The Last of Cubism: French Artists at the World’s Fair, 1937, Part Three

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part Three

For Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the opportunity to decorate two buildings, one dedicated to airplanes and the other featuring trains, was too good to refuse. Both artists had long been painting modern life and both lived immersed in technology—Robert in his Talbot—and in cutting edge fashions–Sonia’s “simultaneous” dresses–so that doing murals on modern transportation–trains and airplanes–the pavilions for the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life in 1937 would be extensions of the lives they were already leading. By the late 1930s, the painting of Robert Delaunay had stiffened and thickened, lacking the translucence of color they had possessed before the War. The designs for the two buildings were the final expression of Orphism, distilled into a formula, hardened into a composition of colored discs as a signature motif. The circular forms that had once referred to the halos of light surrounding the new electric lamps for the streets of Paris could be translated into the rushing wheels of a locomotive or the swirling propellers of an airplane. The earlier works of both artists, Robert’s 1914 painting Homage to Bleriot and Sonia’s 1913, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, an account of a journey on a train by poet Blaise Cendrars, designed by Terk-Delaunay.

The particular buildings for the Fair, Palais des Chemin de Fer and the Palais de l’Air, designed by architect Félix Aublet, which were decorated by the Delaunays became the swan song for the couple’s collaboration and, not incidentally, for Orphism and for Cubism itself. For years, Robert Delaunay had been isolated by choice, allowing Sonia to take the lead, but the chance to do murals on such a grand scale tempted him to make his presence known to the public once more. As his friend and art historian Jean Cassou explained, “In this spirit of intuitive and amorous synthesis of Orphic cubism, Delaunay always aspired to accomplish vast works which would express some great idea collective. His isolation in our age stems from the fact that he escaped the temptation of the easel painting in order to learn of possible techniques that would reconcile painting and architecture.”

The maquette for the entrance to le Palais des chemins, representing clouds of smoke and the layout of tracks, by Robert Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay. Voyages lointains (1937) also for the Palais des chemins

Delaunay had a long friendship with Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy and had seen the Parisian debut of the latter’s famous Licht-Raum Modulator, an amazing apparatus that was a beautiful machine casting light and forming shadows. The artist was interested in collaborating with architects because he had been impatient for years with easel painting. In fact, The City of Paris of 1910-1912, shown in the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, was four meters long. Then, when he was invited by the well-known architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens, to produce a mural for the building Society of Decorative Artists for the famed Art Deco exhibition of 1925, Delaunay painted The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower. This mural was an answer and a sequel to the earlier The City of Paris, and once more he had been called upon to do murals for an international fair. Murals in a building would give him the opportunity to increase the size of his paintings to the monumental, enveloping the viewer with discs of color.

Robert Delaunay. The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower (1925)

This triptych was one of the last major figurative works by Robert Delaunay. By the 1930s, he had made the definitive move to total abstraction and he produced a series of paintings called Rhythms, consisting of colored discs. He translated these paintings to “wall coverings,” geometric designs featuring circular shapes applied directly onto the wall itself. The pigment substitutes, such as plaster and casein or plaster laced with sawdust or textured cement, produced raised surfaces of designs that could withstand exterior climate changes. The Reliefs were shown in a Parisian gallery in 1935 and it was at this exhibition that Delaunay met Félix Aublet, who was looking to employ unemployed artists for the upcoming world’s fair. Two years later, Delaunay had, not a wall, but the interior of an entire building to plan and decorate.

Palais de l’air with the murals visible on the back wall in 1937

Exterior of the Palais de l’air in 1937

According to the Centre Pompidou, which organized a retrospective for Delaunay in 2015 (with occasional translation assists from the author) “The Air Palace, located on the Esplanade des Invalides, with an area of approximately 6300 m2, is contrary to the Palais railway, a building designed for exhibition. All metal, it consists of two curiously heterogeneous parts: a transparent tapered lobby and a long opaque gallery, covered with cement slabs..The upper segment was 25 m by 36 m wide, the dome, which overlooks the lobby, is entirely covered with Rhodoïd, transparent material and multicolored, which are associated light projections. In the middle of colored ellipses that recall the rings of Saturn and airplane flight paths, a bridge hanging in the attic allows the public to discover, an airplane suspended in the from the ceiling, in the air, as it were. At night, the transparent walls of the hall allowed a view, from the outside, of this extraordinary cosmic composition, while the fires of three rotating lights come intensify chromatic vibration of color. Under this facility, designed by Delaunay and Aublet, two other aircraft and the latest engine models are exposed on the ground.”

