The First Exhibition of The New Society of Graphic Art by Alexander J. Finberg
January 1921 (The De La More Press, Bond Street, W1)
“The present unsatisfactory condition of pictorial art in this country – Reasons for the existence of the new Society – Absence of colour is a serious handicap – Yet Black-and-White work is much healthier condition than those forms of art which use colour- And colour is the least important and most dangerous element in pictorial art -Black and White art is a serape and independent form of artistic expression, and fully judged by its own standards and not regarded as an echo or imitation of works in colour -These points emphasised by reference to three works in the first Exhibition of the Society – Conclusion”
To Appreciate the important of the First Exhibition of the new-formed Society of Graphic Art it is necessary to know something of the present condition of pictorial art in this country. That condition is most precarious and unsatisfactory. The public has come to think of oil painting as the only form of pictorial art that matters, and oil painting, as all recent exhibitions have shown, is in a critical and parlous state. The series of wild experiment initiated in this country before the war, largely under foreign influences, have almost reduced the art of painting to the absurd. Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Vibrism, Non-Representational Art, and all the other vaunted forms of ‘advanced art’ have now successfully demonstrated their own nullity and insignificance. ‘Advanced’ artists and ‘advanced’ critics are now gloomily looked round for some way of escape out of the hopeless muddle into which their own conceit, folly and ignorance have plunged them.There is good and hope in this. When a sinner repents the angels rejoice. But we have still to reckon with the evil that has been done to the public by this long drawn out orgy of artistic misdemeanour. Public sympathy with the saner elements in art has been checked, if it has not been permanently alienated. The public has been told so often that common-sense, reason, and all decent feeling and conduct have nothing whatever to do with art, that it has come to regard it as an unintelligible and rather dangerous game for the idle rich and the perverted or idiotic aesthete.
Now it is evident that without the sympathy and support of the decent-minded public the position of pictorial art as a factor in the intellectual life of the nation is endangered. those artists who respect themselves and their art cannot long maintain alone the fight against the intellectual and moral vices and apathy to the time. They must have some support from the forces which sustain our social health and vigour. To the clear-signed observer, therefore, the most pressing problem connected with the artistic welfare of the country is: How to rally the saner elements in social life to the support of the saner elements in artistic production?
It is because the Society of Graphic Art seems to be a new and potent organisation for work in this direction that its first Exhibition deserves unusual prominence and attention.
The reasons for this new grouping of artists can be briefly stated. it binds together for the first time in a powerful organisation the workers in all those forms of art which do not use colour as a means of expression. Theses forms of art have hitherto been treated with but scant consideration. Drawings and the different forms of engraving- all works in black and white, in short- have been regarded as the poor relations of those other forms of art in which colour is used. Black-and-white art has been the Cinderella of the pictorial family. It has been kept much in he background, and when allowed to make an occasional appearance in public it has been put in dark corners and spare rooms of big exhibitions where the highly-coloured sisters flaunt themselves at large. But there is not a single exhibition where mere uncoloured drawings can be at home to entertain their friends. That is one reason why mere draughtsmanship has so few friends. It was to give draughtsmanship a local habitation and thus to give it a chance of attracting and attaching to itself some of the many friends it so richly deserves to possess, that the Society of Graphic Art was planned. Engravers were included, because their help was needed, and because they needed the help which a powerful organisation could give them in obtaining wider, fuller, and more generous recognition. Their case, it is true, was not quite so desperate as that of the draughtsmen. There were already in existence a number of small societies- small groups of etchers, wood-engravers, lithographers, etc. – which held periodical exhibitions and which had attracted to themselves a certain amount of support. And without the useful work these small sectional groups have done we may frankly admit that it would probably have been impossible to found the more powerful and comprehensive Society which has now been formed. But there is no over-lapping nor clash of interests between the bigger grouping and the smaller groups. They each strengthen the other. The best men in the various sections have recognised this, as the list of membership of the new Society shows. We should think little of the political wisdom of anyone who would argue that the existence of parish councils rendered the organisation of the nation as a whole unnecessary.
