Art & Artists in Exhibition: Vancouver 1890 - 1950
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"The Art of Charles John Collings: An Appreciation"

by Val Davis, R.B.A.

From The Studio - October 15, 1912

"An Illustrated Magazine of Fine & Applied Arts", London England

     Even to those for whom art is one of life's greatest interests there come, amid the multitude of exhibitions, moments of satiety and depression. One asks, Is it not played out, this "painting," has it anything fresh to offer? After all the centuries, is any form of pictorial art possible, combining beauty with originality - and sanity? The most jaded of art-lovers, the most blase of critics, must have found an answer to these questions in the recent exhibition of drawings representing the Canadian Rockies by Mr. Charles John Collings, at the Carroll Gallery, George Street, Hanover Square. One scarcely had dared to hope in these latter days there there could be such a revelation in vision, colour, and technique, for it seemed that even the "isms" must have exhausted their horrors - that finality had come. How quietly and unostentatiously the little "show" was announced ! No trumpet blares or heralding of distinguished patrons, but just a brief "foreword" in the catalogue, by Mr. Luscombe Carroll - whose faith in the artist has never wavered for twenty years.

     At first sight of Mr. Colling's work one is impressed with a sense of something unfamiliar; no recollection of kindred effort springs to the mind - this is admitted by the few to whom it does not make a complete appeal, as well as by the many who wholeheartedly succumb to its spell. The vision is new, the colour is new, the technique, even, is new. Indeed, this matter of quality in method is, to artists especially, one of the most remarkable features of Mr. Collings's art. That after all the experiments of generations of workers with colour on paper a man should in our day show us an absolutely new effect and quality obtainable with these materials verges on the incredible, and few artists indeed can be found to accept the fact save from the evidence of their own eyes. And how perfectly his method lends itself to the rendering of the crystalline air, the unsmirched snows, the pure light and colour of these mountain solitudes ! But this art goes further than any mere happy dexterous rendering of the outward physical beauty of lake or mountain, for there is a "spirituality" in these drawings which nothing surpasses within my knowledge of landscape art. Standing before these few square inches of framed paper, we feel the awe of great sanctuaries where abide Presences. Here Silence broods for ever on that far-off peak, and the spirit of Solitude dwells untroubled by man and his works amid the unsullied snow and ice. On that pinnacle of white piercing the heavens light inaccessible has for ever a resting-place. By what magic of selection and rendering, by what subtlety of drawing or colour, such emotions and imaginations are evolved in our souls it is difficult, in fact impossible, to analyse. All that can with certainty be said is that only an emotional ecstasy of vision could so transfuse peak and ravine, lake and sky, that all material substance, water, rock, and tree, becomes lucent, so that while we see only the essence of things we yet know them for what they are, lake and cloud and mountain.

     An analysis of the technique and craftsmanship of these water-colours reveals characteristics both interesting and instructive. The drawing is instinctive, it creates as well as records; nevertheless the localities depicted are recognisable by all who know them. This innate sense of form enables the artist so to dispose and pattern his colour and tones as to give with truth the configuration of mountain and valley and plain; indeed only a phonetic summary of the drawing could present within such restricted compass these panoramic glimpses of the Rocky Mountains. We find no meticulous topographic detail in these bold constructive lines and angles and curves, yet what have they missed that matters?

     The composition of a picture can proceed from two principles, which, while to a certain extent mutually inclusive, yet contain essential differences. In one - and the more generally adopted - the main principle is the recession from the spectator in perspective, and consequent diminuition, in pictorial dimensions, of the objects forming the subject, accompanied by a corresponding gradation, especially in landscape, of their local tones and colour towards vanishing-point. Turner's Crossing the Brook will serve as an example, showing also to what a pinnacle of beauty this method can attain. Nevertheless, artists in our day have elected to consider that form of pictorial composition higher which depends on the juxtaposition of objects, tones, and colour decoratively designed together like the pattern of a carpet or of a bird's wing. Perspective, linear and aerial, must not change the decorative effect into a mere opening in the wall or an outlook through a window. Brangwyn in our day, the Primitives in earlier times, conform to this latter method, as does Mr. Collings. His drawings never suggest examples in a text-book of perspective; they are as purely decorative as a piece of inlay; yet though he disdains the conventional and easier methods he rivals them by the ease with which he gives us space, height and mass, distance and air.

     Of the feast of colour displayed in this exhibition it is difficult to speak in terms which do not savour of exaggeration. Over all of them, even those nearest approaching the prismatic, there is a delicate veil, a sensitive withdrawing, as in an opal. Grey - for him the word means an underworld of colour shrinking as it were from the light of day - amethyst, ruby, sapphire, and pearl in ever-varying degress, tint after tint, yet never the same, never repeated, at times - in a measure arbitrary - the creation of the mood and the moment. It would be hopeless to attempt to enumerate or describe a tenth of the fresh and fascinating tints and their combinations to be descried in these drawings. Most of us have had at times the feeling that snow is not always white. We are conscious occasionally of a yellow tone, more frequently perhaps of a blue. But Mr. Collings shows what a gamut of colour its surface can convey to the sensitive eye, for snow and sky and sea are Nature's changeful opals, the treasure-houses of her fairest iridescences. In the drawing On the Shuswap Lake (here reproduced) see how the changes are rung on the lovely note of vivid blue of the mountains on the left, through varying gradations, green, grey, and black, till it is finally lost in the somber tones of the white sheen of the sun-glint down the mountain-side.

     (In a later number we propose to reproduce in colour another of Mr. Collings's drawings. Our readers will readily understand from the remarks of Mr. Davis our reason for not reproducing any of them in monochrome. - Editor.)

Editor's Note: There is one colour illustration in the article, "On the Shuswap Lake"