The Classic Commonplace

Dewar Montague May 1 1913

The Classic Commonplace

Dewar Montague May 1 1913

The Classic Commonplace

Why do art studies command such an influence over us? Why is it that the beautiful picture will arrest, hold and respiritualize the casual passer-by? It must be as Upton has well said, that true beauty is sweetness and sweetness is the spiritualization of the gross.’ In MacLean’s Magazine a series of articles have been appearing giving inside glances upon the work of some of our Canadian painters. This article is of a different type and will be found in a measure preparatory for a further appreciation of the good picture. It is note-worthy that the casual observer passes over a great deal of detail in the landscape which, to the trained eye, becomes intensely interesting. For later issues some especially good articles on art and artists are in preparation.

Dewar Montague

BEAUTY, said the old proverb, lies in the eye of the beholder, but if the beholder is too busy to see it—this is the modern, Canadian completion of the proverb—that doesn’t say that the beauty is not there just the same. Beauty is that quality in any object which, through our faculties of perception, stimulates agreeable feelings in us. But if our perceptions are preoccupied with other things, such as selling real estate, or building sky-scrapers or digging post holes, it does not necessarily follow that the dawn is any less lovely. In the older countries, the countries from which we came in the first place, educated men and even the uneducated make a practice of observing the beautiful things about them. Their eyes are trained to look intelligently at the works of new painters or new sculptors, and to appreciate the masters long since dead. Their ears are more or less attuned to agreeable music, either in the form of a Strauss waltz or a classic at the opera. In short, in these older countries there is a whole literature of the artistic and the beautiful. But in

this country of ours, miles and miles of more exquisite pictures than .any in a continental salon, and endless bars of greater music than that of their orchestras or their operas, go to waste every year simply because the country is too busy to see it, and cannot spare men to paint it, model it or write down in the form of music.

Of course beauty is not confined to the things a man sees with the eye or hears through his ears, but is found also in all the branches of man’s activity. The performance of a horse on the race track may be really beautiful because it pleases the perception of the onlookers; the sheer honest manliness of a common laborer walking home from his day’s work in the trench may be beautiful because it pleases certain perceptions of another onlooker; the working out of a problem in calculus may, by its very trueness delight the student of that subject; and so with a printing press, in which thousands of parts revolve in perfect harmony with the will of the motor which i» driving it; so with the integrity of a public man, the accuracy of an adding ma-

chine, the faithfulness of an old dog— these things have in them elements of the beautiful. But the more easily recognized forms of beauty are those which are expressed in color, line and form, or by the rhythmical and scientific combinations of sounds in music. By pencil and paint, by wet clay and marble, or by written sheet and responsive instrument, examples of almost all that is beautiful are placed on paper by the men whom we call artists, in order that at least some of the beautiful

things of life may be recorded conveniently, and interpreted for those who are too busy to see for themselves, and who have other work to do in the; community. You and I in our places* in the great industrial fabric of this, nation have not always the time to* see the beautiful about us. Beauty,, like flowers in an astronomer’s garden,, blooms unseen about us, until the artist,, whether in music or painting or marble, gives it permanent form by his work.

It is an age of specialists, as has been said a good many times but, comparatively speaking, we lack specialists in the arts in Canada. Paris and London and Vienna overflow with artists. They have a quarter in Paris by themselves. They fill the garrets and the cellars and the middle floors of many a house —with nothing but the materials of their art. They spend their lives observing the effect of sunlight on a green field, or the shadow of a cloud on the grey side of what you and I would take to be merely a tumble-down cow-stable —and the rest of Europe is content to let them do it, and even pays them big prices for some of the pictures which are thus brought into the world, because the plain business folk of EurSig. 2

ope have their own work to do—startr ing wars, or stopping them, or buying Sir William Mackenzie’s bonds, or crowning a king or two—and so they leave it to these art specialists to look out for the beautiful things for them. It is the same with us, we leave jewel setting and watch mending to the jeweller, and putting up stove-pipes to the odd-jobs man, and laying the hardwood floor to the carpenter. But for Art! For the beautiful!—Canada has not yet been able to spare enough men from her railway building, wheat growing and real estate booming to make more than a small colony. The artists of Canada are a mere handful out of our eight million souls, and because we cannot spare much money for pic-

tures, but must use it in more material ways in this young country, we do not spend enough per annum In paintings, or sculp tory to keep even those artists we have, in Canada. They flit abroad to the countries that have more time ^and more money for art, and they employ themselves seeing the beauty of other countries instead of the beauty in Canada. Men do not find it profitable to become, as it were, searchers after beauty in this country. Having graduated from college or high school they are sucked into the vortex of good healthy commercialism which represents the business life of Canada. If they want to paint pictures it must be after hours—unless they have private means or the courage to stand out and * face a hard struggle for existence. Those artists who have prospered in this country and who are supplying, as best they can, the needs of this particular side of our national life, are doing so in spite of the youthfulness of the country, in spite of its absorption in more mundane affairs.

