Post-Impressionism In The Russian Ballet
OLD ARTISTIC STYLES EXHAUSTED. NEW ONES NEEDED
The Times, 15th July 1913
LONDON — We have entered into one of those periods of artistic revolution in which the public, audience, or spectators become partisans and express their opinions as if they were at a political meeting.
The Russian Ballet, for instance, produced a conflict of opinion last Friday which recalls the conflicts provoked by the plays of Victor Hugo in the thirties. Post-impressionism now is what the Romantic movement was then. To one party it means the and of all beauty; to the other a new birth of it. People no longer clap or hiss because they think a particular performance is well or ill done. Even in England, where the arts are not commonly taken very seriously, they are beginning to clap or hiss on principle, and to feel that they are making history when they do so.
Partisans on both sides are probably not very clear in their minds why they like Post-impressionism or dislike it; but the word, vague and clumsy as it is, does imply to them a set of tendencies by which all the arts may he ruined or regenerated. It is not merely a fashion in painting, but, like Romanticism, a movement of the mind which is trying to express itself through all means of artistic expression.
Of this the new turn taken by the Russian Ballet is a striking proof; for no one can suppose that the artists concerned in that enterprise are haters of beauty because of their own incompetence to achieve it. They have every material inducement to continue delighting the world with ballets like Carnival or Scheherezade; and, if they attempt a new kind of art, it must be because they are driven to it by some force in themselves too powerful to be withstood.
Masters like M. Nijinsky do not try dangerous experiments on the public for the mere pleasure of trying them; and it is a little presumptuous to assume that they are suddenly afflicted by sheer perversity of taste. It is more probable that they are possessed by that ardour of discovery which is common both to great artists and to great men of science, indeed to all men whose interest in life is stronger then their desire for their own comfort.
Most people make the mistake of thinking that the development of an art consists altogether of what is called invention and not of discovery; and for that reason they often resent innovations as mere perversities. If a thing has been well done already they cannot see why it should not continue to be done. But the artist knows that he cannot invent again what has been once invented. He knows, too, that these seeming inventions are also discoveries of the possibilities of his art; and that when discovery has been carried very far in one direction it cannot be carried any further.
The history of all art proves this. After Michelangelo no one could invent anything fresh in his manner, because he had discovered all that could be discovered about his method of art. Renaissance architecture prevailed in Europe because no new discoveries were possible in Gothic. The Romantic movement changed English poetry when there was nothing more to be said in the manner of Pope.
You may prefer the old art to the new, but even if you are right in preferring it, you are not therefore right in condemning these who practise the new art. For they have no alternative. Either they must be more imitators of the great men of the past or they must make a new start; and the true artist can no more content himself with imitation than the true philosopher can content himself with repeating what other philosophers have said.
Behind all representation in the arts, then, is the impulse of expression; and that will make its discoveries wherever them is most to be discovered, turning naturally to those elements of the art which have lately been neglected. If we understand this we shall see that a new artistic movement, such as Post-impressionism, is not to be judged merely by a few pictures, or to be condemned because those pictures seem to be very unlike reality.
Whatever may come of it, it is something that is happening in all the arts, because discovery is turning in a new direction. All the successes of the past are obstacles to new success of the same kind, and discovery naturally takes the line of least resistance away from them.
The dance, as we are used to it, demands an easy grace in every movement, which M. Nijinsky himself cannot combine with novelties of expression. He has found that, if he is to be a discoverer in his art, he must teach his public not to expect this easy grace, this formal and accustomed beauty, from the start.
And that is the purpose of Post-impressionism in all the arts. It is determined not to arouse expectations which it cannot satisfy. The public may begin by thinking it all crude and ugly and childish; and it will be the more delighted by any beauties which it discovers afterwards. Hitherto the arts have promised more than they could possibly perform. Now they will promise nothing, and so perform at least more then they promise.
It is natural, perhaps, that the public should resent this as a kind of discourtesy. The artist who makes no professions seems to them lacking in respect, and they are inclined to hoot him as an impudent charlatan. But there are very few artists who wish to be hooted, and the real charlatan usually flatters his public. Whatever may he said against Post-impressionists in all the arts, they are not flatterers.