German Artists at War, Part Two

GERMAN ARTISTS AT WAR

The Good Soldier, Part Two

A battlefield is not an artist’s natural habitat. Fighting in combat is not an artist’s métier. But Franz Marc (1880-1916) wrote very militant and martial tracts for the Blue Rider Almanac. In 1912 he said stridently and forcefully:

In this time of the great struggle for a new art we fight like disorganized “savages” against an old, established power. The battle seems to be unequal, but spiritual matters are never decided by numbers, only by the power of ideas. The dreaded weapons of the `savages” are their new ideas. New ideas kill better than steel and destroy what was thought to be indestructible. Who are these “savages” in Germany? For the most part they are both well known and widely disparaged: the Brücke in Dresden, the Neue Sezession in Berlin, and the Neue Vereinigung in Munich.

His short essay was bristling with militaristic language and his images were borrowed from the barricades. Marc imagined the young artists with new ideas as “savages,” attacking the hills of old ideas guarded by the older generations, presumably the Munich Secession. The language of the Blue Rider artist, the images he conveyed can be seen as part of a phenomenon, on view mostly in Germany, which could be called portents of a coming war. The most famous writing on the necessity of a cleansing war, of course, came from the Futurist leader and poet, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, but the Italian desire for a modern war was different from the many paintings that emerged in Germany, picturing a total war, a cultural apocalypse that would leave a wasteland in its wake. The most famous of these visionary artists was Ludwig Meidner, but Franz Marc also seemed to be envisioning the future to come with his 1913 painting, The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol.

Franz Marc. The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol (1913)

Unlike Meidner’s many end-of-the-world paintings, the painting by Marc referenced the war in the Balkans, a skirmish in an uneasy part of Europe that acted like a tinderbox, predicting conflagrations to come. The horses, Marc’s beloved animals, are black and in the middle ground, a red-hilled cemetery is studded with black crosses that will be sprouting across the Western Front in a year. During these pre-war years, with Europe seemingly edging closer and closer to plunging into war, artists veered between metaphorical images and literal responses to actual events. Marinetti also reacted the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 with the poem, Zang Tumb Tumb, recounting in onomatopoeic words the sounds of the Siege of Adrianople during the first phase of these wars. While the Balkan conflicts were troubling, they predicted not so much a European war but were symptoms of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire which was losing pieces as territories were pulling away, seeking independence.

On the home front, in Germany, the nation was rattling sabers, imperial cavalry in full dress marched daily in Berlin, and the threat level seemed to be rising. In retrospect, Marc, like many artists, sensed the coming danger in his painting The Fate of Animals. But only in retrospect. In 1976, Frederick S. Levine investigated the origins of this work, dating it to May 1913, part of a larger group of animal paintings that the artist described as “utterly divergent pictures.” “They reveal nothing, but perhaps they will amuse you,” he wrote to his friend and fellow artist, August Macke. In addition to the reaction to the Balkans war on the Tyrol region, he was discussing The Tower of Blue Horses, The First Animals, The World Cow, and Wolves: Balkan War. The original title of The Fate of Animals was both extreme and poetic: The Trees Show Their Rings, The Animals Their Veins (Die Bäume zeigten ihre Ringe, die Tiere ihre Adern) and on the back of the canvas of a painting that Marc had declared would “reveal nothing,” he wrote, “And All Being is Flaming Suffering” (“Und alles Sein ist flammend Leid“). This complicated verbiage was distilled, on the advice of Paul Klee to Fate of the Animals (Tierschicksale), a more coherent title. The “fate” of animals in a burning forest is that of doom and death. They cannot outrun the flames that slash through the trees; the animals can only stand and wait or fruitlessly run for their lives. Certainly being caught in a blazing wood and being helpless would, in the near future, mirror the fate of the soldiers trapped in a war that would mow them down as ruthlessly as the flames would end the lives of the animals that stand in waiting for their “fate.” The painting was first shown in the Berlin gallery Der Sturm later that year, and its subsequent destiny or fate–of which more will be said later–was as eerie as that painting was as moving and prophetic.

