‘Russian’ by Wyndham Lewis. This sketch was made in 1922, the same year as Lewis’s identified portrait of Dismorr and as his publication of ‘Some Russian Artists’. This may well be a likeness of Dismorr.
Writings on art by Jessie Dismorr
Critical Suggestions [TLR 6.5 Sept 1919]
Some Russian Artists [The Tyro 2 1922]
A sceptic, doubtful of the actuality of artistic presentment, might be the agent neded to clarify aesthetic thought. It is the atheist with his intellectual integrity who has defined the shapes of religious conceptions. Against such an attitude the discounted imagination with all its force rises inevitably
Art, like religion, suffers chiefly from the too-eager belief and impressibility of its devotees and from their too low intellectual standard.
It is surely under-estimated the part that suggestibility plays in our acceptance of forms of beauty. We submit, not only to the suggestion of contemporary taste but of inherited modes. There is nothing so easily evolved as aesthetic predilections in active minds: but has not the time come, not for new predilections but for a new mentality?
The European critic should purify himself from occidental prejudices, the eastern from oriental ones; above all should the westerner be free from partiality for the Orient.
The whole technique of painting is a business of minute symbolism. The finished representative piece of any diplomaed artist is nothing but that; the symbolism however is of the cheapest quality.
Bad art represents a poor mentality: in other words an invention of poor symbols.
A disposition of mauve and grey in gradation upon a flat pink surface does not connect it with the actual roundness of an arm more closely than would the untouched space. Shading however is the occidental writing for roundness.
Despite the strictures of our drawing-masters, a picture cannot be right or wrong; It can only be good or bad.
Representative art is a contradiction in terms.
Has the man in the street who believes that a picture should be “exactly like nature” realized the essential nonsense of the phrase? In his favorite oleographic piece even those qualities common to the subject and its presentment are of the least obvious. Weight, substance, size, effect, position, for instance, differ completely. HIs phrase requires that the portrait of a man should be the twin-brother of the model.
There is nothing more enlightening than the strict examination of critical terms. “The Soul”, “spiritual,” are terms for the use of theologians, they cannot be rightly used in connection with the plastic arts.
That which the soul is to the body, beauty is to the plastic experiment.
No aesthetic achievement was ever the outcome of a metaphysical idea. Pictures of Faith, Hope, Charity are portraits of women.
All art has a physical basis.
So-called “abstract art” is equally involved in this law. It is open to the artist to make so wide an imaginative detour from the original starting point that he alone may realize from whence he has come. A certain superfineness of intellect might disdain anything like literalism in translation, and seek by indirections the plastic equivalent to the original fact.
Abstract art implies nothing vague or ill-defined: on the contrary an extreme liberation of essentials from the obscurity of literalism.
Beauty is the result of certain arrangement of forms. All beauty is accidental. It is a surprise chiefly to the craftsman of whom it has been the aspiration.
The strongest aesthetic impulse needs the curb of the most exact technique.
A display of emotion and physical abandon in a “bold” technique is merely vulgarity. It corresponds to the manner of a gourmet who too obviously enjoys his meal.
There is that in most good art that is the counterpart of “breeding” In fine persons: it may be replaced by the naivete and simpleness that is the “breeding” of peasants.
An artist can no more create new forms tham a musician can invent hitherto non-existent tones. There is no shape that he can mentally conceive which has not already been made use by Nature.
A picture void of content is an impossibility.
The least advanced student in a Cubist atelier has more knowledge of the elements of form than Sir Joshua Reynolds. The whole of the eighteenth century school crumbles to dust when subjected to the tests by which a student’s work would be judged.
There are certain artists whose work should be greatly praised, but in a particular way. They are not the producers of individual masterpieces, they are the technical analysts. Of such are the Impressionists, Monet, Renoir and their school; of such also we the Cubists, Fauconnier, Metzinger and others.
All color can be reduced to the primary tints, all form to the basic geometric shapes.
There are a thousand clever artists to one intelligent one.
Good art is concerned with the making of gods or of toys – creations of almost equivalent power. Cimabue and the Egyptians realized the former achievement. In our own day some excellent toy-makers are the painters Picasso, Wadsworth, Herbin, Braque, etc.
The love of things delivers from the tyranny of the love of persons. Aesthetic delight is the most complete rest from personal claims.
Superior minds value beauty for itself and discount association.
