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Oscar Wilde – Arts at Willi’s Room

(Sunday Times, December 25, 1887.)

Accepting a suggestion made by a friendly critic last week, Mr. Selwyn Image began his second lecture by explaining more fully what he meant by literary art, and pointed out the difference between an ordinary illustration to a book and such creative and original works as Michael Angelo’s fresco of The Expulsion from Eden and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix.  In the latter case the artist treats literature as if it were life itself, and gives a new and delightful form to what seer or singer has shown us; in the former we have merely a translation which misses the music and adds no marvel.  As for subject, Mr. Image protested against the studio-slang that no subject is necessary, defining subject as the thought, emotion or impression which a man desires to embody in form and colour, and admitting Mr. Whistler’s fireworks as readily as Giotto’s angels, and Van Huysum’s roses no less than Mantegna’s gods.  Here, we think that Mr. Image might have pointed out more clearly the contrast between the purely pictorial subject and the subject that includes among its elements such things as historical associations or poetic memories; the contrast, in fact, between impressive art and the art that is expressive also.  However, the topics he had to deal with were so varied that it was, no doubt, difficult for him to do more than suggest.  From subject he passed to style, which he described as ‘that masterful but restrained individuality of manner by which one artist is differentiated from another.’  The true qualities of style he found in restraint which is submission to law; simplicity which is unity of vision; and severity, for le beau est toujours sévère.

The realist he defined as one who aims at reproducing the external phenomena of nature, while the idealist is the man who ‘imagines things of fine interest.’  Yet, while he defined them he would not separate them.  The true artist is a realist, for he recognises an external world of truth; an idealist, for he has selection, abstraction and the power of individualisation.  To stand apart from the world of nature is fatal, but it is no less fatal merely to reproduce facts.

Art, in a word, must not content itself simply with holding the mirror up to nature, for it is a re-creation more than a reflection, and not a repetition but rather a new song.  As for finish, it must not be confused with elaboration.  A picture, said Mr. Image, is finished when the means of form and colour employed by the artist are adequate to convey the artist’s intention; and, with this definition and a peroration suitable to the season, he concluded his interesting and intellectual lecture.

Light refreshments were then served to the audience, and the five-o’clock-tea school of criticism came very much to the front.  Mr. Image’s entire freedom from dogmatism and self-assertion was in some quarters rather severely commented on, and one young gentleman declared that such virtuous modesty as the lecturer’s might easily become a most vicious mannerism.  Everybody, however, was extremely pleased to learn that it is no longer the duty of art to hold the mirror up to nature, and the few Philistines who dissented from this view received that most terrible of all punishments—the contempt of the highly cultured.

Mr. Image’s third lecture will be delivered on January 21 and will, no doubt, be largely attended, as the subjects advertised are full of interest, and though ‘sweet reasonableness’ may not convert, it always charms.

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