Sonia Delaunay. Murals for the Palais de l’air (1937)

Robert Delaunay. Hélice et Rythme (1937)

For the married couple, the murals were a dazzling achievement. The success of the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life is perhaps more in its place in history as one last bit of international cooperation than in any coherent manifestations of the themes. For many of the artists whose work appeared in the pavilions and palaces, it would be their last mature work before the Second World War, after which they would disappear from history. Artists like Fernand Léger would live another twenty years, long enough to see French art eclipsed by American art. Historians tend to prefer to discuss easel painting and often ignore the entire oeuvre of an artist. And yet the 1930s was a Golden Age for mural painting. It is rare to find an account of Paris between the Wars that goes beyond Surrealism, but many artists were drawn to the alternative of Social Realism which was diametrically opposed to the flight from reality and the journey into the unconscious taken by the Surrealists. Again, art history has shied away from political art and Surrealism, with its apparent lack of politics was more comfortable, because the politics of Surrealism–and Surrealism was political–were easier to ignore than with Social Realism. Diego Rivera left Cubism in pursuit of an art that expressed its own age and its needs in an era of social struggles and class divides. The Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, expressed in the Pavilion, had stirred sympathies for the working classes and a desire for a more egalitarian justice.

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Fernand Léger. Le Transport des Forces. Palais de la Découverte (1937)

Joies essentielles, plaisirs nouveaux. Pavillon de l’Agriculture, Paris, Exposition Internationale (1937)

Fernand Léger, trapped between the avant-garde Surrealists, who were on the wane, and the concrete abstraction of Le Corbusier, sought a New Realism that would express its own time, the modern age of the thirties, in a readable–realism–fashion without being didactic and while retaining recognizable avant-garde features. Léger said, “It’s easier to look backward, to imitate what is already done, than to create something new.” Like the Delaunays, he sought connection with modernity. The murals he did for the pavilions at the 1937 Fair showed the impact of the current debate over the role of the artist in a society increasingly dedicated to listening to the needs and demands of the working class. In France, a new government had been elected in 1936 and the forty hour work week and paid holidays became part of a worker’s right. Léger, politically inclined towards supporting the proletariat, insisted that photomontages were an avant-garde solution to Socialist Realism and its didacticism. In Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, Paul Wood pointed to Léger’s use of photomontage in his murals in his work for the fair as indicative of the ongoing debate of what art should be in an age of social urgency, trapped between Communism and Fascism. To anyone used to Dada photomontage, the use of mass media in a mural scale is a contradiction in terms and there is no doubt that Léger’s sincere idea was a clumsy mural, a bad solution. Like the position of the French government–in between–the struggle of French art to find the secure footing it had once enjoyed. Something had happened since the great fair of 1925 and the murals, commissioned by a government embarrassed that, in the supposed capital of the art world, their artists needed employment. And yet the argument–realism or abstraction? and if realism, what kind?–was suspended when the Second World War ended the debate, leaving important questions dangling in the margins.

The late or post-Cubists works of Robert Delaunay are rarely discussed within art history and only recently has the career of Sonia Delaunay been reconsidered. Of Robert, one must read between the lines and consider the possibility that being thought of as a “deserter” because he refused to serve in the military during the Great War might have hampered his post-war career in Paris. But the lively social life of the Delaunays suggests that the career of Robert might have stalled on its own, while Sonia continued to thrive and grow as an artist. The work he did for the Fair of 1937 was among his finest and would, sadly, constitute the end of his career. In a year, Robert became ill with what was diagnosed with cancer and he struggled for three more years to survive. However, the Nazis marched into Paris and immediately the life of Sonia who was Jewish was in danger. The couple fled south to Vichy territory where they found safety. In 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer, leaving a wife who would outlive him some thirty years and a son, Charles, who would become a world recognized jazz expert.

