THE ARTISTS MIND.
In the March number of The American Mercury appeared an article by one, Thomas Craven, entitled “Have Painters Minds?” The title, like the views expressed in the body of the article, was calculated to “rile” those of its readers who sympathize temperamentally, if not always wisely, with some of the Mercury victims who are periodically punctured by the poison darts from its blow-guns.
The most irritating thing about the typical Mercury, writers, especially those who ape the style of its waspish editor, is the cynical cock-sureness and stubbornly one-sided point of view which refuses to see any exceptions to an arbitrary rule, or to consider any extenuating circumstances which a fair investigation of almost any case might disclose. If a seeming exception is occasionally made in favor of some individual whose case is under discussion, it is usually merely to pave the way for an after- following attack with an added sting at the end of it.
To be kind, to show mercy, to be generous to a foe, to be discriminating seems to be entirely foreign to the policy of the Mercury writers. They are out to “get” their game. Like the head- hunters of Borneo, they are never happy until they have hunted down, ambushed and decapitated their victim; and then, by some secret devils process of their own, have eviscerated, compressed, dried, smoked, shrivelled and otherwise manhandled the poor head until it is reduced to pigmy size, ready to be hung up and permanently displayed on their wall as a trophy, but still retaining a perceptible likeness to the original.
Mr. Thomas Craven was especially venomous in his attack upon the portrait painters, for whom he has no use except as targets for his blow-gun. Photography, he holds, has deprived the portrait painters of their raison detre and relegated them to oblivion. Those who are trying to maintain their place in the sun and keep their pots a boiling the critic professes to see as mere prettifiers, servile flatterers, obsequiously complaint with the whims of their sitters who demand that they shall “improve upon nature” and hand them down to posterity in counterfeit presentment as paragons of pulchritude. The poor shrimps will even comply with the request of those who bring a favored photograph with them and request that they be “painted like that” “that”, in most cases being a print from a negative that has been retouched out of all likeness to reality, however true to life it may have been in its original state.
It is commonly said that cameras, like fingers, do not lie, which as a figure of speech is quite true; but who does not know that the average retoucher “is a liar and the truth is not in him.” Granting that there are exceptions to the rule of venal and incompetent photographers, (Mr. Thomas Craven does not even admit that there are such incompetents all photographers are perfect for him), why not admit similar exceptions among the portrait painters? Why condemn a whole profession because individuals perhaps even a majority fail to measure up to the higher standards?.
In this bitter and bigoted spirit Mr. Thomas Craven reviews several branches of the painters art and their representatives, and comes to the foregone conclusion that the painter is not to be regarded as un homme desprit. His article concludes with a tirade which is one of the grossest exhibitions of wholesale condemnation, prejudice, brutality, and virulence it has ever been my misfortune to read.
“The modern painter,” he says,” is an inferior being. He is dumb and dull and conceited, an anti-social coward who dwells in miserable cocklofts, and run frantically to his dealer and back again, bleating like a sheep about his soul, his poverty, and his unappreciated genius. If he is lucky enough to have a little money he hurries off to Europe to steep his tender susceptibilities in the atmosphere of the past, or to destroy himself in the dives of Paris.
Of all the workers in the arts he is the least alive no man of brains and education could possibly waste his life in performances which are not only paltry and mechanical, but also totally divorced from current affairs. The general public has no conception of the feebleness, the stupidity and ignorance of the painter. He is inarticulate and proud of it; in any society he is a nonentity. Intellectually, our most celebrated painters not the contemptible small fry, but those periodically acclaimed as moder masters are much lower in the scale than such writers as Harold Bell Wright, James Oliver Curwood, Stratton Porter and Margaret Pedler,” etc.
“Can you beat it?”.
The question may arise why any physician should be moved to take up the cudgels in defense of portrait painters. What has a doctor to do with painters besides treating them if they happen to become his patients, or perchance employing one of them to paint his own portrait is he has happily attained that degree of affluence which will permit him to pay for it?.