The reason for the existence of the Society, is then, to uphold and maintain the interests of all those forms of art which do not use colour as a means of expression. But this absence of colour is, it much be confessed, a serious handicap. The public has come to regard colour as the most important element in pictorial art it is the thing which pleases most and pleases everybody. It is the one thing people think they understand in art to a public thus deluded and debauched large exhibition of works without colour offers few attractions.
Yet it is this very absence of colour which forms the real strength of the new Society. There is nothing in black-and-white art to attract a frivolous or corrupt taste. It has therefore been left very much to itself to cultivate its own modest virtues in peace and quietness, undisturbed by the attentions fo the smart set which has dishonoured its less austere sisters. As a consequence, black-and-white artist to-day, in this country, in a far more healthy, vigorous and sane condition than those forms of art which depend for their attractiveness upon the use of colour.
And bedsides, it is simple not try to say that colour is the most important element in pictorial art. It is actually the slightest loss to any of the higher beauties of their art. The drawings and engravings of men like Rembrandt, Claude, turner, Ingres and Millet prove this. Black-and-white art is not a mere echo, a cheap and feeble imitation, of chromatic art. It is a form of art which can stand entirely on it sown merits. It has its limitations, it is true, but so has the sonnet form in poetry. But these limitations, freely and gladly accepted and fully understood, form the real secret of its power, the secret of its glory and its beauty.
If the new Society can bring the public to understand that black-and-white art is something more than a cheap and feeble echo of oil paintings, that it is a separate and entirely independent form of artistic expression, and that is is fully adequate to the embodiment of the highest and worthiest beauties of which pictorial art is capable, the efforts of those who have worked hardest to start this new movement in the artic life o f the nation will indeed be amply rewarded. But before this can be done it is necessary to insist that this art must be judged entirely but its own standards. And to show exactly what i mean by this I will draw attention to three of the works in the present Exhibition.
Hung above the fireplace in the large gallery is a view of the City and Port of London from the Borough of Southwark, showing all the principle buildings between the Temple and Tower Bridge (no/ 253). It is a mere line drawing in pen and ink, and at first sight many people think it looks hard, formal and mechanical. But such people judge the drawing by standards which ought not to be applied to it. We have but to consider the requirements of the subject-matter to see that the loose, scratch and evasive sort of line work which is not generally regarded as ‘artistic’ would not have been in the least suited to express what the artist wishes to communicate. It was not a vague ‘impression’ or a formless aesthetic emotion that he wishes to suggest. The experience of generations had defined his task, and the great works of Visscher and Hollar were there to guide and stimulate his powers. All the multitudinous details comprehended in this view had to be welded together into a design which should convey at a glance a clear idea of the position and precise character of London at the present dat. And this unity had to be built up slowly and patiently but by but, the structure and condition of every building exactly presented in its proper place and due promotion the relative size and distance from the spectators of every boat, every figure, every vehicle, every swift-flying aeroplane had to be considered and fitted into its place in the design. Nothing could be slurred over, for at every stroke the artists had to reckon with the intimate and exhaustive knowledge of someone whose daily life or special interests had made him as familiar with the features of some particular building or neighbourhood as with the face of his own wife or mother. And all this had to be realised pen store by pen stoke, each line firmly laid down, and each carrying its utmost weight of meaning; and as each detail took its final and irrevocable shape and position, the relative claims of every other part and of the whole had always to be present to the artist’s mind. to carry such a studious task to it triumphant conclusion as this artist has carried it involves unusual powers of mind and character. the patient and labour demanded must have been prodigious, but they sink almost into insignificance when compared with the concentration of mind, the sustained lateness and freshness of eye, hand and mind that were required.
If we consider theses things we shall see that it was impossible for the artist to do what he wanted to do in any other way than that which he has allowed. The integrates involved in such work are wider, nobler, more elemental and permanent than the fugitive emotions stirred by the vagaries of modern oil printing and the line work which imitates its feebleness. That flashy, clever looking scribble which passes so easily for inspiration that fussy evasiveness and incoherence which fobs itself off as a atmosphere or spontaneity, could never have built up so coherent and firmly knit a design. `the precession, firmness and deliberation of the artist’s pen-stork was forced upon him by the very nature of his subject-matter. He had something definite to say something worthy of being said, he has said it n the only perfect way in which it could be said.
