From The Shape To The Thing

SUCH are the satisfactions and dissatisfactions, impersonal and

unpractical, we can receive, or in reality, give ourselves, in the

contemplation of shape.

But life has little leisure for contemplation; it demands

recognition, inference and readiness for active adaptation. Or

rather life forces us to deal with shapes mainly inasmuch as they

indicate the actual or possible existence of other groups of quali

which may help or hurt us. Life hurries us into recognising


Now the first peculiarity distinguishing things from shapes is

that they can occupy more or less cubic space: we can hit up

against them, displace them or be displaced by them, and in such

process of displacing or resisting displacement, we become aware of

two other peculiarities distinguishing things from shapes: they have

weight in varying degrees and texture of various sorts.

Otherwise expressed, things have body, they exist in three

dimensional space; while shapes although they are often aspects

of things (say statues or vases) having body and cubic existence,

shapes as shapes are two dimensional and bodiless.

So many of the critical applications of aesthetic, as well as of the

historical problems of art-evolution are connected with this fact or

rather the continued misunderstanding of it, that it is well to remind

the Reader of what general Psychology can teach us of the

perception of the Third Dimension. A very slight knowledge of

cubic existence, in the sense of relief, is undoubtedly furnished as

the stereoscope furnishes it, by the inevitable slight divergence

between the two eyes; an even more infinitesimal dose of such

knowledge is claimed for the surfaces of each eye separately. But

whatever notions of three-dimensional space might have been

developed from such rudiments, the perception of cubic existence

which we actually possess and employ, is undeniably based upon the

incomparably more important data afforded by locomotion, under

which term I include even the tiny pressure of a finger against a

surface, and the exploration of a hollow tooth by the tip of the

tongue. The muscular adjustments made in such locomotion become

associated by repetition with the two-dimensional arrangements of

colour and light revealed by the eye, the two-dimensional being thus

turned into the three-dimensional in our everyday experience. But

the mistakes we occasionally make, for instance taking a road seen

from above for a church-tower projecting out of the plain, or the

perspective of a mountain range for its cubic shape, occasionally

reveal that we do not really see three-dimensional objects, but

merely infer them by connecting visual data with the result of

locomotor experience. The truth of this commonplace of psychology

can be tested by the experiment of making now one, now the other,

colour of a floor pattern seem convex or concave according as we

think of it as a light flower on a dark ground, or as a white cavity

banked in by a dark ridge. And when the philistine (who may be you

or me!) exclaims against the "out of drawing" and false perspective

of unfamiliar styles of painting, he is, nine times out of ten, merely

expressing his inability to identify two-dimensional shapes as

"representing" three-dimensional things; so far proving that we do

not decipher the cubic relations of a picture until we have guessed

what that picture is supposed to stand for. And this is my reason for

saying that visible shapes, though they may be aspects of cubic

objects, have no body; and that the thought of their volume, their

weight and their texture, is due to an interruption of our

contemplation of shape by an excursion among the recollections of

qualities which shapes, as shapes, cannot possess.

And here I would forestall the Reader's objection that the feeling of

effort and resistance, essential to all our empathic dealings with

two-dimensional shapes, must, after all, be due to weight, which we

have just described as a quality shapes cannot possess. My answer is

that Empathy has extracted and schematised effort and resistance by

the elimination of the thought of weight, as by the elimination of the

awareness of our bodily tensions; and that it is just this elimination

of all incompatible qualities which allows us to attribute activities to

those two-dimensional shapes, and to feel these activities, with a

vividness undiminished by the thought of any other circumstances.

With cubic existence (and its correlative three-dimensional

space), with weight and texture we have therefore got from the

contemplated shape to a thought alien to that shape and its

contemplation. The thought, to which life and its needs and dangers

has given precedence over every other: What Thing is behind this

shape, what qualities must be inferred from this aspect? After the

possibility of occupying so much space, the most important quality

which things can have for our hopes and fears, is the possibility of

altering their occupation of space; not our locomotion, but theirs.

I call it locomotion rather than movement, because we have

direct experience only of our own movements, and infer similar

movement in other beings and objects because of their change of

place either across our motionless eye or across some other object

whose relation to our motionless eye remains unchanged. I call it

locomotion also to accentuate its difference from the movement

attributed to the shape of the Rising Mountain, movement felt by

us to be going on but not expected to result in any change of the

mountain's space relations, which are precisely what would be

altered by the mountain's locomotion.

The practical question about a shape is therefore: Does it warrant

the inference of a thing able to change its position in

three-dimensional space? to advance or recede from us? And if so in

what manner? Will it, like a loose stone, fall upon us? like flame, rise

towards us? like water, spread over us? Or will it change its place

only if we supply the necessary locomotion? Briefly: is the

thing of which we see the shape inert or active? And if this shape

belongs to a thing possessing activity of its own, is its locomotion of

that slow regular kind we call the growth and spreading of plants?

Or of the sudden, wilful kind we know in animals and men? What

does this shape tell us of such more formidable locomotion? Are

these details of curve and colour to be interpreted into jointed limbs,

can the thing fling out laterally, run after us, can it catch and

swallow us? Or is it such that we can do thus by it? Does this

shape suggest the thing's possession of desires and purposes which

we can deal with? And if so, why is it where it is? Whence does it

come? What is it going to do? What is it thinking of (if it can

think)? How will it feel towards us (if it can feel)? What would it

say (if it could speak)? What will be its future and what may have

been its past? To sum all up: What does the presence of this shape

lead us to think and do and feel?

Such are a few of the thoughts started by that shape and the

possibility of its belonging to a thing. And even when, as we shall

sometimes find, they continually return back to the shape and play

round and round it in centrifugal and centripetal alternations, yet all

these thoughts are excursions, however brief, from the world of

definite unchanging shapes into that of various and ever varying

things; interruptions, even if (as we shall later see) intensifying

interruptions, of that concentrated and coordinated contemplation of

shapes, with which we have hitherto dealt. And these excursions,

and a great many more, from the world of shapes into that of things,

are what we shall deal with, when we come to Art, under the

heading of representation and suggestion, or, as is usually said,

of subject and expression as opposed to form.