Franz Marc. Fate of the Animals (May 1913)

The intense clashing diagonals and strong and fearless colors that envelop the stalwart beasts are painterly echoes of the writing of the artist penned a year earlier:

The first works of a new era are tremendously difficult to define. Who can see clearly what their aim is and what is to come; But just the fact that they do exist and appear in many places today, sometimes independently of each other, and that they possess inner truth, makes us certain that they are the first signs of the coming new epoch—they are the signal fires for the pathfinders. The hour is unique. Is it too daring to call attention to the small, unique signs of the time?

The question of the meanings of these “signs of the time,” was taken up by Milton A. Cohen in his article “Fatal Symbiosis: Modernism and the First World War.” He wrote,

As anticipations of the First World War, these images of war have been typically treated either as instances of artistic naivety (in glorifying a horror that artists could scarcely imagine) or as artistic prescience in sensing the blood that was already “in the air.” Yet such clichés miss the complexity of modernism’s relations to the First World War..Modernist artists had been at war long before they were mobilized in August 1914. Their primary enemies were the forces of artistic reaction: the hostile press, the conservative academies, the reactionary critics, the smug, self-satisfied bourgeoisie..By the early 1910s, however, as modernist innovation intensified, so did its struggle against reaction, and increasingly, modernists turned to war and violence for the vocabulary to depict it.

The author suggested that these paintings, like the language that accompanied them, were metaphorical and more directed to a desiccated art world than towards an imagined clash in the future. And yet, Marc depicted himself, riding a horse, in full dress uniform, in a 1913 painting that would prove to be a sad prediction of his own death.

Franz Marc. St. Julian the Hospitaler ( St. Julien l’Hospitalier ) (1913)

In another book Movement, Manifesto, Melee: The Modernist Group, 1910-1914, Cohen described the end of all of the bellicose images and manifestos once the War began in August of 1914. Instantaneously, artists flocked to war, acting as patriots for their nations, and ending the international sharing of artistic ideas that had characterized the two decades before the War. Faced with the enormity of actual war, normal artistic life ground to a halt and the militant words of Franz Marc would quickly seem naïve in the face of real battle. Cohen quoted French artist Albert Gleizes, who observed, “The present conflict throws into anarchy all the intellectual paths of the pre-war period, and the reasons are simple; the leaders are in the army and the generation of thirty-year-olds is sparse.” He ended sadly by stating a commonly held sentiment, “The past is finished.”

Franz Marc. Fighting Forms (1913)

To imagine Marc at war was to imagine an apparently gentle and spiritually inclined artist in alien territory, the battlefield. For years he had celebrated animals, considering them to be uncorrupted and closer to the spiritual in the world than humans, who were hopelessly compromised and unable to redeem themselves. The artist imagined nature itself as living and breathing according to hidden mystical laws that people, bent upon disturbing the forests and the fields, could no longer sense. He used color to bring symbolic meaning to his spiritual paintings, attempting to create a new language that would be redemptive for humans and at least bring a soothing balm to benighted beings.

Franz Marc. Animals in Landscape (Painting with Bulls II) (1914)

Marc’s language of colors echoed the ideas borrowed from Theosophy as put forward by his colleague Vassily Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). Marc wrote that “Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two.” Writing in 2016, Eleni Gemtou noted that Marc projected human feelings of qualities, such as a lost spirituality, once the property of individuals, now found only in animals. In “Art and Science in Franz Marc’s Animal Iconography,” Gemtou discuss the empathy Marc felt for animals, imparting them with anthropomorphic qualities they probably did not possess. As the author explained,

Marc’s particular attitude towards animals must have been developed through many parameters and influences arrived at from both his own life experiences and the proceedings in contemporary science. He was familiar with animal iconography from his childhood up, as his father, Wilhelm Marc, was a professor at the Munich Academy specialized in animal and genre scenes. His approaches though were very different from those of his son, as he used to sentimentalize nature and anthropomorphize animal behavior in a more direct manner.

