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Post-War Works - Part 4: Style and Outlook

It is with this background in mind that we must understand the changes in style and outlook that occurred in Katharine Maltwood's post war work. A mystic Asiatic Spirit entered her sculpture and she moved beyond Arts and Crafts principles in an attempt to offer the spectator a new relation to life and its deepest meanings by reference to Eastern philosophy. She conceived the idea of the sculptor as an "idol maker" revealing great spiritual and inner truths and serving as an inspiration to those striving for enlightenment. A more complete explanation of these views appears in her only surviving statement on art, a type written note, entitled "The Makers of Idols":

Throughout the ages man has expressed his mind in idols. We know at a glance what manner of man he was by the kind of god he visualized and created in stone or wood, bronze or marble.

The trade of idol making has almost died out in Europe, to the detriment of sculpture. Looked at from the artistic and historical standpoint, if not from the religious, this is a loss to the generations to follow.

An agonised figure on a cross, yes, his Saintly Mother and a few canonized human beings and portraits of celebrities, war memorials and nondescript shapes that mean nothing. What will the future read from these remains? A tortured meaningless world, with no faith, ideals, or for that matter intellect, of a spiritual nature.

Is it not possible to breathe aspiration and inspiration into our sculpture instead of grossness and soulless mechanism? Suffering may be there that is inevitable in a changing world but it is possible to "become perfect through suffering," it is a dynamic change into something finer and more spiritual. Out of the mass of struggling humanity there must evolve something we can believe in, some "divine event to which the whole creation moves."

That should be the "metier" of sculpture. The idol maker should suggest higher and hidden values that we are moved by aesthetically and from which we receive definite inspiration.

Russia has broken her idols, what has she set up in place of them? France broke hers some time before. What does America worship? And what ideals has the once great British Empire? Yet God's laws are forever the same, why do we not translate His marvels into Art? Expressions of God.

This note with its quotation from Tennyson's In Memoriam clearly reveals Katharine Maltwood's debt to the Victorian Era. Like artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement she sees the advance of technology and industrialization as a threat to man's spiritual and physical well being. The "soulless mechanism" and materialism of the day were she believed destroying man's faith and spiritual ideals as well as the security, culture and traditions of the leading Western nations. The solutions however are now to be found in Buddhist and Eastern thought where the aim is to "become perfect through suffering." In Buddhism "suffering" is a sense of being imperfect and incomplete and a necessary evil before entering the way to enlightenment or Nirvana. Its cause is mainly selfishness, the illusion of "I" or the ego which must be eliminated to achieve a true awareness of cosmic unity. In Buddhism there is no separate soul or quality of permanence in life but only one life force which moves within the universal law towards its own perfection. Through successive reincarnations the higher one reaches in thought the more thought is illuminated by the light of the ultimate spiritual awakening Buddhists call Enlightenment. Thus to Katharine Maltwood sculpture should be didactic and an inspiration to the beholder by suggesting "the higher and hidden values" that lead to this perfection.

Another source of influence on the artist's philosophy at this time was the writing of Tolstoy. In Russia, another crumbling Empire, mysticism occupied a far more important place than aestheticism. The Russian late 19th century decadents were represented by Dostoevsky's The Possessed and the Nihilists while Tolstoy "became the guru of a Europe which was already drawn towards Asia."33 Tolstoy's ideas on art are expressed in several of the art books Katharine Maltwood referred to. For instance Harold Speed's textbook on drawing takes its definition of art from Tolstoy claiming: "the visible world is to the artist, as it were, a wonderful garment, at times revealling to him the Beyond, the Inner Truth there is in all things. He has a consciousness of some correspondence with something the other side of visible things and divinely felt through them, a 'still small voice' which he is impelled to interpret to men."34 To Tolstoy true art must appeal to the religious perception of the brotherhood of man and must impart an emotional impression to the mind. Oriental artists are admired because the spiritual essence of things seems to be more real to them and similarly primitive art because the direct emotional significance of line and form is expressed more clearly there.

In addition Katharine Maltwood annotated her agreement with Sir William Petrie's Arts and Crafts of Ancient Egypt in its quotations from Tolstoy and also in its claim that Egyptian art completely fulfilled the true aims of art. To Petrie it embodied and expressed the greatest qualities of the ancient Egyptian character which he enumerated as stability, strength, endurance, love of truth and justice and the discipline and harmony which bonded Egyptian society.35 It was felt at this time that the study of ancient Egyptian civilization and religion would lead to the discovery of a lost body of human knowledge. This explains something of Katharine Maltwood's fascination with Egyptian art and philosophy and her attitude towards it.



All content on this page is copyright © 30 January, 2006
Rosemary Brown, the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery, and the University of Victoria

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