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A. THE BEAUTY OF VISUAL FORM
N what consists the Beauty of Visual Form?
The older writers on what we now know as the science of art did not ask themselves this question. Although we are accustomed to hear that order, symmetry, unity in variety, was the Greek, and in particular the Platonic, formula for beauty, we observe, on examining the passages cited in evidence, that it is rather the moral quality appertaining to these characteristics that determines them as beautiful; symmetry is beautiful, because harmonious, and inducing order and self-restraint. Aristotle's single pronouncement in the sense of our question is the dictum: there is no beauty without a certain magnitude. Lessing, in his “ Laocoon," really the first modern treatise in æsthetics, discusses the excellences of painting and poetry, but deals with visible beauty as if it were a fixed quality, understood when referred to, like color. This is undoubtedly due to his unconscious reference of beauty to the human form alone; a reference which he would have denied, but which influences his whole æsthetic theory. In speaking of a beautiful picture, for instance, he would have meant first of all the representation of beautiful persons in it, hardly at all that essential beauty of the picture as painting, to which every inch of the canvas is alike precious. It is clear to us now, however, that the beauty of the human form is the most obscure of all possible cases, complex in itself, and overlaid and involved as it is with innumerable interests and motives of extra-æsthetic character. Beauty in simple forms must be our first study; and great credit is due to Hogarth for having propounded in his “ Analysis of Beauty" the simple question, — what makes the quality of beauty to the eye?
But in visible beauty, the æsthetic value of pure form is not the only element involved : or at least it must be settled whether or not it is the only element involved. If in a work of art, as we believe, what belongs to its excellence belongs to its beauty, we may not applaud one painter, for instance, for his marvelous color-schemes, another for his expression of emotion, another for his delineation of character, without acknowledging that expression of character and emotion come within our concept of visible beauty. Franz von Lenbach was once asked what he thought likely to be the fate of his own work. “As for that,” he replied, “I think I may possibly have a chance of living ; but only if Individualization or Characterization be deemed to constitute a quality of permanent value in a picture. This, however, I shall never know, for it can only be adjudged by posterity. If that verdict should prove unfavorable, then my work, too, will perish with the rest, — for it cannot compare on their lines with the great masters of the past." That this is indeed an issue is shown by the contrasting opinion of the critic who exclaimed before a portrait, “ Think away the head and face, and you will have a wonderful effect of color!” The analysis of visible beauty accordingly resolves itself into the explanation of the beauty of form (including shape and color) and the fixing in relation thereto of other factors.
The most difficult part of our task is indeed behind us. We have already defined Beauty in general: we have outlined in a preceding essay the abstract æsthetic demands, and we have now only to ask through what psychological means these demands can be and are in fact met. In other words we have to show that what we intensely feel as Beauty can and does exemplify these principles, and through them is explained and accounted for. Beauty has been defined as that combination of qualities in the object which brings about a union of stimulation and repose in the enjoyer. How must this be interpreted with reference to the particular facts of visual form ?
The most immediate reference is naturally to the sense organ itself; and the first question is therefore as to the favorable stimulations of the
eye. What, in general, does the eye demand of its object?