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Post-War Cubism in Paris, Part Three

Cubism After Cubism

Part One: Theories of Pre-War Orphism

Before the Great War, there were camps occupying various terrains within the art movement called “Cubism.” The name, as is well-known, was a bon mot coming either from Henri Matisse or Louis Vauxcelles, both startled by a suite of 1908 paintings by Georges Barque, containing a tumbling of ochre “cubes.” The term “Cubism” was more descriptive and dismissive than a formal designation, but, as words have a habit of doing, the catchy term stuck. When art history began its serious writing of the age of Cubism, several decisions were made in terms of delineation of the topic. Constructing from the standpoint of hindsight and from the site of New York City, where Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) wound up, hanging in the Museum of Modern Art, art historians marked the “beginning” of “Cubism” from that one large painting and situated “Cubism” within the art of Pablo Picasso and his partner Georges Braque. Everything and everyone else was labeled as “minor,” leaving a substantial amount of works thought of as “Cubist” in their own time stranded outside of their own history. Only slowly has an accurate picture of Cubism begun to emerge in the past twenty years, mostly in the form of monographs and the occasional retrospective of long-forgotten artists. Juan Gris and Fernand Léger managed to capture some historical attention but solid works about the other Cubist artists are few and sparse. In addition, there has been but fleeting attention paid to the very real differences between Picasso and Braque and their colleagues who exhibited in the public salons. Critical interpretations made of the movement during the pre-war period used the term “Cubism” broadly and inclusively, referring obliquely to the fact that two of the important artists were unavailable for public viewing on the scale of a salon. An exception to that rule was Orphism, partitioned off from the Salon Cubists by a strong inclination towards abstraction and from Picasso and Braque by the deep study of color. One of the major defenders of Cubism, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), singled out Orphism for separate discussion–one of the few times a critic attempted to make distinctions among the large numbers of practicing “Cubists.”

Robert Delaunay. Champs de Mars. La Tour rouge (1911)

As a historian of the poetic and critical works of Apollinaire, Timothy Matthews pointed out in Reading Apollinaire: Theories of Poetic Language (1987), the poet was deeply concerned with modernism or with modernity and its conditions of dynamism and speed and change. His deep awareness of the unprecedented nature of twentieth-century society in the urban city of Paris fueled his early engagement with Italian Futurism. In other words, far more than Picasso and Braque, the Futurists were engaged with the cultural conditions, political and economic, of their time. These artists, in common with the modern poets, such as Apollinaire, were searching for and developing an appropriate visual language for an era of fast cars, soaring airplanes and tall buildings. In 1913, Apollinaire published Meditations esthétiques which was subtitled Les Peintres cubistes. As Laurence Campa explained in Le Monde diplomatique , Apollinaire wrote, “‘I like the art of to-day because I love light above all things, and all men above all love light, they have invented fire.’ This light Apollinaire finds in the canvases of Delaunay, especially in the series of Windows, a stunning spectacle which gives rise to the poem of the same name, Les Fenêtres, as a kaleidoscope of words: From red to green all yellow is dying.'”

Robert Delaunay. Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912)

This small eloquent book was more of a work of poetry or poetic prose than a work of art criticism or an attempt to explain Cubism. Apollinaire, as was mentioned earlier, used painting as a surrogate for poetry, thinking of advanced poets and artists as partners in the quest to bend conventional language for the needs of modernism. In an uncharacteristically clear paragraph, he wrote,

The picture will inevitably exist. The vision will be complete, complete and its infinite, instead of marking an imperfection, will only bring out the relationship of a new creature to a new creator and nothing else.Otherwise, there will be no unity, and the relations which the various points of the canvas will have with different geniuses, with different objects, with different lights, will show only a multiplicity of disparities without harmony.

Apollinaire continued, in Meditations esthétiques,

Verisimilitude is no longer important, for everything is sacrificed by the artist to the truths, to the necessities of a higher nature which he supposes without discovering. The subject no longer counts or counts. We thus proceed towards an entirely new art, which will be to painting, as we have hitherto envisioned, what music is to literature. It will be pure painting, just as music is pure literature. The music-lover experiences, on hearing a concert, a joy of a different order from the joy he experiences in listening to natural sounds like the murmur of a stream, the crash of a torrent, the whistling of the wind In a forest, or the harmonies of human language founded on reason and not on aesthetics. Modern art generally rejects most of the means of pleasing put into practice by the great artists of the past.

