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LIPPO, THE MAN AND THE ARTIST.

“What pains me most,” writes the late Sir Joseph Crowe in the Nineteenth Century for October, 1896, “is to think that the art of Fra Filippo, the loose fish, and seducer of holy women, looks almost as pure, and is often quite as lovely as that of Fra Giovanni Angelico of Fiesole.” And indeed, if the fact be admitted, it cannot but be a shock to all those high-minded thinkers who have committed themselves unreservedly to the view that personal sanctity and elevation of character in the artist is an essential condition for the production of any great work of art, and especially of religious art. As regards the fact, we need not concern ourselves very long. If Rio and others, presumably biassed by the same theory, are inclined to see Lippi’s moral depravity betrayed in every stroke of his brush, yet the more general and truer verdict accords him a place among the great masters of his age, albeit beneath Angelico and some others. Beyond all doubt it must be allowed that even in point of spirituality and heavenliness of expression, he stands high above numbers of artists of pure life and blameless reputation; and this fact leaves us face to face with the problem already suggested as to the precise connection between high morality and high art if any.

Plainly a good man need not be a good artist. Must a good artist be a good man? I suppose from a vague feeling in certain minds that it ought to be so, there rises a belief that it must be so, and that it is so; and from this belief a disposition to see that it is so, and to read facts accordingly. Prominent among the advocates of this view is Mr. Ruskin in his treatment of the relation of morality to art. He holds “that the basis of art is moral; that art cannot be merely pleasant or unpleasant, but must be lawful or unlawful, that every legitimate artistic enjoyment is due to the perception of moral propriety, that every artistic excellence is a moral virtue, every artistic fault is a moral vice; that noble art can spring only from noble feeling, that the whole system of the beautiful is a system of moral emotions, moral selections, and moral appreciation; and that the aim and end of art is the expression of man’s obedience to God’s will, and of his recognition of God’s goodness.”

But a man who can characterize a vulgar pattern as immoral, plainly uses the term “morality” in some transcendental, non-natural sense, and therefore cannot be regarded as an exponent of the precise theory referred to. Still, as this larger idea of morality includes the lesser and more restricted, we may consider Mr. Ruskin and his disciples among those to whom the case of Lippo Lippi and many another presents a distinct difficulty. “Many another,” for the principle ought to extend to every branch of fine art; and we should be prepared to maintain that there never has been, or could have been, a truly great musician, or sculptor, or poet, who was not also a truly good man. In a way the position is defensible enough; for one can, in every contrary instance, patch up the artist’s character or else pick holes in his work. Who is to settle what is a truly great work or a truly good man. But a position may be quite defensible, yet obviously untrue. Again, if by great art we mean that which is subordinated to some great and good purpose, we are characterizing it by a goodness which is extrinsic to it, and is not the goodness of art itself, as such. If the end of fine art is to teach, then its goodness must be estimated by the matter and manner of its teaching, and a “moral pocket-handkerchief” must take precedence of many a Turner. Yet it would even then remain questionable whether a good and great moral teacher is necessarily a good man. In truth, a good man is one who obeys his conscience, and whose conscience guides him right. If, in defect of the latter condition, we allow that a man is good or well-meaning, it is because we suppose that his conscience is erroneous inculpably, and that he is faithful to right order as far as he understands it. But one who sees right and wills wrong is in no sense good, but altogether bad. Allowing that for the solution of some delicate moral problems a certain height of tone and keenness of insight inseparable from habitual conscientiousness is necessary, yet mere intellectual acumen, in the absence of any notably biassing influence, suffices to give us as great a teacher as Aristotle, who, if exonerated from graver charges, offers no example of astonishing elevation of heart at all proportioned to the profundity of his genius. We do not deny that in the case of free assent to beliefs fraught with grave practical consequences, the moral condition of the subject has much to do with the judgments of the intellect. But first principles and their logical issues belong to the domain of necessary truth; while in other matters a teacher may accept current maxims and sentiments with which he has no personal sympathy, and weave from all these a whole system of excellent and orthodox moral teaching. And if one may be a good moralist and a bad man, why a fortiori may one not be a good artist and a bad man? If vice does not necessarily dim the eye to ethical beauty, why should it blind it to aesthetic beauty? In order to get at a solution we must fix somewhat more definitely the notion of fine art and its scope.