Despite this uplifting theme that drove his art, Marc, who came from a religious family, dreamed of a cleansing war that would bring about a new beginning. His last paintings of 1914 were marked by restless agitation on the part of animals who were instinctively sensing the dangers to come. In September 1914, the artist, filled with enthusiasm, volunteered and joined the calvary, a part of the military where he could ride a horse, but such units would soon become anachronistic. Romantic notions of a “cleansing” war quickly subsided in the face of reality. Marc’s close friend and fellow artist, August Macke died in October, very early in the war. Sadly, Macke’s wife, Lisbeth, had written, “And it’s wonderful to see how eager they all are to go.” Marc understood the magnitude of the loss of this man, his art and the future of his art. Correctly, Marc recognized the arbitrary nature of wartime death, writing of the “accident of the individual death which, with every fatal bullet, inexorably determines and alters the destiny of a race.” But he believed that this death would contribute to the greater good. “The blood sacrifice which turbrulent nature demands of nations in great wars they offer with tragic enthusiasm, without regret. The whole clasps loyal hands and bears the loss proudly under peals of victory.” Possibly through his own nationalism, Marc came to realize that any war ended globalism and watched the impulses towards a pan-European artistic network dissolve into an extreme nationalism. Instead of rising nobly and heroically to the great occasion, humans, faced with life of death circumstances, quickly descend to animal-like behavoir in order to survive. In his article, “A Murderous Carnival,” Richard Cork quoted Marc, writing in December of 1914, two months after the death of Macke, saying that “the most important lesson and irony of the Great War is certainly this: precisely the great triumph of our ‘technical warfare’ has forced us back into the most primitive age of the cavemen.”

Franz Marc. The Birds (1914)

In writing regularly to his wife and in asking her to make sure that the correspondence would be published, Franz Marc left posterity a remarkable record of a German soldier’s thinking and how his ideas evolved during the two years he served at the front. According to the analysis of Susanna Partsche in her book of his letters, Marc, the artist began with the belief that

Europe was sick and could only be purged through war. He spoke of an interntional blood sacrifice through which the world would be purified. He stricly rejected the view that economice interests had led to the War. He understood this War as a civil war, a “war against the inner, invisible enemy of the European spirit.On the other hand, he also believed that Germany would emerge strengthened from the War, and imagined a Europe under German hegemony. “Germanity will spill across every border after this war. If we want to stay healthy and strong and retain the fruits of our victory, we need..a life-force which penetrates all, without fear..of the unknown..which will bring us to our position of power in Europe..”

Like many artists, Marc tried to find the time to sketch the conflict, mostly in metaphorical rather than in documentary terms. For a brief shining moment, he was assigned to a camouflage unit where he painted “Kandinskys” on canvas, and he wrote of the new function of art in a modern war: “From now on, painting must make the picture that betrays our presence sufficiently blurred and distorted for the position to be unrecognizable. The division is going to provide us with a plane to experiment with some aerial photographs to see how it looks from the air. I’m very interested to see the effect of a Kandinsky from six thousand feet.”

But as the war dragged on, Marc became more and more disillusioned. In the beginning, the artist had believed that “There is something impressive and mystical about the artillery battles… I still do not think differently about the war. It simply seems to me feeble and lifeless to consider it vulgar and dumb. I dream of a new Europe, I … see in this war the healing, if also gruesome, path to our goals; it will purify Europe, and make it ready… Europe is doing the same things to her body France did to hers during the Revolution.” By 1916, he was yearning for an end to his service, and he wrote of the hopelessness of the War itself: “The world is richer by the bloodiest year of its many thousand year history. It is terrible to think of; and all for nothing, for a misunderstanding, for want of being able to make ourselves tolerably understood by our neighbors! And that in Europe!! We must unlearn, rethink absolutely everything in order to come to terms with the monstrous psychology of this deed and not only to hate, revile, deride and bewail it, but to understand its orgins and to form counterthoughts.”

