- Dion Wright
On Aldous Huxley and Art
Email exchange with a dear friend:
I thought that I had read the entire Aldous Huxley canon three times over, so it was a joy to discover a new volume I’d never read before, Along the Road, and in it, to find an essay on Pieter Breughel the Elder that warmed my heart by pre-dating and endorsing my view of Art, which we've discussed, not to say debated.
He wrote this in 1948, and so had not even been exposed to the later, and even more superficial, excesses about which I have whined to you. I must say that Huxley is the most perceptive and penetrating observer, not to mention the most brilliant and erudite commentator, on painting in the 20th Century, and perhaps in all of History. Of course my view of all that is parochial, but we all can only speak out of the world we have seen and experienced, always on the qui vive for further data to modify our view. In any case, Huxley’s perceptiveness is remarkable in light of the fact that he had the compromised use of only one eye, and used that one in conjunction with a large magnifying glass. Huxley in a gallery, his friends have reported, was a sight to see.
In any case, I venture to quote you some of this essay. I endorse all of it, except the French, which evades me:
Most of our mistakes are fundamentally grammatical. We create our own difficulties by employing an inadequate language to describe facts. Thus, to take one example, we are constantly giving the same name to more than one thing, and more than one name to the same thing. The results, when we come to argue, are deplorable. For we are using a language which does not adequately describe the things about which we are arguing.
The word “painter” is one of those names whose indiscriminate application has led to the worst results. All those who for whatever reason, and with whatever intentions, put brushes to canvas and make pictures, are called, without distinction, painters. Deceived by the uniqueness of the name, aestheticians have tried to make us believe that there is a single painter-psychology, a single function of painting, a single standard of criticism. Fashion changes, and the views of Art critics with it. At the present time it is fashionable to believe in form to the exclusion of subject. Young people almost swoon away with excess of aesthetic emotion before a Matisse. Two generations ago they would have been wiping their eyes before the latest Landseer. (Ah, those more than human, those positively Christ-like dogs – how they moved, what lessons they taught! There had been no religious paintings like Landseer’s since Carlo Dolci died.)
These historical considerations should make us chary of believing too exclusively in any single theory of Art. One kind of painting, one set of ideas, are fashionable at any given moment. They are made the basis of a theory which condemns all other kinds of painting and all preceding critical theories. The process constantly repeats itself.
At the present moment, it is true, we have achieved an unprecedentedly tolerant eclecticism. We are able, if we are up-to-date, to enjoy everything, from African sculpture to Lucca della Robbia and from Mantegna to Byzantine mosaics. But it is an eclecticism achieved at the expense of almost the whole content of the various works of Art considered. What we have learned to see in all these works is their formal qualities, which we abstract and arbitrarily call essential. The subject of the work, with all that the painter desired to express in it beyond his feelings about formal relations, contemporary criticism rejects as unimportant. The young painter scrupulously avoids introducing into his pictures anything that might be mistaken for a story, or the expression of a view of life, while the young Kunstforscher turns, as though at an act of exhibitionism, from any manifestation by a contemporary of any such forbidden interest in drama or philosophy. True, the old masters are indulgently permitted to illustrate stories and express their thoughts about the world. Poor devils, they knew no better! Your modern observer makes allowances for their ignorance and passes over in silence all that is not a matter of formal relations. The admirers of Giotto (as numerous today as were the admirers of Guido Remi a hundred years ago) contrive to look at the master’s frescoes without considering what they represent, or what the painter desired to express. Every germ of drama or meaning is disinfected out of them; only the composition is admired. The process is analogous to reading Latin verses without understanding them. – simply for the sake of the rhythmic rumbling of the hexameters.
It would be absurd, of course, to deny the importance of formal relations. No picture can hold together without composition, and no good painter is without some specific passion for form as such – just as no good writer is without a passion for words and the arrangement of words. It is obvious that no man can adequately express himself. unless he takes an interest in the terms which he proposes to use as his medium of expression. Not all painters are interested in the same sorts of forms. Some, for example, have a passion for masses and the surfaces of solids. Others delight in lines. Some compose in three dimensions. Others like to make silhouettes on the flat. Some like to make the surface of the paint smooth, and, as it were, translucent, so that the objects represented in the picture can be seen distinct and separate, as though a sheet of glass. Others (as for example, Rembrandt) love to make a rich thick surface which shall absorb and draw together into one whole all the objects represented, and that in spite of the depth of the composition and the distances of the objects from the plane of the picture. All these purely aesthetic considerations are, as I have said, important. All artists are interested in them: but almost none are interested to the exclusion of everything else. It is very seldom that we find a painter who can be inspired merely by his interest in form and texture to paint a picture. Good painters of ‘abstract’ subjects, or even of still lives, are rare. Apples and solid geometry do not stimulate a man to express his feelings about form and make a composition. All thoughts and emotions are inter-dependent. In the words of the dear old song,
The roses round the door Make me love my mother more.