So for want of interpreters a great percentage of the beauty that lies about us in our Canadian country and towns goes unappreciated. Occasionally a business man, taking a holiday in the northern woods or in some place where nature still has a chance to show her head, has^ a sort of feeling that there is something about that sunset over there, -or about that dawn, or that snowstorm sweeping down over the frozen lake, or the greyish-purple haze on the burned-over hills, or the glow of the camp-fire at night—that makes him long to be an artist. Perhaps, if he gets confidential, he may exclaim that he “wishes to goodness” someone had taught him how to draw, and that he could only make a picture of such and such a thing he saw that stirred agreeable feelings in his mind. Or, hearing the wind in the forest at night it makes a weird music which he wishes he could remember. It has a tune and yet not a tune. It has rhythm and yet no rhythm that -one could mark by tapping his foot to it. He wishes he were able to write music, and write

down the great symphony of the forest. Or, he hears the crash of the waves on the beach beside his summer cottage during a gale—and again wishes he were a composer. He sees and hears a thousand things which he longs to remember. He yearns for the power of expressing himself. But he ends up, as a rule, by going back to his desk in the dty and trying to forget all about it by dictating crisp business letters into a dictating machine. It is possible that next year he takes a camera with him up into the bush to try to “snap shot” some of the scenes he likes. But the camera does not get the colors he saw, nor the soft effects of light in the early morning or the early night. He is baffled—until one day, in an exhibition of pictures, he sees a painting of almost the very thing, or at a concert he hears a great orchestra or a great choir reproduce the sounds of that wind in that forest. The things he could not write down or paint for himself the specialists of music and painting have caught for him and idealized. So he goes on making money in his boiler factory and buys one of these paintings, or subscribes to seats at the concert for the whole season.

Though we may not have a great many artists in Canada to interpret for us and place in permanent form the beauty that lies all about us, one can realize more of this beauty by getting the habit of looking for it. Of course it is a common practice for every sentimental person to admire sunsets and dawns—though fewer persons see the dawns than see the sunset—and the pretty ^ effect of snow on trees, and moonlight on water, but these are only the simplest, most rudimentary and most obvious forms of beauty. True, they must not be ignored, but instead of letting admiration and appreciation stop with them, the average man or woman might just as well train the eye to see the beauty or the interest in less prepossessing things, and sometimes even in very unexpected places.

Almost every man has an instinct for proportion and balance and the

general symmetry of objects. Most people have general notions of the way colors blend, and can appreciate the difference between the richness of a piece of sage green velvet and the shallowness of a piece of cotton of exactly the same color. And these, are the rudiments of an understanding and appreciation of the beautiful. As for music, its appreciation is more of a gift, and those who have not an instinct for feeling the moods of music and catching the spirit of a composition, can only hope to appreciate it properly by considering the mathematical side of it, the ingenuity with which the composer has made one small theme the subject of a great movement, how he has built up the composition by the repetition and variations of a musical phrase which never becomes montonous to the ear.

Follow this artist down town some morning when he is in a communicative mood. Let us suppose that he is a real observer of the beautiful, one who is worth talking to. You may happen to say what an ugly, dull day it is and he may reply, in a lively tone, “Dull! No, it isn’t dull. It’s a beautiful light Look at that sky. It’s not very often you see it such a peculiarly soft shade of grey. See the light on those old rough cast houses. Isn’t that a peculiarly rich tone of grey? Look h>owr cold the glint of the winter sun is in those back windows!”

He takes you through a very poor district and points with enthusiasm at old tumble down shacks and untidy back yards ; he passes a church in course of erection and bids you admire the “Quality of the light” in the gloomy littered up interior. He points to an old row of houses and remarks at the pathos in them. You smile. You say to yourself “Dippy!” in a way that conveys great meaning to the practical mind, and in reality you conclude that the artist is only bluffing and putting on airs. But he isn’t.