In 1916, the Western Front was mired in the rain and in the endless Battle of Verdun and Franz Marc was but one of the thousands of men fated to meet senseless deaths during a campaign that lasted for months. After two years of being in constant danger, in 1916 he wrote, In this war, you can try it out on yourself- an opportunity life seldom offers one…nothing is more calming than the prospect of the peace of death…the one thing common to all. [it] leads us back into normal “being.” The space between birth and death is an exception, in which there is much to fear and suffer. The only true, constant, philosophical comfort is the awareness that this exceptional condition will pass and that “I-consciousness” which is always restless, always piquant, in all seriousness inaccessible, will again sink back into its wonderful peace before birth…whoever strives for purity and knowledge, to him death always comes as a savior. Marc was now thirty-six years old and, had war not come into his life; Marc would be at the peak of his creative powers, with a long and distinguished career ahead of him. But he was beginning to feel haunted and stalked by death. He wrote to his mother that “death avoided me, not I it; but that is long past. Today I greet it very sadly and bitterly, not out of fear and anxiety about it–nothing is more soothing than the prospect of the stillness of death–but because I have half-finished work to be done that, when completed, will convey the entirety of my feeling. The whole purpose of my life lies hidden in my unpainted pictures.” In 2013, Mark Dober, in his article, “Franz Marc: utopian hopes for art and the Great War,” of the great irony of the artist’s death. On March 2, 1916, Marc wrote to his wife Maria, “For days I have seen nothing but the most awful scenes that the human mind can imagine … Stay calm and don’t worry: I will come back to you – the war will end this year. I must stop; the transport of the wounded, which will take this letter along, is leaving. Stay well and calm as I do.” Then two days later he wrote what would be his final letter to her, saying, “Don’t worry, I will come through, and I’m also fine as far as my health goes. I feel well and watch myself.” According to Dober, Marc was dead two hours later.

Franz Marc. Broken Forms (1914)

But the story is even more horrific than the final poignant letter. In the book, War, Violence, and the Modern Condition, Richard Cork quoted Marc’s commanding officer. The artist and his superior were on a reconnaissance mission, scouting territory during “a radiant early-spring afternoon..At the foot of the hill Marc mounted his horse, a tall chestnut bay, and as long-legged as himself..” The peaceful afternoon was violently interrupted by an exploding shell which burst open, spewing shrapnel. The shards hit the artist in the head so violently that he was nearly decapitated, instantly killing him. It is comforting to think of Franz Marc, living the last moments of his life in the radiant light, riding a horse that we hope was blue.

Franz Marc. Blue Horse I (1911)

In an odd postscript to the painting, Fate of the Animals was in storage at the storage unit for the Der Sturm Gallery, awaiting transport to a memorial exhibition in November. According to Levine’s The Iconography of Franz Marc’s Fate of the Animals, the storage area caught fire and the painting “..subtitled And All Being is Flaming Suffering, was itself consumed by fire. The immense task of restoration was immediately undertaken by Paul Klee who, with the help of Marc’s widow and the artist’s preliminary sketches, was able to reconstruct the structure of the original work..although the original structure remains intact, much of the continuity and much for the dynamism of Marc’s color scheme is gone from what..is one of the most vital sections of the entire work.” The restored ill-fated painting was purchased in a few years later for theMoritzburg Museum in Halle, but in 1936, Fate of the Animals was declared “degenerate art” by the Nazis, whereupon it vanished until 1939. As Levine explained, the painting was found and sent to the infamous Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, a money laundering operation performed by the Swiss for the benefit of the Nazis. The Fate of the Animals finally came to rest when it was purchased by the Basel Kunstmuseum.

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

Thank you.

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School of Paris: The Historical Context

The School of Paris

Recall to Order

After the Great War, the fabric of European society was in tatters. An entire generation of young men had been killed in a senseless slaughter on the Western Front. A generation of young women would never find mates and a generation of children would grow up without a father. The men who survived were often physically and mentally wounded, and, in those days, had no support from the very nations that had sent them off to war. Although there could be no return to the way things were, the cultural impulse in France was a desire to Return to Order—“retour à l’ordre,” to resume life in a sane and safe fashion.