One feeling is excited by another. Our faculties work best in a congenial emotional atmosphere. For example, Mantegna’s faculty for making noble arrangements of forms was stimulated by his feelings about heroic and god-like humanity. Expressing those feelings, which he found exciting, he also expressed – and in the most perfect manner in which he was capable – his feelings about masses, surfaces, solids and voids. ‘The roses round the door’ – his hero-worship – ‘Made him love his mother more’ – made him, by stimulating his faculty for composition, paint better. If Isabella d’Este had made him paint apples, table napkins and bottles, he would have produced, being uninterested in these objects, a poor composition. And yet, from a purely formal point of view, apples, bottles and napkins are quite as interesting as human faces and bodies. But Mantegna – and with him the majority of painters – did not happen to be very passionately interested in these inanimate objects. When one is bored, one becomes boring.
The apples round the door Make me a frightful bore
Inevitably; unless I happen to be so exclusively interested in form that I can paint anything that has a shape; or unless I happen to possess some measure of that queer pantheism, that animistic superstition which made Van Gogh regard the humblest of common objects as divinely or devilishly alive. ‘Crains dans le mur aveugle un regard qui t’epie,’ If a painter can do that, he will be able, like Van Gogh, to make pictures of cabbage fields and the bedrooms of cheap hotels that shall be as wildly dramatic as a Rape of the Sabines.
The contemporary fashion is to admire beyond all others the painter who can concentrate on the formal side of his Art and produce pictures which are entirely devoid of literature. Old Renoir’s apophthegm. “Un peintre, voyez-vous, qui a le sentiment du teton et des fesses, est un homme suave,” is considered by the purists suspiciously latitudinarian. A painter who has the sentiment of the pap and the buttock is a painter who portrays real models with gusto. Your pure aesthete should only have feeling for hemispheres, curved lines, and surfaces. But this ‘sentiment of the buttocks’ is common to all good painters. It is the lowest common measure of the whole profession. It is possible, like Mantegna, to have a passionate feeling for all that is solid, and at the same time to be a stoic philosopher and hero-worshipper; possible, with Michaelangelo, to have a complete realization of breasts and also an interest in the soul, or, like Rubens, to have a sentiment for human greatness as well as human rumps. The greater includes the less; great dramatic or reflective painters know everything that the aestheticians who paint geometrical pictures, apples or buttocks know, and a great deal or, besides. What they have to say about formal relations, though important, is only a part of what they have to express. The contemporary insistence on form to the exclusion of everything else is an absurdity. So was the older insistence on exact imitation and sentiment to the exclusion of form. There need be no exclusions. In spite of the single name, there are many different kinds of painters, and all of them, with he exception of those who cannot paint, and those whose minds are trivial, have a right to exist.
All classifications and theories are made after the event; the facts must first occur before they can be tabulated and methodised. Reversing the historical process, we attack the facts forearmed with theoretical prejudice. Instead of considering each fact on its own merits, we ask how it fits into the theoretical scheme. At any given moment a number of meritorious facts fail to fit into the fashionable theory and have to be ignored. Thus El Greco’s Art failed to conform with the ideal of good painting held by Philip II and his contemporaries. The Sienese primitives seemed to the 17th and 18th Centuries incompetent barbarians. Under the influence of Ruskin, the later 19th Century contrived to dislike almost all architecture that was not Gothic. And the early 20th Century, under the influence of the French, deplores and ignores. in painting, all that is literary, reflective or dramatic.
In every age theory has caused men to like much that was bad, and reject much that was good. The only prejudice that the ideal Art critic should have is against the incompetent, the mentally dishonest and the futile. The number of ways in which good pictures can be painted is quite incalculable.depending only on the variability of the human mind. Every good painter invents a new way of painting. Is this man a competent painter? Has he something to say? Is he genuine? These are the questions a critic must ask himself. Not, does he conform to my theory of imitation, or distortion, or moral purity, or significant form?”
Huxley goes on after this introduction to talk about Pieter Breughel the Elder as an example of a man who never got his full due as a painter because of the factors laid out above, but they could be applied universally, and ferociously nowadays, given the desperate depths to which folderol and dishonesty have driven serious painting (and other media).