A Conversation About Art

Virginia Woolf

Though talk is a common habit and much enjoyed, those who try to record it are aware that it runs hither and thither, seldom sticks to the point, abounds in exaggerations and inaccuracy, and has frequent stretches of extreme dulness. Thus when seven or eight people dined together in London the other night the first ten minutes went in saying how very difficult it is to get about the city nowadays; was it quicker to walk or to drive; did the new system of colored lights help or hinder?

Just as dinner was announced, somebody asked, “But when were picture galleries invented?” a question naturally arising, for the discussion about the value of colored lights had led somebody to say that in the eyes of a motorist, red is not a color but is simply a danger signal. We shall very soon lose our sense of color, another added, exaggerating of course. Colors are used so much as signals now that they will very soon suggest action merely—that is the worst of living in a highly organized community. Other instances of the change wrought upon our senses by modern conditions were then cited; how buildings are changing their character because no one can stand still to look at them; how statues and mosaics removed from their old station in the open air and confined to the insides of churches and private houses lose the qualities proper to them.

This naturally led to the question when picture galleries were first opened, and as no precise answer was forthcoming, the speaker went on to sketch a fancy picture of an inventive youth having to wait his turn to cross Ludgate Circus in the reign of Queen Anne. “Look,” he said to himself, “how the coaches cut across the corners! That poor old boy,” he said, “positively had to put his hand to his pigtail. Nobody any longer stops to look at St. Paul’s. Soon all these swinging signboards will be dismantled. Let me take time by the forelock,” he said, and, going to his bank, which was near at hand, drew out what remained of his patrimony, and invested it in a neat set of rooms in Bond Street, where he hung the first show of pictures ever to be displayed to the public. Perhaps that is the origin of Duveen’s or the House of Agnew; perhaps the gallery stands on the site of the house that was leased, so foreseeingly, by the young man two hundred years ago. Perhaps, said the others—but nobody troubled to verify the statement, for it was a bitter cold night in December and the soup stood upon the table.

In course of time the talk turned, as talk has a way of turning, back on itself—to color; how different people see color differently; how painters are affected by their place of birth, whether in the blue South or the gray North; how color blazes, unrelated to any object, in the eyes of children; how politicians and business men are blind, days spent in an office leading to atrophy of the eye; and so, by contrast, to those insects, said still to be found in the primeval forests of South America, in whom the eye is so developed that they are all eye, the body serving merely to connect the two great chambers of vision. Somebody had met a man whose business it was to explore the wilder parts of the world in search of cactuses, and from him he had heard of these insects who are born with the flowers and die when the flowers fade. A hard-headed man, used to roughing it in all parts of the world, yet there was something moving to him in the sight of these little creatures drinking crimson until they became crimson; then flitting on to violet; then to a vivid green and becoming for the moment the thing they saw, red, green, blue, whatever the color of the flower might be. At the first breath of winter, he said, when the flowers died, the life went out of them, and you might mistake them as they lay on the grass for shrivelled air balls. Were we once insects like that too, one of the diners asked—all eye? Do we still preserve that capacity for drinking, eating, indeed becoming color furled up in us, waiting proper conditions to develop? For as the rocks hide fossils, so we hide tigers, baboons, and perhaps insects, under our coats and hats. On first entering a picture gallery, whose stillness, warmth, and seclusion from the perils of the street, reproduce the conditions of the primeval forest, it often seems as if we reverted to the insect stage of our long life.

She has seen every sort of sun rise and sun set—whether dressed in diamonds or in a white nightgown; now all is ruin and shipwreck...

“On first entering a picture gallery”—there was silence for a moment. Many pictures were being shown in London at that time. There was the famous Holbein; there were pictures by Picasso and Matisse; young English painters were holding an exhibition in Burlington Gardens; and there was a show of Walter Sickert’s pictures at Agnew’s. When I first went in to Sickert’s show, said one of the diners, I became all eye, completely and solely an insect. I flew from color to color; from red to blue; from yellow to green; colors that are no color in particular went spiralling through me and made concussions of color in my mind, as if a rocket fell through the night and lit up green grass, a brown tree, a white bird. Color warmed, thrilled, chafed, burnt, soothed, fed, and finally exhausted me. For the life of color is a glorious life, but a short one. Soon the eye can hold no more; it shuts itself in sleep, and if the man who looks for cactuses had come by, he would only have seen a shrivelled air ball on a red plush seat.