The term itself supposedly originated with Jean Cocteau, who in 1926, wrote Le rappel à l’ordre,” but the unruly French poet was an unlikely source for such a phrase. Although he was elegantly attired in a uniform custom made by Paul Poiret, Cocteau’s wartime experience was a checkered one, veering wildly from offering to “assist” his fellow soldiers in the shower to being an ambulance driver who walked away from the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Cocteau returned to Paris in time to produce one of the most significant ballets of the century, Parade. The list of the artists who participated on this ballet, Erick Satie, Sergei Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, et. al, reads like a who’s who of the avant-garde. It was after attending the May 1917 premiere of Parade that Guillaume Apollinaire was inspired to use a new term he had recently coined, “Surreality.” But the innovation and experimentation of Parade was perhaps the last gasp of the golden age of pioneering modern forms of art.

Once the war was over and the troops came home, it was clear that the art world could not resume its previous course. One of the reasons why Parade was received with such a combination of bewilderment and hostility is that the ballet was modern and, strangely enough, in Paris all things “modern” were “German.” This small insight gleaned from the reception of Parade clarifies why part of the “Call to Order” campaign was about purification. But before discussing the emergence of a newly conservative set of styles in Paris, it is important to examine the cultural context of the City of Light between the wars.

The move of the avant-garde artists from Montmartre to Montparnasse is indicative of an emerging art market that would allow artists to make decent incomes and be able to live less-impoverished but still colorful lives. Instead of hanging out at the Lapin agile, the intelligentsia took over more elegant cafés and bistros in the territory below the steep hills of the maquis. Montparnasse was where Gertrude Stein invited the artists and writers to her home on rue de Fleurus. Famously, the American writer, Ernest Hemingway made his way to her home to hear her advice to write in a crisp and clean fashion. Fashion photographer, May Ray, returned from New York and began his love affair with his muse, Kiki of Montparnasse. African-American servicemen who found that they could actually get served in Le Dôme began to put together one of the best jazz scenes in the world in Paris.

The move towards respectability was already underway during the Great War, when Picasso began living in Montparnasse with his new wife Olga and a staff of servants. The artists who had gone to war or who had sought refuge in other nations returned to find the pre-war art world turned upside down. The Cubist “heroes,” Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger returned to find Picasso, a reclusive artist in the Salon years, now holding court and riding high. Georges Barque, Picasso’s erstwhile partner in art, was suddenly relegated to a secondary position. It seems clear that the artists who stayed in Paris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and guarded their position and further developed their art benefited after the war. The Cubist “heroes” found themselves consigned to a “minor” status and most slipped into historical oblivion. The Fauves faded even further and the post-war art of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck became retrograde, glum, and entirely forgettable.

The pre-war avant-garde witnessed their movements being re-written into history, not according to actual lived history but according to the marketing strategies of art dealers. On the eve of the war the famous Le peau de l’ours sale of cutting edge work by young artists made vanguard art financially profitable. The investors quadrupled their money in ten years. Art dealers certainly took note, as did the collectors. Avant-garde artists had long reached out to specialized and adventurous collectors, such as the Stein family, and now that pool of buyers was expanding. In order to make “their artists” more commercially viable, dealers wrote books, like Daniel-Henry Khanweiler, or art exhibition catalogues, like Léonce Rosenberg. These books and catalogues, combined with the post-war books on Cubism by critics, such as Maurice Raynal, and artists, such as Juan Gris, formed the bedrock of the history of the pre-war art movements. From the perspective of valuing art, those publications certainly transformed certain avant-garde artists into historically significant figures whose art was of “blue chip” quality.

