Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The uniquely creative origins of visual verse

Analytics as Art
To some degree, all modern art owes its birthright to Cubism. Between the invention of the camera and the inception of Cubism, painters and sculptors had experimented with different approaches in the pictorial rendering of subject matter. From Impressionism up to and including Expressionism, observations had been influenced by light, color and even the application of paint itself. All, to some extent, had been an effort to rebel against the exact, mechanical aspects of the camera and the illustrative academic painting preceding the avant-garde

Cubism would be the exception. Instead of attempting to replicate the subject, Cubists would instead attempt to dissect and analyze what they saw before them. The pictorial aspect would remain important. However, also primary was the subject's interior (hidden) aspects or how elements of the subject could be viewed from different angles or in space or time. Somewhat existentially, artists began to question the realistic depiction a traditional painting or camera may fail to completely address.  

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Abstracted Reality - Pablo Picasso's Still life on the Piano or 'CORT' (1911), a late example of Analytical Cubism, typifies how both Picasso and Georges Braque never departing from representational imagery. Analytically attempting to depict real people and objects, most Cubists never ventured into pure abstraction. 
Take for example an automobile. If, as an artist, you are charged with painting a portrait of a Ferrari sports car, you simply cannot ignore its engine or interior. Then there are the different perspectives of view, the grill, the side panels, the rear and all the windswept lines, aspects that cannot be captured from a single view. The artist would then have to consider the car's movement, by no means a minor aspect. How would it appear moving from one point in time to another?

In short, Cubists felt the need to observe with a new eye. There was more to the subject than one simple point of view. For instance, imagine going to a different planet and seeing a new object for the first time. Would you be satisfied with just taking one photo or would you consider multiple views? Instinctively, one would want to hold the subject, rotate it and even crack it open. Consequently, this parsing of subject views would lead the Cubists into an intellectual exercise, the likes of which artists had never before ventured.

Beginnings: Revolution's Child
The break of the Impressionists with Academia and the Paris Salon would go well beyond a divorce from representational depictions of history, religion and pornographic nymphs. Spiraling forward into new and diverse visions, the entire structure of art creation began to change.

No longer tethered to art agents, the Paris Salon or the aristocracy's passion for the latest most expensive color depiction, the painting trade would itself become a bohemian existence. Unable, for the most part, to sell their works, avant-garde artists were then free to experiment. Without the encumbrance of client requirements regarding strict realism or historic accuracy, it was as though artists had moved from representative prose to interpretive verse.

Visual Poetry
Théophile Gautier acquired the
editorship of the influential review
L’Artiste in 1856. It is in this review
that Gautier publicized Art for art's
doctrines through many
Impressionism would foster Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Les Nabis, Symbolism and Expressionism. All of which would push the boundaries of representational imagery. Instead of competing with the mechanical reproductive capabilities of the recently invented camera, artists would instead manipulate a symphony of colors while constantly experimenting with new and different techniques of paint application. Art had evolved from mere depictions to what French poet and dramatist Théophile Gautier described as "l'art pour l'art" or "Art for art's sake."

However, by the turn of the 20th century, further intellectualization of these experiments with color and paint application would begin to spawn challenges to the subject's very image. After all, if the avant-garde was a new language of visualization why not consider translations of that very language.  

Proto Cubism
If the camera was capable of accurately capturing nature in all is original detail and numerous artists had already foregone the easel to accurately color photographic prints, weren't those who retained paint and brush then required to pursue far more artistic interpretations?

These thoughts had to have crossed the minds of artists like Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne. For as the nineteenth century began to close, both began to veer away from the mere embellishments of nature and instead moved towards deliberately abstracted shapes, thoughtfully rendered with a systematic application of paint.

Seurat's use of repetitious dots of paint to depict simplified shapes along with Cézanne's exaggerated, yet painterly geometric reinterpretation of shapes and planes would have considerable impact on a generation of painters to follow.

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Beginnings: Exaggerated and broken into multiple planes amongst trees, rock and sky, the painting became a study of geometric shapes residing together in this late Post-Impressionist landscape entitled Mont Sainte-Victoire (1897) by Paul Cézanne (to left). In Georges Seurat's Neo-Impressionist rendering of Le Chahut (1890), a concerted assembly of similar geometric forms are depicted using deliberately applied dabs of color. 

Les Demoiselles 
Cézanne's work would have an indisputable influence on Pablo Picasso's treatment of the nude[1]. Angular and stark, Picasso's five, naked figures of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (originally entitled The Brothel of Avignon) confronts the viewer from opposing planes of perspective. In addition to Cézanne, Picasso had been impressed by an Iberian bas-relief entitled Negro Attacked by a Lion, installed at the Musée du Louvre in the year 1906, and subsequently developed a fascination with early Iberian art[2]. This influence is most evident in his Self Portrait of 1906.

