character in appearance of those of one of these classes. I mean, of course, those very horsey-looking men, with decidedly "hard" faces, loudly dressed, and dowered with hoarse voices. They would seem to be bookmakers, exceedingly prosperous publicans, bunco-brokers, militant politicians--anything save of the Kingdom of Art. Are their polished Bill Sykes' exteriors but bizarre domiciles for lofty souls? I cannot tell.

Here and there, it is true, you find the aesthete in effect among dealers: the wired moustaches, the spindle-legged voice, and the ardent spirit in discussing his wares with lady visitors. Our horsey type seems rather ponderous and phlegmatic in this matter. Then there is, too, a land of art exhibition which is very close indeed to Art, a kind of spirited propaganda, in fact, which is presided over by those of hierarchical character, beings as to hair and cravat, swarthy complexion and mystic gesticulation, holy from the world and mocked by the profane.

But, to my mind, the most satisfying sort of a host to observe at an art exhibition is that of the description of this admirable dealer before us. Benign, frock-coated, hands clasped behind him, he stands, symbol of gentlemanly, merchantly dignity. Occasionally he rises upon his toes, and then sinks again to his heels obviously with satisfaction. But that which proclaims the perfect equity of his mind is this: his nice recognition of the nuances in human kind. You perceive that his bow to each of his guests, that he recognises at all, is graduated according to the precise degree of that person's value to Art; that to some few, royal patrons presumably, being at an angle of forty-five degrees; while a common amateur of Art is acknowledged by one of five. Where--to continue the paraphrase of a pleasant observation upon Mr. George Brummell--it is a mere question of recognising the fact that a certain person dwells on the same planet with Art "a slight relaxation of the features" is made to suffice.

So! This profound bow is plainly meant for a particular tribute to one who wears the richest purple. Lo! He advances with unclasped hands. Pleasure beams from his countenance. Without such as she Art, and dealers, and galleries, and the recorded beauty of the world would perforce pass away. This entertaining personage, who is the great flurry at art exhibitions, is of the novelists' dowager Duchess type. A short, obese, and jovial figure, or dried and withered but imperious distinction, as the case may be. There is much crackling of fine garments, a brilliant display of lorgnette, and this penetrating and comprehensive royal critical dictum: "Isn't that interesting! So full of feeling."

Two outstanding features, you mark, of art exhibitions everywhere are here presented. Is any one who doesn't know what he is talking about at art exhibitions (and which of us does?) properly equipped for attendance there without this happy esoteric phrase "full of feeling"? It is safe, or as safe as anything can be, to say about any picture. It graphically indicates in the speaker delicate sensitivity and emotional responsiveness to Art. And, most beneficently, it subtly evades anything like the trying ordeal of an analysis of a work of art. It is, indeed, invaluable.

The other thing is this: There is no place going which is so well adapted to the exhibition of handsome, fashionable, or eccentric eye-glasses as an art exhibition. You observe there all that is newest and classy in glasses, and you are insistently invited to admiring study of the art of wearing queer glasses effectively, and of taking them off, letting them bound on their leash, doubling them up, opening them out, and putting them on with a gesture.

The complimentary type to the storied Duchess at art exhibitions is represented by yonder portly blood, in this case a replica of the late King Edward. The fruitful spectacle of art exhibitions, I think, presents nothing which gives one a more gratifying sense of their dignity and of the imperial character of Art than the presence there of these patently highly solvent, ruddy joweled, admirably tailored, and impressively worldly looking connoisseurs of painting to be seen scrutinising the pictures at close range, in a near-sighted way, and rather grimly, as though somewhat sceptically appraising possibly dubious merchandise.

Hello, there's Mr. Chase! And that's a fortunate thing, too, as no sympathetic picture of a representative American art exhibition should omit Mr. Chase. Whether or not we think of him as our premier painter, we should be inordinately proud of him. Undoubtedly he is a great artist. He has wrought himself in the grand manner. In person he delights the eye, and satisfies the imagination. With his inevitable top-hat, his heavy eye-glasses cord, his military moustaches and upward pointing beard, his pouter-pigeon carriage, his glowing spats and his boutonniere, his aroma of distinction, and his ruddy consciousness of his prestige, he is our great tour-de-force as a figure in the artistic scene. He is here, naturally, now the target of popular interest.

The practice of having artists shown at their own exhibitions is one too little cultivated. The Napoleonic brow and the Napoleonic forelock (famous in their circle) of George Luks, the torrential Luksean mirth, how would not their actual presence open the spiritual eyes of visiting school-children to the humane qualities of the works of the Luksean genius! And why should we who procure for our better perception of their works illuminating biographies of the Old Masters not be permitted the intellectual stimulation of beholding the Ten American Painters seated along on a bench at their annual show? The subject of the artists themselves, however, brings us around to the line between the two kinds of people having to do with art exhibitions: fine-looking people and funny-looking people.

Come; let us trot along. Artists themselves are, in a most pronounced degree, of both kinds. And a very singular thing is this: the funnier an artist's pictures are, the funnier-looking is the artist that made them. We'll stop in here, at The Advanced Gallery.

"Ah! How are you?"

That, just going out, is one of the newest groups of painters, known as the Homeopathics. I used to know him before he went abroad. And the curious thing is, that at that time he was very good-looking. He was clean shaven. This strange assortment of whiskers of different fashions on various parts of his face, imperial, goatee, burnsides, he brought back with him.

