Home -> John J. Newbegin -> The City of Domes -> Chapter 16

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The Brangwyns

We lingered in the colonnade to view the eight mural decorations by Frank Brangwyn, of London. In front of The Bowmen we found a friend, a gifted woman painter, fairly bursting with enthusiasm. "What delights me in Brangwyn," she said, "is his artistic courage. He dares to put down just what he feels. This sturdy figure in the foreground, for example, peering through the trees, how many other painters would have allowed him to turn his back on the spectator? And yet how interesting he is and how alive."

"Some of those heads strike me as curious," I remarked. "That fellow closest to the center, just about to let his arrow fly, seems to have no head to speak of."

"Sometimes he's careless with his drawing. And yet he can draw magnificently, too. He evidently had a purpose in making so many of the heads in these murals almost deformed. He wanted to suggest that these types were in no way mental. They were wholly physical. Notice the care he has lavished on their muscular bodies, their great shoulders and legs."

"It doesn't seem like English work, does it?" said the architect.

"No, there's something almost Oriental about it both in the feeling and the coloring. And there's the Pagan love of the elemental life."

"But what a chance Brangwyn had to do something new with this magnificent subject," the architect went on. "At last, after centuries of effort, men are actually conquering the air. They've learned to fly. They've become birds. Now why didn't Brangwyn give us a pictorial expression of that miracle? Why didn't the artist have as much sense as the man of affairs who pays Art Smith to come out here and fly before the multitude?"

I argued that Brangwyn preferred to deal with antique themes - they were so much more pictorial.

The architect interrupted with some impatience. "But that's exactly what they're not. In my opinion Whistler was perfectly right when he said that if a mural decorator couldn't make modern life pictorial he didn't know his business. Flying through the air is only one of many wonders in the life of today that cry out for expression in art; but you scarcely catch a note of them here."

"For example?" said the painter.

"Industry - our great machines, the new power they bring into the world, the change in industrial relations and social and moral ideals. Now in these murals, Brangwyn has simply repeated himself and he hasn't by any means done his best work. And I question whether his observation is so accurate as you admirers of his try to make it appear. Look at the way those fellows are holding their bows - with the left hand, presumably for the pictorial effect of the composition. Well, let that point pass. One fellow has shot his arrow. The other is holding his arrow between the fore finger and the middle finger. Well, it won't go very far. The Indians know better. They let the arrow rest on the thumb to give it plenty of freedom to fly. One of those bows, by the way, has no string. Brangwyn probably thought it wouldn't be missed."

As we looked at the other panels the architect conceded that the points the painter raised for Brangwyn, the brilliant use of color; the dramatic grouping and the fineness of characterization, were true enough. "But he's too monotonous. Though his groups are of different periods, some of them ages apart, they're all essentially alike and the figures are even dressed alike. I'm perfectly willing to make allowance for artistic convention. But why should an artist limit himself unnecessarily when he has all the ages to draw on? Why should he neglect the present, the greatest of all the ages?"

"Ah, I'm afraid you're too literal said the painter. "You want to limit a genius to rules."

We turned from The Bowmen to study in detail the second illustration of Air, much more modern and yet charmingly old-fashioned, the windmill and the little mill high in the background, the group of naked boys flying kites, the toilers and their children, going home as fast as they could, fighting the wind, their picturesque draperies flying around them.

The architect was impressed. "He's caught the feeling of the thunderstorm, hasn't he?" he said.

"And he's brought out all the picturesqueness and the color and the majesty and even the humor," said the painter. "See how wonderfully be has composed the picture, what pictorial use he has made of every detail. The background of the clouds and the rain, the dark blues and the green and the pink; and the kites catching some of the color, and the lovely color of the mill and of the grass dried by the sun. And see that figure up there on the steps, all windblown and rushing under cover. It's all beautiful and yet there's not one face or figure there that would be considered beautiful by the painter who works for prettiness. He has no interest whatever in what the average mural decorator considers beautiful. And yet he sees beauty everywhere and he makes it felt. How pictorially he has used those purple flowers in the foreground at the base of the composition. And observe their relation to the purple clouds on top. And then what character he has put into those active figures, particularly in this queer little boy, naked except for the purple drapery flying from his waist. He has caught something of the fantastic spirit that you often see in children."