The presence of an art market with a taste for advance art was a major factor in the tamping down of avant-garde “excesses.” Collectors wanted to buy advanced art, but not too advanced. Keep in mind that our understanding of art history is anachronistic and that the late phase of synthetic Cubism was radical decades after it debuted. As late as the 1920s, there was little public knowledge of mixed media art and even less understanding of collage and assemblage. What the buyers wanted was paintings, not pieces of paper stuck onto another piece of paper. Picasso and Barque translated the lessons of collage into paintings by incorporating the large blocks of color and the juxtaposition of abstract forms into attractive paintings with readable images.

The notion that Cubism could function like a semiotic system was abandoned in favor of a post-war post-Cubist style that “looked like” a form of acceptable watered down “Cubism.” Barque retained this conservative approach for the rest of his career, painting numerous still lives, many positioned on pedestal tables. Picasso produced his own version of a tamed and humbled Cubism with Three Musicians in 1921, but he also developed a parallel style, a form of “classicism” so favored by those who wanted to “return to order.” Picasso proved himself to be an artist of great alacrity and was able to shift with the trends: he moved from his war-time version of Cubism, “Rococo Cubism,” to classicism to his watered down Cubism. Having established himself as a versatile artist who could move among styles, Picasso was free to join the latest style, Surrealist biomorphism, and combine it with Cubism into a colorful curvilinear suite of paintings dedicated to his new lover, Marie Thérèse. The transformation of Cubism into a saleable commodity enabled the Cubist pioneers to live in comfort for the rest of their lives, presiding over the School of Paris.

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The Cubists: Artists and Writers

THE CUBISTS AND THEIR CIRCLE

Today Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) are considered to be the “True Cubists,” to borrow a phrase from art historian, Edward Fry. But at the time Cubism was famous or infamous with the Parisian public, from 1910 to 1914, “Cubism” meant the Salon Cubists. To the art audience, the “Cubists” were those artists who showed and exhibited publicly in the large Salon exhibitions in Paris and in other European capitals. Because these were the artists who exhibited, those were the artists and the art works referred to when the art reviews were published in the mainstream press.

To the writers in the know and to the avant-garde artists, Picasso was the acknowledged leader of Cubism and possible source of inspiration for the Salon Cubists, with Braque being a shadowy figure, mentioned only occasionally by the art press. Protected by their art dealer, the German expatriate, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), Braque and Picasso were supported financially and were able to work out their own version of “Cubism” in the privacy of their individual studios and display the results privately in Kahnweiler’s unadvertised gallery, far from the madding crowds of the Salons.

Who were the Salon Cubists? These artists, some sculptors but mostly painters, were a varied and complex group, strongly influenced byPaul Cézanne and dedicated to producing an avant-garde art which also maintained the French tradition of structure, clarity, logic, balance and classicism, as seen in French art from Poussin to Chardin. These artists were not really interested in so-called “primitive art,” nor do they go through the phases or periods of Cubism as Picasso and Braque did. They cannot be said to have had an Analytic Period or a Synthetic Period, and these artists did not have a great interest in collage, developed by the “true Cubists.” Thoroughly conventional and bourgeois, they lived in the suburbs around Paris, Purteaux and Corbevoie. Only Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) lived in the more bohemian environs of Montmartre, near Picasso and Braque.

The extent of the interchanges and mutual influence between the Salon Cubists and the “True Cubists” is difficult to determine. Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Metzinger’s co-author of Du Cubisme, published 1912, did not meet Picasso until 1911, for example. By then, public or Salon Cubism was well underway. Nevertheless, it is good to remember that avant-garde art, by this time, had become an international phenomenon and avant-garde was exhibited and exchanged globally. These artists were in close touch with the Futurist artists and Russian art collectors were in contact with Picasso and Braque. French art traveled to other capitals in Europe and the Futurists chose to make their biggest splash in Paris. The 1913 Armory Show in New York rocked New York City, rattling the sensibilities of the provincials. Despite the rapid diffusion of ideas and styles, groups of artists and individual artists, can be clearly distinguished, for each maintained his/her national or personal characteristics.