I have referred to this drawing to enable me to explain exactly what i mean when I say that black and white art must be treated as an independent form of expression, governed by its own particular interests and capable of tis own special beauties. For the same reasons i should like to draw attention to the drawing in the south-eat gallery of ‘Oxford, from Magdalen Tower’ (No. 436). This is also a line drawing in pen and ink, but it is less schematic and more purely pictorial in its motive than ‘The Port of London’. Colour could add nothing to the beauty of this marvellous drawing. Colour would indeed smother and deaden the appeal of the artist’s sensitive, delicate and vital line. Pure line, as it is here used, is as fine, as polished, as powerful an instrument of expression as any lover of art could wish to see in action. But the whole drawing is packed so full of varied interests that I imagine it requires only to be looked at calm and quietly for its sheer beauty of thought and execution to be at once appreciated. the chief and perhaps the only danger it runs of failure to evoke its proper response is that which arrises from the prejudice, so deeply rooted and so widespread at the present time, again coherence and completeness in any form of art, and especially in the arts of expression.
The same remark applies with equal force to the third and last example of independent black-and-white work to which i shall refer. The etching of ‘Melisande’ (No. 229) has something of the passionate seriousness and emotional intensity of Rossetti’s work. In spirt and in intention it is therefore as different as it can well be to the pen drawings to which I have referred, yet like them it is well-nigh perfect in its own inimitable way. Like them it relies for it expressiveness upon a thorough-going and exhaustive knowledge of form, and , as in their cases, the completeness and coherence of the workmanship increase the chance os its being misunderstood or ignored by those who have not yet learned to recognise the independence of pure line work, or are foolish enough to apply to it the wrong standards. \I have not referred to these three works to praise them. Had it been my business to price all the fine things i have found in this exhibition I should certainly not be content to single out only these three works. But having used theses artists’ work mere to illustrate and give point to the very considerations I have wished to bring forward, I hope I may be permitted to thank them for what they have done. IN an age of widespread slacks, evasiveness and incoherence theses three artists, like many others whose works are here exhibited, have not only upheld the old traditions they have made them again living forces in the art of this country. the courage devotion and indifference to ignoble aims displayed by these three young artists deserve the fullest and most gene rough recognition. A nation which understood its own artists interests, I feel convinced, would hasten to place their perfectly trough works in its public galleries.
But the nation has not for many years been well advised in artistic matters. the great influence of the Press, which on the whole is consistently used in upshot of the saner elements in social life, has been used in artistic matters too much on the side of anarchy and formlessness. The voices of the so-called intellectuals and the aesthetes have been too clamorous and too insistent. Form, coherence and self-discipline have been too long and too repeatedly assailed. it is time that some protest should be made against this misuse of the trust confided by the nation it its Press. to illustrate this point I have asked the Council of this Society to exhibit a cutting from one of our leading newspapers. In the same issue in which is art critic published nearly three quotes of a colour of sophistical adulation of the works of a foreign Dadaist, he dismissed in a few contemptuous lines all the works by British artists contain in the new Society’s first exhibition. On reading this misleading and unjust criticism, the words of Ruskin, in the last chapter of his ‘Modern Painters’ came into my mind. ‘Do you think that with impunity you can follow the eyeless fool, and should with the shouting charlatan?’ asked Dusking of the public of his day. I have not Ruskin’s power or eloquence, nor do I wish to suggest that the critic to whose activities I have referred is either a fool or a charlatan, but the substance of Ruskin’s question is the substance of what I wish to ask the reader of this paper to consider with all the seriousness it deserves.
Editor’s note: The text above is a transcription from Alexander J. Finberg, passed on by SGFA archivist Geraldine, sadly I have been unable to find the drawings to which Finberg refers in this article. From a newspaper clipping filed with this article it is possible that one of the works refers to Mr. Sime’s drawings.