Go to his studio three weeks later. He lets you see his paintings. You wonder whether this one is a scene in Normandy or in rural England. This

bit of seascape must be from the coast of Brittany, this landscape from Wales. For we Canadians have come to believe that nothing is worth painting but something abroad, and, indeed, there are still a good many of the painters themselves who cannot see anything beautiful enough to paint in Canada, but must flee to Europe for inspiration. But in reality these pictures in this particular studio were not painted on the far side of the ocean. They are good Canadian scenes. The one you thought came from Normandy really is a scene in Halton County, Ontario; the bit of Brittany coast is lake Ontario ; the Welsh landscape is from Quebec, not far from Ste. Anne de Beaupré.

But presently, from another room, the artist brings out a handful of sketches.

“Made these,” he explains briefly, “from little scenes along the way as wTe were walking down town together the other day. Remember? That was great stuff we saw that day—”

You say to yourself Hmph!

“—and I took down a sketching box and made these few notes. I had to get permission to go into some of the back yards in order to get some of the pictures, but the people were very nice. Look here.”

You look.

These are not the things that you and he saw the other day as you walked down town.

Here is that old fruit shop on the corner of York and Adelaide—why it makes quite a picture. If you had photographed it there wouldn’t have been anything to it at all. Just the way the artist has looked at it, the way he has shaded it here and there makes it a picture and somehow brings out the character of the building.

Next is that dirty row of old boarding houses in “the ward.” You thought nothing about them as you passed them that day, but now—the picture makes you shiver. The man who made this sketch has caught the feeling of poverty, misery, grime and dirt about these buildings. They looked clean enough from the outside when you passed, and

only your instinct told you they were inwardly unwholesome. Yet, the picture tells it also where the camera would have lied. See how the pencil has brought out the texture of the old roughcast walls, and how the naked trunks of the half dead trees stand out, partly covered with snowl

There is on another street, a row of houses which you pass many times a month and which you never give a thought. The true artist passed them only once—and makes a picture of them! He tells you in the picture what you had not seen yourself : those were once aristocratic old homes in a

fashionable part of the city. They sheltered many a man distinguished in Canadian history, many a gay ball, many a formal reception by one of the elite of those old days. They were accounted wonderful dwellings then, with their solid walnut stairs and the dim old halls and the high - ceilinged drawing rooms. The picture tells ' you the comedy -tragedy of those old houses. They have been turned to baser uses. Some of them are respectable boarding houses, others are “lodging houses” for the tide of “transients” that continually flows in and out of the city. And

there, like aristocracy brought low, the fine old doors and windows stand— monuments to progress, a progress which has left them behind. The artist does not only suggest that story but he makes the telling beautiful. The glint of light in the old squared-panes, the shadows on the time-stained walls— all these he brings out, where you and I would pass them unnoticed.

I am not arguing that such things as old houses make beautiful pictures —though the artists are ready enough to declare it—but I wish merely to show many things are to be seen even in a city street, and how the artists may see them for us. As you walk along a certain street in a very poor part of the^ city, you may observe a group of white-washed houses shaded by a row of chestnut trees. They are the tidiest and cheeriest houses in the whole district. The artist makes a sketch—just to record the cheery way the sun filters through the leaves of the dust-grimed trees on the sides of the houses. He only uses a few strokes of the pencil and yet, in those few strokes, he has told you more than you or I ever saw in all the times we passed.

Observe some night the peculiar cold effect of a winter sunset on the back windows of your house—you will shiver and hurry in to your fire. Now, the artist can put that shiver on paper or canvas for you, even though it is only a picture of the back windows of your house. ^ He makes a picture of it. There is beauty in the way he expresses

the thing everybody saw, but only he could express.

So with a thousand other things. The portrait painter paints into his picture the thousand and one subtle impressions of the subject’s character. He does not just record a certain number of features having such and such measurements and colors and mutual relationships. He interprets them by his impressions of the subject’s own character. That is the difference between the portrait and the photograph. So with pictures from the brushes of great figure painters: they convey the .beauty of form and color. So also with landscapes and seascapes. Thousands have seen the things the artist saw, but only the artist perceives them and makes pictures of them. Through his pictures we, whose specialities are of a more practical sort, are led to see the inward beauty of the subject.

In return for his art we do the chores for the country—each man to his own specialty. But as I said before, there are proportionately fewer artists in Canada than there should be, so that it behooves all of us to learn for ourselves a little of his skill, and to practice seeing the beautiful. Otherwise we miss thousands of pictures in a year, either in the street, or in the woods, or in our own houses; and we miss also many a fine symphony because we have not learned to look for music in the whining of the wind under our eaves, or the roar of the fire in the fire-place.