AN ENGLISH CUBIST



WILLIAM ROBERTS:

Comments



This piece first appeared as the preface to William Roberts A.R.A. Paintings and Drawings 1909–1964 (London, 1964); the present text is that reprinted as 'Comments' in William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990). © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society.




The cover of William Roberts A.R.A. Paintings and Drawings 1909–1964


Several years ago there was an advertisement that appeared in the newspapers that impressed me very much; it showed a man bending forward and clutching his back with one hand in a sudden gesture of agony; beneath the design were the words: 'Every picture tells a story'. Pictures, of course, have always told stories; the caveman's scenes of hunting; Greek art illustrating the legends of Gods and Heroes; and the works of the medieval painters, relating the doings of soldiers and saints. However, in more recent times, a theory has been expounded, which states that a picture should not tell a story. It was after Cézanne, with the debut of Picasso, and the rise of Cubism that certain art chroniclers and critics began to hold forth against the picture with a story. Roger Fry and Clive Bell were especially critical of the story-telling painting. For them the important quality in a picture was its 'Significant Form', its 'Significant combinations of significant form', and 'Form is the Talisman'. This line has been followed through all the 'Isms' of modern painting; until with the Actionists, Tachists, and the latest 'Contemporaries', even 'Significant Form' can be discarded; for all that matters now is 'Significant Paint'. But, as the canvas becomes empty of all subject matter, except the dabs, smudges, and trickles of the paint itself, interest shifts from the work to its producer.

It is the painter's state of mind that is now the chief concern of the critics; what are his emotions as he faces up to the bare canvas? what are his mental processes as he makes the first strokes with his paint-filled brushes? These vital questions are usually studied, analysed, subtilised, and jargonised in the exhibition catalogue introductions. Sometimes this piece of obscurantist prose is written by the artist himself, but more often by an expert in this type of art journalism. By the use of such phrases as, 'The interruption of all-overness' or 'its autonomous existence as a thing which in itself arrests the eye and its embodiment in some way of something other than itself, these composers of catalogue Forewords endeavour to give to the most banal Abstracts, or an almost blank canvas, significance and meaning. Inspiring material for the Ultramodern critics are the works of those ultramodern artists, who paint only when they are drunk or drugged. But the drunken painter, and the critic intoxicated with enthusiasm, to be fully appreciated require a public that is equally inebriated. Wyndham Lewis has stated that 'The writer is cleverer than the artist, because he knows so much more'; this refers, I suppose, to the painter who does not write, and who is labelled by the critics as 'Inarticulate'. However, it is not only the writer who is the 'cleverer'; almost everyone has more 'know-how' than the artist. Time spent in putting images on canvas is not conducive to the practical wide-awakeness that is found in the art-dealer, frame maker, picture carter and the Keepers of art galleries. But this type of unclever, inarticulate, professional artist, who tries to make a living by the sale of his works, is now almost extinct; he is being replaced by the artist-teacher, whose chief source of income is the art-school. Moreover both these are slowly being ousted by the amateur-artist: this last is found at all social levels; there are politician-artists, stockbroker-artists, postman-artists, housewife, and child-artists, and even chimpanzee-artists. Painting has become an excellent relaxation for the politician from the cares of State, a rest-cure for the over-worked housewife, and a splendid way to keep the children quiet; so in this do-it-yourself age, the professional-artist is becoming redundant. But if the prof-artist can be eliminated, this is far from being the case with the art-critics, gallery keepers, and art journalists of all sorts; these, on the contrary, have greatly increased in numbers and importance in recent years. Their function is to control and direct, with their theories and gimmicks, public opinion in matters of art; they must, in this, be way out ahead of the artist. These art experts exert an influence on buyers towards the latest painting stunts; they also judge competitions, award prizes, and are active in organising exhibitions of child-art.

Perhaps it is incorrect to refer to the artist's 'profession', as one does to that of the doctor or lawyer; it is as if one were to speak of the beggar's profession. The artist's calling indeed, must surely be the only one in which beggars can obtain membership; for there are no fees, degrees, nor entrance exams required to become a painter of pictures, as there are for those people who aspire to positions as directors or keepers of public galleries and museums. It is not necessary to graduate, to become a Tachist, all that is needed, is a piece of hard-board and some paint. These Tachists and other producers of 'Abstracts', show no sign of waning activity, judging from their latest mammoth show. Recently I paid a visit to the Tate Gallery to see this exhibition, promoted by the Gulbenkian Foundation; it is entitled '54–64, Paintings and Sculpture of a Decade'.

I boarded a No. 88 bus, this, the only one that passes the gallery, could truly be named the 'Tate Bus'. On the journey a number of passengers asked for tickets to the Tate. But it seemed a little too much for the conductor when a couple of rather noisy charwomen, returning from their work in Whitehall, got on and also asked for the Tate; 'what', he exclaimed, 'are they giving something away there?' The loud-voiced Mrs. Mops laughingly replied: 'yes they're giving art away,' adding, 'you can learn a lot from art.' But, however much is to be 'learnt from art' at the Tate, it is very evident what cannot be learnt from the 'Paintings and Sculpture of the 54–64 Decade' on show there. One will learn nothing about the world we live in, its people, its animals nor anything in nature at all. Faced with these exhibits, one will learn only that geometric shapes can be formed into patterns, and that paint can be dabbed, dripped, smudged and smeared in countless ways. On my walk back towards Westminster, I passed the House of Lords. Never having seen the interior of this historic building, I joined the tail-end of a party of tourists at the entrance, and went inside. In the Royal Gallery the two large murals by Daniel Maclise at once drew my attention. The subjects – or should one say stories – of these wall-paintings are the death of Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar and the meeting of Wellington and Blücher on the field of Waterloo. The entire 46 x 13 feet of each painting is crammed with finely-composed action, and the drawing of the individual figures is vigorous and alert. Standing before these masterpieces, the work of one man, in a Victorian decade, I could not help comparing them with the 54–64 decade of abstracts, comprising hundreds of exhibits, by one hundred and seventy exhibitors, of several nationalities. If only these Maclise paintings could be put on show at the Tate, what a valuable gift of art this would be to the visitors who daily wind their way into the Gallery; and how much they would be able to learn as well, about the art of making a picture tell a story.

June, 1964 W. R



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