Just a fellow-feeling, outraged sentiments and ideals, thats all. Probably the perception that Mr. Craven might, with eight justification, have substituted doctors for painters as targets for his darts had something to do with it. And why not add clergymen and lawyers and authors as well? We are all in the same boat, as the Cervantes, the Voltaires, the Tom Paines, the Upton Sinclairs and the Sinclair Lewises all very well know. Let us not forget the Hebrew prophets and St. Paul, and even the Saviour Himself, in their fierce denunciations of the sins and shortcomings of mankind. But none of these were without mercy and most of them had the saving grace of humor. Mr. Thomas Craven has “out-Heroded Herod”.
Perhaps the particular reason for this article will appear more definitely if the question be stated in a different way. Let us see.
Has the physician anything in common with the portrait painter? What in general is the relation between art and medicine?.
Here opens up a large subject so large that only a few of its many phases can be touched upon in this article.
First, then, the practice of medicine, like the practice of painting, is an art, in which each devotee exercises such degree of skill as he has in his efforts to comply with its requirements. Underlying, or interwoven with the art, in both cases, of course, are certain general principles which constitute science; for art and science are inseparable. Each art has its principles, its rules, its methods, its media, some of which are common to both. Painters and physicians alike are potentially artists.
Whether or not they fully develop their potentialities as individuals is another matter. Some of them do, but most of them do not mores the pity and Mr. Craven is justified in aiming his darts at the runts and the renegades. Blow-gun and poisoned dart against the hypodermic syringe is permissible and good Homoeopathy besides, Similia Similibus Curentur! Let similars be treated by similars.
One of the principles common to the portrait painter and the physician is Individualization. By that standard both may be judged in a broad way. The painter and the physician alike must study the individual before them; the one to transfer the characteristic lineaments of his sitter to the canvas; the other to portray his symptomatic likeness in order to select his remedy, make his diagnosis and lay out his general plan of treatment. Technically speaking, one constructs a portrait the other a case; but both, if they are true artists, work along strictly individualistic lines.
In primitive periods the would-be artist was able only to sketch his rude figures in outline upon the wall of his cavern, upon some rocky cliff or boulder, or perhaps upon his pottery. His attempts at portraiture were limited to the drawing and perhaps coloring of some emblem or totem by which the individual might be roughly identified as a member of his tribe or clan. His progress from mere outline sketching to something more definite and individual was very slow. His art passed through many stages before it reached anything like adequacy.
Similarity, medical men have passed and are still passing through many stages of development and degeneration. Unfortunately their progress in the line of true individualization seems to have been even slower than that of the portrait painters. The great majority of physicians have not even yet progressed beyond the totem stage. In their study of diseases, for example, they have, for the most part, contented themselves with delineating mere outlines. Certain signs and symptoms have been arbitrarily grouped and named without regard to the always-existing differences between individuals.
In nature no two individuals are ever affected exactly alike by the same disease. Pathological “types” exist only in imagination. They are “composite pictures,” blurred and nebulous, and unrecognizable as individuals. Under this system the pathological group or clan to which an individual case belongs may be identified with comparative ease; but the particular form which the disease takes in the individual is indefinite. The patient is seen only as one of a crowd without any distinguishing personal features. Consequently he can be treated only empirically, in hit-or-miss fashion, by the ordinary physician.
Only within the last few years, speaking generally, has there arisen a physician, here and there, who has recognized the necessity for studying and treating the individual patient instead of his nosological clan or disease. They have called upon their fellows to bestir themselves out of their crude and primitive methods; to search out from among the wilderness of symptoms which becloud almost every case of serious illness the characteristics that represent the man himself and his condition, and to base their treatment upon these.
On this phase of the subject Dr. George Draper in his brilliant article, “Science, Art And The Patient,” in Harpers for last March, said:.
“In just the same degree by which the quality of one mans laugh in health differs from that of another, does his manner of sneezing or feeling pain in sickness differ, or his method of resisting or failing to resist bacteria, or of dealing digestively with a Welsh rarebit after midnight”.
Noting that the greater part of medical research during the past twenty-five years has been and is still directed upon the external agencies of disease, Dr. Draper pointedly asks if the immense amount of capital and effort thus expended has yielded results which justify the almost complete lack of support for study of the other essential disease-producing factor the unique re-activity of a given individual. Emphatically, it may be said that it has not; but there are very few medical men who seem to know it, or who, knowing it, make the least effort to mend their ways.
