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Of Decorative Painting And Design








The term Decorative painting implies the existence of painting which is
not decorative: a strange state of things for an art which primarily and
pre-eminently appeals to the eye. If we look back to the times when the
arts and crafts were in their most flourishing and vigorous condition,
and dwelt together, like brethren, in unity--say to the fifteenth
century--such a distinction did not exist. Painting only differed in its
application, and in degree, not in kind. In the painting of a MS., of
the panels of a coffer, of a ceiling, a wall, or an altar-piece, the
painter was alike--however different his theme and conception--possessed
with a paramount impulse to decorate, to make the space or surface he
dealt with as lovely to the eye in design and colour as he had skill to
do.

The art of painting has, however, become considerably differentiated
since those days. We are here in the nineteenth century encumbered with
many distinctions in the art. There is obviously much painting which is
not decorative, or ornamental in any sense, which has indeed quite other
objects. It may be the presentment of the more superficial natural
facts, phases, or accidents of light; the pictorial dramatising of life
or past history; the pointing of a moral; or the embodiment of romance
and poetic thought or symbol. Not but what it is quite possible for a
painter to deal with such things and yet to produce a work that shall be
decorative.

A picture, of course, may be a piece of decorative art of the most
beautiful kind; but to begin with, if it is an easel picture, it is not
necessarily related to anything but itself: its painter is not bound to
consider anything outside its own dimensions; and, indeed, the practice
of holding large and mixed picture-shows has taught him the uselessness
of so doing.

Then, too, the demand for literal presentment of the superficial facts
or phases of nature often removes the painter and his picture still
farther from the architectural, decorative, and constructive artist and
the handicraftsman, who are bound to think of plan, and design, and
materials--of the adaptation of their work, in short--while the painter
seeks only to be an unbiassed recorder of all accidents and sensational
conditions of nature and life,--and so we get our illustrated newspapers
on a grand scale.

An illustrated newspaper, however, in spite of the skill and enterprise
it may absorb, is not somehow a joy for ever; and, after all, if
literalism and instantaneous appearances are the only things worth
striving for in painting, the photograph beats any painter at that.

If truth is the object of the modern painter of pictures--truth as
distinct from or opposed to beauty--beauty is certainly the object of
the decorative painter, but beauty not necessarily severed from truth.
Without beauty, however, decoration has no reason for existence; indeed
it can hardly be said to exist.

Next to beauty, the first essential of a decoration is that it shall be
related to its environment, that it shall express or acknowledge the
conditions under which it exists. If a fresco on a wall, for instance,
it adorns the wall without attempting to look like a hole cut in it
through which something is accidentally seen; if a painting on a vase,
it acknowledges the convexity of the shape, and helps to express instead
of contradicting it; if on a panel in a cabinet or door, it spreads
itself in an appropriate filling on an organic plan to cover it; being,
in short, ornamental by its very nature, its first business is to
ornament.

There exist, therefore, certain definite tests for the work of the
decorative artist. Does the design fit its place and material? Is it in
scale with its surroundings and in harmony with itself? Is it fair and
lovely in colour? Has it beauty and invention? Has it thought and poetic
feeling? These are the demands a decorator has to answer, and by his
answer he must stand or fall; but such questions show that the scope of
decoration is no mean one.

It must be acknowledged that a mixed exhibition does not easily afford
the fairest or completest tests of such qualities. An exhibition is at
best a compromise, a convenience, a means of comparison, and to enable
work to be shown to the public; but of course is, after all, only really
and properly exhibited when it is in the place and position and light
for which it was destined. The tests by which to judge a designer's work
are only complete then.

As the stem and branches to the leaves, flowers, and fruit of a tree, so
is design to painting. In decoration one cannot exist without the other,
as the beauty of a figure depends upon the well-built and
well-proportioned skeleton and its mechanism. You cannot separate a
house from its plan and foundations. So it is in decoration; often
thought of lightly as something trivial and superficial, a merely
aimless combination of curves and colours, or a mere rechauffe of the
dead languages of art, but really demanding the best thought and
capacity of a man; and in the range of its application it is not less
comprehensive.