Facial Planes as Masks
It was during this period, Picasso undertook the large canvas of Les Demoiselles, with the Iberian sculpture influencing the facial renderings of the three female figures to the left of the canvas.

Today it is often alleged the faces of the two figures to the right were influenced by African art. Picasso himself claimed these assertions to be incorrect, and that he had not yet made the acquaintance of African Negro Art[3]. Nevertheless, Gertrude Stein would write about Matisse introducing Picasso to his purchase of his African sculpture Le Negrier de la Rue de Rennes in the autumn of 1906. Had Picasso simply forgot or did his lifelong rivalry with the Fauvist artist prevent him from admitting the initiation[4][5]?

Of particular interest, regarding the two primitive masks depictions, is that this aspect of the painting, more than anything else, represents the origins of the multi-plane aspects of Cubism.

Abstracted to Abstract
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Georges Braque - Large Nude (1907)
Picasso may have provided the original inspiration for Cubism, via Les Demoiselles. However, the formulation of the initial theory and the subsequent rules for visual engagement would fall to Georges Braque, who in 1907 produced his Large Nude and later met with Picasso to discuss his ideas[6].

It must be said that Picasso, had to have embraced those views, for the two artists then shared a studio and, as Braque would later described, "The things (we) said to one another during those years will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them anymore. It was like being roped together on a mountain."[7]

The term "Cubism" did not become common usage until after the first show of Cubist works at the Paris Salon des Indépendants of 1911. The term "cube" had initially been attributed to a derogatory remark made by artist Henri Matisse while describing a 1908 canvas by Braque[8]. By 1911, the term "Cubism" was employed by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and was later galvanized by art critics Louis Vauxcelles and Louis Chassevent.
  • Note: Cubism was a movement, which Matisse disliked. However, he eventually came to terms with it via his friend, the Cubist Juan Gris[9].

Analytical Cubism (click here for samples)
The Braque/Picasso School would become known as the Montmartre or Gallery Cubists (sometimes the Lavoir Cubists). Analytical Cubism was the initial result of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque's efforts and didn't begin to be replaced by Synthetic Cubism until 1912. Artists Juan Gris and Jean Metzinger were also Montmartre residents. However, each would develop ties to the Cubists of Montparnasse. Metzinger's writings (i.e.: Note sur la Peinture and Du Cubisme) would act as a bridge between the two groups.

Three Rules: 1) External Rendering
(here as orange peel mapping),
2) Internal Portrayal (here
represented by Picasso's "Guitar"
sculpture and 3) Presentation of
(here represented as
Muybridge photos). 
Rules of Engagement
Using the sports car analogy mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Analytical Cubism, the initial, formalized attempt at Cubismcan be broken down into three components:
  1. External  - Where some or all of the subject's outward components (front, back, sides) are portrayed, almost as if lifting skin or pieces of a shell (i.e.: non-Euclidean or orange peel mapping) and then placing them on to a flat surface (canvas) using geometric shapes for two-dimensional viewing.
  2. Internal - Going beyond the external to communicate hidden, internal features. An example, depicting a hole in a guitar's face as a cylinder or splitting a teacup in half to display its interior content. 
  3. Time/Space - Depicting how a subject occupies a space over time with subsequent changes that may affect its appearance. These could be animated frames or tracer effects caused by an object in motion, along with any distortions or anatomical changes that may occur as well, Duchamp's Nude Descending Staircase being the most famous example.  

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Jean Metzinger - Le goûter (Tea
Time), 1911, represents the height of
still discernible Analytical Cubism.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Analytical Cubism remained an abstracted form of purely representational imagery. Initially, the Montmartre/Gallery Cubists would employ a deliberate use of a limited, monochromatic palette. Subjects within these paintings would be fragmented, analyzed and recreated as geometric shapes. They would then be reassembled, hinged together and, to expose hidden elements, oftentimes dissolved into selective elements across divided planes.

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Georges Braque - Man with Guitar,
1907, represents the height of
Analytical Cubism, which was not to
be embraced by the Montparnasse
Cubists. Museum of Modern Art
Meanwhile, on the other side of Paris, artists Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Albert Gleizes and Fernand Léger were producing paintings with a similar parsed approach. Initially, these Montparnasse Cubists would embrace the analytical method, though they would quickly expand their palettes towards brighter colors.

Led by Henri Le Fauconnier, the Montparnasse Cubists would commandeer the hanging committee for the now famous Salon des Indépendants Exhibit of 1911[10].