The Artists

The Salon Cubists included Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, who based their version of Cubism upon the ideas of Cézanne, which the authors of Du Cubisme understood as examining that which was seen through multiple points in time and space. Like the Cubists who showed in the Salons, they were not adverse to color. In fact, the so-called Orphists, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, Frank Kupka, and, sometimes Francis Picabia based their brightly colored art on the notion that color, like music, could transcend into abstraction.

The grouping of the Salon Cubists, such as, Andre Lhote, Auguste Hebrin, Louis Marcoussis, and Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) and Marie Laurencin, etc. into sub groups was imaginary and artificial, the product of the art critic, Guillaume Apollinarie. Fernand Léger showed publicly for a time and then, with the Spanish follower of Picasso, Juan Gris, later became part of Kahnweiler’s group of Cubists. Completing the Cubists who showed in the Salons were the Duchamp Family, the painter, Jacques Villon, the sculptor, Raymond Duchamp-Villon (who died in the Great War) and Marcel Duchamp, who stopped painting in 1913, and the painter, Suzanne Duchamp.

Historians will later accord Léger and Gris a place of prominence in Cubism, largely due to Kahnweiler’s historical account of “his true Cubists” in Der Weg zum Kübismus. (The Rise of Cubism, 1915). It should be noted that Kahnweiler was reluctant to include “his” artists with the Salon Cubists and was very negative towards the very word, “Cubism.” During the peak years of Cubism, 1910-1914, the number of “Cubists” was substantial; after the Great War, the artists were ranked as “major” or “minor.” This ranking was done after the fact by the first historians of Cubism who were art dealers supporting the artists in their stables.

Art Critics

Like the art world itself, the circles of art writers was divided among the conservative and the radical and those in between. During the early Twentieth Century, the close ties between avant-garde artists and writers, forged in the previous century, persisted. And, as before, the art critics were also serious poets and novelists in their own right. The artists and writers were a close-knit community and the writers supported “their” artists in newspapers and journals. Often the writer would publish art reviews in mainstream newspapers with a general art audience and then write more substantive commentary for the journals, often short-lived petites revues.

Adventurous small publishers were willing to take a chance and even produce books on controversial art. It is important to note that the contents of these early writings, published before the Great War, were usually generalized, referring mostly to the Salon Cubists. After the War, these books were re-read and interpreted from the standpoint of a post-War re-evaluation of the Cubist artists. Readers tended to assume, incorrectly, that the writers were discussing Picasso and Braque, but these primary sources need to be read carefully, for those two artists were seldom directly discussed.

“Cubism” usually designated the public Salon manifestations of Cubist art, created by the Salon Cubists. Those who supported Cubism and who wrote important early books on these artists include the poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Salmon, and Maurice Raynal. The well-known critic-biographer, André Warnod, also weighed in, writing in Comedia. Other critics, such as Louis Vauxcelles and Arsène Alexandre, spoke against Cubism but were important supporters of Post-Impressionists, a group of artists still relatively unknown to the art audience, and favored art from non-Western countries. The main site of Cubism in America, where avant-garde art had a small audience and collector base, was the vanguard gallery owned by the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. The legendary 291 hosted the cutting edge art from Paris and the gallery’s publication, Camera Work, published some of the first writings of Gertrude Stein, discussing Matisse.

Shortly before Apollinaire published The Cubist Painters in 1913, Gelizes and Metzinger published On Cubism in 1912. André Salmon, the poet-critic who had written of the mysterious painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and was a strong supporter of Picasso, wrote Young French Painting, also in 1913. In her 2006 book on Cubism, Anne Ganteführer-Trier, stated that Picasso was concerned that Salmon was neglectful of Braque. “He treats you with great injustice,” Picasso wrote to his partner. Perhaps of less interest to Picasso was the book written in 1914 by the American author, Arthur Jerome Eddy, Cubism and Post-Impressionism. With the exception of the writings of Apollinaire, who reproduced black and white photographs of Cubist collages in his book, Les Soirées de Paris, written in the same year, the sources of the ideas of Cubism would have almost certainly come from the Salon Cubists.

