Oscar Wilde – The Unity of the Arts: A Lecture and a Five O’Clock

Pall Mall Gazette, December 12, 1887.)

Last Saturday afternoon, at Willis’s Rooms, Mr. Selwyn Image delivered the first of a series of four lectures on Modern Art before a select and distinguished audience.  The chief point on which he dwelt was the absolute unity of all the arts and, in order to convey this idea, he framed a definition wide enough to include Shakespeare’s King Lear and Michael Angelo’s Creation, Paul Veronese’s picture of Alexander and Darius, and Gibbon’s description of the entry of Heliogabalus into Rome.  All these he regarded as so many expressions of man’s thoughts and emotions on fine things, conveyed through visible or audible modes; and starting from this point he approached the question of the true relation of literature to painting, always keeping in view the central motive of his creed, Credo in unam artem multipartitam, indivisibilem, and dwelling on resemblances rather than differences.  The result at which he ultimately arrived was this: the Impressionists, with their frank artistic acceptance of form and colour as things absolutely satisfying in themselves, have produced very beautiful work, but painting has something more to give us than the mere visible aspect of things.  The lofty spiritual visions of William Blake, and the marvellous romance of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, can find their perfect expression in painting; every mood has its colour and every dream has its form.  The chief quality of Mr. Image’s lecture was its absolute fairness, but this was, to a certain portion of the audience, its chief defect.  ‘Sweet reasonableness,’ said one, ‘is always admirable in a spectator, but from a leader we want something more.’  ‘It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art,’ said another; while a third sighed over what he called ‘the fatal sterility of the judicial mind,’ and expressed a perfectly groundless fear that the Century Guild was becoming rational.  For, with a courtesy and a generosity that we strongly recommend to other lecturers, Mr. Image provided refreshments for his audience after his address was over, and it was extremely interesting to listen to the various opinions expressed by the great Five-o’clock-tea School of Criticism which was largely represented.  For our own part, we found Mr. Image’s lecture extremely suggestive.  It was sometimes difficult to understand in what exact sense he was using the word ‘literary,’ and we do not think that a course of drawing from the plaster cast of the Dying Gaul would in the slightest degree improve the ordinary art critic.  The true unity of the arts is to be found, not in any resemblance of one art to another, but in the fact that to the really artistic nature all the arts have the same message and speak the same language though with different tongues.  No amount of daubing on a cellar wall will make a man understand the mystery of Michael Angelo’s Sybils, nor is it necessary to write a blank verse drama before one can appreciate the beauty of Hamlet.  It is essential that an art critic should have a nature receptive of beautiful impressions, and sufficient intuition to recognise style when he meets with it, and truth when it is shown to him; but, if he does not possess these qualities, a reckless career of water-colour painting will not give them to him, for, if from the incompetent critic all things be hidden, to the bad painter nothing shall be revealed.

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