That is an exaggeration, a dramatization, the others said. Nobody who can walk down Bond Street in the year 1933 without exciting suspicion, can simplify sufficiently to see color only. One must be a rose in order to die in aromatic pain. And it is many ages now since we were either roses or insects. Ages ago we left the forest and went into the world, and the eye shrivelled and the heart grew and the liver and the intestines and the tongue and the hands and the feet. Sickert’s show proves the truth of that soon enough. Look at his portraits. There is the Right Honorable Winston Churchill, M.P.; Rear-Admiral Lumsden, C.I.E. C.V.O.; Dr. Cobbledick. These gentlemen are by no means simple flowers. In front of Sickert’s portraits of them we are reminded of all that we have done with all our organs since we left the jungle. The face of a civilized human being is a summing up, an epitome of a million acts, thoughts, statements and concealments. Yes, Sickert is a great biographer, said one of them; when he paints a portrait I read a life. Think of his picture of the disillusioned lady in full evening dress sitting on a balcony in Venice. She has seen every sort of sun rise and sun set—whether dressed in diamonds or in a white nightgown; now all is ruin and shipwreck; yet the tattered ship in the background still floats. For though Sickert is a realist he is by no means a pessimist. . . . Laughter drowned the last words. The portrait of the lady on the balcony had suggested nothing of the kind to most of the others. Had she lovers or not—it did not matter; did the ship sail or sink—they did not care.

A bookcase was handy, and in searching for a volume of reproductions of Mr. Sickert’s paintings to confirm this statement fate ordained that the speaker should light on a book of Max Beerbohm’s caricatures which seemed to refute it. A painted face, they had said, was what a primrose was to Peter Bell. Here, on the contrary, the primrose, by name Rossetti, was not only primrose but poet; it was a criticism of the man and a portrait of his face. It was design and also comment—or how else did it serve at one and the same time to excite the painters to praise its line while it caused the others to recite “The Blessed Damozel”; and not only to recite the poem but to tell stories of the house in Chelsea and the wombat and the bear; to recall how George Meredith had there breakfasted on eggs bleeding to death on bacon; in short to remember the whole age of blue china, thick-throated women, Japanese fans, and the dim blue reaches of Whistler’s Thames? A picture contained this and much more than this.

Ah, but let us return to Sickert, said the other, who had found the book he looked for. He began to cut off a hand here, a head there, and to make them connect or separate not as hand or head, but as if they had some quite different relationship.

Now the people in the book of Sickert are going into the silent land; soon they will be out of reach of the human voice, two of the diners said, watching them. They are seeing things that we cannot see just as a dog bristles and whines in a dark lane when nothing is visible to human eyes. They are making passes with their hands, to express what they cannot say; what excites them in those photographs is something so deeply sunk that they cannot put words to it. But we, like most English people, have been trained not to see but to talk.

...it is difficult to look at them and not to invent a plot, to hear the words that they are saying.

Yet it may be, they went on, that there is a zone of silence in the middle of every art. The artists themselves live in it. Coleridge could not explain “Kubla Khan” —that he left to the critics. And those who are almost on a par with the artists, like our friends who are looking at the pictures, cannot impart what they feel when they go beyond the outskirts. They can only open and shut their fingers. We must resign ourselves to the fact that we are outsiders, condemned forever to haunt the borders and margins of this great art. Nevertheless, that is a region of very strong sensations. First, on entering a picture gallery, the violent rapture of color; then, when we have soused our eyes in color, the complexity and intrigue of character.

As I was saying, said one of them, Sickert is among the best of biographers. When he sits a man or woman down in front of him, he sees the whole of the life that has been lived to make that face. There it is, stated. None of our biographers makes such complete and flawless statements. They are tripped up by those miserable impediments called facts; was he born on such a day; was his mother’s name Jane or Mary; then the affair with the barmaid has to be suppressed out of deference to family feelings; and there is also, brooding over him with its dark wings and hooked beak, the Law of Libel. Hence the three or four hundred pages of compromise, evasion, understatement, overstatement, irrelevance, and downright falsehood which we call biography. But Sickert takes his brush, squeezes his tube, looks at the face; and then, cloaked in the divine gift of silence, he paints—lies, paltriness, splendor, depravity, endurance, beauty—it is all there and nobody can say but his mother’s name was Jane not Mary. Not in our time will anyone write a life as Sickert paints it. Words are an impure medium; better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint.

