Atmosphere



    IN its secondary sense atmosphere is a word which is only lately come into common use. The artists, I suppose, have introduced it and given it currency. Atmoshpere is to fact what the bloom is to the grape, – the mark of immaculate perfection, imperceptible to the casual or careless glance, yet full of wonder and charm to the thoughtful observer. Atmosphere is the aroma of spirit, the aura or emanation of being; and he is a happy artist who has the least command of such a perishable finish for his work.
    One sees so often a picture or piece of sculpture, immensely clever, apt, refined, full of dignity, graceful in proportion, restful in line, or rich and harmonious colour, the idea transferred [Page 291] to the very life, and yet one can say of it: “Yes, but it has no atmosphere!” And there is the fatal sentence pronounced. Again, you come upon a creation which seems upon scrutiny to be a tissue of faults. There is nothing right about it; bad colour, bad drawing, false execution, slovenly technique; yet somehow, in spite of all that, even so poor a thing as this may tug at your sympathy; it may be able to cast a glamour over you for the moment, for all its badness. It may have atmosphere. True, this is unlikely, and a touch of atmosphere alone will not save a poor creation. Yet, how welcome, how delightful it is!
    In people, too, as well as in facts and objects, atmosphere counts for so much. There are many personalities, only too many, in whom it is lacking. They are excellent, even irreproachable, citizens, and exemplary friends maybe; but they are purely negative or neutral; they seem to be invested with not a particle of mysterious envelopment which lends glamour to the individual, and irradiates [Page 292] the character. Without atmosphere there may be force, directness, even beauty, but the utmost reach of power will be wanting. The hard light of character needs to be somewhat diffused and tempered by an atmospheric quality in its expression. And since expression is a matter of art, one is almost tempted to say that art consists in the creation of atmosphere. Be as faithful to reality (or to romance) as you please, but surround your transcription with an atmosphere; bestow upon it the magic air and colour which are its own indeed, but which shall still convince and transport us beyond the actual.

        “The little more, and how much it is;
        The little less, and what worlds away.”

    In matters of art it is “the little more” which is so important; and the absolute reproduction of an incident or an object, if such a feat were possible, would mean something very like failure.
    Also the painter is in danger of seeing too [Page 293] much. He half closes his eyes for fear of seeing things exactly as they are. He would preserve the charm of atmosphere at all costs. He must either add something of his own to the canvas, or omit the minuteness of detail in his rendering of a subject, in order to arrest the air and the illusion of nature. But at all hazards he will avoid what science would count the truth. Your line must have just sufficient indecision to betray (I should say, to reveal) the human hand that drew it. For this is the touch of living sympathy, more important than the dead accuracy of the machine. To transfer to canvas or print something of the vitality of the original is the first concern of the craftsman, the more nearly exact the better, but living at all costs. We are apt to forget that the circle and the straight line are mathematical fictions, forms of speech which have been approached but never realized in a material world. For to apprehend absolute perfection is not given to man, though he be a prince of artists; while ever to strive [Page 294] after that apprehension is one of his most delightful joys. The pursuit of the unattainable is the piety of art.
    To create an atmosphere, to produce an illusion, having been always the artist’s prime aim and most elementary need, it follows that in every art there have been evolved its own peculiar laws which facilitate and enforce that object. In poetry, for instance, versification, with all its complex beauty of rhythms and metres, helps to enshroud the theme with atmosphere. I had almost said that versification provides the atmosphere. For although it is so easy to be hopelessly banal in verse, there must still cling even to the worst poetry some of the inalienable charm of numbers. A foreigner at least might hear it with satisfaction.
    So that if a man will abandon verse, and betake himself, as he fondly says, to the freedom of prose, he will find the burden of art laid upon him more than twice as heavy as [Page 295] before. He is cast utterly upon his own resources, and yet the obligations of his art are not diminished one jot. There is the same old tale of illusion and atmosphere to be made up, and not a shred of material in stock. One thinks of prose as the simplest, most natural means of expression, and of poetry as laboured in comparison. I fancy, however, that if we could interrogate those who have been masters of both arts, we should find the reverse to be true. “Prose is toil,” they would say, “while poetry is play.”
    At all events, there is atmosphere in form; and it is the engrossing business of the artist to manipulate his form, to humour it, to coax it, to compel it, to woo it, so as to make it yield the greatest possible amount of atmosphere for his purpose. In all this he must take care to call to his aid every available resource of his craft. In the first place he must enlist the sympathetic help of words by using them kindly and rightly according to their nature [Page 296] and genius, and as they belong, and not antagonize them by misapplication. I have known writers who established a reputation for great cleverness simply by the misuse of words. Their style was called original. It was. For pure unmitigated cruelty to our tiny, long-suffering servants, these patient words, it was unmatched. Now a man who will mutilate his mother tongue merely to display his own agility is no better than a heathen. It is so needless, too. For to the generous and sedulous master, what revelations of undreamed beauty, what marvels of import, will not words impart?
    I would not speak as a pedant, nor as a dilettante, on this topic, but only as a sober bystander in this great gallery of art, this lovely world which we are permitted to wander through. I see how much things are enhanced in my eyes by the atmosphere that surrounds them; I see how naked and poverty-stricken they appear without it; and I say to myself, “I love atmosphere, in art and in life [Page 297]. I will surround myself with it, whenever I can do so unselfishly. And if I were an artist of any sort, it is atmosphere I should seek first of all [Page 298].”

THE END.