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Arthur Symons as Critic of the Visual Arts Susan Azar Porterfield Rockford College ARTHUR SYMONS is better known for his writings on poetry than for either his own verse or for his essays on other arts. His oeuvre also contains a substantial amount of criticism of the visual arts. He began writing about particular painters, Odilon Redon and Holman Hunt, for example, in the early 1890s. By 1903, he was contributing art criticism on a regular basis for the Weekly Critical Review, and in 1905 the Outlook engaged him to write art criticism as well.1 He was a wellknown figure in the artistic community and kept company with many of the celebrated artists of the day. On good terms with both Charles Conder and Augustus John, Symons knew Walter Sickert well, and as editor of the short-lived Savoy (1896), he worked closely with Aubrey Beardsley . Symons and George Moore, especially early on in their friendship, shared many of the same intellectual interests, and Symons found much to admire in Moore's Modern Painting (1893). He also knew D. S. MacColl , who from 1896 to 1906 was the art critic for the Saturday Review and who would eventually become the keeper for both the Tate Gallery as well as the Wallace Collection.2 By the late 1890s, when Symons's ideas on the arts began to mature , he formulated an aesthetic that was broad enough to encompass the visual arts. Although that aesthetic did not enjoy the same acknowledged and specific influence on the visual arts of the twentieth century as it did upon the poetry, his views provide a good indication of those circulating at the time.3 His work reveals the shift in attitude about the arts from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries and about how aspects peculiar to the modern aesthetic evolved. Like his contemporaries, MacColl and Moore, Symons was no artistic prophet, no Ruskin or Pater, but he was able to assimilate and to make accessible the avant-garde notions of those who might be considered prophets of the new, especially James McNeill Whistler and Rodin, two figures he most revered. 260 PORTERFIELD : SYMONS Symons was not, however, merely a popularizer of the views of others . He evolved his own, quite distinct theory of the arts, one that can be described as symbolist, although Symons himself after the turn of the century tended to use the word less and less.4 The term is nevertheless useful to a study of Symons because it is both general enough to encompass his premises and specific enough to provide boundaries. It allows for what appears to be Symons's two most important artistic concerns, the aesthetic, formal qualities of a work of art in addition to its ability to lead one to some kind of spirituality. In the art Symons most appreciated , the truth of the poem or painting, that is, its aesthetic integrity, led its audience to experience beauty, an experience meaning transcendence . Although during the nineteenth century Symons wrote about particular contemporary artists, such as Aubrey Beardsley, the bulk of his art criticism appeared just after the turn of the century, between 1903 and 1906. Most of it was published in three journals, the Weekly Critical Review, the Saturday Review, and Outlook. His later book, Studies on Modern Painters (1925), collects many but not all of his articles written during this earlier time from both the Weekly Critical Review and Outlook . As evidenced by his writing, it was during these early years of the twentieth century that Symons began to consider painting in his critique of the arts. His appointment as art critic for Outlook probably encouraged him. Until this time, he had given most of his attention to the theater and literature. Symons seems, then, to have thought most about contemporary British art during this time, from about 1903-1906. Although he never formed his ideas into a comprehensive doctrine about the visual arts, he uses the same criteria to judge painting that he uses to judge literature and indeed all of the arts. Symons's entire aesthetic can be seen as symbolist as he stipulates the term, and so a brief overview of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 260-274
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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