Pamela Colman Smith

Camera Work, July 1909

No. 27, pp. 18-20

PAMELA COLMAN SMITH has seen through many veils. To her the universe is a congeries of suggestions. She has smitten with the rod of her imagination this adamant world of such seeming solids and vaporized it. And out of this vapor she has shaped her visions of life, her symbols done in color, her music matrixed and moulded to concrete shape.

No more curious and fascinating exhibition has ever been held in New York than the exhibition of her drawings at the Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession. She is a blender of visions, a mystic, a symbolist, one who transfigures the world she lives in by the overwhelming simplicity of her imagination. To me, these wonderful little drawings are not merely art; they are poems, ideas, life-values and cosmic values that have long gestated within the subconscious world of their creator—a wizard’s world of intoxicating evocations—here and now accouched on their vibrating, colored beds, to mystify and awe the mind of some few beholders; to protect their souls from off this little Springboard of Time into the stupendous unbegotten thing we name the Infinite.

Here—as in “Warum”—Man stands questioning the Infinite, or again, as in “Closing Day,” a figure blasted with melancholia has dragged himself to the eaves of space, or as in “The White Castle”—a wonderfully executed piece of work—the eternal ascetic appears against the snowpeaks of spiritual isolation. What matters the subject? The artist here is saying the old immortal things in a new immortal way.

Nature is a veil which the imagination of man has woven to cover his nakedness. In the drawings of Miss Smith we are aware of standing before these veils which her poetic intuitions have invested with a supernal, intoxicating, hallucinating beauty. What secret lies athwart that “Elfin Music” with its vague, innominable beauty, a picture that would have ravished the soul of Keats or Shelley? And those giant moons mirroring the eternal Woman—does Isis uprear herself behind them? And in “Hushwood”—what overworld has she here prefigured and depicted with nightmare-touch?

So infinite suggestion stabs at us from out these canvases. They mean more than we see; they mean more than their creator is aware of. And everlasting mystery—Mystery with wistful face and ghostly footfall—wells out from all these conceptions and shrouds us with humility.

Wonder and mystery and dreams! And the Infinite with its gleaming veils of matter and the strange invasion of man in an alien universe! The minds of the greatest visionaries are infantile—and here Miss Smith approaches Blake and Beardsley. Only dullards believe in the commonplace; only mediocrity feels life to be stale. Forever sealed is he who does not marvel at his breath that comes and goes. Dead beyond all corpses are they who do not feel the mystery of light and shadow or the meadow with its blank of snow. There is as much poetry in the world today as there ever was or ever [19] will be; we stand as near the sources of that outstreaming magic mist we call the imagination as we ever did or ever shall; we are no wiser as to the cause or the meaning of anything than we ever were or ever will be. And that seems to me to be the metaphysic of Pamela Colman Smith, and into all her work has passed her soul, drunk with the wonder and the mystery of things. For wonder and mystery shall we poets put on as golden veils to cover our fleeting souls.

I have spoken of the “overwhelming simplicity” of her work. They are so simple that fat practical brains will either see in them nothing or lunacy. All simplicity is akin to madness because it is nearer unity—it sees far and deep and drinks directly from the founts of Mystery. The world is so completely and irretrievably lost in the concrete, it has so carefully moulded of the secondary and incidental characteristics of creation a world within a world, that a poet, such as Pamela Colman Smith, who speaks directly of things as they are perceived by the mind not yet overlaid by the painted illusions of sight and not affected by the deadly automatism of routine, is believe to have a touch of insanity. All absolute simplicity startles, is eccentric and bears about it the mark of other-worldness, when in reality it is merely the reservation of the virginal, first-day mind in the bogs of matter, the perception of unity and fundamental things through the blinding fogs of this multiplied absurdity called practical life. This spirit of artistic simplicity is the immortal red bud that miraculously, age after age, in art, literature and philosophy, bursts through the leaden strata of custom; the sword whetted with light that cuts the thongs of familiarity that are twisted round and round the living, palpitant soul of man.

Fat Mind standing before these wonderful offerings of Miss Smith will let this ooze from his mouth: “There is no such world as I see here; there are no such mountains, no such moons, no such flowers with baby heads on them, no such ships, no such skies.” Thus, Fat Brain, who is legion. In art, imagination is fact. What I see, that is my fact. “The world is my idea”—in the great formula of Schopenhauer. My truth is the only truth; MY world is the only world. That should be the great artist’s creed. The world that Pamela Colman Smith has evoked is great just because it is her world and no one else’s. The brain is the radiant hub of the universal illusion. It is the brain that has exiled the stars in their infinities and imprisoned light in air. Pole star and the frozen mountains of the moon are the mere flotsam and jetsam of our highly elaborated imaginations. What I see and feel and the way I see and feel—you shall sooner dissever the sun from its fires than sunder me from my vision. And it is thus the individualist in art is born—the eternal ghost fabricating its dreams. We can do nothing but duplicate ourselves. Our images and dreams and thoughts are eggs. We enwomb and unwomb ourselves. We have eternities, infinities, nadirs, zeniths boxed in our brains. We are always delivering ourselves to ourselves. In so far as we differ from others in that measure do we grow. Miss Smith’s drawings are great because they are like no one else’s.

[20] Also is Pamela Colman Smith the evocatrice of Wonder. Her world is a world of romance—a world seen with the divining and transforming spiritual power of a child. It is a fugacious world, a world forever tottering to its downfall, but saved from annihilation by its inherent power of recreating itself. The spirit that rules life is neither a spirit of destruction nor a spirit of creation. It is the Spirit of Evanescence, a lapsing of shadow into shadow, a fusing and interchanging, with a perpetual tendency to extinction. Inspired in many cases as Miss Smith has been by the pictures that music gives to her mind—music the art fugacious—she has seized these morsels of the infinite out of the hurrying stream of her dreams and translated them into colored vibrations. To such minds what is practical is vulgar, what is utilitarian is ugly. Grimm and Andersen tell finer truths than Euclid or Newton, and they that built the Pyramids built things less substantial than the two young gods who lie dead under the Aurelian wall.

For Art takes the infinite for its theme; life—practical life—has no theme; it is all variation, without a welding unity. It is detail, detail, detail, spread to stupefaction. The artistic spirit constructs ends; having attained them, it rests a marbled, immortal contemplation. It dwells in an everlasting Now and has power to hallow, smut and aureole the beast. Our visions! Who can take them from us? Our impassioned dreams that burst their brain-dikes and overflow on canvas or that torture from the marble block its secret of line and curve or that flash across the world as musical rhapsody—that is the real moment over against which the “real” workaday world is a fiction, a blasphemy, a lie. Pamela Colman Smith has in this manner, I think, challenged the world around her.

Let the scavengers scrape the gutters for coppers and duck in the cesspools of practical life for the rolling dollar. They are the “Captains of Industry”—the grimy, smutty captains of the marts, and their “industry” is a grimy, smutty, lurid hell of lies. And their realm is the realm of the arched spine and the furtive glance and the gluttonous lip. They and all their works shall go in the winds; and the turrets and spires and bridges of our civilization shall long be gangrened in the muds of Oblivion when the dreamers from the slopes of Parnassus shall with potent rod smite the souls of generations yet unborn; and from them, as from us, shall burst the fountains of exalted wonder.

Pamela Colman Smith has seen by closing the eyes.

Benjamin de Casseres.