Wednesday, February 4, 2015

184. Some Marginal Recollections of the Nineties

When the painter William Rothenstein published his memoires Men and Memories in 1931, Ricketts was asked to write a review for The Observer. It was published on 15 May 1931. In it, Ricketts referred to himself as a 'belated witness of the 'nineties'; he was 64 years old at the time and many of the nineties' artists from the period had died, such as Beardsley, Condor, and Wilde. 

He introduced himself 'in my new capacity as a reviewer', but that was too modest as his first exhibition review had been published in 1897, and his first book review had appeared in 1904. At least twenty reviews had preceded this one, which I will quote in fullThe review contains some characteristic phrases and maxims, for example: 'criticism in England is mainly fault finding'. It makes an enjoyable read, with some anecdotes about Wilde and Whistler, including some instances of retaliation (Pennell).

[The illustrations and the paragraphs titles have been added by me.]

William Rothenstein [photo: Edwardian Culture]

Some Marginal Recollections of the Nineties

A belated witness of the 'nineties, I have been asked to write on Sir William Rothenstein's "Men and Memories," the many interests of his book needing more than a single notice. In my new capacity as a reviewer I will hasten to complain that too many minor personalities have been included who obscure the major interests. After this stricture, for criticism in England is mainly fault finding, I would hasten to add that nothing could be better than the portraits of several eminent men, the accounts of Verlaine, Whistler, and Wilde being of the utmost value. Remain charming impressions of older Englishmen of the Golden Age: Watts, Swinburne, Burne Jones, at that time about to disappear, leaving the field to a new generation to struggle under the shadow, not of these great Victorians but of their friends and parasites.

The fin-de-siècle in France
If in the 'nineties the terms "fin-de-siècle" or  decadent" (pronounced "dickeydong") were freely used in England as a reproach against new effort, in France both terms were used to describe the later tendencies of a splendid century, proud of its past, still intensely active, if conscious of a coming change, since nothing is permanent. France still claimed such masters as Puvis de Chavannes, Dégas, Gustave Moreau; still attracted the entire world by a flourishing and flamboyant Salon. The Impressionists, notably Monet, were becoming fashionable: those were the days when a drawing by Forain, mordant in line and wit alike, was a daily occurrence; while a society conscious of its elegance - the world of Proust, and his mentor Count R. de Montesquiou - recognised its smartness in the pictures of Whistler, Helleu, and in a lesser degree in the more cosmopolitan paintings of Sargent and Boldini. In literature the Realists still held the field, while Verlaine, the new Villon, Mallarmé, the verbal alchemist, poor gentle Laforgue, and the fastidious Villiers de l'Isle Adam, fascinated the younger men who had tired of realism and of the resonant verses of the "Parnassiens." The French stage was still unrivalled, with Sarah dominant, Rejane at her zenith, and Yvette Guilbert, immortalised by Lautrec, becoming famous.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 'Yvette Guilbert' (1894)
Into this charmed epoch the author carries us when, as an astonished young provincial, he left the frozen gloom of London for Paris, then called "La Ville Lumière." Among many others that are excellent, the portrait of Verlaine is perhaps the best in the book (this applies also to the illustrations). We realise the childlike morality and seeming innocence of the man, half angel, half faun, who would receive £3 in payment for a slim volume of exquisite verse about repentance, to be instantly spent by his parasites of all the known sexes. A friend once said to him, fascinated by the strange Socratic and Mongolian cast of his face, "You resemble a Chinese philosopher," "Un chinois, oui, mais si peu philosophe."

A Portrait of Whistler
With Rodin we witness the craftsman, not the later celebrity, exploited by all exploiters. Of Dégas, we would like to know more, for in these pages he seems kindlier than his legend, if a little pompous, a little professorial, or, as Legros said of him, "Un garçon trop enseignant." It is to Legros I owe Dégas verdict on his own work when, turning to stacks of unfinished pictures he exclaimed, "Mon Dieu, quel Gâchist"; for once his tongue was not turned against old friends, his peers, such as Puvis, Gustave Moreau, or Monet. If France during the 'nineties was still conscious of her past and proud of her present, these years in England mark the increasing isolation and disappearance of the major men, Watts remains, splendid and kindly; Burne Jones (like Moreau) was outwearing his vein of invention in a fever of work never to be completed. Millais, whom Dégas and Fantin still admired, has lapsed into a popular painter outwearing his popularity. Things were very stagnant, and current criticism praised only work reflecting a lagging phase of French realism, for the clock in England is always twenty years behind the time. In these art tendencies W.E. Henley helped, and alas! Whistler, in so far that his laughter was against all things. Of Whistler, Sir W. Rothenstein gives a carefully considered portrait, when he was as famous as Cézanne is to-day. I would add my personal tribute to Whistlers kindness to younger men, if the latter were not involved in some tedious feud or newspaper grievance, for, like Manet, Whistler believed in the Press; both kept torn press cuttings in their pockets to read to embarrassed friends. I remember Wilde once saying of Whistler, "Oh yes, yes, wonderful of course, but Jimmy explains things in the newspapers. ... Art should always remain mysterious and, like the gods, no artist should ever leave his pedestal." Belief in publicity was this painter's tragedy; embittered by the Ruskin law suit (where he had challenged a British idol before a British jury) he had made the discovery that when Whistler was laughing at the public the public was laughing at him. France had not yet rehabilitated the painter, and success came too late; his best canvases, done twenty years before, were half pawned, half lent, or "quaintly acquired" by half friends. In various troublesome transactions concerning the disposal of his work, Charles Howell had been invaluable, but also a danger; Howell was a new Cagliostro, spiritualist, dealer, expert blackmailer and whitemailer, whose known and unpublishable adventures could make a novel in the manner of Balzac. One of his mistresses forged Rossetti drawings, yet Rossetti declared, "Howell costs me £400 a year, but is cheap at the price!" Among his victims were Ruskin, Rossetti, Burne Jones, how many others! When I spoke to Whistler of Howell's death:  No, no, not he (was the reply); he has tried that game before; his ghost has appeared to Ada Cavendish, and after she had swooned away, a valuable bracelet was missing." In the estimate of Whistler's art, the uncouth praises of Joseph Pennell, one of his henchmen, was ill-timed. This man illustrated Whistler's confession: "My known taste for bad company." In Paris Whistler returned to a world in which his personality was perplexing, and his attitude incomprehensible, even to Americans  who dimly recognised traces of another generation dating before the Civil War. I have praised the reminiscences of Verlaine; next in value and importance are the pages about Wilde.

