George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 140
Art and Letters

THE MAIN CONTROVERSIAL QUESTION THAT CAME UP DURING SHAW'S PERIOD AS an art critic was raised by the Impressionist. Shaw's reputation, with the select few, for consistency is sustained by the course he adopted. He recognised Impressionism as a new birth of energy in art, a movement in painting wholly beneficial and progressive, and in no sense insane and decadent. Despite the fact that the movement, like all new movements in art, was accompanied by many absurdities--exhibition of countless daubs, the practice of optical distortion, the substitution of "canvases which looked like enlargemens of obscure photographs for the familiar portraits of masters of the hounds in cheerfully unmistakable pink coats, mounted on bright chestnut horses," Shaw supported it vigorously because, "being the outcome of heightened attention and quickened consciousness on the part of its disciples, it was evidently destined to improved pictures greatly by substituting a natural, observant real style for a conventional, taken-for-granted, ideal one." It is needless to say that he did not fall into the Philistine trap and talk "greenery yallery" nonsense about Burne-Jones and the pre-Raphaelite school; his admiration was checked by the sternest critical reservations. He applauded the Impressionists for their busy study of the atmosphere, and of the relation of light and dark between the various objects depicted, i.e., of "values." Like Zola in his championship of Monet, Shaw carried on a miniature crusade of his own in behalf of Whistler, whose pictures at first quite naturally amazed people accustomed to see the "good north light" of a St. John's Wood studio represented at exhibitions as sunlight in the open air, e.g. Bouguereau's "Girl in a Cornfield." More than this need not be said: Shaw never joined the ranks of the moqueurs who called Whistler "Jimmy."

It is worthy of record that Shaw praised Madox Brown as a realist, "because he had vitality enough to find intense enjoyment in the world as it is really is, unbeautified, unidealized, untitivated in any way for artistic consumption." The sad, sensuous daydreams of Rossetti, the gentlemanly draughtmanship of Leighton, the whole romantic trend of English art, with its delicacy of sentiment, its beauty-fancying, its reality-shirking philosophy, found Shaw coldly, cruelly condemnatory. "Take the young lady painted by Ingres as 'La Source,' for example. Imagine having to make conversation for her for a

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