If one accepts that the main source of writings on Cubism were the Salon Cubists, then the lack of writing on the collages is explained. Apollinaire commented without explanation, that Picasso dissected like a “surgeon,” almost certainly a reference to the constructions. Most of the writing on Cubism centered on the multiplicity of viewpoints, the destruction of classical Renaissance perspective and the resulting fragmentation of forms. There were erudite references to poorly understood ideas that were floating about Montmartre, such as the Fourth Dimension or the dimension of time, but these appropriations were used, as Maurice Raynal later disclosed, less to explain Cubism and more to sell the new style as a serious movement in modernism.

The Salon Cubists: “The Cubist Heroes”

The Salon Cubists-to-be looked at Paul Cézanne, now widely available in various gallery retrospectives, especially those at the Salon d’automne in 1904 and 1906. It would not be an exaggeration to state that these exhibitions changed the direction of French avant-garde art, putting and end to Fauvism and making the beginning of Cubism. Cézanne’s attempt to go beyond the limitations of one-point perspective in depth, invented during the Renaissance. The result was what appeared to be distortions of space and form in his paintings, which provided much food for thought. Cézanne had also suggested that nature could be reduced to basic shapes—the cone, the cylinder and the sphere, thus introducing a certain basic geometry as the basis for creating form. But, far from being a disrupter of tradition, Cézanne’s investigations were a sincere and life long effort on his part to turn Impressionism into something solid, something fit for museums.

Avant-garde artists were searching for a new means of expression in a new age. This search was thwarted by the Academy, the art schools, which taught an official and accepted and acceptable art and insisted on continuing tradition. To the avant-garde artists, the academic formulas were now worn out and should be shed. But it is important to make a distinction between overworked visual conventions and a respect for past art. The Salon Cubists seem to have shared Cézanne’s need to innovate and to search for new answers, but they shared his adherence to the classical French tradition. For Cézanne, the classical meant the clean and simple structure of Poussin, and he objected to the supposed lack of composition rigor in Impressionism. Like Cézanne, the Salon Cubists always looked back to the masters of French painting.

Like Cézanne, the Salon Cubists turned their backs on the Impressionists but for different reasons. The Cubists objected to the passivity of the Impressionists who, they charged were too simple minded, too optically orientated. There was more to nature than merely recording the shifts of light and the changes of color—there was structure and form and solidity that were, paradoxically, broken by the mobility of vision. However, as was mentioned previously, the Salon Cubists did not follow the logic of Cézanne into the dissolution of form itself. The art of Cézanne provided a kind of stylistic armature, a sort of grid or network from which the Salon Cubists could “hang” or organize their subjects.

The results of their studies became visible from 1910 on when the Salon Cubists began appearing publicly as a group, hung in particular rooms of the major avant-garde salons, the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. Some had been working independently until then and became aware of each other in the Salon context. By October 1912, these Salon Cubists had their own exhibition, called the Section d’Or exhibition at the La Boétie Gallery. Although this was the year Picasso and Braque, working privately, developed Synthetic Cubism, the Salon Cubists continued their version of Cubism as an extension of Cézanne. The public considered with art very radical and shocking and, because of public ridicule and critical opposition, these were the artists who became the true “heroes” of Cubism. However, art history would, after the Great War, re-name them the “minor Cubists,” a categorization that must have come as a great shock to the veterans of one of the great avant-garde skirmishs.

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Cubism and Modernity

CUBISM AND ITS CONTEXT

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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Podcast 38 Painting 4: Cubism to Dada

When Art Became Code

If Expressionism was a temperamental predilection, then Cubism became the basis for a new artistic language that would dominate the rest of the century. But during the Great War, a younger generation of artists rebelled against the artistic tradition of the avant-garde. Dada artists positioned themselves as “anti-art,” but, like the Cubist artists, Picasso and Braque, they attempted to re-define art and its mode of communication and production.

 

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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