A Portrait of Oscar Wilde
That the wit of this extraordinary man surpassed his written work is common knowledge, but apart from André Gide's reminiscences, which describe the flow and magic of his talk, much that is remembered is not of the best. Like all brilliant speakers, Wilde was influenced by his listeners, sometimes he gave carefully-prepared impromptus, meant for public exhibition, but the appositeness, rapidity, and brilliance of his speech cannot be captured. Many a heavy paradox was said with humorous exaggeration, of which the British listener was not always aware. The author has stressed Wilde's kindliness to common people; it is not known that, even in prison, he won the regard of his warders, who brought him buns and scones when he was cold and hungry; for some of these men Wilde worked out prize-yielding word competitions, thereby securing a piano, a plated tea set, and, I believe, a bound set of Charles Dickens. It is rare to-day to find intimate biographical details concerning celebrities which do not belittle them, or else smooth out all characteristics like our public statues (approved by relatives). Rothenstein avoids both tendencies, though in the case of Verlaine and Rodin he shows these men at grips with the need for money, and this can  sterilise and corrupt the finest characters. Some of Wilde's letters belong to his period of poverty and disgrace, they shed light on this seemingly complex character, whose secret was that he never grew up when most men are born middle-aged. I believe this is the key to many exceptional men. Shelley died adolescent, Baudelaire was a spoilt child, while poor Verlaine needed a nurse. To one interested in the 'nineties the facts about Beardsley, at that time world-famous, will be interesting, for Beardsley, like Wilde, is typical of that decade which clothed its hedonism with brilliance, but also with the wish to astonish and "arrive." In this tendency Whistler had shown the way. A close friend of Beardsley, the author describes the draughtsman of "Salome" with great sympathy; this is generous, for Beardsley, intoxicated with success, was not always pleasant to his friends or appreciative of those who helped him to succeed. Wilde, for instance. There were important nobodies at that time who pontiffed on Literature, who cast their little shadow and have gone. To these lenient treatment has been given, for in these pages hostility, when shown, is expressed by implication so gentle that one pauses to wonder, "Was that all; did the oracle of the moment count so little?" I would add these Victorian parasites on the talent of others are of the past; to-day may lack many admirable things belonging to the great nineteenth century, but, outside politics, the utter humbug is no longer respected, and the critic powerless: he seems to have lost the use of his teeth in trying to bite Bernard Shaw.

William Rothenstein, 'Portrait of Charles Rickets' (1894)
Charles Conder
I must now recall Charles Conder, often classed with Beardsley, but different in every characteristic, both as a man and as an artist. It is in the estimate of this painter that I am in disagreement with Sir William; not on the point of his merit, but on the nature of his achievement. The Realistic school and its offshoot, Impressionism, were concerned in snatching from life elements which could be transmuted into Art. Toulouse Lautrec, in France, and Walter Sickert, in England, were then typical of this tendency.

Conder was different, he never saw life, not even the human face. This votarist of "La Vie Heureuse" moved, as an artist, in a coloured mist. To his memory, trees resembled clouds, and clouds were shaped like roses. The voluptuous ghosts who are the denizens of his world are shadows of romance, the wraiths of Lucien de Rubempré, Mlle. de Maupin, Fantasio, Cherubin. They move under the garlands of some imaginary festival where the flowers and violins have grown a little tired. Turner's visions of Venice, the Bengal fires of Monticelli, the vaporous apotheosis of Fragonard, all are too concrete for comparison. In the infinitely varying balance between art and reality, between things imagined and things seen, this charming minor painter ranks among those whose source of inspiration  was all for Art and derived from Art, and whose actual achievement is hardly more explicit than some music.

The author of "Men and Memories" must accept this criticism; it is made to show that "Anch' io son Professore." I have added it to temper my praises. Wilde once said: "To be praised in England is dangerous, you are not forgiven: to be admired you must be wrong sometimes." In his estimate of Conder Sir William Rothenstein has been mistaken and influenced by biographical facts, not by the painter's work.

[More reviews by Charles Ricketts will be listed in my forthcoming Bibliography of Charles Ricketts (see blog no. 180 if you wish to acquire a copy).]