But is it Art?

Professor Henry Tonks (1862 – 1937), a ‘traditionalist’ of the Slade School of Art, was known almost as well for his sarcasm as for his paintings. Here he takes aim at ‘modern’ Art movements and their followers.


Tonks in 1922

It is interesting, on looking back on the early days of Post-Impressionism, as the new movement was called (a good title seeing that it followed Impressionism and to a certain extent was its product), to remember the attitude of the critics to these new ideas. They had not been very ready in detecting the good work that was being done in France and England in the fifty years before…….. the rule of the critics seems generally to have been very simple : all new work was bad, or at least to be suspected……

Why exactly I cannot say; but their treatment of the Post-Impressionists, and the large number of followers who arose over here [England], was very different. They were going to be well up with the hounds this time, and every new painter had a chance of becoming a genius very early in life.

After the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1911*, at the Grafton Gallery, a great many smaller exhibitions were held of the various divisions of the movement, among which were the Futurists, who, alas! now are part of the past; so that the adventurous artist and the critic had a fine time. Gradually a vocabulary was collected to enable the new ideas to be conveniently talked about, and we became familiar with such words as “plasticity,” “three-dimensional composition,” “volume,” “abstract form,” “formal design,” and so on, some of which seemed, on consideration, to be merely a new word for an old idea, others unconvincing, even supposing we understood what was intended to be expressed. But the great adventure had begun, and the critics cheered each little barque as it sailed away into the unknown…….

I am inclined to think that a new type of man altogether began to find his way at this time into the schools, one who would never have thought of trying to become an artist fifty years ago. He was tempted partly by what he found on the walls of exhibitions, feeling that he also might be able to express much that he saw there; he felt that he had no aptitude for drawing; on the other hand, he felt he had ideas, better, perhaps, than the artists he was looking at; a common enough belief among quite intelligent people this, that, if they did paint, they would find much better subjects than most artists, not realizing that it is the treatment of the subject which makes it into a work of art – or not. He saw that no great power of drawing was necessary to produce a picture of ideas, so he made the plunge – perhaps plunge is too violent a word, he sidled into art.

Fifty years ago a man would very likely begin his artist life as an illustrator, perhaps working half his time at earning what he could by drawing for papers or books, and the other half, or less, working in some school to improve his drawing. This course he certainly could not have followed if he had not had much natural ability. Today the word illustrator is a term of abuse; it is now definitely settled to have no relation to art; it is concerned with mere representation……… Who knows, perhaps in a hundred years a child who tries with his pencil to draw something he sees will be hurried off to a psycho-analyst?
‘The Vicissitudes of Art’ (Essay), Professor Henry Tonks, Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thornton Butterworth, Limited. 1932.

*1905 for the first exhibition and 1910 for the second. See Grafton link.
Photograph of Tonks by George Charles Beresford.


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