I think it is in a child’s book called The Back of the North Wind, that a poet is somewhat happily and simply defined as a person who is glad about something and wants to make other people glad about it too. Yet mature reflection shows two flaws in this definition. First of all, the theme of poetry, or any other fine art, need not always be gladsome, but can appeal to some other strong emotion, provided it be high and noble. The tragedian is one who is thrilled with awe and sorrow, and strives to excite a like thrill in others. Again, though the craving for sympathy hardly ever fails to follow close on the experience of deep feeling; and though, as we shall presently see, fine art is but an extension of language whose chief end is intercommunion of ideas, yet this altruist end of fine art is not of its essence, but of its superabundance and overflow. Expression for expression’s sake is a necessity of man’s spiritual nature, in solitude no less than in society. To speak, to give utterance to the truth that he sees, and to the strong emotions that stir within his heart, is that highest energizing in which man finds his natural perfection and his rest. His soul is burdened and in labour until it has brought forth and expressed to its complete satisfaction the word conceived within it. Nor is it only within the mind that he so utters himself in secret self-communing; for he is not a disembodied intelligence, but one clothed with body and senses and imagination. His medium of expression is not merely the spiritual substance of the mind, but his whole complex being. Nor has he uttered his “word” to his full satisfaction till it has passed from his intellect into his imagination, and thence to his lips, his voice, his features, his gesture. And when the mind is more vigorous and the passion for utterance more intense, he will not be at rest while there is any other medium in which he can embody his conception, be it stone, or metal, or line, or colour, or sound, or measure, or imagery, which under his skilled hand can be made to shadow out his hidden thought and emotion. We cannot hold with Max Mueller and others, who make thought dependent and consequent on language.

For it is evident, on a moment’s introspection, that thought makes language for itself to live in, just as a snail makes its own shell or a soul makes its own body. Who has not felt the anguish of not being able to find a word to hit off his thought exactly? which surely means that the thought was already there unclothed, awaiting its embodiment. As the soul disembodied is not man, so thought not clothed in language is not perfect human thought. Its essence is saved, but not its substantial, or at least its desirable, completeness. A man thinks more fully, more humanly, who thinks not with his mind alone, but with his imagination, his voice, his tongue, his pen, his pencil. If, therefore, solitary contemplative thought is a legitimate end in itself; if it is that ludus, or play of the soul, which is the highest occupation of man, a share in the same honour must be allowed to its accompanying embodiment; to the music which delights no ear but the performer’s; to poetry, to painting, to sculpture done for the joy of doing, and without reference to the good of others communicating in that joy. And if the Divine Artist, whose lavish hand fills everything with goodness; who pours out the treasures of His love and wisdom in every corner of our universe; of whose greatness man knows not an appreciable fraction; who “does all things well” for the very love of doing and of doing well; who utters Himself for the sake of uttering, not only in His eternal, co-equal, all-expressive Word, but also in the broken, stammering accents of a myriad finite words or manifestations if this Divine Artist teaches us anything, it is that man, singly or collectively, is divinest when he finds rest and joy in utterance for its own sake, in “telling the glory of God and showing forth His handiwork,” or, as Catholic doctrine puts it, in praise; for praise is the utterance of love, and love is joy in the truth.

As most of the useful arts perfect man’s executive faculties, and thus are said to improve upon, while in a certain sense they imitate nature; so the fine arts extend and exalt man’s faculty of expression, or self-utterance, regarded not precisely as useful and propter aliud; but as pleasurable and propter se. Even the most uncultivated savage finds pleasure in some discordant utterance of his subjective frame of mind; and it is really hard to find any tribe so degraded as to show no rudiment of fine art, no sign of reflex pleasure in expression, and of inventiveness in extending the resources nature has provided us with for that end.

The artist as such aims at self-expression for its own sake. It is a necessity of his nature, an outpouring of pent-up feeling, as much as is the song of the lark. Of course we are speaking of the true creative artist, and not of the laborious copyist. If he subordinates his work as a means to some further end; if his aim is morality or immorality, truth or error, pleasure or pain; if it is anything else than the embodiment or utterance of his own soul, so far he is acting riot as an artist, but as a minister of morality, or truth, or pleasure, or their contraries. If we keep this idea steadily in view, we can see how much truth, or how little, is contained in the various theories of fine art which have been advanced from the earliest times. We can see how truly art is a [Greek: mimaesis] an imitating of realities; not that art-objects are, as Plato supposes, faint and defective representations, vicegerent species of the external world, whose beauty is but the transfer and dim reflection of the beauty of nature. Were it so, then the mirror, or the camera, were the best of all artists. As expression, fine art is the imitation of the soul within; of outward realities as received into the mind and heart of the artist, in their ideal and emotional setting. The artist gives word or expression to what he sees; but what he sees is within him. His work is self-expression. We can from this infer where to look for a solution of the controversy between idealism and realism. We can also see how, owing to the essential disproportion between the material and sensible media of expression which art uses, and the immaterial and spiritual realities it would body forth, its utterances must always be symbolic, never literal. We can see how needlessly they embarrass themselves who deny the name of fine art to any work whose theme is not beautiful, or which is not morally didactic. Finally, we can see that if fine art be but an extension of language, there can be no immediate connection between art as art, and general moral character; no more reason for supposing that skilful and beautiful self-utterance is incompatible with immorality, than that its absence is incompatible with sanctity.

