From The Thing To The Shape

THE necessities of analysis and exposition have led us from the

Shape to the Thing, from aesthetic contemplation to discursive and

practical thinking. But, as the foregoing chapter itself suggests, the

real order of precedence, both for the individual and the race, is

inevitably the reverse, since without a primary and dominant interest

in things no creatures would have survived to develop an interest in


Indeed, considering the imperative need for an ever abbreviated and

often automatic system of human reactions to sense data, it is by no

means easy to understand (and the problem has therefore been

utterly neglected) how mankind ever came to evolve any process as

lengthy and complicated as that form-contemplation upon which all

aesthetic preference depends. I will hazard the suggestion that

familiarity with shapes took its original evolutional utility, as well as

its origin, from the dangers of over rapid and uncritical inference

concerning the qualities of things and man's proper reactions

towards them. It was necessary, no doubt, that the roughest

suggestion of a bear's growl and a bear's outline should send our

earliest ancestors into their sheltering caves. But the occasional

discovery that the bear was not a bear but some more harmless

and edible animal must have brought about a comparison, a

discrimination between the visible aspects of the two beasts, and a

mental storage of their difference in shape, gait and colour.

Similarly the deluding resemblance between poisonous and

nutritious fruits and roots, would result, as the resemblance between

the nurse's finger and nipple results with the infant, in attention to

visible details, until the acquisition of vivid mental images became

the chief item of the savage man's education, as it still is of the

self-education of the modern child. This evolution of interest in visible

aspects would of course increase tenfold as soon as mankind took to

making things whose usefulness (i.e. their still non-existent

qualities) might be jeopardised by a mistake concerning their shape.

For long after over and under, straight and oblique, right and

left, had become habitual perceptions in dealing with food and

fuel, the effective aim of a stone, the satisfactory flight of an arrow,

would be discovered to depend upon more or less of what we call

horizontals and perpendiculars, curves and angles; and the stability

of a fibrous tissue upon the intervals of crossing and recrossing, the

rythmical or symmetrical arrangements revealed by the hand or eye.

In short, making, being inevitably shaping, would have

developed a more and more accurate perception and recollection of

every detail of shape. And not only would there arise a comparison

between one shape and another shape, but between the shape

actually under one's eyes and the shape no longer present, between

the shape as it really was and the shape as it ought to be. Thus in the

very course of practical making of things there would come to be

little interludes, recognised as useful, first of more and more

careful looking and comparing, and then of real contemplation:

contemplation of the arrow-head you were chipping, of the mat

you were weaving, of the pot you were rubbing into shape;

contemplation also of the other arrow-head or mat or pot existing

only in your wishes; of the shape you were trying to obtain with a

premonitory emotion of the effect which its peculiarities would

produce when once made visible to your eye! For the man cutting

the arrow-head, the woman plaiting the mat, becoming familiar with

the appropriate shapes of each and thinking of the various individual

arrow-heads or mats of the same type, would become aware of the

different effect which such shapes had on the person who looked at

them. Some of these shapes would be so dull, increasing the

tediousness of chipping and filing or of laying strand over strand;

others so alert, entertaining and likeable, as if they were helping in

the work; others, although equally compatible with utility, fussing or

distressing one, never doing what one expected their lines and

curves to do. To these suppositions I would add a few more

suggestions regarding the evolution of shape-contemplation out of

man's perfunctory and semi-automatic seeing of "Things." The

handicraftsman, armourer, weaver, or potter, benefits by his own

and his forerunners' practical experience of which shape is the more

adapted for use and wear, and which way to set about producing it;

his technical skill becomes half automatic, so that his eye and mind,

acting as mere overseers to his muscles, have plenty of time for

contemplation so long as everything goes right and no new moves

have to be made. And once the handicraftsman contemplates the

shape as it issues from his fingers, his mind will be gripped by that

liking or disliking expressed by the words "beautiful" and "ugly."