This passage is a succinct description of Orphism. But in the following passage, the issue of Cubism as Orphism become muddied, for the poet inexplicably inserted Picasso in a random sentence that was interesting but had nothing to do with the comparison he was making between color and music:

Young painters in extreme schools have the secret goal of painting pure. This is an entirely new plastic art. It is only at its beginning and is not yet as abstract as it wishes to be. Most new painters do well mathematics without knowing it, but they have not yet abandoned nature that they patiently question for this purpose that it teaches them the road of life. A Picasso studies an object as a surgeon dissects a corpse. This art of pure painting, if it succeeds in emerging entirely from the old painting, will not necessarily cause the disappearance of the latter, any more than the development of music has caused the disappearance of the different literary genres, Nor has the pungency of tobacco replaced the taste of food.

Later on in the book, Apollinaire arrived at the concept of the fourth dimension, which, by the time he was writing, was no longer a concern for Braque and Picasso who had back away from abstraction in favor of the materiality of mixed media. Painters have been led naturally and, so to speak, by intuition, to concern themselves with new possible measures of the extent which in the language of the modern workshops all were referred to collectively and briefly by the term of the fourth dimension. In reading this early book, written in the midst of swirling ideas about painting and poetry, one becomes aware of the struggle on the part of Apollinaire to organize what he was both seeing in studios and what he was trying to execute with his own poetry. This book is often quoted in part, the parts that seem to describe Cubism, but those sections are spare and intermittent. In between, certain lucid passages, Apollinaire meditated—as he said he was—upon the arts, music, poetry and painting and the need for a new aesthetic or definition or purpose. Trying to distinguish among the various manifestations of Cubism, he divided the movement (strangely) into parts, only one of which had any currency as of the writing of the book: “‘Orphic cubism’ is the other great trend of modern painting. It is the art of painting new ensembles with elements borrowed not from the visual reality, but entirely created by the artist and endowed by him with a powerful reality. The works of the Orphic artists must simultaneously present a pure aesthetic approval, a construction that falls under the senses and a sublime meaning, that is, the subject. It is pure art.”

Robert Delaunay. Homage to Bleriot (1914)

The main point of this passage is “pure art,” which within the Orphism of Robert Delaunay, refers to the concept of “simultaneity.” For poets and painters, the term “simultaneity” indicating a combination of association and memory and spontaneous visual and cognitive experiences emerged to explain the endeavors of Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), a Parisian artist, and his associates before the Great War. Matthews quoted Apollinaire as writing that modern painting turned away from its traditional task of copying nature and moved towards plastic means of expressing–not Renaissance solutions to mimesis–but painting as an independent activity in and of itself: “the autonomy of the artistic artefact.” As Apollinaire said, “We must forget exterior reality and our knowledge of it in order to create the new dimensions, the order and extent of which will be discovered by our artistic sensibility in relation to the world of plastic creation.” By 1912 and 1913, the poet became deeply involved with the work Delaunay, who had begun the long process of conceptualizing and theorizing the aims of his own paintings in relation to the other prominent artists exhibiting in Paris. Delaunay understood what the Cubists, whether Picasso and Braque in their studios or Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger in the Salons, were attempting to convey–an expansion of dimensions from two and the illusion of three to the insistence upon a fourth dimension: the passage of time itself and its imprint on experience and memory rendered conceptually on a flat canvas.

Georges Braque. Still Life with Clarinet (Bottle and Clarinet) (1911)

But Delaunay seemed to want to also “respond to a present expressed in transformational technology.” Although it would be tempting to stop at this point because Delaunay was involved in his Ville series, incorporating the modern sights of Paris, from the old Eiffel Tower, now recognized as “new,” to biplanes, zipping through the clouds above, his intentions were much deeper than a mere representation of modern life and all of its novelties. Matthews explained,

This desire is articulated in relation to the urban environment and the urban experience, and to the iconography of the technologized world of mass communication. This involvement with movement and with the experience of modernity, combined with Delaunay’s Orphism as a reaction against a certain austerity and impersonality in Cubism. It is argued that this reaction forms the initial impetus in Delaunay’s desire to develop Cubism more radically and to extend the scope of art in the post-representational era. Even Delaunay’s approach is taken purely as a reaction against Cubist ‘austerity,’ what becomes increasingly explicit in Delaunay’s approach is a concentration on color–a desire to reverse the Cubist tendency to exclude this plastic element from its productions. But to respond to Delaunay’s contribution in terms of a rejection of the Cubist ‘analytical’ style is to suggest that all original and creative art is fundamentally anti-conceptual.” According to Matthews, Delaunay “seems to have regarded Cubist productions as a necessary destruction of the restrictions exercised by perspective. For Delaunay, Cubism provided a definitive rejection of Classical forms.