During my long professional life I have known and been in more or less intimate relations with several painters. Some of them have been and still are my friends. Justice and Mr. Thomas Craven compel me to say that I have not found them to be “inferior beings” nor devoid of minds. They are really quite human, Mr. Thomas Craven to the contrary notwithstanding. Not one of them presented the stigmata of degeneration he describes.
While sitting recently for my portrait by a painter of well- deserved and more than local renown, I took the opportunity to make a mental portrait of him. For this purpose I observed him closely, seeking to analyze not only his personality but his method of studying and portraying his sitter, being sure that I should thus be able to determine whether he had a “mind” or not. In doing this I had the advantage of a preliminary analytical study from the standpoint of a physician; for he had previously been under my professional care.
As it is my custom to make a psychological as well as a physical examination of my patients, I was prepared to observe him more accurately in the exercise of his art. My background, to use an artists phrase, was already laid in and the outlines and masses of the figure sketched. We were already pretty well acquainted with each other and on very friendly terms.
I liked my painter from the beginning of our acquaintance. There was something so modest, so ingenious, so friendly, so considerate about him that one could not help liking him. Although a man of forty, he was so like a bashful boy in some respects that I did not for some time give him credit for possessing certain more mature mental qualities and powers which I perceived later; although I might have inferred them if I had stopped to recall his successes in overcoming the peculiar difficulties incidental to making contact, engaging interest, arranging sittings and painting soul-satisfying portraits of several great leaders in the professional and business world Henry Ford among them.
Such men know, or have excellent means for learning, the true value of things they want or which are offered to them. They know men, they know minds and they are “canny”. It is not easy to get them away from their offices and the guards who surround them, engage their interest and hold their attention in such a way as to lead them to reveal their real selves; for that is the para- mount purpose of the portrait painter.
A true portrait is not a mere reproduction of a flitting expression of the countenance, nor the fixed form that the features take in repose which, by the way, is all the camera is capable of recording. It is, as it were, a composite made up of many expressions, all quickly noted as they pass, registered by the artist, partly with his brush and partly in his memory while he works, until all are blended and unified into individuality.
It is a portrayal of the man himself in all his essential characteristics; not a mere mask nor a transient expression showing only one phase of the subjects character and personality. And such portraits are being painted today not many, to be sure, but some enough to give Mr. Thomas Craven the “Retort Courteous,” if not to proceed through the other Shakespearian degrees to the “Lie with Circumstances” and the “Lie Direct”.
In order to be able to paint such a portrait the artist must not only know his sitter, but he must be able on occasion to work at lightning speed. He must have the mental perception and perfected technique gained only by long and arduous study and practice. This technique is psychological as well as physical.
It includes the mental ability to engage and hold the interest and attention of the sitter in ways which will bring animation into his attitude and facial expression. The sitter must not, while work is going on, be permitted to relax into a listless attitude with a tired or bored air or with a face devoid of expression. When he becomes tried he needs and must be given a rest, but while posing it is part of the painters art to keep him alert and interested in something.
Here is where the painters skill and experience, his intuition, his tact, his knowledge of human nature, his social qualities, as well as his technical ability, will all be called into play if he has them for this is his art. If he has not learned beforehand what subjects interest his sitter and how to introduce them, the painter must do so during the sitting. Unless he can talk entertaining himself, or get the sitter to talk, he will fail.
He will, therefore, try to get his subject to describe or explain something, to narrate his experiences, or involve him into telling his favorite stories. Not for his use is the photographers traditional phrase, “Now look pleasant, please”; for the average sitter is not like the movie actor who is supposed to be able to “register” artificially at command, the entire gamut of emotions. His registration must be spontaneous and real, not assumed. The ability to evoke this in his sitter is one of the most important factors in the artists equipment. Does Mr. Craven think he could do this if he had no mind?.
Are there any such painters? Well, there is my friend Bennett Linder for one. He certainly got me interested. He not only talked, but he made me talk and did it so skillfully that I did not realize what he was up to till afterwards. When I accused him of spoofing me he laughingly denied it and averred that he was really interested in what I had been saying.
