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MacColl and the Modern Spirit

In February and March 1913, the “International Exhibition of Modern Art” opened at New York City’s 69th Regiment Armory. After a tour of the U.S., a half million people had seen the exhibit—one of the most influential in American art history. The self-consciously “modern” Armory show, organized by art patron Arthur B. Davies, challenged the artistic establishment. Two-thirds of the 1,600 works were by Americans, and the Europeans whose works were exhibited—Picasso, Matisse, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gaughin, and Duchamp among them—were far from the conservatives that Americans were used to. “We want this old show of ours,” declared one of the organizers, “to mark the starting point of a new spirit in art, at least as far as America is concerned.” The show raised the hackles of many critics (one newspaper offered a reward to any schoolchild who could find the nude in the show’s most controversial painting, Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”). But art critic W.D. MacColl praised the Armory Show’s avant-garde spirit in this Forum magazine review from July 1913.

I do not propose to answer Mr. Cortissoz’s critique in detail, but to contrast with it quite frankly my own impression of what I would call the Post-Impressionist reality as it was brought before us in the International Exhibition of Modern Art.

My own impression, and that of an increasing number of persons, is that among modern painters a certain number, including certain of the so-called Post-Impressionists, achieve the first place by the force of a pure native power that is in them. But that is not all. It is not simply their power, but a certain charm also which is in their work that attracts us. The quality of greatness in them, we feel, is not strained. They lead us with ease into great subjects; and they enter as unaffectedly into our consciousness of what is beautiful as any of those revelations which come to us only through our instincts. We feel, in fact, that we have nothing tocompare with them at the moment of their making their effect upon us. Or, to adopt another way of speaking, the appeal which they make is so direct and so personal that it removes life to another court by referring it not to any past experience of life, but exactly to a sense, a recognition of new life, new art. They give us something that was not in our life, that was not in the art of painting before, and it appeals to us with all the power and the charm of a quickened consciousness of the value and meaning of life itself.

For after all what is art to us if it is only a Name, if it is only a formula or a precedent? or art criticism if it is only an analysis? The fight over a name? Art we feel is a symbol, however impoverished, of life, and life is more than any analysis It is also instinct and a gift; an infinite procession of facts, analyzable or not; an elixir which first manifests itself in our affection (in our being affected by it), and from there spreads and delivers its message through the whole harmony or otherwise of our existence. The critic is called in only after the event; and the critic who rests in an “absolute skepticism” of the meaning or value of life, in whatever guise it appears, is as valueless surely as a doctor who refuses to take up the case of a patient.

There is another way of regarding the qualities of power and charm which the work of these men symbolizes. Their power lies in a spontaneity of action that does disrupt and change for us the former aspect of the world, together with a spiritual grace, a harmony, that links all things together again. The world has remained the same yet not the same: we have changed. There is no more beauty now than there was before; but there has been a quickening. It is this quickening, this sense of change into something rich and strange, which we feel as beauty, as life; and whenever any object whether it be Named good or bad (according to the consciousness of the ugly or of the beautiful in other persons) becomes expressive to us of that, it is probable that we may and that we will act out all our spiritual desire toward it. That doubtless is what Mr. Cortissoz too means when he speaks of arousing himself from a “timidity of mental habit.” But he is aroused by the consciousness of something that, as his whole essay is intended to portray, is “coarse and unlovely” to him. With such a starting-point the resultant can be guessed at. By comparison, however, with the works of such men, our real “fuglemen,” ancient or modern, all later or “lesser” paintings suffer, because they will seem to us to imitate the style (the manner and not the spirit) or to refresh the memory (the reason and not the basic affection) of the effect first made upon us, and afterwards sustained, by such earliest, such purest and most spontaneous impressions. All others are like echo, which is fainter than the voice, or like remembrance, which is paler than passion.

Now this is exactly what I experienced in the International Exhibition of Modern Art when I turned from the works of Gauguin hanging on one wall to the work of Augustus John on the opposite wall with his large canvas Going Down to the Sea. Beautiful, suave, rhythmic as John’s picture was, for me it awakened only memory, not passion, the orderly processes of reason without the spontaneous gift or symbol of life. The style or manner of John’s painting reminded me of Ary Scheffer, of Puvis de Chavannes, of a dozen other painters, all fine too, and that in itself is an artistic achievement; but beyond that I was not sure what John’s picture meant to me, or what sensation of life it was intended to give me. My emotion therefore was distracted; my thoughts were not carried on the wings of any rich or strange change. There was nothing new in my life through having seen this picture. It had not for me the force of a more direct, more personal appeal to life: more love and more life. It is probable, however, that others might feel that for them it had been a new experience, an Erklärung, and would feel grateful for it in consequence. Everything in the world doubtless has its basis in somebody’s affection.