Notice as we step from the car at the gallery floor the numerous others here who also were at the show we just left. And those who are thus making the rounds, you perceive, are not of what is called society, but of the kind known in these circles, doubtless, as interesting. Nearly everybody in this gallery, in fact, is of the interesting sort. At once it is apparent that there is nothing of the perfunctory here. Art is vital. Art is earnest. The atmosphere is tense. The young women are clad in a manner giving much freedom to the movement of their bodies. They walk with a stride. Their clothes are not of the mode of the Avenue, but they have--how shall I say? To twist what Whistler said of his model: Character, character is what these clothes have. They suggest, many of these young women, the type that has never got back from--

"Do you know Chelsea at all?" asks one of them, of an anarchic-looking young man.

Never got back, as I was about to say, from Chelsea. A couple of other anarchic-looking young men are viewing a painting in the manner that a painting, or perhaps this particular painting, is intended to be viewed; that is by squinting at it first over the tops of their hands and then through their fingers. They discuss it darkly, in low, passionate tones. They advance upon it; and, a few inches before it, one, as though holding a brush in his hand, sweeps eloquently with his arm, following the contour of the painted figure. Legerdemain kind of thing, painting, isn't it? Sort of a black art, when you see into the science of it.

Well, I declare! Here's a friend of mine--there, talking with the Titian-haired lady in the exotic gown. Now, he is coming over to us.

He says he wants us to know Ben-Gunn, who is here, "one of the new crowd," he says. My friend is very keen on the new crowd; everything else he declares is "passe." Anyhow, it is a very valuable experience to talk with an exhibitor at an art exhibition. Your mind is impregnated, until it swells dizzily in your head. That would be he, the illiterate-looking little creature with the uncombed and unsanitary-looking mop.

There! I knew he would say something, something that would never leave you again the same. "Nothing is shiny in Nature," says Mr. Ben-Gunn as though rather depressed, surveying a canvas in this respect unhappily divorced from the truth. "Nature," he adds with Brahminic finality, "is always dull."

Mr. Ben-Gunn is greeted affectionately by a gentleman you always see at every art exhibition. This is Mr.--I forget his name--it is French; I know he writes on Art for Demos; a remarkable being who apparently talks, hears, and sees nothing else but aestheticism. For as there are types peculiar to art exhibitions, so there are certain individuals apparently quite peculiar to art exhibitions. Come, let us go on down to see some Old Masters. Notice there in the corner the foreign-looking gentleman with the three foreign-looking children. That, the quiet, cultivated, foreign father and his children, is one of the pleasantest sights frequently to be seen at art exhibitions. Thus he is to be seen, easily and intimately discussing the pictures with his attentive followers.

The great point about the study of art exhibitions from the point of view of the humanist is the affinity between pictures and people. Here, for instance, on Madison Square, amid the art heritage of times past, what is it that at once strikes you? Why, that old paintings evidently are quite passe to the new crowd. At these exhibitions preliminary to the big auction sales of venerable masters, and of middle-aged masters, and of venerable and middle-aged not-quite-masters, there is a very attractive class of people, a class of funny-looking, fine-looking people, a class, that is, of rather shabby-looking people who look as if they might be very rich, of dull-looking people who look as if they might be very bright. They buy huge catalogues at a dollar or so apiece, which they consult continually. They arrive early and remain a long time.

The women of this audience frequently are rather dowdy, and shapen in very individual fashions. The men generally are elderly beings, now and then reminiscent of the period of Horace Greeley. They are very bald, or with untrimmed white (not grey) hair, and, sometimes, Uncle-Sam-like whiskers. They are usually very wrinkled as to trowsers and overcoats. Here and there among the gentlemen of this company is to be seen one who looks strikingly like Emile Zola, or the late Mr. Pierpont Morgan slightly gone to seed. All these charming folk make of looking at old-fashioned pictures a very busy occupation, and also in effect a rather mundane occupation, as though they were alertly considering the possibility of making a selection from among a variety of serviceable kitchen chairs.

Argumenting the throng are authentic representatives of the world of fashion; some who appear to be students; the ever present foreigners, including the frequently present Jap; a number of those enigmatic beings who continually take notes at art exhibitions; and a respectable quota of those ladies we always have with us at art exhibitions who in the presence of pictures and it necessary to say: "Isn't that wonderful, marvellous tone quality!" Occasionally a decidedly quaint student of Art strolls in, past the imposing flunky (in finery a bit faded) at the door, strolls in in the form of a lodger in Madison Square. He looks at the pictures as if thoughtfully, but without animation.

Well, we have now covered, in an elementary way, about every important species of art show, except one, the most human perhaps of all, that held annually on Fifty-seventh Street. We should hardly have time to go up there to-day. I'll tell you about it. There are several reasons why this exhibition is the most human perhaps of all. One is that more people go than to any other. And these people, taken by and large, are more human, too, than one sees at most art exhibitions, that is more like just ordinary people. This may be, for one thing, because the pictures as a rule are more ordinary pictures. And a very human touch, indeed, is this: when you see the card "Sold" on a painting it is fairly certain to be one of the most ordinary pictures of the lot.

That reminds one of museums. People who are called in the world to the curious pursuit of copying pictures in museums, for some reason or other which I have been unable as yet to work out, apparently always copy the most bourgeois pictures there. But museums, with their throngs of subdued holiday makers and their crowds of weary gaping aliens of the submerged order, museums comprise a separate study.

At any rate, I hope in our stroll I have been able to give you a new insight into the fascination of the great world of Art.

(The end)
Robert Cortes Holliday's essay: Going To Art Exhibitions

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