Cubism and Modernity


Perhaps more than any other major art movement of the first half of the Twentieth Century, Cubism is both transitional and Janus-faced in its response to the decades of changes of the Nineteenth Century. On one hand, the Cubist artists shared the unease about the increasing industrialization of their way of life as evidenced by their pre-Cubist fascination with all that was “primitive,” from tribal art, to children’s art, to folk art, to low art in an attempt to relocate a kind of artistic expression that was natural and simple and unsophisticated. On the other hand, these same Cubists were equally fascinated with the brave new world of machine driven objects, cars, airplanes and the modern ocean liner. The Cubists were the generation that will absorb and adjust to the Machine Age and the end of the old ways, accepting the new ways of living. The Eiffel Tower, once hated by Parisians who were used to and preferred Charles Garnier’s Opéra, was greatly admired by a new generation that saw the towering structure as the symbol of everything new and modern. Striding over the city of Paris, the Eiffel Tower nakedly revealed the nature and the “truth” of its materials and its method of construction—a deliberately modern statement of all that was new.

The Eiffel Tower is the nineteenth century to the twentieth century with the rational materialism of its skeletal construction, with no skin or covering, no ornamentation or disguise. Now iconic, the Tower rises over Paris aloof in its engineered self-sufficiency. Like the machine, Gustave Eiffel’s design is eminently logical, the product of scientific and abstract thought. The scientific approach to the questions of knowledge is marked by an absence of spirituality and this totally material perspective brought about a new age. The visual culture needed a new art to reflect the new modern era, characterized by an acknowledgment of change and a desire of change. The previous static view of the universe and the assumption of a continuance of tradition and of a social and political stability were perhaps suitable for the period of the Renaissance and the consequent development of monocular perspective for the arts. But the modern world needed to devise a modern form of vision.

Perhaps because of the desire to create an appropriately modern “look,” the new artists of the twentieth century would be more concerned with the more formal aspects of art–its appearance and its mode of production–than with subject matter. Inspired by machines, process begins to take center stage, for it was the process of manufacturing that changed the culture from one of handicraft to that of prefabrication of component parts that could be integrated into a larger design system or constructed pattern. Industrial culture is a gear and girder world, a world that is visually accessible, where all is open to view and the design of each element is obvious.

The assembly and internal workings are laid bare, stressing the process of assembly and demanding that the viewer notice the design and to acknowledge the realities of the fact of making and construction. The early decades of the Twentieth Century produced numerous art movements that recast nature itself in the role of engineer and provided the artist with the new role of industrial designer. Art became technological in that it reflected the perceptual values of industrialization. In this radically new conception of art, art is the machine that obeys the laws of design and making, a machine with a sound structure and efficiency where there are no unnecessary parts.

As an art movement, Cubism was part of larger cultural forces that included industrialization; however, the major artistic influence for the new artists of the new century was an older artist, who had recently died: Paul Cézanne. Cézanne questioned the five hundred year old assumption established in the Renaissance that the role of art was to replicate reality and that the role of the artist was to render this reality as accurately and as believably as possible. The painters during and after the Renaissance had established and developed a new visual vocabulary, a new language, which supposedly mimicked the real world. The space and depth of reality was rendered as perspective, and volumes were rendered as chiaroscuro.

Like Cubism, the language of the Renaissance was linked to a wider change in society—the shift from the spiritual to the worldly. The artistic tricks and painterly illusions of the Renaissance formed a language that was secular in that it measured the literal world and scientific in that it sought to explain and describe the world in an empirical fashion. This system assumed a monocular and fixed vision from a viewer standing in one space with one point in time. The flat picture plane disappeared in favor of the illusion of a window on the world, hovering just beyond the glass surface.

Cézanne questioned the assumption that the language of the Renaissance replicated the real world. Vision was far more complex, taking place over continuous periods of time and within in a space which allowed free and mobile movement. Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist works attempted to knit together the foreground and background, creating a spatial oscillation in contrast to the Renaissance steady and uninterrupted drift into horizontal depth. Cézanne created a near reverse effect by canceling the horizontal movement of perspective in favor of a planar verticality. Cézanne’s picture, as a painting, as a composition, as subject matter, rises from the bottom to top, covering the surface with a compositional grid. Cézanne’s grid was composed of lines and reiterated colors and an overlay of identical repeated brushstrokes, diagonal hatch marks.

Depth, Cézanne’s works seemed to be saying, is a learned pictorial language. But vision, natural vision, only sees but does not know and is not the product of learning. Natural vision is the product of experience. As though reacting to the actual experience of mobile vision, Cézanne’s lines became separated from the objects depicted, hovering tentatively about their colored edges. Color, now freed from description, could travel across the surface, regardless of object. Both line and color are increasingly freed to establish a linear rhythm keyed to the underlying grid and to unite all areas of the painting into a holistic statement of consistent color and paint marks, equally distributed, equally constructed, equally intense.

The result is an all-over evenness working against scene, object, and subject and towards a surface pattern. Subject matter becomes neutral landscapes and still lives that were mere pretext for formal investigations and the exploration of artistic questions about vision. The Cubists investigated the implications of Cézanne’s questioning of the nature of vision in relation to the nature of knowledge. It is interesting to note that, for the most part, after 1910, many Cubists avoided landscape, a painting problem demanding an answer to Renaissance perspective, an answer the young painters found it difficult to come up with.

Cézanne had solved the problem of depth by eliminating it—by developing large areas of strong colors with a visual weight that corresponded to near and far objects. He also “knitted” the canvas together with slanted brush strokes and with a passage of colors moving up and down the canvas. The result was a fusion or union of paint and color that stood in for what the artist saw, not what he knew—that depth existed between objects. The complicated conclusion that Cézanne arrive at was to paint shapes and forms and colors and light that also took the flicker of light over time and the movement of the body through space. The result was arranged on an underlying grid that stabilized the composition in a traditional “classical” manner.

The Salon Cubists, such as Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, responded to Cézanne’s grid and to his suggestion that vision was mobile and, thus, destabilized forms. But these Salon Cubists were reluctant to shatter to shapes, perhaps because they concentrated on the human form. In contrast, Picasso and Braque concentrated on the logical development of Cézanne’s repositioning of vision as a mobile and constant activity roaming across the plane of the canvas, using the studio still life as their starting point. Less wedded to the figure, especially after 1911, this duo felt free to follow the rational process of taking form apart and reducing its component parts to uniform shapes, or “little cubes.” The result was two kinds of Cubism: one conservative and one radical, one traditional and one modern.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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