Yet, as a matter of fact, and rightly, we judge of art not merely as art, or as expression; but we look to that which is expressed, to the inner soul which is revealed to us, to the “matter” as well as to the “form.” And it maybe questioned whether our estimate of a work is not rather determined in most cases by this non-artistic consideration. Obviously it is possible in our estimate of a landscape, to be drawn away from the artistic to the real beauty; from its merits as a “word,” or expression, to the merits of the thing signified. And still more naturally is our admiration drawn from the artist’s self-utterance, to the self which he endeavours to utter, and we are brought into sympathy with his thought and feeling. Much of the fascination exercised over us by art, which precisely as art is rude and imperfect in many ways, is to be ascribed to this source. Though here we must remember that the soul is often more truly and artistically betrayed by the simple lispings of childhood than by the ornate and finished eloquence of a rhetorician.

It is in regard to the matter expressed, rather than to the mode of expression, that we have a right to look for a difference between such men as Lippo Lippi and Fra Angelico. According to a man’s inner tone and temperament and character, will be the impression produced upon him by the objects of his contemplation. These will determine him largely in the choice of his themes, and in the aspect under which he will treat them. Obviously in many cases there are noble themes of art for whose appreciation no particular delicacy of moral or religious taste is required. There is no reason why such a subject as the Laocoon should make a different impression on a saint and on a profligate. It appeals to the tragic sense, which may be as highly developed in one as in the other. But if the Annunciation be the theme, we can well understand how differently it will impress a man of lively and cultured faith, a contemplative and mystic, with an appreciative and effective love of reverence and purity; and another whose faith is a formula, whose life is impure, frivolous, worldly. Why then is there not a more distinctly marked inferiority in the religious art of Lippi to that of Angelico? Why does it look “almost as pure,” and “often quite as lovely”? Two very clear reasons offer themselves in reply. First of all, the art of such a man as Angelico falls far more hopelessly short of his ideal. Most of the beauties which such a soul would find in the contemplation of Mary, or of Gabriel, are spiritual, moral, non-aesthetic, and can embody themselves in form and feature only most imperfectly. Given equal skill in expression, equal command of words, one man can say all that he feels, and more, while another is tortured with a sense of much more to be uttered, were it not unutterable. Perhaps it is in some hint of this hidden wealth of unuttered meaning that skilled eyes find in Angelico what they can never find in Lippi. A second reason might be found in the external influence exerted on the artist by society, its requirements, fashions, and conventions. It is plain that Lippi, left to himself, would never have chosen religious themes as such: it is equally plain, that having chosen them, he would naturally try to emulate and eclipse what was most admired in the great works of his predecessors and contemporaries. It would need little more than a familiar acquaintance with the great models, together with the artist’s discriminating observance, for a man of Lippi’s talent to catch those lines and shades of form and feature which hint at, rather than express, the inward purity, the reverence, the gentleness, with which he himself was so little in sympathy.

No doubt, were two such men equally skilled in all the arts of expression, in language, in verse, in song and music, in sculpture and painting, and acting, their general treatment of religious themes would be more glaringly different; but within the comparatively narrow limits of painting, we cannot reasonably expect more than we actually find.

The saint, as such, and the artist, as such, are occupied with different facets of the world; the former with its moral, the latter with its aesthetic beauty. Even were the artist formally to recognize that all the beauty in nature is but the created utterance of the Divine thought and love, and that the real, though unknown, term of his abstraction is not the impersonal symbol, but the person symbolized; yet it is not enough for sanctity or morality to be attracted to God viewed simply as the archetype of aesthetic beauty. On the other hand, one may be drawn, through the love of moral beauty in creatures, of justice, and mercy, and liberality, and truthfulness, to the love of God as their archetype, and yet be perfectly obtuse to aesthetic beauty; and thus again we see that high aestheticism is compatible with low morality, and conversely. Doubtless when produced to infinity, all perfections are seen to converge and unite in God, but short of this, they retain their distinctness and opposition. At the same time, it cannot for a moment be denied that keenness of moral, and of aesthetic perception, act and react upon one another. He gains much morally whose eyes are opened to the innumerable traces of the Divine beauty with which he is surrounded, and there are aesthetic joys which are necessarily unknown to a soul which is selfish and gross still more to a soul from which the glories of revealed religion are hidden, either through unbelief or sluggish indifference. Yet, on the whole, it may be said that sanctity is benefited by art more than art is by sanctity, especially where we deal with so limited a medium of expression as painting. And so it seems to us that, after all, there is nothing to surprise or pain us in the fact that “the art of a Fra Filippo, the loose fish, looks almost as pure, and is often quite as lovely as that of Fra Giovanni Angelico of Fiesoli.”

Dec. 1896.