“Expressionism”, Ramiro de Maeztu (1913)

It was a serious matter. I had been introduced by Mr. Walter Sickert to Mr. Wyndham Lewis, whom he regards as the leader of English Cubists or Expressionists. Mr. Sickert is certainly a discerning critic. I would not entertain any idea that Mr. Lewis, this grave and silent man, could have the intention “d’èpater le bourgeois,” so I went to the Doré Gallery and sought out his picture. It is an enormous canvas entitled “Kermesse,” and standing before it, what do I see? Nothing but boiled lobster-legs, each two yards long…

Indeed, it was a grave matter. I could not satisfy myself with the suggestion that Picasso and all his friends on both sides of the Channel were “pulling our legs” and sneering at the respect of most people for the things they do not understand.

In the world of spiritualism there are many unscrupulous quacks, but the hypothesis of Charlatanry does not explain the undoubted good faith of talented men like Myers and the founders of the “Society of Psychical Research’’; there may be Charlatans and quacks in this business of Cubism, but it is only fair to assume a possible ideal aim in this movement.

I paid a second visit to the Doré Gallery. Again I could not see anything else in the “Kermesse” of Lewis than the boiled lobster-legs. Neither subject, composition, recognisable forms, beauty of line nor harmony of colour. However, after several minutes of contemplation, I succeeded in discovering a human eye. Even in the picture by Picasso called “Buffalo Bill” there was no head to be seen, but I perceived a street, a house familiar subjects to us all, but scarcely what one would expect to find when looking for a head. Turning to Mr. Lewis’ picture again I find myself faced by these legs of lobsters, which perhaps were not lobsters.

It was indeed tragic. There is a moment in every man’s life where the soul refuses to assimilate new ideas. “Á mon age, monsieur, on ne lit plus, on relit,” said an old Academician. This hour seems to approach us stealthily, on tip-toes. We do not realise that the world is rolling on, that we are no longer able to move with it. If we do not see it, we can endure it; but to see it roll, to look at the bubbles of new ideas, to feel the outbreak of young spirits, and to be left behind with open eyes, but dull and uncomprehending—were it not better to be dead?

For a third time I returned to the Doré Gallery. This time I took good care to be accompanied by an expert, Aureliano Beruete.  He also saw nothing in the “Kermesse” but the lobster-legs. But after some time Beruete said that perhaps in the centre of the picture there might be two figures kissing one another on the mouth. On the left a crustaceous shape, offering wine to another headless crustacean, which sat on something perhaps meant to be a chair. On the right another crustacean pouring out a jet of wine into his own crustaceous face. These shapes we could not see except by an effort of creative imagination. Once this effort relaxed—return of the lobster-legs.

Alone at home amongst my books of philosophy, interpreting in my way the Aesthetics of Cohen,  I arrived, I think, at an explanation of the aim of this type of picture. Painting is the art which shows and proves that the things of Nature and man, as a thing of Nature, have a soul. But the soul is not the individual ego of every being; just the contrary. The soul of each creature is much more than that which he has in common with every other creature in the world. In that sense, painting is always religious. Everyday life shows us only the independence of things, their mutual indifference, and the tragic and hateful impassibility of Nature in face of our pain. Whether our dreams are realised or shattered the relentless sun continues on its path. Painting, on the contrary, gives us back the unity of things with ourselves and of ourselves with things. For in painting, man is light and colour, just as things are; but things are ideas, just like man. Landscapes in painting are the expressions of states of mind; its flowers are love; its stones, fortitude; its trees, aspiration towards the Idea.

Thus, as man can only be painted as light and colour like things in Nature, thus things in Nature which are light and colour ought not to be painted otherwise than as spiritual symbols, like man.

But for the last forty years the dominant opinion has been opposed to this principle. We have been told that painting ought only to express the impression of the eyes. “A tomato must look like a tomato,” according to the motto of Sorolla.  It is true that not even the supporters of the naturalist and impressionist prejudices, not even Sorolla, have followed their theory in their works. At least, not in their best works. The coasts of Normandy by Claude Monet are not so much impressions as idealised dreams. Land and sea speak to us in the language of friends or lovers—they are not things; not inert, dumb matter.

Yet this movement has degenerated into this horrible, imitative painting which produces hundreds of thousands of canvases, without any possible justification. Away with them! I prefer to see the things themselves than paintings which merely copy them.

That is what the Cubists, Futurists, and Expressionists have said to themselves. And they are right. They do not want to express so much the thing itself as its soul. Not the appearance of the tomato, but its soul: the humanised tomato, the tomato with joys and pains, tender and angry, buoyant and sad—the only tomato which deserves to be painted.

Mr. Lewis did not wish to paint a Kermesse, but the spirit of the Kermesse. The tendency is correct; but to paint the spirit of the Kermesse one needs must paint a Kermesse. To express the soul of the tomato one must also paint a tomato. How can Mr. Lewis expect us to recognise in his canvas the spirit of the Kermesse if we cannot recognise a Kermesse? It seems to me that Mr. Lewis has concentrated his powers so much in the search for the soul of things that he has forgotten to see the things themselves. There lies the central error of the new school. It is founded upon a noble and classic idealism. But its idealism lacks reality. It is not the idealism of reality; it is spectral. As idealism, it is a necessary and splendid revolution; but as its shapes are strange to our senses, they are also strange to our mind, and therefore strange to our human idealism.

 

Note

De Maeztu alludes to Wyndham Lewis’ lost painting “Kermesse”, Hermann Cohen, the German-Jewish philosopher, and his System of Philosophy, Part III: Aesthetic of Pure Feeling (1912); and to  Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Spanish painter, 1863-1923.

First published in The New Age, Vol. XIV, No. 4, 27 November, 1913, pp.122-3. Proofread and annotated by Fergus Cullen (2017).

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