|Home -> Other California History Books -> Impressions of the Art at the Panama-Pacific Exposition - Foreign Painting - Part One|
Despite the petulant pronouncement of Whistler that art knows no country, it becomes increasingly apparent that the element of nationality is the most potent of all aesthetic characteristics. The butterfly conception of beauty, while an effective weapon when employed against the Philistine, fails to enlist the sympathies or augment the sum of knowledge. It is through studying the art of other lands that we can alone glean an accurate impression of our own, and this is not the least reason why we should extend generous welcome to the stranger. In the ensuing survey of foreign art at the Panama-Pacific Exposition special consideration will be accorded only those countries which were officially represented. Though there were numerous isolated canvases in the International Section that might otherwise invite comment, we shall confine our attention to nations rather than to individuals.
As the first country to respond to the appeal of popular life and shake off the sterilizing formalism of Church and Court, Holland claims a leading place in the history of modern painting. It matters little that there was a dreary, barren hiatus following the death of Ruisdael, Hobbema, and Pieter de Hooch. The sturdy Dutch were simply biding their time, and when, under the inspiration of the French romantic movement of 1830, attention was again directed to native theme, they readily reconquered their lost prestige. The chief names in this renaissance of the art of the Netherlands are Bosboom, Israëls, Mauve, Weissenbruch, and the brothers Maris. They it was who laid the foundations of the contemporary Dutch school. Through their sympathetic appreciation of nature and their power of synthetic presentation they re-affirmed the fundamental principles of their forbears. It is the men of the second generation such as Blommers, Breitner, Witsen, Gorter, Isaac Israëls, and van Mastenbroek who figured most prominently at San Francisco, and it may be asserted without hesitation that they preserve intact the national artistic patrimony.
Like their Fontainebleau-Barbizon predecessors the Dutchmen are by preference tonalists. Their pictures are studies in atmospheric unity rather than specific transcriptions of line or form. Drifting in from the sea or rising from lush meadow and lazy canal is an all-pervading moisture, a diffused, modified radiance that gives to the land and its art a characteristically persuasive appeal. One and all these men are sincere, unaffected nature poets. No restless individualism disturbs their harmonious compositions. Repose, not revolution, is the sentiment they inspire. Whether treating broad, panoramic outdoor motive or modest cottage interior it is light, or rather tone, which remains the centre of interest. You will note this alike in the busy glimpses of Rotterdam harbour by van Mastenbroek, or the irregular spires and rambling house-fronts of Witsen. The same tendency is visible in the work of more advanced talents such as Hendrik Jan Wolter who, despite his freedom of stroke and purity of colour, relies primarily upon the unifying possibilities of atmosphere.
In surveying the spacious, well-appointed rooms devoted to Dutch art at San Francisco one was impressed by the sanity and balance that characterized the canvases as a whole. The themes were, as may be inferred, normal and unpretentious, the technique sound and devoid of eccentricity. A conspicuous measure of approval greeted the appearance of Breitner's simple and effective Amsterdam Timber Port, while Marius A. J. Bauer, with a small panel entitled Oriental Equestrian, and a series of dramatic fantasias in black and white, contributed his usual richly imaginative note. A less familiar figure was Mr. Willem Witsen, the Commissioner of Fine Arts, who, with his portraits in the Netherlands Pavilion, his two views of Amsterdam, and his etchings, revealed himself the possessor of a definitely formulated artistic individuality. To a rare degree of objective verity Mr. Witsen adds a personal subjectivity which, in its every manifestation, is instinct with poetic feeling. One can indeed but congratulate the Resident Commissioner-General, the Honourable H. A. van Coenen Torchiana and his able staff upon the success of the Netherlands Section. Conservative, and basing itself confidently upon the production of the past, contemporary Dutch art, in no sense radical or modernistic, illustrates the value of a consistently maintained tradition.
