Since Cézanne

by Clive Bell. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1922. 12mo. viii+230 pp. $2.50.
MR. BELL shines in the highest æsthetic line of current criticism and commands a rarely cultured knowledge of exotic contemporary painters. His twenty reprinted essays, sparkling with obiter dicta and anathemas on British art in its Victorian anecdotage, aim to inspire an ‘expectant interest’ in ‘the moderns.’
This he does not try to stimulate by examples, for he prints only eight black-and-white illustrations. He opens no biographical approach, matters ‘of dates and schools to give the lecturer his chance of spoiling our pleasure ; neither is his criticism ’impressionistic.’ Occasionally he challenges with a dogmatism: negro art is declared superior to Gothic and Indian; ‘that Cézanne is a master, just as Poussin, and part of the tradition, all sensitive people know.’ Yet a critic, he feels, can only ‘point and gesticulate and so excite’; and ’before a work of art do little more than jump for joy, — all he need do, if like Cherubino he is good at jumping.’
The serious purport of his most entertaining somersaulting is, first, since only whippersnappers try to affront tradition, that these moderns are sincere, only the Futurists trying to surprise by deliberate eccentricity — ‘a prodigious inventiveness and inquisitiveness.’ Secondly, these men have sought to free art from ’the disastrous science of representation’ (because to copy visible facts is not to embody any æsthetic emotion), and to create forms that shall correspond with the artist’s intimate sense of the significance of things; e. g., ‘by bold simplifications and distortion to concentrate on the vital movements and characteristics of the human body, in absolute indifference to its literary and sentimental interest.’
That inventiveness and curiosity, this freedom beyond what sufficed for Michelangelo have, to my feeling, attained only whimsical novelties of perception. It may be a lark, in looking at things, momentarily to assimilate all forms to sharpangled, rectilinear solids: but a picture so rendered is trivial. Mr. Bell himself contends that Picasso has ‘done work of great beauty and significance.’ That one is still eager to see.
If one concedes ‘the notion that one idea or emotion can be more important or significant than another,’then Marquet appears to accomplish no more than an aberrant psychological stunt in maintaining his stern impartiality of interest before a man and a gas-jet. Matisse may be more extraordinary than significant for ‘recording, with an exquisite gesture and not much more, just the smell of something that looked as though it would be good to eat.’
Mr. Bell’s criticism is delightfully agile jumping, and so attains its end. If only the painters had left all the antics to the critics!
These reviews will be reprinted separately in pamphlet form. Copies may be had by any librarian, without charge, on application to the Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington St., Boston.