What Delaunay focused on, starting in 1912 and continuing after the war in his writings in 1924, was the key weakness of Cubism as practiced by Picasso, Braque, and even the Salon Cubists, was their concentration on the object itself and the “breaking up” or “fragmentation” of the object from a singular focal point. In other words, the Cubist artists trapped themselves within perspective, replacing one system with another, but still mired in the terms of the Renaissance. “Ainsi le cubisme croyant apporter un nouveau langage–expressif–ne faisait qu’apporter une modification extériure dans un système qu’il n’abolisait pas–mais qu’il soutenait: l’introduction de pluisiers points de vue d’un object sur la toile ressortissait de la même vision sinon complétée.” Delaunay also dismissed Futurism, locating its fundamental weakness, that of imitating speed and simultaneity, rather than expressing these modern qualities in a plastic manner. For Delaunay, the approach to capturing the uniqueness of modernity sould be simultaneity as manifested through color. Color, like music, is abstract, is a language in its own right. Furthermore, color can be freed from its Renaissance task of imitation of nature and can explore its inherent plastic possibilities.

Matthews stated, “It is though, for Delaunay, the canvas is experience–of identity, of the present. The reading it demands of the viewer and the painter, its manipulation of the displacement that constitutes the relation of color to light, efface the contours of the painting itself..each painting is experience, it contrasts represent the pursuit of contrast and difference, the sensation of light and the ‘otherness’ of time. Thus, with the paintings of Delaunay, color is the fact and process of transition, meaning that the canvas itself become experience. As Apollinaire explained it, for Delaunay the basic condition of color is its complementary color; and, because the existence of red, for example, is conditional upon its opposite color, green, the colors cannot be separated. If they cannot be thought of as separate, colors, plural, can only be material perception or experience. It can be assumed that, at some point, Delauany went beyond his 1912-1913 quarrel with Analytic Cubism and Futurism and continued developing his own independent theories about color in painting and the problem of painting modernity. Picasso and Braque gave up monochrome painting between 1912 and 1914 in favor of experimenting with collage and pasted paper and neither of the artists returned to the incomprehensible hermetic monochromatic Cubism of their early years. Robert Delaunay and Apollinaire apparently took their stands on modern art and its competing styles and approaches far more seriously than either Braque of Picasso, for the two allies parted company over Apollinaire’s reluctance to dismiss Futurism entirely, while Delaunay rejected Futurism completely.

Robert Delaunay. Disque simultané (1912)

In his 1982 book, The Structure of Modernist Poetry, Theo Hermans noted that Apollinaire, in effect, separated Orphism from the rest of Cubism by linking it to Impressionism and post-Impressionism, which studied color as light and color in terms of contrast respectively. Orphism abandoned mimesis for the purity of contrasting colors and, according to Hermans, Apollinaire understood Orphism to be the natural successor to Cubism because simultanism was the “ultimate goal” of avant-garde art. As Hermans said, correctly, “Apollinaire’s comments on the Cubist painters are to be approached with some caution,” and noted that the poet “defended the new painters out of a sense of solidarity rather than conviction; his interest also shifted fairly from Cubism proper to Robert Delaunay’s Orphism.” The author noted that the artists were not particularly impressed with Apollinaire’s book, “a book which is often more lyrical than informataive on the subject of Cubism.” When Apollinaire