In turning, however, to Matisse’s portrait close by, called Le Madras Rouge, before I had made any analysis of its color, style, or composition, I found the rhythms of my brain and heart themselves phrasing the words upon my lips: “How terse, how vigorous, how—!” (Where do such words come from?) Or in passing into the next room, behold! Cezanne’s pictures are hanging on the walls. How quickly, how easily he takes possession of me. Such rich and deep poetical affection for his subject conquers me. I fall at once into a reverie of musical dreams. And he is without the slightest affectation. Why should I have any? There is none in my gratitude. His color (I say, with all due apology to Mr. Cortissoz) is like a well-tuned instrument playing itself. There are no mock heroics here.

And yet, as judged by these pictures in the International Exhibition, Cezanne’s intensity, his great force and unchangeableness of purpose as a man and as a painter, are not so apparent. I receive a far profounder impression of those very qualities in a Still Life by Manet, whom, nevertheless, we all accept to-day. When the subject is tragic Cezanne seems merely to suggest it to you and leaves it there. I feel a note of sadness, of meditation in his work. But in the swaying rhythms of his trees and plains in the dreaming landscape he seems to me what I had not realized so clearly before, so far from being strange, uncouth or “eccentric” that he fits quite simply and naturally into a splendid vision of the progress of art which he himself projects before me. It is almost as if he were saying: You see I am nothing but a Barbizon of a later day, loving the same country, yet holding myself to a certain classic simplicity in my appreciation of it.

That is the classic tradition which we believe Cezanne has found, and it comes to us with the scent and freshness of the wind, outvoicing all those fetichistic mumblings of the leaves among the trees. It is the reassurance of what so “drearily” had been forgotten and neglected: “the never-ending audacity of elected persons” that Whitman speaks of, “masters” this and that in painting or in aught else. For a moment the sorcery of art has melted away, the sorcery of spotted light and broken color has been set aside, and lo! Intuition, the strange shy goddess, has been found again in a new raiment, smiling but not mincing, admiring herself in a new landscape of the world. It is a return to nature, a return especially to something of that Arcadian simplicity which is always in the morning of the world’s loves. “Je reste,” Cezanne said, not the master, but, exactly, "le primitif de la voie que j’ai decouverte.“ "O queen that lovest Golgi, and Idalium, and the steep of Eryx, O Aphrodite, that playest with gold, lo, from the stream eternal of Acheron they have brought back lo thee Adonis—even in the twelfth month they have brought him, the dainty-footed hours.”

In the whole exhibition, however, none was lovelier to me than Gauguin. He too spreads with ease again his splendid fruitfulness over his whole canvas. He has the force and romantic passion of a painter like Courbet; and how carefully guarded and exalted it is. His pictures are not unlike his descriptions in Noa-Noa. The fire, the sombre beauty, the passion of the Tahitian forest are there. In Sous les Palmiers we get its full deep solitude; in Faa Iheihe it has become a decorative panel worthy of a dog’s palace; in two other large canvases it is a Still Life beyond comparison rich, removed, final. All the wealth of the great Venetians, I feel, is here without any lowering of their temper and with how much more of our present day humanity. His art is subtle in a manner which appeals to us more to-day,—with less of visual, more of tangible or tactual reality: it is more plastic. He gives us actual portraiture; he is a traveler in those real lands of the mind’s eye. And finally, you do not know till you have looked into it what glowing deeps his passion has led you safely past.

Matisse does the same. His range simply is not so large. He loves in silence. He, too, leaves it to you. All life and art does that, save “lawyercraft and soldiercraft.”