In nearing the two panels illustrating Water we had a chance to see how dexterously Brangwyn could manage his design without perspective, which would have made a hole in the wall. Those women with jars on their heads stood against a sky none the less lovely because it was flat. It was exquisite in its varieties of blue and white and green. That sturdy fellow lifting a heavy jar was actually working and working hard. "And how splendidly Brangwyn has modeled the figure with his back turned to us," the painter exclaimed. "What a stroke of genius it was that a yellow handkerchief of just that shade should hang from his neck. And the figures in the companion panel drawing their nets, they are putting their heart and soul into their work and they are having a good time, too. And this man here in the corner, with the purple shadows on his bare back, lifting his net, he's evidently had a big catch. He's holding the net in a way that shows it's heavy. And how decorative those men in the background are, with the baskets on their heads. Brangwyn loves to use figures in this attitude. They are interesting and picturesque and dramatic at the same time."

"But they're too conscious," the architect insisted, "too posed.

"Remember, they're not paintings," the painter insisted. "They're formal decorations."

In the panel representing the elementary use of Fire we were all struck by Brangwyn's daring and fine treatment of the ugly. Nearly every face was almost grotesque. And yet every face was appealing for the simple reason that it expressed attractive human qualities. Two, a man and a woman, had noses ridiculously large. The group of men in the center of the background, at the base, around the fire, had apparently started the fire by rubbing sticks together. One was intently leaning forward, as if in the act of blowing. Among the figures behind the group stood a man with an infant in his arms, vividly characterized by the unseeing eyes.

That infant was instantly singled out by the painter.

"Brangwyn is very wonderful in his observation of children. He has a quality that is almost maternal. Observe the difference between the expression in the face of that baby and the expression in the face of that little boy to the left of the fire-makers. How intently he is looking on as he leans against the brown jar. He shows all the interest of a boy just learning how to do things."

The kiln charmed us, too, though we regretted that it did not explain itself quite so spontaneously as most of the other panels. "But symbolism ought not to be too obvious, you know," the painter argued. "There's a certain charm in vagueness. It makes you feel your way toward a work- of art. The more you think about this panel the more you find there. To me it suggests the relation between fire and the abundance of the earth. See how cleverly, in each case of these two panels, Brangwyn has used smoke, first as a thin line, breaking into two lines as it goes up and interweaving, and then as a great flowing wreath, dividing the panel in two parts without weakening the unity."

For composition we decided that the two Earth panels were among the most remarkable of all. With satisfaction I heard Brangwyn compared by the painter to a great stage manager. "When I look at these groupings, I am reminded of Forbes-Robertson's productions of plays." Now we could see how brilliantly the decorator had planned in securing his effects of height by starting his group of figures close to the top of the canvas. And with what skill he had used trees and vines and vegetables and fruits, both for design and for coloring. "He has always been mad about apples and squashes," said that feminine voice. "In nearly every picture here you will find not one squash only, but several squashes. He loves them for their color and their shape. And how wonderful he makes the color of the grape. He suggests the miracle of its deep purple."

We admired the painter's pictorial use of shadow on those powerful and scantily draped figures and the animation he put into the bodies of the wine-pressers. And down there in a corner he had perfectly reproduced the attitude and facial expression of the worker at rest, holding out his cup for a drink. "There's another of those queer and interesting children. But oh, most wonderful of all is the opposite panel that ought to be called Abundance. See that mother, holding her lusty baby. The face is commonplace enough, but it has all motherhood in it. And the woman behind, she looks as if she might be a mother bereft or one of those women cheated out of motherhood."

The architect, though he still had his reservations on the subject of the Brangwyns, conceded that they were distinctly architectural. They blended into the spirit of the court.

The painter at once supported the opinion. "In these colonnades Guerin has done some of his finest coloring. The blue and the red are in absolute harmony with Brangwyn's rich tones. They must have been applied to fit the canvases. But the marvel is that the murals should show up so magnificently. Brangwyn painted them in London and he must have had second sight to divine just the right scheme. Do you realize," she went on enthusiastically, fairly losing herself in her enjoyment, "the immense difficulties he had to contend with? In the first place, see how huge those canvases are. Their size created all kinds of problems. To view them right, to get a line on the detail, so to speak, would have meant, for the average painter, walking long distances. But, in his studio, Brangwyn could not have taken anything like accurate measurements."

"Perhaps he painted them out of doors," the architect suggested.

"I believe the explanation is that he thought them all out and he saw them in their places. From Mr. Mullgardt he had probably received a complete account, with drawings, of just what the court was going to be like. Then it lived before him and he made the murals live. His work shows that he begins in the right place, unlike so many people who paint from outside. He feels the qualities of the people he is going to paint. He really loves them. He loves their surroundings. He must be very elemental in his nature. They say he is a great, uncouth sort of a fellow. When he first went to London he was very contemptuous of the work done by the academicians. It must have seemed to him, a good deal of it, effeminate and trifling. Can't you see how those murals show that he is a man clear through? They are masculine in every detail."