..turns to Delaunay’s Orphism as the attainment of the desired ‘peinture pure,’ all references to geometricism are indeed dropped; and, since he describes Orphism in terms of ‘lyricism plastique’ and ‘peinture poétique,’ the central opposition between Cubism and Orphism appears to revolve around the contrast ‘cerberal’ (implying schematization and geometricism) versus ‘lyrical’ (implying totality of perception and harmony of contrasts..)..In Apollinaire’s view, the striving towards ‘pure painting’ which motivates the artists of the new generation implies, at a first stage, the ‘reduction to essentials’ and the preoccupation with ‘conceptual reality’ found in Cubism. This means in turn that, as the painter’s attention shifts from visual perception to the complexities of multiple viewpoints and to the sysematic composition of the painting itself, the external object or model loses its significance and becomes merely pictorial material to be taken apart and re-arranged..The next step in the evolution then, is represented by Orphism, which appears to be basically a further elaboration–in Delaunay’s case leading eventually to fully nonfigurative painting–of the principle of analytical multiplicity towards simultaneity of vision, combined with a more pronounced emphasis on the final product as a harmonious and purely pictorial composition of color contrasts. The instantaneous perception of totality is thus substituted for systematic analysis, and color harmonies take the place of linear construction..The ‘purity’ of Orphism lies in its superior ‘creative’ aspect..In the articles of the years 1913 and 1914 he goes still further in championing Orphism, presenting it as the successor to Cubism..The Cubists’ clear-cut geometric shapes have no place in Delaunay’s Orphism, which..operates almost exclusively with color contrasts and the pictorial harmony resulting from such contrasts..Delaunay concentrates on light, and, as he puts it ‘Light in Nature creates the movement of colors.’ Movement can be reproduced ‘by the rapport of odd elements,’ and this constitutes ‘Rhythmic Simultaneity,’ or ‘harmony, the rhythm of colors.’ The Orphist’s primaraya concern is with the total (as opposed to the ‘analytical’ in the Cubist sense) and simultaneous perception of a dynamic reality, with what Delaunay also calls ‘the synchornic movement (simultaneity) of light which is the only reality..Since the Orphist work of art consists in the pictorial presentation of such as simultaneous and dynamic multiciplicity, it will resist the intrusion of ‘descriptive’ or ‘literary’ elements.o

Obviously, Delaunay was intent on staking out his own place and was making claims for his own art and that of his two allies, Sonia Terk-Delaunay (1885-1975) and František Kupka (1871-1957). And for a time, Guillaume Apollinaire was his ally and was an interpreter (and often the mouthpiece) of the painter’s philosophy. Although the poet and painter ultimately parted company, they were not to be reconciled. The Great War began, scattering the artists, sending Delaunay and his wife Sonia Terk-Delaunay to the neutral nations of Spain and Portugal to wait out the War. Apollinaire served in the War, was wounded, and ultimately died of this wound. It is the death of this poet and interpreter of art that leaves behind one of the many blank spaces of unfinished throughts and unwritten words that that would never be consummated. It was left up to Delaunay to carry on his crusade for pure painting, but after the War, the art world had changed and the Orphists were left without their previous foils. But they were on their own ground, uncontested, and post-war Orphism carried on, only to be interrupted again by the Second World War. In the decades after 1950, the art histories of Cubism would be written, shifting out Orphism except for a passing mention. Only in the 1980s were here attempt, notably within literary circles, that the Cubist painters who were not Picasso would be given their due. In the years between the wars, Robert and Sonia Delaunay continued Orphism, now separated from Cubism, as an art of modern life, which will be discussed in the next post.

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French Artists During the Great War: Braque, Part Two

Georges Braque Post-War

Return to Cubism

The question both during and after the Great War was the fate of Cubism. The forward thrust of the pre-war avant-garde in Paris was abruptly halted by what Barbara Tuchman called “The Guns of August.” Conflict and disruption are never helpful to artists who need peace and prosperity to contemplate their art, find collectors and make a living. The War, however, divided the leading pre-war movement, Cubism, in half: the Cubism before the War and the Cubism after the War. After the War Cubism acquired a totally different character, evolving from an armed rebellion assaulting the sensibilities of the public to a historical movement supported by a new generation of art dealers with respectable clientele. Before the War, Cubism, as a movement, had been divided into two different intellectual concepts, two separate aesthetic visions, one public, the colorful and, according to some, conservative, Salon Cubism, and the other private and studio based, the experimental projects of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Although both strands of Cubism could be traced back to Paul Cézanne, it was the Salon Cubists who emerged as the main “Cubists” after the War. Art history tends to neglect the Salon Cubists, such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and also has the habit of skipping over the way in which Cubism was established as a major force in the art market by these Salon Cubists after the War. In contrast to the Salon Cubists, after expanding its possibilities for his ballet designs with Parade, Picasso abandoned Cubism in a bid for wider acceptance. While Picasso developed a strategy to build his reputation as an ever-flowing artist, moving with each tide, each style and mastering it before moving on, his former partner, Georges Braque took a different road.