Fragmentation and Criticism
Analytical Cubism reached its height between 1910 and 1912 when the represented subject matter became increasingly fragmented and scattered amongst dissolving planes spread over broader amounts of space. These problems were compounded with growing public and government hostility towards the movement.

Click for details

Du Cubisme - The 1912 publication
of the Cubist Manifesto, written by
Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes.
Beyond the artistic community, the 1911 Salon des Indépendants exhibition of Cubist works had become a public scandal. Being a government sponsored event and the paintings an abrupt departure from anything previous, the reaction by the French government and public was one of incredulity, that the exhibition was a staged farce and/or some type of artistic protest. However, public complaints about obscured subject matter only succeeded in promoting the movement to other artists and discerning collectors[6].

Nevertheless, in defense of Cubism and to further clarify the purpose of Cubism, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes authored and published Du Cubisme, the Cubist manifesto. The book's publication was announced in March of 1912 by the Revue d'Europe et d'Amérique to help dispel public anxiety before the 1912 Salon des Indépendants and the later Salon d'Automne exhibit in October of the same year. Du Cubisme finally did appear towards the end of that year. It was also published in English and Russian, soon after in 1913. The editions included black and white prints of both Montmartre and Montparnasse Cubists.

Unlike previous schools to have developed in Paris, Cubism would expand and spread across the art world with the greatest rapidity and largest following of any movement to date. Consequently, Cubism would continue to flourish and begin to influence new and developing schools of art including Futurism, Purism, Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl and Dada.

Fork in the Road
However, by 1912, just five years after Les Demoiselles and Barques meeting with Picasso, the subject matter had become altogether too parsed and its facets so disseminated the Analytical Cubism movement reached a dead-end. Paradoxically, in an effort to more completely describe the subject matter, the excessive analytics had forced the paintings, collages and papier collé to become abstract and indiscernible. There would be those Cubists who wished to remedy the issues and still others who would embrace the path to pure abstraction.

Orphic Cubism (click here for samples)
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Fernand Léger - Woman in Blue, 1912,
Kunstmuseum Basel
It is important to note, that while many Cubists began to realize their Analytical paintings had become too abstracted, it also became clear most non-artist observers would not be able to reconstitute what the Cubists had so meticulously deconstructed. Nevertheless, a few Cubists had already begun to embrace the resulting dissemination and even referred to it as pure Abstraction.

For example, both Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay had disclaimed any influence by Picasso or Braque[11] and had by 1910 begun to take individual routes towards abstraction. Léger's chief influences remained automation and machinery. However, throughout his long career, Léger would move back and forth between discernible subject matter and abstraction, as the need required.

Click to enlarge

Robert Delaunay - Window on the
City No. 3 (La fenêtre sur la ville
no. 3), 1910, Guggenheim Museum
Borrowing the more brilliant palette of the Fauvists, these abstract Cubists continued to extend the parsing of subject matter. Robert Delaunay was joined by other Cubists, besides Léger, also intent on going beyond Analytical Cubism towards a far more abstracted from of Cubism. Best known amongst these were František Kupka and Sonia Delaunay (wife to Robert Delaunay).

Therefore, rather than reaching a wall in 1912, the abstract bound Cubists felt they had created a gateway to greater artistic expression. In their minds, the observer was thus free to embrace an abstracted apparition instead of witnessing yet another interpretation of traditional subject matter.

In today's environment where artistic abstraction is commonplace, it may be hard to imagine the impact of these first abstract paintings. For the few who embarked upon this path, it was an entirely new frontier. To support this departure from the traditional, as a type of ritual cleansing, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire dubbed their transformation "Orphism" after the ancient Greek rite of reincarnation. Thus, today the movement is referred to as Orphic Cubism.

Synthetic Cubism (click here for samples)
Click to enlarge

Juan Gris - Water Bottle, Bottle and
Fruit Dish, 1915. Private collection
New York
Cubism would continue as an abstracted form of representational imagery as well as pure abstraction up to the 1920s and would only begin to wind down after the La Section d'Or exhibition of 1925. However, as early as 1912, Analytical Cubism would cease to have meaning for those interested in pursuing representational imagery.

As for Picasso and Braque, they would begin to experiment with three-dimensional sculpture to resolve the issues presented through a purely analytical approach. For Picasso in particular, based upon surviving photos of his 1912 studio's works-in-progress, this was a challenge he did not take lightly.