But to me Sickert always seems more a novelist than a biographer, said the other. He likes to set his characters in motion, to watch them in action. As I remember it, his show was full of pictures that might be stories as indeed their names suggest—“Rose et Marie”; “Christine Buys a House”; “A Difficult Moment.” The figures are static of course, but each has been seized in a moment of crisis; it is difficult to look at them and not to invent a plot, to hear the words that they are saying. You remember the picture of the old publican, with his glass on the table before him, and a cigar gone cold at his lips, looking out of shrewd little pig’s eyes at the intolerable wastes of desolation in front of him? A fat woman lounges, her arm on a cheap yellow chest of drawers behind him. It is all over with them one feels. The accumulated weariness of innumerable days has discharged its burden on them. They are buried under an avalanche of rubbish. In the street beneath, the trams are squeaking, children are shrieking. Even now somebody is tapping his glass impatiently on the bar counter. She will have to pull her heavy, indolent body together and go and serve him; for the grimness of the situation lies in the fact that there is no crisis; the dull minutes are mounting, old matches are accumulating and dirty glasses and dead cigars; but on they must go; up they must get.

And yet it is beautiful, said the other; satisfactory; complete in some way. Perhaps it is the stuffed birds in the glass case or the relation of the chest of drawers to the woman’s body; anyhow there is a quality in that picture which makes me feel that though the publican is done for, and his disillusion complete, still in the other world, of which he is mysteriously a part without knowing it, beauty and order prevail; all is right there—or does that convey nothing to you? Perhaps that is one of the things that is better said with a flick of the fingers, said the other. But let us go on living in the world of words a little longer. Do you remember the picture of the girl sitting on the edge of her bed half naked? Perhaps it is called “Nuit d’Amour.” Anyhow the night is over. The bed, a cheap iron bed, is tousled and tumbled; she has to face the day, to get breakfast, to see about the rent. As she sits there with her nightgown slipping from her shoulders, just for a moment the truth of her life comes over her; she sees in a flash the little garden in Wales and the dripping tunnel in the Adelphi, where she began, where she will end, her days. So be it, she says, and yawns and shrugs and stretches a hand for her stockings and chemise. Fate has willed it so.

But whatever Sickert paints has to submit; it has to lose its separateness; it has to help him to compose his scene.

Now, a novelist who told that story would plunge—how obviously—into the depths of sentimentality. How is he to convey in words the mixture of innocence and sordidity, pity and squalor? Sickert merely takes his brush and paints a tender green light on the faded wallpaper. Light is beautiful falling through green leaves. He has no need to explain it; green is enough. Then again there is the story of Marie and Rose—a grim, a complex, a moving and, at the same time, a heartening and rousing story. Marie on the chair has been sobbing out some piteous plaint of vows betrayed, hearts broken, to the woman in the crimson petticoat. “Don’t be a damned fool my dear,” says Rose standing before her with her arms akimbo. “I know all about it,” she says standing there in the intimacy of undress, experienced, seasoned, a woman of the world. And Marie looks up at her with all her illusions tearfully exposed and receives the full impact of the other’s knowledge, which, however, perhaps because of the glow of the crimson petticoat, does not altogether wither her. There is too much salt and savor in it. She takes heart again. Down she trips past the one-eyed char with a pail, out into the street, a wiser woman than when she went in, “So that’s what life is,” she says, brushing the tear from her eye and hailing the bus. There are any number of stories and three-volume novels in Sickert’s exhibition.

But to what school of novelists does he belong? He is a realist, of course, nearer to Dickens than to Meredith. He has something in common with Balzac, Gissing, and the earlier Arnold Bennett. The life of the lower middle class interests him most—of innkeepers, shopkeepers, music-hall actors and actresses. He seems to care little for the life of the aristocracy whether of birth or of intellect. The reason may be that people who inherit beautiful things sit much more loosely to their possessions than those who have bought them off barrows in the street with money earned by their own hands. There is a gusto in the spending of the poor; they are very close to what they possess. Hence the intimacy that seems to exist in Sickert’s pictures between his people and their rooms. The bed, the chest of drawers, the one picture, and the vase on the mantelpiece are all expressive of the owner. Merely by process of use and fitness the cheap furniture has rubbed its varnish off; the grain shows through; it has that expressive quality that expensive furniture always lacks; one must call it beautiful, though outside the room in which it plays its part it would be hideous in the extreme. Diamonds and Sheraton tables never submit to use like that. But whatever Sickert paints has to submit; it has to lose its separateness; it has to help him to compose his scene. He chooses, therefore, the casual clothes of daily life that have taken the shape of the body; the felt hat with one feather that a girl has bought with the sixpence that might have paid for a mug of beer. He likes bodies that work, hands that work, faces that have been lined and suppled and seamed by work, because, in working, people take unconscious gestures, and their faces have the expressiveness of unconsciousness—a look that the very rich, the very beautiful, and the very sophisticated seldom possess. And, of course, Sickert composes his picture down to the very castors on the chairs and the fire irons in the grate just as carefully as Turgenev, of whom he sometimes reminds me, composes his scene.

