HISTORIES of art abound with declarations that art revivals were coincident with a "return to nature." Students of drawing and painting are urged to "go to nature." Our academic courses are arranged not without some confusion as to this precept, the usual series of studies comprising drawing from plaster casts, possibly from still life, finally from the human figure. Thoroughness of draughtsmanship and acceptable painting of the nude are the aim. Most academic instruction does not seriously go beyond these exercises in rendering form.
There is a remarkable similarity in the situations of the art student and the photographer in that neither advances far enough to understand where art really begins. It is generally acknowledged that in no previous time in our history has there been so much art study and so little art as in our day. And this may be attributed, at least in part, to lack of insight concerning the relation of nature to art. The skilfully drawn human figure and the photographically well rendered likeness are too nearly nature imitation. They are only the raw material to be used in the process of picture-making, but they are in no sense the completed picture. We must arrive at considerable maturity in art before we are able to grasp the significance that underlies this statement, yet it is possible to gain insight into that which is essential, even at the outset.
There is also a similarity between the work assigned to the art pupil and the methods employed by the photographer. In the class-room a model is usually posed against an indifferent background and the student centres his energies upon rendering this model without making any special use of the resources to be found in the background. This accounts for the wearisome study-head displays at our annual academic exhibitions and is equally responsible for the immaturity of art students when they have finished their courses of study. The photographer's efforts at pictorial work fail for the same reasons, although his methods are different. He too centres all his interest upon the face and figure. His backgrounds are usually bought "ready-made" and have no meaning, fitness, or relation to the sitter. In Fig. 1 we have an example and from an art point of view it is hopeless photography. What we condemn in it is the belief of the photographer that he has produced a portrait when the focus upon the woman is right, and that she will be made picturesque by the
Fig. 2 introduction of fantastic accessories. These accessories are a collection of lines, spots, lights and darks, that lead nowhere, that have no discernible purpose. They are supposed to be beautiful because they are unusual, — not found in our homes or our daily life. Examined for their own sake they are to say the least not artistic. As objects to be used with a figure in portraiture they are an obstruction, useless because unreal, ugly and senseless in form. The human figure offers wealth of beauty; all the charm inherent therein should be exhausted before we think of employing accessories. If the character of the representation requires it, articles of furniture may be used to balance the figure, but the more simple such objects the easier it is to control them, to subordinate them to the main thing, which is of course the human interest.
The mistake made by photographers who are addicted to the use of "ornamental' studio property in their portrait work is based upon their belief that anything unusual or, according to their ideas, beautiful can be placed in a picture to advantage. Education must help us to understand what is beautiful in furniture and in architectural forms; it must aid us in reading nature in order that we may use nature's forms intelligently in pictorial work. For instance, we will photograph some grasses, " a bit of nature," - Fig. 2. We speak of them by that term. We designate in the same way a chair, vase, rug, drapery, bird, or any animate or inanimate object. Some people have the impression that when dealing with art the term "nature" is understood to designate either human nature or the landscape as a generality, whereas the word is applied to any visible thing in which we find an emotional pleasure tempting us to reproduce its appearance or such a part of it as will serve to convey the impression that has been made upon us.
If we take in our hands the bunch of grasses and look at it, does it give us pleasure ? It hardly produces the same enjoyment that we feel when we see it growing in the field where it is in its natural place and lives in the wind and the light. In our hand it is but a specimen. If we wish to make it beautiful now, we must treat it as the Japanese flower arrangers do: we must select, reject, and rearrange the parts of this bunch until the lines and masses again establish a condition of beauty.
The same is true in the representation of an individual. In a snap-shot of a person on the street as he stands or walks, we have again a fragment of nature that is material to work upon, but is thus far untouched by our thought or feeling. We must fuse ourselves into it before it can have beauty or meaning; that is where art begins. A bit of nature taken from its natural place and made a fragment by our action is not beautiful until our feeling, crystallized into thought and treatment, raises it to art.
The grasses then being such a fragment must be made "art' before they can lose their character of "specimens." We must so treat them that they are changed to something emotional - our emotion.
In order to create emotion in that which is endowed with form we must make of that object a "unit." And a unit is something that has consistency, it is free from unreasoning contradictions; for instance, Fig. 2 is a mass of lines and movements so puzzling to the eye that it simply looks and is worried, it studies. In that condition the mind does not permit any emotion to arise. These lines and movements must be ordered, made intelligible, governed by reason, controlled by intellect, if they are to create emotion.