The Van Gogh collection of pictures was disappointing like the rest, not on account of the pictures themselves, but because their range and selection was so limited. One would have to see some of his wonderful human portraiture,—the Le Berceuse, for instance,—to know the best that he is capable of; and in the life of an artist from an artist’s viewpoint, the strength of a man’s whole chain of life is measurable not by its weaker links (that is for the life of the world), but by its strongest, by bringing all the others to the test of the most excellent in him. And yet what cataracts of color lay there, like sounds swept from the storm of his emotion in the face of life and of nature. He recalls to me the spirit of Rembrandt. Indeed he is as thoroughly and typically Dutch as Rembrandt or as Ruysdael were, and far more passionately so than Mauve or Maris is to-day. And he too like Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, though a mighty man of valor, was yet—a leper! Mr. Cortissoz reminded me of that terrible story in the Second Book of Kings by reminding his reader that Van Gogh cut off his ear with a razor and sent it in a letter, and then died insane! If we can,—if we will,—if our sense of duty to humanity and to the art of painting will allow us, we may, I think, imagine him instead intoxicating himself with the extraordinary, the revolutionary and revolutionizing joy of color that throbbed like wine in his veins. Even the gowns and bonnets of our womankind to-day are embellished with the colors to which these men, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin gave life. How is it that, with the living evidences of their influence on every hand and flowing “out of Paris into Germany, Russia, England, and to some slight extent the United States,” our critics are unable to discern any part of humanity in their art?

Color is everywhere. We do not need to look for it on the walls of an exhibition. And everywhere, perhaps, it is subserving different ends, clothing with life the different forms and aspects of life. And that perhaps is why we do look and also why we distinguish according to our bent or our necessity. If we turn to our own painters we cannot fail to notice that Prendergast possesses an almost unexampled use of it. That is his distinction. Another painter like George Bellows uses it, when I have analyzed my emotion before it, for the sake of a brief word, an exclamation. “God! it was fine!” he seems to me to say of a polo match; and as a result we get a first hand note, a fleeting glimpse of but one incident in a whole game which is itself but one incident in the whole of life. . . .

This “new” sculpture like this “new” painting has for a moment infused a “new” life,—I mean simply, as before, a more present and personal meaning into art. It compels us to recognize “new” and living personalities in the world about us. Is that not enough distinction for any art? I find moreover that, like everything “new” perhaps, while it may not personify a perfectly recognizable abstraction of somebody else’s mind (after the approved manner of all schools and tribunes) yet it does apparently abstract a personification of something in the artist’s own mind. The artist has dared to have an opinion of his own. But as we are already supposed to value that priceless possession, his crime, I can only think, must lie in the fact that his opinion involves a certain amount of disturbance, or the fear of disturbance, to those who, like Mr. Cortissoz, can neither receive it nor let it alone. That is, perhaps, what this new art is doing for us. But it is also what life is always doing for us, is it not? In any case, it is ours, it is of to-day. There ought to be some way of understanding it, of discovering what it is saying to us, of what is real as well as what is illusionary in it. . . .

“They are a joke,” I hear some one remark in the gaping throng. But why so distressed about it? I feel inclined to answer. Would it really be the first joke you had seen in painting? and these are at least a good joke, are they not? Why not discriminate even in “jokes”? His pictures have a very refined beauty of color, if you can forget that the destiny of color is not simply to make a piece of paint look like a piece of fish, or like a piece of flesh, or like a piece of fashion; like a boxing match, or like a snow-scene, or like a lady caught without her clothes or showing herself off in furs. His color is simply instrumental to the design which he has in mind, and I find in it something fluid and rhythmical, a kind of musical mechanism almost, and in a measure eclectic—the invention perhaps of an ascetic mind. Yet on the other hand a little Still Life by him is very broadly and plastically conceived; and there is the portrait of his wife!

His mannerisms in any case are not mere affectation: they are his style, his meaning. If he hasn’t quite the warmth or passion of invention which a more dramatic instinct would have provided, he has unquestionably at all events grace, dignity and repose. I feel that we get some measure of his reaction to life by noting this, that he is always at ease with himself and with his subject, careful, never flustered. And there is nothing petty or snobbish about his work. What a relief that is! It may at times lean to pedantry; it is an intellectual art, and that of course is the strange thing to find in art to-day.

Source: W.D. MacColl, “The International Exhibition of Modern Art,” Forum, 50 (July, 1913), 24–29, 32, 34, 35. Reprinted in Roderick Nash, ed. The Call of the Wild (1900–1916), (New York: George Braziller, 1970).