Art that is one step beyond the level of taste charms like a novelty, art that is two steps ahead hurts like an outrage.
It is not sufficiently realized that the qualities of Michelangelo are as esoteric those of Picasso, and are understood of as [sic – by ?] few in proportion of those who see the work.
The finest characteristics of all great art are difficult to appreciate, though its minor charms will be recognized at once. Great art at first sight is often austere and repellent, and if it is an advance in a strange direction must be so.
Picasso is a type of the most restless and unconvinced artistic intelligence; lacking in character as all experimentalists of his type are lacking; perhaps an aesthetic Pascal.
Frequenters of galleries are fond of saying: “I Like this,” “I don’t like that.” But how irrelevant are such remarks. The approbation of those persons was the painter’s least concern.
The artist who works for fame is less an artist than a humanitarian.
Obscure leisure is an artist’s daily bread, fame is his wine. Drunkenness is a common vice.
It is possible that a fine artistic intelligence may be yoked with a halting executive faculty. Blake and possibly Cezanne are artists of this type. Nothing however can finally affect greatness: obscurity, cleverness, fame, clumsiness destroy only the second-rate.
One must differentiate between the recipe maker such as Brangwyn, whose every picture must succeed, so knowing is the use of tone and line, and the medium of intuition such as Gauguin whose pictures have the good fortune of possible failure.
It is a mistake by one or by ten of his works. A show of landscapes by Cezanne may exhibit not one of first excellence: yet if nine tenths of his work were unsuccessful it would scarcely affect his legacy to the age.
Egyptian artists touched priests, queens, kings, animals and they became gods; the Greek could not touch the gods without turning them into fellow citizens.
By his admirations is the rank of a man eventually established.
The mess and muddle of an artist’s personal life is the chaos from which evolves the order of creation.
[l have been amazed at Miss Dismorr’s alphabetical statement of aesthetic ideas. It seems to me that she is either obvious (as in her paragraph about the frequenters of galleries), or confused (as in her talk of the intellect and the intelligence), or untrue (as in her statement about art having a physical basis and “the love of things delivering one from the tyranny of the love of persons.” There is no appreciable difference between the love of things and the love persons both deliver into the same tyranny. Etc., etc., etc.— M.C.A.]
SOME RUSSIAN ARTISTS.
THE show of exiled Russians at Whitechapel was noteworthy not for the artistic achievements, but as an expression of national character in art.
No other country of Europe has such marked aesthetic predilections. A bias towards clearness of presentment, emphatic shapes and strong colour is hers by inheritance. Naiveté, a farce in Paris and London, is true here. Toys and eikons give with homely terseness the character of the race.
The work of Goncharova is a good example of the toy-making gift. Inventiveness sprung directly from tradition reached in her setting to the “Coq d’or” its finest flower. At Whitechapel she exhibits cubist devices grafted on to immemorial patternings of peasant costume. Her juxtaposed chromes and majentas, so “moderniste” and daring, are commonplaces of the primitive steppe village.
Sarionoff plays a more involved game, dovetailing bright splinters of colour into the forms of men and objects. By his method much animation is suggested in the artificial stage atmosphere for which he works.
Vassilieva paints dexterously a world in which all surfaces are fresh paint, all people dolls, all manners the story-book code.
Chagal, wandering Jew, mentally native to Russia is the curious vessel of the national spirit. His subject matter is legend and fairytale, his personal adventures or the bald drama of peasant life. Not an illustrator, he is a summoner of forms, all of which have story as well as shape. Men, small and large, numerous important animals, fantastic suns and moons, carts and churches jostle one another throughout these amazing designs. Here, though natural congruities are outraged, there is a plastic orderliness preserved as by a miracle.
Two sculptors of talent seek emancipation of a different kind.
Archipenko has been known in Paris exhibitions for block-like stone pieces, so sparingly treated by the chisel as to leave all their natural weight and inertia. A change of intention is seen in his newest works which possess on the contrary great formal variety. Freeing his subject from all but certain selected aspects he traces in air the whorls and spirals of a sculptural shorthand.
With Lipschitz we find a fiercer disdain of realism. The sources of human form disappear as his scheme develops, and a new thing is produced relying upon itself for significance. He works to discover an ideal organisation, one plane pre-supposing another till the sum of parts is reached. Such an endeavour is a searching test of natural gift, for in those polar regions of conquest it has no allies. When Lipschitz fails it is due to an enterprise supported by a talent not equally mature.