It was to the Frenchmen of a later date that the more eclectic Swedes turned for inspiration. The "phalanx of 1830" had already been superseded by grey-toned naturalist and sparkling luminist when Zorn, Ernst Josephson, Karl Nordström, Larsson, and Liljefors flocked to Northern France. They did not as a rule remain away long enough to lose sympathy with Scandinavian type and scene. One by one they returned to fling defiance at the Academy and initiate one of the most vigorous and wholesome movements in the history of current art. Under the commanding influence of Nordström the Konstnärsförbundet became the most important organization of its kind in Sweden. And yet, while this particular society has at various periods included in its membership virtually all the leading artists, certain of the better men, restive under its restrictions, have from time to time broken away. It was from such independent spirits, as well as from other sources, that the Swedish Section at San Francisco was recruited.
There is no gainsaying the impression which the art of these virile, clear-eyed Northmen made upon the exposition public. Admirably arranged by the Swedish Commissioner of Fine Arts, Mr. Anshelm Schultzberg, who here duplicated his successes at St. Louis and at Rome, the several galleries reflected that breadth of comprehension without which painting remains a mere dilettante diversion. The Fjaestad room with its hand-carved furniture, tapestries, and amply spaced canvases offered an object lesson which local museum and exhibition officials should take seriously to heart. This artist, whose work is at once stylistic and naturalistic, who is a marvellous observer and a master of decorative design, proved one of the outstanding features of the exposition. An older and better-known man who was likewise accorded collective representation was the animal painter, Bruno Liljefors, while the landscapes contributed by the Commissioner himself proved that, despite official duties, he is more than maintaining his position as a sympathetic and veracious interpreter of forest stillness and snow-clad hillside.
While it was difficult, from so well balanced an ensemble, to detach specific individuals, it was impossible to overlook the work of two young and less widely known men, namely, Gabriel Strandberg and Helmer Osslund. The former selects his types from the poorer quarters of Stockholm and portrays them with luminous stroke and penetrative intuition. The latter finds his inspiration in North Sweden, where he records the clear colour, sharply silhouetted forms, and mighty rhythm of seemingly illimitable stretches of mountain and sky. You instantly discern in the work of the Swedes - in the bold Lofoten Island sketches of Anna Boberg or the delicate panels of Oskar Bergman - a frankness of vision and directness of presentation as rare as they are stimulating. Unfatigued and lacking in sophistication, the art of Sweden derives its strength from the silent, persistent community between nature and man. The elements are few, but they are all-sufficient.
A less uniform development and a more truculent physiognomy mark the artistic production of latter-day Norway. Trained for the most part in Germany, the leaders, such as Christian Krohg and Edvard Munch, are turbulent and stressful in their outlook upon nature and character. Both dominant personalities, the rugged naturalism of Krohg becomes with Munch a species of restless, haunting evocation, now sensuous, now psychic in appeal. It was these men, together with numerous recruits from the ranks of the new school, who constituted the exhibition collected by Director Jens Thiis for the delectation of San Francisco. Lacking in homogeneity, though not in interest, the display ran the gamut from tentative essays in impressionism by Collett and Thaulow to the invigorating chromatic experiments of Henrik Lund and Pola Gauguin.
Save at Cologne, Berlin, and Vienna, where they have appeared with unquestioned success, the work of the more advanced men has not proved sympathetic to the general public. While it is impossible to deny the dynamic power and fundamental pictorial endowment which these compositions reflect they not infrequently reveal a certain want of sensitiveness. More talented than their neighbours, the Norwegians are lacking in discipline. If the art of Sweden is a clearly formulated and in a measure collective expression, that of Norway remains defiantly individual. A stormy instability of temper combined with the lack of a central tradition, has thus far prevented these men from assuming their rightful position in the province of contemporary painting or sculpture.
Although not represented in the Palace of Fine Arts, or its precipitately constructed Annex, the Danish Government contributed several canvases toward the enhancement of the official Pavilion. Viewed at leisure in spacious, homelike reception suites, these few subjects, all of which were from the Royal Gallery in Copenhagen, conveyed an agreeable impression of the essential characteristics of Danish art. The painters included H. and W. Hammer, Exner, Roed, Ottesen, Hansen, Balsgaard, Kyhn, Petersen, and Christensen. They belong to the epoch before Kroyer carried northward the gospel of light and air, and before Willumsen stirred his countrymen to fury with the premonitions of Post-Impressionism. It was not "Frie Udstilling" art that greeted you from figured wall and looked down upon flower-set table.