There are many points one could argue in that statement, said the other. But certainly it would seem to be true that Sickert is the novelist of the middle class. At the same time, though he prefers to paint people who use their hands rather than the leisured, he never sinks below a certain level in the social scale. Like most painters, he has a profound love of the good things of life; he loves well cooked food, good wine, cigars. His world abounds in richness and succulence and humor. He could not draw breath in a starved, a stunted, or a puritanical universe. His people are always well fed in body and mind; they excel in mother wit, in good sense and shrewd knowledge of the world. Some of their sayings are really a little broad. I have always wondered that the censor has let them pass. Yet nothing could be more enjoyable than to sit behind the shop with the French innkeeper—that formidable man in the frock coat whose name I forget. He would produce a very fine cigar; uncork a bottle kept for his private use; and Madame would join us from the glass case where she keeps accounts, and we should sit and talk and sing songs and crack jokes—

We shall have to set foot there soon, and all our words will fold their wings and sit huddled like rooks on the tops of the trees in winter.

Yes, and in the middle of our songs we should look up and see red-gold light dripping down into the green waters of the canal. We should suddenly become aware of a gray church looming over us and one pink cloud riding down the bosom of the west. We should see it suddenly over the shoulders of the innkeeper; and then we should go on talking. That is how Sickert makes us aware of beauty—over the shoulders of an innkeeper; for he is a true poet, of course, one in the long line of English poets, and not the least. Think of his Venice, of his landscapes; or of those pictures of music halls, of circuses, of street markets, where the acute drama of human character is cut off; and we no longer make up stories but behold—is it too much to say?—a vision.

But it would be absurd to class Sickert among the visionaries; he is not a rhapsodist; he does not gaze into the sunset; he does not lead us down glorious vistas to blue horizons and remote ecstasies. He is not a Shelley or a Blake. We see his Venice from a little table on the Piazza, just as we are lifting a glass to our lips. Then we go on talking. His paint has a tangible quality; it is made not of air and star dust but of oil and earth. We long to lay hands on his clouds and his pinnacles; to feel the roundness of his columns and pillars beneath our touch. One can almost hear his gold and red dripping with a little splash into the waters of the canal. Moreover, human nature is never exiled from his canvas—there is always a woman with a parasol in the foreground, or a man selling cabbages in the shadow of the arch. Even when he paints a formal eighteenth-century town like Bath, he puts a great cart wheel in the middle of the road. And those long French streets of pale pink and yellow stucco are all patched and peeled; a child’s pink frock hangs out to dry; there are marble-topped tables at the corner. He never goes far from the sound of the human voice, from the mobility of the human figure. As a poet then we must liken him to the poets who haunt taverns and sea beaches where the fishermen are tumbling their silver catch into wicker baskets. Crabbe, Wordsworth, Cowper, are the names that come to mind, the poets who have kept close to the earth, to the house, to the sound of the human voice.

But here the speakers fell silent. Perhaps they were thinking that there is a vast distance between any poem and any picture, and to compare one with the other stretches words too far.

It seems, said one of them, that we have come to the edge where painting breaks off and takes its way into the wordless land. We shall have to set foot there soon, and all our words will fold their wings and sit huddled like rooks on the tops of the trees in winter. But since we love words let us dally for a little on the verge, said the other. Let us hold painting by the hand a moment longer, for though they must part in the end, painting and writing have much to tell each other; they have much in common. The novelist, after all, wants to make us see. Gardens, rivers, skies, clouds changing, the color of a woman’s dress, landscapes that bask beneath lovers, twisted woods that people walk in when they quarrel—novels are full of pictures like these. A novelist is always saying to himself, How can I bring the sun on to my page? How can I show the night and the moon rising? And he must often think that to name a color is the worst way to show it. It must be done with one word, or with one word in skilful contrast with another. For example, there is Shakespeare’s

Dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart.