The mural painter is not only a painter, but a poet, historian,
dramatist, philosopher. What should we know, how much should we realise,
of the ancient world and its life without him, and his brother the
architectural sculptor? How would ancient Egypt live without her wall
paintings--or Rome, or Pompeii, or Mediaeval Italy? How much of beauty as
well as of history is contained in the illuminated pages of the books of
the Middle Ages!

Some modern essays in mural painting show that the habit of mind and
method of work fostered by the production of trifles for the picture
market is not favourable to monumental painting. Neither the mood nor
the skill, indeed, can be grown like a mushroom; such works as the
Sistine Chapel, the Stanzi of Raphael, or the Apartimenti Borgia, are
the result of long practice through many centuries, and intimate
relationship and harmony in the arts, as well as a certain unity of
public sentiment.

The true soil for the growth of the painter in this higher sense is a
rich and varied external life: familiarity from early youth with the
uses of materials and methods, and the hand facility which comes of
close and constant acquaintanceship with the tools of the artist, who
sums up and includes in himself other crafts, such as modelling,
carving, and the hammering of metal, architectural design, and a
knowledge of all the ways man has used to beautify and deck the
surroundings and accessories of life to satisfy his delight in beauty.

We know that painting was strictly an applied art in its earlier
history, and all through the Middle Ages painters were in close alliance
with the other crafts of design, and their work in one craft no doubt
reacted on and influenced that in another, while each was kept distinct.
At all events, painters like Albert Duerer and Holbein were also masters
of design in all ways.

Through the various arts and crafts of the Greek, Mediaeval, or Early
Renaissance periods, there is evident, from the examples which have come
down to us, a certain unity and common character in design, asserting
itself through all diverse individualities: each art is kept distinct,
with a complete recognition of the capacity and advantages of its own
particular method and purpose.

In our age, for various reasons (social, commercial, economic), the
specialised and purely pictorial painter is dominant. His aims and
methods influence other arts and crafts, but by no means advantageously
as a rule; since, unchecked by judicious ideas of design, attempts are
made in unsuitable materials to produce so-called realistic force, and
superficial and accidental appearances dependent on peculiar qualities
of lighting and atmosphere, quite out of place in any other method than
painting, or in any place but an easel picture.

From such tendencies, such influences as these, in the matter of applied
art and design, we are striving to recover. One of the first results
is, perhaps, this apparently artificial distinction between decorative
and other painting. But along with this we have painters whose easel
pictures are in feeling and treatment quite adaptable as wall and panel
decorations, and they are painters who, as a rule, have studied other
methods in art, and drawn their inspiration from the mode of Mediaeval or
Early Renaissance times.

Much might be said of different methods and materials of work in
decorative painting, but I have hardly space here. The decorative
painter prefers a certain flatness of effect, and therefore such methods
as fresco, in which the colours are laid on while the plaster ground is
wet, and tempera naturally appeal to him. In the latter the colours
ground in water and used with size, or white and yolk of egg, or
prepared with starch, worked on a dry ground, drying lighter than when
they are put on, have a peculiar luminous quality, while the surface is
free from any gloss. Both these methods need direct painting and
finishing as the work proceeds.

By a method of working in ordinary oil colours on a ground of fibrous
plaster, using rectified spirit of turpentine or benzine as a medium,
much of the quality of fresco or tempera may be obtained, with the
advantage that the plaster ground may be a movable panel.

There are, however, other fields for the decorative painter than wall
painting; as, for instance, domestic furniture, which may vary in degree
of elaboration from the highly ornate cassone or marriage coffer of
Mediaeval Italy to the wreaths and sprays which decked chairs and
bed-posts even within our century. There has been of late some revival
of painting as applied chiefly to the panels of cabinets, or the
decoration of piano fronts and cases.

The same causes produce the same results. With the search after, and
desire for, beauty in life, we are again driven to study the laws of
beauty in design and painting; and in so doing painters will find again
the lost thread, the golden link of connection and intimate association
with the sister arts and handicrafts, whereof none is before or after
another, none is greater or less than the other.

WALTER CRANE.





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