Face to face with these simple, engaging bits of still-life, or glimpses of sunlit river and ripening grain field, one experienced a feeling of peace and repose. Here passed a peasant workman with a cheery "God Aften" to the landed proprietor and his wife. There sat a stolid market woman from Amager counting her hard-earned coppers. The feverish scramble for sensation, the shuffle of a thousand anxious feet, the crudity and confusion of the Palace of Fine Arts with its heterogeneous contents vanished like a nightmare amid the soothing propriety of these discreetly appointed rooms. In their quiet, unpretentious way the Danes appear to have somewhat the better of the argument. They have not lost sight of the true function of oil painting, which, be it intimated, is appropriately to embellish a given wall space. Their conception of life is modest and measured, and this attitude is eloquently reflected in their art.
It is not difficult to divine why these particular subjects should have been sent to America. One can readily picture the mellow, erudite Director Madsen sauntering through the Kunstmusæum and selecting them deliberately, one by one, each designed to convey its special message of beauty and benignity to a restless, transatlantic world. While it is to be regretted that he did not include a few examples by Köbke and Marstrand, this would have been asking too much of such a savant and solicitous custodian.
Although it seems a far cry from the art of the Northern countries to that of Hungary, the passage may be made by way of Finland, for the Finns and Hungarians are allied both ethnically and aesthetically. There having been however but a single Finnish artist, Axel Gallén-Kallela, on view at San Francisco, we shall proceed to a consideration of the work of the music and colour-loving Magyars. The art of Hungary is before else a typically rhapsodic expression. You feel in it a marked degree of rhythm and a rich, vibrant harmony rarely if ever encountered elsewhere. There has thus far been in the Land of the Four Rivers and the Three Mountains no visible divorce between beauty and utility. The painter's attitude toward his profession, while more conscious, resembles that of the peasant toward the simpler tasks of eye and hand. In each you meet the same deep-rooted race spirit, the same love of vivid chromatic effect, the same fervid lyric passion.
Hungarian painting in the modern signification of the term dates from the early pleinair canvases of the pioneer impressionist, Szinyei Merse Pál, who, at the Munich exhibition of 1869, first came in contact with the epoch-making Frenchmen. And yet while Majális, just as Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, marks the dividing line between the old and the new, it was not until 1896 when Hollósy Simon moved his classes from the Bavarian capital to Nagybánya, that the tendency assumed definite shape. The work of Hollósy is today being continued by Ferenczy Károly, while at Kecskemét we have Iványi Béla, and at Szolnok, on the banks of the Tisza, is Fényes Adolf and another flourishing colony. Everywhere throughout Hungary you will note a similar return to the salutary fecundity of native scene and national inspiration. The movement is best typified in the most talented personality of all, Rippl-Rónai József who, after years of Paris artist life, is now serenely sequestered at his birthplace, Kaposvár, producing the best work of his career. Although independent of temper, it is necessary for such men to exhibit in a body, their memorable debut of 1897 having been followed a decade later by the formation of the Circle of Magyar Impressionists and Naturalists, currently known as the "M. I. É. N. K." A still more recent group is the Nyolczak or Eight, whose aims and ideas are patently expressionistic.
It is these tendencies which, be it confessed, were somewhat ineffectually elucidated at San Francisco. The manifest intention was to have offered a more or less inclusive survey of contemporary Hungarian artistic activity, yet for one reason or another this was scarcely achieved. The group of sketches by Rippl-Rónai did not fail to disappoint those already familiar with this brilliant creative colourist's achievement. Csók István fared somewhat better, but one missed Réti István, Perlmutter Izsák, Czóbel Béla, and other names of kindred importance. Réth, Késmarky, Kóródy, Csáky, and numerous talented young radicals whose work is as well known in Berlin and Paris as it is in Budapest, were also absent. The physiognomy of current Hungarian painting as presented at the Panama-Pacific Exposition was in short varied but incomplete. The public was hardly able to divine from this particular offering the true significance of modern Magyar art. That fruitful movement which, on the one hand, aims to preserve unspoiled the eloquent peasant heritage and, on the other, to foster an equally national though more comprehensive development was not clearly indicated. A more serious study of racial characteristics and a less spasmodic choice are necessary in order to convey a convincing sense of aesthetic aspiration and attainment.