The canvas showed such a remarkable development during that period, however, that I could only account for it by crediting him with the ability to do at least six different things at once; ask me intelligent questions, listen, keep up the thread of the conversation, observe my facial expressions, select and mix his colors and apply them effectively at lightning speed. It was a feat of mental perception, concentration, co-ordination and manual dexterity that I have rarely seen equalled and never surpassed. Hence, I feel quite certain that he is one artist who has a mind and knows how to use it. Doubtless there are others similarly gifted, but doubtless Mr. Thomas Craven will not seek them out, nor admit that they exist. So be it.
The amount of “mind” that goes into a painted portrait may be judged by the kind of reaction excited in the minds of those who view it assuming, of course, that they too have minds and are sincere in their expressions. Confronting a product of a real portrait painters art one who views it attentively will get an impression of “livingness” that is almost startling. The expression seems to change almost momentarily while one is looking. A young friend and patient of mine who had just seen the portrait of myself in the artists studio was so impressed by it that he called me on the telephone to tell me about it.
“At first while I was looking at it,” he said, “I saw you as you usually are in your office serious, concentrated but sympathetic. I turned away a minute to speak to Polly (his wife) and when I looked again I was astounded and delighted to see a peculiar twinkle in your eyes, a faintly smiling, half quizzical expression that I have often noticed when I have been with you. You seemed about to make some droll remark to me Polly said, I can just hear him say Belladonna!”.
Illusions, of course, but not altogether so, for as a matter of fact all, or several, of these characteristic expressions are actually painted on, or into, the canvas during the process of “modelling”; but it is so skillfully done by a master that they do not appear at first sight as separate expressions. They seem to spring to the surface while one is looking intently at the picture, and vary with the mood of the observer. Technically, they are the concrete result of a blending of forms and planes similar to the blending of colors. They give the portrait its character and individuality and stamp it as a work of art.
Another friend, a cultured woman of deep intuition, keen insight and original ideas, was so powerfully impressed by the portrait that she stood rapt before it for many minutes before speaking. Then in her sententious way: “It is a composite picture portraying a complex character. I have never seen you look like that at any one time. One must see you several times in different moods to be able to appreciate all there is in that picture. It is a wonderful portrait. How does he do it!”.
Another, herself a portrait painter of distinction, exclaimed: “I wish I had done it! I wish I could do it! I never realized before the possibilities of genius in portrait painting. It is a great portrait”.
A lawyer, my friend and patient for more than twenty-five years, said: “It is a portrayed of life itself a living likeness. It speaks to the soul”.
Mind interacted with mind in these instances painter, subject and observer through the medium of a work of art. Note bene Mr. Thomas Craven.
Not to draw the parallel too closely, the artist in medicine pursues much the same course in examining his patient, constructing his case and recording it. He too is painting a portrait, although with different media and for a different purpose. He, too, must individualize both his patient and his remedy. He must observe and portray individual characteristics.
He is not satisfied with sketching mere outlines of his subject. His completed case when analyzed is found to be made up not only of many measure anatomical, physiological and morphological peculiarities, but of an equal or greater number of related functional variations, recognizable by the medical artist. All these must be drawn, modelled and blended into a characteristic symptom likeness a totality which represents the sick individual and stamps the physicians as a master of his art.
Needless to say, the physician, like the portrait painter, must be something of a psychologist and diplomat as well as a trained observer. In one word he must have the artists mind. Differing with Mr. Thomas Craven and The American Mercury. I maintain that there are painters (and physicians) who have minds.
Granting for the sake of the argument, that the ruck of painters and physicians have no minds in the sense of the word employed by Mr. Craven; that by the same token they are “inferior beings,” “dolts” and “ignoramuses;” it does not follow that there are not individuals among them who possess and display certain qualities which we are accustomed to associate with intelligent persons. Of course even these are not in the class with Mr. Thomas Craven, who is in a class by himself, so remote and unapproachable in his solitary sapiency that he never comes in contact with the more highly developed individuals of other classes.