Braque, who had been wounded during the War, had almost died but struggled to recover and return to painting. Although Picasso had been solicitous and had visited him in the hospital during his rehabilitation, Braque became aware that their paths had diverged during the War, and, as he contemplated his comeback as an artist, he apparently made the decision to continue develop Cubism. Part of Braque’s transition out of the army and back into painting were two celebratory events, one to honor the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who seemed to have narrowly escaped death, and then a party honoring the painter, also recovering from a head wound and wondering if he would ever paint again. These parties in 1917, marking survival, marked the return of two prominent figures to the art world in the same year as Picasso’s Parade debuted. Picasso’s use of Cubist painting as costumes and sets in this “surreal” ballet were his swan song, his farewell to the style that made his reputation. For him, Cubism provided a way out, an exit to new artistic frontiers. For Braque pre-war Cubism beckoned to him as a way forward. As with Picasso’s work on Parade, Braque’s post-war paintings bear the memory of papier collé, with areas of strong color that were painted instead of large blocks of pasted paper. And, as with Picasso, these paintings use the old subject matter of Analytic Cubism and its characteristic sharp diagonal likes which now emphasize the shapes of the objects rather than fragmenting them. Rather than floating above the support, the segments of color build upon each other, locking each other down.

glass-pipe-and-newspaper-1917

Georges Braque. Glass, Pipe, Newspaper (1917)

Interestingly Braque relied upon the audience’s ability to “read” the “clues” of Cubism, a skill that had been developed before the War and not necessarily in Paris. What the potential Parisian collectors could see, however, is a style called “Cubism” as interpreted by its inventor, Georges Braque. As several of his transitions works made during 1917 and 1918 demonstrate, the artist relied heavily upon the papier collé works he was doing at the end of the summer of 1914, especially those which introduced a textured surface.

Georges_Braque,_1918,_Rhum_et_guitare,_oil_on_canvas,_60_x_73_cm,_Abelló_Collection,_Madrid

Georges Braque. Rum and Guitar (1918)

Perhaps, however, when it comes to the choice of color, a more informative comparison of Braque’s paintings he made during his recuperation would be with Henri Matisse, for, like the former Fauve with whom he once exhibited, Braque went dark. In comparison to the monochrome paintings of the so called “Analytic” stage, these paintings are dark and brooding. In comparison with the open structure of the floating segments of “Synthetic” Cubism, the canvases are filled and closed in. Braque also announced, if you will, the new work with a new motif that would appear for decades in his work, the Guéridon, a small side table dating back to the era of Louis XIV. The top is round, a site where Braque would crowded bits a pieces familiar to those who knew his early studies–musical instruments, sheet music, newspapers, things to eat and drink, all the comforts of home. The Guéridon had made an early appearance in 1910 and then in 1911, with its characteristic curved top was clearly visible as an edge barely supporting a plethora of disintegrating objects.

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Georges Braque. Le Guéridon (1911)

The side table still life paintings would be the center of Braque’s comeback in 1919 at Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery L’Effort moderne, but they were also his version of continuing to develop Cubism. Picasso abandoned Cubism during the post-war years and wandered off, exploring new styles, slipping from one look to another, as if traveling. Once settled in his darkened and sober color scheme, blacks and greens and browns, once he had returned to the comfort of still life motifs, Braque settled back into his own trajectory and stuck with his darkened Cubist perspective. It is possible to read the deep tones as elegiac for all that was wiped away by the War–human lives ended, an entire world of international avant-garde art halted, the nineteenth century itself–for a new century was well and truly underway.

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Georges Braque. Guitar and Glass (1917)

However, unlike Fernand Léger, Braque did not let his experience as a machine gunner penetrate into his art. Instead, his art was about being back home, at home, safe in a charmingly cluttered interior, surrounded by timeless and familiar objects. The three legged table symbolized peace and safety. Although Braque returned to the familiar stacking technique of Cubism, in which space was flattened by the tilting forward of the objects which offered themselves to the viewer, the confrontation with building blocks of color and pattern might take on a different significance post-war, becoming signifiers of an urge to recommit to all things familiar and insignificant and close to hand. In a very interesting article, ‘Trench Warfare on the Western Front, 1914-18,” Dorothee Brantz wrote of the odd vantage points and the unusual experiences with space and landscape for those, who, like Braque, lived in trenches:

Trench warfare forced soldiers to develop a new relationship with space, including intensified sense perceptions. To some soldiers, going to war, might initially have looked like an adventure, but they quickly realized the life at the front was nothing like tourism. For one thing, there was little to see. Trench warfare no longer privileged sight,particularly when it came to locating the enemy. Not only was the landscaper increasingly unrecognizable due to military destruction, most soldiers spent large amounts of time close to or even below ground, where their field of vision was limited to the boundaries of the trenches, creating a particular perspective. As a result, battlefields looked empty even thought they were actually saturated with bodies, both living and dead. Even inside the trenches, soldiers often could not see very far because of the trenches’ zig-zag construction. The view across no-man’s land was obstructed by barbed wire and upturned earth, and during a barrage this field of vision was even future reduced with smoke or poison gas filled the air.