Does not “ruddy” shine out partly because “sad” comes after it; and does not the “sad” convey to us a double sense of the gloom of the mind and the dulness of color? They both speak at once, stimulating the two eyes of the mind and the body. Then again there is Herrick’s

More white than are the whitest creams,
Or moonlight tinselling the streams,

where the word “tinselling” adds to the simplicity of “white” the glittering, sequined, fluid look of moonlit water. It is a very complex business, the mixing and marrying of words that goes on, probably unconsciously, in the poet’s mind to feed the reader’s eye. All great writers are great colorists, just as they are musicians into the bargain; they always contrive to make their scenes glow and darken and change to the eye. Each of Shakespeare’s plays has its dominant color. And each writer differs, of course, from others as a colorist. Pope has no great range of color; he is more draughtsman than colorist; clear washes of indigo, discreet blacks, and violets best suit his exquisite sharp outlines—save that in the “Elegy to an Unfortunate Lady” there is a mass of funeral black, and the great image of the kings in the same poem glows crimson. Keats, of course, uses color lavishly, lusciously, like a Venetian. In “The Eve of St. Agnes” he paints for lines at a time, dipping his pen in mounds of pure red and blue. Tennyson, on the other hand, is never luscious; he uses the hard brush and the pure bright tints of a miniature painter. “The Princess” is illuminated like a monk’s manuscript; there are whole landscapes in the curves of the capital letters. You almost need a magnifying glass to see the minuteness of the detail.

What is a picture when it has rid itself of the companionship of language and of music?

Undoubtedly the arts are closely united. There is music, too. Probably no poet can make a line without first setting it to music. And the prose writer, although he pretends to walk soberly in obedience to the voice of reason, nevertheless excites us by perpetual changes of rhythm that follow the emotions with which he deals. The best critics, like Lamb and Hazlitt, are those who are acutely aware of this mixture of elements. Nowadays we have specialized to such an extent that critics neither hear music nor see color in literature; meaning is isolated; which accounts for the miserable state of criticism in our time and the partial manner in which it deals with its subject.

But now, they said, it is time to make an end—we have gossiped long enough. There is the silent land before us. We have come close to it many times while we were talking—when we said that Rose’s red petticoat satisfied us; when we said that the bulk of the chest of drawers convinced us that all was well with the world as a whole, though the publican was doomed. Why did the red petticoat, the yellow chest of drawers, make us feel something that had nothing whatever to do with our story? We could not say; we could not express in words the effect of those combinations of colors and lines. And, thinking back over the show, we have to admit that there is a great stretch of silent territory in Sickert’s pictures. Consider once more the picture of the music hall. At first it suggests the husky voice of Marie Lloyd singing a song about the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit; then the song dies away, and we see a scooped-out space filled with curious curves of fiddles, bowler hats, and shirt fronts converging into a pattern with a lemon-colored blaze in the centre. It is extraordinarily satisfying. Yet this description is so formal, so superficial that we can hardly force our lips to frame it; while the emotion is distinct, powerful, and satisfactory.

Yes, said the other, it is not a description at all, it leaves out the meaning. But what sort of meaning is that which cannot be expressed in words? What is a picture when it has rid itself of the companionship of language and of music? Let us ask the painters.

But the painters were still talking with their fingers. They were still bristling and shivering like dogs in dark lanes when something passes that we cannot see.

They have gone much further into the forest than we shall ever go, said one of the talkers, sadly. We only catch a glimpse now and then of what lives there; we try to describe it and we cannot; and then it vanishes, and having seen it and lost it, exhaustion and depression overcome us; we recognize the limitations which nature has put upon us, and so we turn back to the sunny margin where the arts flirt and joke and pay each other compliments.

But do not let us fall into despair, said the other. I once read a letter from Walter Sickert in which he said, “I have always been a literary painter, thank goodness, like all the decent painters.” Perhaps, then, he would not altogether despise us. When we talk of his biographies, his novels, and his poems we may not be so foolish as it seems. Among the many kinds of artists, it may be that there are some who are hybrid. Some, that is to say, bore deeper and deeper into the stuff of their own art; others are always making raids into the lands of others. Sickert it may be is among the hybrids, the raiders. His name itself suggests that he is of mixed birth. I have read that he is partly German, partly English, partly Scandinavian perhaps; he was born in Munich, was educated at Reading, and lived in France. What more likely than that his mind is also cosmopolitan; that he sings a good song, writes a fine style, and reads enormously in four or five different languages? All this filters down into his brush. That is why he draws so many different people to his pictures. From his photograph you might take him for a highly distinguished lawyer with a nautical bent; the sort of man who settles a complicated case at the law courts, then changes into an old serge suit, pulls a yachting cap with a green peak over his eyes, and buffets about the North Sea with a volume of Aeschylus in his pocket. In the intervals of hauling up and down the mainsail he wipes the salt from his eyes, whips out a canvas and paints a divinely lovely picture of Dieppe, Harwich, or Dover. That is the sort of man I take Walter Sickert to be.

But you should call him Richard Sickert, said somebody—Richard Sickert, R.A.

What does it matter what you call him? He is the best painter now living in England—upon that they were all agreed.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was an English novelist and essayist, known especially for Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own.
Originally published:
September 1, 1934

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