Neither is this all. The owner of a weapon or a vessel or piece of

tissue, is not always intent upon employing it; in proportion to its

usefulness and durability and to the amount of time, good luck, skill

or strength required to make or to obtain it, this chattel will turn

from a slave into a comrade. It is furbished or mended, displayed to

others, boasted over, perhaps sung over as Alan Breck sang over his

sword. The owner's eye (and not less that of the man envious of the

owner!) caresses its shape; and its shape, all its well-known

ins-and-outs and ups-and-downs, haunts the memory, ready to start into

vividness whenever similar objects come under comparison. Now

what holds good of primaeval and savage man holds good also of

civilized, perhaps even of ourselves among our machine made and

easily replaced properties. The shape of the things we make and use

offers itself for contemplation in those interludes of inattention

which are half of the rythm of all healthful work. And it is this

normal rythm of attention swinging from effort to ease, which

explains how art has come to be a part of life, how mere aspects

have acquired for our feelings an importance rivalling that of things.

I therefore commend to the Reader the now somewhat unfashionable

hypothesis of Semper and his school, according to which the first

preference for beauty of shape must be sought for in those arts

like stone and metal work, pottery and weaving, which give

opportunities for repetition, reduplication, hence rythm and

symmetry, and whose material and technique produce what are

called geometric patterns, meaning such as exist in two dimensions

and do not imitate the shapes of real objects. This theory has been

discredited by the discovery that very primitive and savage mankind

possessed a kind of art of totally different nature, and which analogy

with that of children suggests as earlier than that of pattern: the art

which the ingenious hypothesis of Mr Henry Balfour derives from

recognition of accidental resemblances between the shapes and

stains of wood or stone and such creatures and objects as happen to

be uppermost in the mind of the observer, who cuts or paints

whatever may be needed to complete the likeness and enable others

to perceive the suggestion. Whether or not this was its origin, there

seems to have existed in earliest times such an art of a strictly

representative kind, serving (like the spontaneous art of children) to

evoke the idea of whatever was interesting to the craftsman and his

clients, and doubtless practically to have some desirable magic

effect upon the realities of things. But (to return to the hypothesis of

the aesthetic primacy of geometric and non-representative art) it is

certain that although such early representations occasionally attain

marvellous life-likeness and anatomical correctness, yet they do not

at first show any corresponding care for symmetrical and rythmical

arrangement. The bisons and wild boars, for instance, of the

Altamira cave frescoes, do indeed display vigour and beauty in the

lines constituting them, proving that successful dealing with shape,

even if appealing only to practical interest, inevitably calls forth the

empathic imagination of the more gifted artists; but these

marvellously drawn figures are all huddled together or scattered as

out of a rag-bag; and, what is still more significant, they lack that

insistence on the feet which not only suggests ground beneath them

but, in so doing, furnishes a horizontal by which to start, measure

and take the bearings of all other lines. These astonishing

palaeolithic artists (and indeed the very earliest Egyptian and Greek

ones) seem to have thought only of the living models and their

present and future movements, and to have cared as little for lines

and angles as the modern children whose drawings have been

instructively compared with theirs by Levinstein and others. I

therefore venture to suggest that such aesthetically essential

attention to direction and composition must have been applied to

representative art when its realistic figures were gradually

incorporated into the patterns of the weaver and the potter. Such

"stylisation" is still described by art historians as a "degeneration"

due to unintelligent repetition; but it was on the contrary the

integrating process by which the representative element was

subjected to such aesthetic preferences as had been established in

the manufacture of objects whose usefulness or whose production

involved accurate measurement and equilibrium as in the case of

pottery or weapons, or rythmical reduplication as in that of textiles.

Be this question as it may (and the increasing study of the origin and

evolution of human faculties will some day settle it!) we already

know enough to affirm that while in the very earliest art the

shape-element and the element of representation are usually separate, the

two get gradually combined as civilisation advances, and the shapes

originally interesting only inasmuch as suggestions (hence as

magical equivalents) or things, and employed for religious,

recording, or self-expressive purposes, become subjected to

selection and rearrangement by the habit of avoiding disagreeable

perceptive and empathic activities and the desire of giving scope to

agreeable ones. Nay the whole subsequent history of painting and

sculpture could be formulated as the perpetual starting up of new

representative interests, new interests in things, their spatial

existence, locomotion, anatomy, their reaction to light, and also their

psychological and dramatic possibilities; and the subordination of

these ever-changing interests in things to the unchanging habit of

arranging visible shapes so as to diminish opportunities for the

contemplative dissatisfaction and increase opportunities for the

contemplative satisfaction to which we attach the respective names

of "ugly" and "beautiful."

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