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Bernard Shaw on the London Art Scene, 1885-1950.

Bernard Shaw on the London Art Scene, 1885-1950. Edited with an Introduction by Stanley Weintraub. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989.

Before he found his artistic vocation as a playwright, Bernard Shaw was writing novels no one would publish and making a meager living as a periodical reviewer "on all the fine arts in succession." Shaw eventually collected his music criticism in Music in London and his drama reviews in Our Theaters in the Nineties; in 1947 he composed a preface to accompany a collected edition of his writings on the first fine art through which he had paraded his critical intelligence as art critic for Our Corner and The World beginning in 1885. Shaw did not carry through with the project before his death, but now the indefatigable Stanley Weintraub, who has made Shaw's diaries, facsimile manuscripts, and non-dramatic literary criticism accessible to scholars, had fulfilled GBS's intentions with this volume, more accurately labeled Our London Art in the Eighties and Assorted Later Commentary.

Weintraub's 42 page introduction, an informative monograph in itself, is entitled "In the Victorian Picture Galleries," and of the 410 pages of Shaw's writings included, only 55 date from the twentieth century, with an additional hundred pages written in the 1890s. Most of the twentieth-century material consists of letters to newspapers, comments to interviewers, and other ephemera, combined with the original version of Shaw's review-essay reply to Max Nordau's Degeneration that was revised and published as The Sanity of Art in 1908 and collected in Major Critical Essays.

If the promised sixty-year span is somewhat misleading, however, the interest of the volume to those students of late Victorian painting and Shaw's career as a nineteenth-century reviewer is considerable. Moreover, as Weintraub points out, the pictures Shaw saw in the eighties influenced settings, characters, and events in his plays from Candida to Buoyant Billions. (Weintraub so thoroughly documents this influence that he does rather pre-empt one spur to scholarship that the essays provide.)

Although Shaw recognized the virtues of pre-Raphaelitism and Impressionism and rejoiced at the challenges artists of these schools brought to the commercial, realistic "story" picture that took up so much space in the Victorian galleries, he would praise artists who painted well the type of art he despised and would certainly criticize any Impressionist disciples who achieved only a fuzzy style without a really different vision of the world. The use of color and the consistency of the brush strokes--he hated great lumps of pigment on canvas--often came in for comment. Shaw catches Ludwig Deutsch, famous for his "minute finish," nevertheless using it for the fingernails of two Arabs in his picture "News from the Soudan," while "their toes are comparatively neglected." Of Rembrandt he remarked, "he would draw life with perfect integrity, but would paint it always in a golden glow--as if he cared less for the direct light of the sun than for its reflection in a pot of treacle--and would sacrifice real color to that stage glow without remorse."

The withering application of pragmatic considerations to the absurdities of melodrama that Shaw employs in his dramatic criticism also surfaces here:
 [Miss Evelyn Pickering's] "Sea Maidens" are five mermaids standing
 in a row, waist-deep in the sea, facing the spectator. One of them
 wears a fringe; all have the sunniest and driest hair; and they
 twine their arms about one another's shoulders--a mode of
 endearment that could never arise among an habitually wet race.

 His picture of Romeo exclaiming, as he dies, "O true apothecary!"
 misses the intended pathos, because Romeo's gesture, though it may
 possibly be that of a poisoned man, is also that with which one
 prepares to receive a ponderous object descending from above.

The reviews also occasionally provide space for other Shavian concerns to surface, as when he chides Sir Frederick Leighton for deciding that the "Arts of Peace" are "the arts of the toilet as practiced by rich ladies" rather than the fruit of working people's labors, or when he observes of the cannibal artisans whose work Herbert Ward was exhibiting that "Though they carry meat-eating to its logical extreme, the people there are evidently no mere savages."

Weintraub has annotated the essays profusely, in the form of a headnote to each that gives the dates for and a brief identifying statement about any person mentioned in the piece. These annotations do not take the reader's cultural literacy for granted; with the exception of William Morris and Charles Dickens, whose influence on Shaw the introduction covers in detail, almost every proper name receives annotation. Thus we receive the deadpan information that "the Urbino painter Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520) was called Raphael" and that "W.E. Gladstone (1809-98) would be Victoria's Prime Minister four times, finally passing from the political scene in 1894." Only at the end does this thoroughness flag when we are informed on pp. 452 and 454 that a number of composers Shaw refers to are "all household words in music" and that "the other creative figures Shaw catalogues are recognized names."

This is, however, not the only inconsistency of annotation. While for most names an annotation appears only on first reference, a number of others occur two or more times, sometimes to provide additional information germane only to the succeeding essay, but sometimes, apparently, because the editor had forgotten about the previous annotation. A most egregious example occurs on facing pages 52 and 53 in which the headnotes of consecutive essays both include the dates for Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema. Then, at other times, the format switches so that a succeeding headnote refers the reader to the annotation of a previous essay (cf. pp. 236 [Bridgman] and 260 [Wimbledon]).

The annotations generally follow the order in which the names appear in Shaw's text, but again numerous exceptions occur. On p. 132, for example, the first "new" name to appear is that of Alexander Fisher, but identifications of Lady Colin Campbell and William Stott of Oldham, whom Shaw mentions later in the review, precede Fisher's in the headnote. On p. 187, in the review "Winter Art Exhibitions," although Shaw cites Lady Maxse in the penultimate paragraph, she is the last to be identified in the note, following the identifications of persons referred to in the final paragraph.

I am quite aware that a project of this magnitude required parceling out the various essays to divers hands for annotation and then collating the results. The numerous lapses, however, seem to indicate a lack of final responsibility for the edition as a whole. Surely a careful reading of page proof would have uncovered such irregularities. The inconsistencies in no way diminish the usefulness of the book, but they lend an unfortunate cut-and-paste air not usually associated with a scholar of Professor Weintraub's standing.

When put in the context of the value and pleasure to scholars of having Shaw's art criticism thus collected, this is, nevertheless, gnat-straining, brought on in part by immersion in the unsparing critical acuity GBS invariably displays. Nor do I wish to diminish appreciation of Weintraub's own introductory overview of the influence art had on S haw. To paraphrase the editor's praise of Shaw's ability to recall much later some paintings he viewed briefly in Amsterdam, Weintraub has not only read everything Shaw ever wrote, but he remembers reading it.

Ina Rae Hark

University of South Carolina
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Author:Hark, Ina Rae
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 1990
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