22 MARCH 1957, Page 17

Contemporary Arts

What is English Art ?

THE Stubbs exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery has excited an exceptional re- sponse. It is worrying to find a painter in whose work the outside influences are so difficult to determine; one whose work cannot easily be explained in the established historical terms, a man who seems so often to contradict our local prejudices.

Nothing has been more disastrous than the various attempts to graft on to English art a Mediterranean rhetoric; the root-stock has not only been of the wrong variety but has not had the virility of growth to support such an accre- tion. Hogarth's floppy essays in the Grand Man- ner, Reynolds's attempts to speak with a foreign accent, the sad ambitions of a James Barry or a Haydon, Watts's aspirations to control the sensuous eloquence of Venetian painting, Alfred Stevens's hollow drawings in a High Renaissance idiom—all these instances prove how vain it has been for Englishmen to make the Grand Tour in search of anything but the sun and new ex- citements unless their intelligence has been as active as their senses. If Italy has been the most effective seducer of English talents, borrowing from Holland and France has not been much more successful. Dutch realism is made to look trivial and absurd when it is grafted on to nine- teenth-century sentimentality and moralism, and how seldom has French impressionism been used here to any valuable purpose! And now there is every sign that New York is taking the place of Rome. The consequences of wandering in this extraordinary fairground, wide-eyed and un- critical, is already having a similar result.

In recent times the opposite attitude has been no less influential and was readily encouraged by our war-time isolation from the Coritinent, the necessity then to feed off our own fat. The deter- mination to be English, the determination to cul- tivate an informality of form, to pursue the worst kind of amateurism and empiricism in method, and to fix one's attention upon moons and mush- rooms, ancient monuments and bad weather as the correct properties of an English vision tended to produce all .the consequences of in- breeding.

The way between these two opposites is not to be regarded as a compromise and has been in fact the most fertile source of the best English painting. But to draw coolly upon the inter- national stock of, pictorial knowledge and experi- ence and to feed unselfconsciously upon one's own environment can only be achieved by the artist with a powerful individuality and assurance, with a direct and constant engagement with those things which belong to his situation. Stubbs's painting is in the latter 'sense profoundly English and what he chose to draw from the European traditions was always determined by his needs. The neglect of this painter by most students of English art is peculiar, but there is, unfortu- nately, no reason why it should not continue under the existing conditions of our art histori- cal study and taste. In the last twenty years the investigation of English art has been transformed by the growth here of historical methods founded On the Continent. The art historian, particularly if he is devoted to the study of style, is con- cerned with, and indeed tied to, the investigation of certain relationships. The work which will draw to itself the greatest curiosity and comment will be such as fits into the frameworks which historical research has created. Evidence of the influence of Raphael or Parmigianino or Claude creates a problem suitable for study, and so it is the 'local transformations of a foreign style, the borrowings, explicit or implicit, from this artist or that, new usages of an earlier pictorial method which will command attention and create the kind of literature which confers value upon an artist. It is preoccupations such as these which can provoke the fatuous opinion that a work like Hogarth's portrait of his servants does not belong to the history of English art. The signifi- cant history of English art, therefore, has come to be regarded as the examination of that body of work which provides Some readily manage- able relationship to or obvious deviation from continental styles which have for long provided the material for an apparatus of research, a training ground for the historical student. Stubbs, Crome, the late Turner, much of the work of Constable, the drawings of Rowlandson, many of the most beautiful and individual works by Hogarth and Gainsborough do not seem to have significance within such a framework. In a curious way, then, the accredited and established study of English art is made under the patronage of Reynolds, who believed that the vitality of English painting depended upon the extent to which our painters were able to prove their worth by their power to borrow a foreign rhetoric. Now, at a time of historical relativism, it is not the quality of the borrowings which matters but just the fact that the quotations have been made.

The Stubbs exhibition and some of the re- sponses to it have also thrown an interesting light upon English habits of design and the influence that these artistic habits have upon the taste and judgement of the English spectator. The follow- ing ways of approaching design seem to me most characteristic of English painting during the past 200 years. First, the establishment of an envelope of atmosphere which, like a haze, passively brings objects together in a loose confederation (English versions of impressionism have been atmospheric rather than colouristic). Then there is design seen as the tactful and tasteful arrangement of things, a pattern-making akin to the 'artistic' laying of a table. There is the unifying of forms by a con- sonance of colour and the drawing together of the pictorial elements by a very obvious method of handling the pigment. What is extremely un- common is design through construction, by the balancing of weight and tensions, by the resolu- tion of thrusts and lines of force, by the creation of a framework or grid to which forms are attached as the body depends upon its skeleton, by an understanding and usage of the nature of perception, the way in which the eye unites the scattered particles of our visual experience. That is the true basis of that constructive design which Reynolds pretended to appreciate. This under- standing of construction can only come through a living experience of natural forms and of certain pictorial disciplines. By reason of his continuous anatomical research, Stubbs had literally felt and, in the most practical way, ex- perienced that resolution of weight and thrust and tensions which keeps us together, which makes possible bodily action and purpose. The eye which is not accustomed to an experience of this both in nature and in art must necessarily find Stubbs's ways of design strange and discon- certing. His art is elusive indeed just because his use of the pictorial tradition cannot be mechan- istically explained, because his projection of an English experience is so natural and spontaneous in its directness.

* It is easy to forget the influence which Con- stantin Brancusi, who died last week at the age of eighty-one, exerted upon the art of the Twenties and Thirties. His characteristic pieces present an extraordinary and sophisticated sim- plicity, they are as smoothly elemental as an egg or as purposeful as a spear. They exploited the primary qualities of wood or stone or metal and offer the most epigrammatic expression of a bird or a face or some natural or emotional force. He was an artist of the greatest integrity, and for all its purity his sculpture quietly brings us closer to the life of things.