"And yet they have a good deal of delicacy, too, haven't they?" said the architect. "See how atmospheric those backgrounds are. They actually suggest nature."

"Because they are unconventional and because they are true. And yet they are purely decorative. You wouldn't like to think of them as standing apart in a great frame. When you go close you will see that the colors are laid on flat. And they don't shine. For this reason they have great carrying power. Observe The Bowmen down there in the distance. Even from this remote end of the court it expresses itself as lovely in color and composition. Let us walk down and see how it grows on us as we approach."

Slowly we moved along the colonnade, the figures seeming to grow more and more lifelike as the painter indicated their technical merits. "They are of the earth, those men, aren't they? They are the antithesis of the highly civilized types used by so many of the painters today. They suggest red blood and strength of limb and joy in the natural things of life, eating, drinking, the open air, and simple comradeship. They make us see the wonder of outdoor living, the kind of living that most of us have missed. What a pleasure it is to find a worker in any kind of work trying to do a thing and actually doing it and doing it with splendid abandon. Now if Brangwyn hadn't entered into the feelings of those bowmen in the foreground, he couldn't have made the figure alive. And the life, remember, isn't merely brought out by the happy use of the flesh tints or by the play of the muscles. It's in the animating spirit. As Brangwyn painted those fellows, he felt like a bowman. So he succeeded in putting into his canvas the strength that each bowman put into his bow. He isn't pretending to shoot, that sturdy fellow in front. He is shooting, and he's going to get what he is after."

Before each of the four pairs of murals, the painter indicated to us the happy way in which, by the deft use of the coloring, each blended into the other, and she called my attention to the clearness of the symbolism. So often, she remarked, the mural decorators used compositions that seemed like efforts to hide secrets, a childish way of working, sure to defeat itself. Brangwyn had no secrets. He was sincere and direct. He was happy over this work. He said that he had enjoyed doing it more than anything else he had ever done before. If these canvases had been found in the heart of Africa they would have been identified as coming from Brangwyn. No one else used color just as he did, with his kind of courage. His colors were arbitrary, too. He didn't follow nature and yet he always conveyed the spirit of natural things. Throughout his work he showed that he was a close and subtle observer. The sweep of rain through the air, the movement of figures and of draperies in the wind, the expression of human effort, how wonderfully he managed to suggest them all and to make them pictorial. But he wasn't interested in merely an activity. He loved repose. In nearly all of these eight canvases, so brimming with life, there were figures looking on serenely, calmly, conveying the impression of being absolutely at rest.

In every particular, according to the searching observer, Brangwyn was successful, with the exception of one, his treatment of birds. He evidently didn't know birds. If he had known them he would have loved them, and if he had loved them he would have entered into their spirit and he would have flown with them and he would have made them fly in his painting. Now they merely flopped. They were just about as much alive as the clay figures used in a shooting match. Even his highly decorative flamingoes weren't right. They did not stand firmly on the ground. They weren't alive. And the necks of the two flamingoes never could have met in the curves that Brangwyn gave them. This very failure, amusing as it was and hardly detracting from the effect of his work as a whole, was another proof that he was an instinctive painter, who relied for his guidance on feeling. But it was plain enough that he had chosen those flamingoes for their color, and a right choice it was.

We could not decide which of the eight murals we liked best. Perhaps, after all, they could not be considered apart. Though each was in itself a unity, the eight completely expressed a big conception. And in detail each canvas was full of delightful bits. If you closed your hand and peered between your thumb and your fingers, you could see how beautifully the color had been applied and how, throughout the whole surface, the workmanship sustained itself. Never was there the sense of faltering or of petering out. And everywhere there were expressions of fine understanding and sympathy, in the study of a peasant mother holding her babe, nude boys flying kites, a happy face with the lips blowing a pipe, a muscular figure lifting a jar, all conveying abundant life and rich coloring.

The painter finally ran away from us, apologizing for her enthusiasm.

In discussing her opinions, the architect said: "Well, I don't altogether agree. But she may be right. She sees from the inside, which is very different from seeing from the outside. There is a great deal of artistic appreciation that can be felt only by the artist, by the fellow-craftsman. No wonder we go so far astray when we criticise aspects of art that we're only related to indirectly or not related at all."

We walked to the Marina. From there we saw the sun, a great red ball, sinking behind the Golden Gate.

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