Click to expand

Picasso - Guitar illustrates the
problems inherent in Analytical
Cubism are resolved with planes
and voided space. Museum of
Modern Art, New York
Ruth Markus, in her paper "Picasso's Guitar, 1912: The Transition from Analytical to Synthetic Cubism"[12] provides the most plausible explanation of the transition process. In it she describes how, at the height of the dead-end Analytical crisis, Picasso created his Guitar sculptures. Since transparencies and floating facets weren't possible, Picasso instead had to employ cutaways as voided planes to illustrate interior aspects while ingeniously concocting a cylinder to represent the void of the guitar's hole. Afterwards, Picasso would continue to use geometric shapes to express voids and different colors to reveal hidden planes.

Subsequently, the Guitar sculpture, instead of becoming a literal translation, became itself an art object. Afterwards, Picasso would altogether discard the methodology of Analytical Cubism. The Guitar, with its string, paper and cardboard, had been created using unconventional sculpture materials. Likewise, two-dimensional works could be created using newspaper, wallpaper, cardboard and color cutouts, with the end result being new or Synthetic objects instead of realistic depictions.

Click to enlarge

Pablo Picasso - Three Musicians,

1921, Museum of Modern Art
Soon after 1912, other Cubists would embrace this two-dimensional approach with paintings and mixed-media collages of real life materials to create unique objects which rhymed with, but did not necessarily imitate, real life subjects. For the artists, it was a natural transition. Art had simply become poetry.

The perfected achievement of this Synthetic solution can be seen in his 1921 painting entitled Three Musicians. Abstracted, yet not pure abstraction, the entire painting is a two-dimensional object of illusion. The resulting subject remains related, yet deliberately transformed.

Opened Doors
Cubism did more than foster abstracted variations of its own representational and abstract views. To a new generation of artists it transformed picture making to a point where a concerted effort was made not to reinterpret the painting's subject matter as mechanical reality.

Taken one step further, Kasimir Malevich's Black Circle (1915) and Black Square (1923) go beyond common subject matter and instead transform a geometric subject into its own object. If Cubism had enabled artists to progress from painted prose to rendered verse, why not go a step further and create a new reality?

Kasimir Malevich - Early examples of Suprematism, the Black Circle, 1915 was somewhat visionary avant-garde for its day. It, along with the Black Square, 1923, remain examples of abstract objects of art. There would be considerable art and art movements to follow. However, few would attain the originality, intellect and vision of the Cubists and their immediate followers.  

Today, in a world where anything goes artistically and published manifestos obsolete, there still exist some post/neo-Cubist imitators. Yet, upon visiting a museum to study the authentic, early twentieth century works, one is struck with awe by what must have seemed an immense departure for its day. When an analyzed reality suddenly became total abstraction, a dead-end was creatively converted to a fork in the road. It was then that the artists, not the galleries or clients, would choose between a path towards total abstraction or a new and unique reality.

Following the movement, Cubistic abstraction would soon be influenced by the parallel Expressionist movement to become Abstract Expressionism just as Synthetic Cubism would eventually spawn Surrealism over the next few decades.

On visiting a museum and viewing those early twentieth century originals, one can almost smell the turpentine. Fashioned with muted and sometimes brilliant colors, the methodical paint application is both critical and vital for each canvas. Most important, one can still sense the initial excitement upon viewing each artist's expressive and creative exploration into a fresh, yet highly unique revelation.

Pablo Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (Photo Phil Roeder)


[1] Jeffrey Weiss and Valerie J. Fletcher, Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande OlivierPrinceton University Press, 2003, p132
[2] James Johnson Sweeney, Picasso and Iberian SculptureThe Art Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 3, Sep., 1941, p 193
[3] James Johnson Sweeney, Picasso and Iberian SculptureThe Art Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 3, Sep., 1941, p 191
[4] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, 1933, Project Gutenberg, 2006
[5] Nadeen Pennisi, Picasso and Africa: How African Art Influenced Pablo Picasso and His Work, Palm Beach State University, p 3
[6] John Golding, Visions of the Modern, University of California Press, 1994, p 102
[7] CT Patrick Diamond and Carol A. Mullen, Roped together, Counterpoints, Vol. 89, Published by Peter Lang AG
[8] Stephen Scobie, Apollinaire and the Naming of Cubism, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, Winter, 1975, pp 57, 58
[9] John Golding, Visions of the Modern, University of California Press, 1994, p 93
[10] Peter Brooke, Albert Gleizes - Chronology of His Life, 1881-1953, Yale University Press, 2001, pp 22, 23
[11] Christopher Green, Cubism and Its Enemies: Modern Movements and Reaction in French Art, 1916-1928, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987
[12] Ruth Markus, Picasso's Guitar, 1912: The Transition from Analytical to Synthetic Cubism, Futurist Scenography: From Revolutionary Theory to Established Practice, Assaph, Studies in the Theatre, Tel Aviv University (2000), pp 243-246


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