This landscape had been were Georges Braque had spent almost two years of his life. It is no wonder that he surrounded himself, wrapped himself in traditional still lives, places at a distance where he could see them, study them, and revel in their simple existence. In contrast to the semiotic fragments of early Cubism that provided a narration of a visit to a café, for example, the post-war still lives are rendered in full, redolent with decorative, celebratory details. The verticality now takes on a different connotation when contrasted to the dangerous flatness of a non-landscape stripped of all identifying markers but dead bodies and barbed wire. The new distance, allowing for a full view of a still life on a graceful table or even including the table itself, allows for a verticality, indeed, even the possibility of the act of standing upright-a posture that would mean instant death for the inexperienced soldier.

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Georges Braque. Still Life on a Table (1918)

Having survived when so many did not, Braque, according to Alex Danchev, regarded his former confrères who did not serve, such as Marcel Duchamp, or who managed to cut their service short, such as Albert Gleizes, with a certain contempt. Picasso, in his opinion, simply sold out and of his post war life, Braque said, “Je dos connaître ce monsieur.” The paintings of Braque demonstrated how cleanly the artistic break with Picasso had been: Picasso became a celebrity, Braque remained the historical champion of Cubism and its future; Picasso frolicked on the Cote d’Azur with movie stars and prominent members of the rich and famous class, Braque stayed at home and painted objects arranged and rearranged over the decades. Early on, as with Musician, his 1917 return to painting, and La Joueuse de mandolin of the same year, Braque insisted on continuity and these paintings, like the Guéridon, had previous versions in his former life.

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Georges Braque. Musician (1917)

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Georges Braque. La Joueuse de mandoline (1917)

Braque’s return to public exhibition at L’Effort moderne in 1919 and the review of his new work was penned by Blaise Cendres whose right arm had been amputated. Centers, a Swiss national, had served in the French Foreign and Cendres (FrédéricLouis Sauser), like Braque, was recovering from his wartime experiences, as were Luigi Russolo, who also had a head wound that was trepanned, and Fernand Léger, who had been gassed. Raymond Duchamp-Villon died in the service of his country. It is in the face of the sacrifices of the avant-garde artists during the Great War that Cubism, once spelled “Kubism” with a “K” to damn it in its supposed German-ness, that Cubism finally became French, part of the French tradition. Braque chose to remain within this continuity, established by Léonce Rosenberg who was both taking advantage of the Cubist artists and promoting their art for mutual benefit.

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In A Companion to World War I, John House quoted Fernand Léger, who said, “To all those idiots who wonder if I am a or will still be a Cubist when I return, you can tell them that, yes, for more than ever. There is nothing more ‘Cubist’ than a war like this one which splits a chap up more or less cleanly into several bits and flings him out to the the four points of the compass.” But how should we read these key transitional works from Georges Braque, a recovering veteran of a war he would seldom mention and seemed to repress? One hundred years after Braque was called into service, Karen K. Butler wrote of “Georges Braque. Artilleryman” in Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged. As she pointed out the working process of Braque was largely “internal” and that his philosophy of art was to divorce his work from the real world. In writing of his experience with trench warfare, Butler commented, upon a statement by Braque:

“Visual space separates objects form one another. Tactile space separates us from the objects. VS (visual space): the tourist looks at the site. TS (tactile space): the artilleryman hits the target..It is my position the some of the irreconcilable aspects of Braque’s war experience that are found in this statement–a kind of perceptual gap between distance and presence, as well as an emphasis on tactility and physical experience before the mechanization war–find a way into his post-war paintings.

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Georges Braque. Still Life on Table (1918)

Butler concluded,

..it is difficult to connect these still lifes and interiors in any overt way wot the war. And yet it is worth considering whether the serial nature of these canvases ,which return again and again to the same motif with only slight variations in subject or perspective, is in some way suggestive of a psychological response to trauma–a response that is both a repression of the experience of war and an unconscious reiteration of its tactile space. For Braque, who, strives to hit his target like the artilleryman, I propose that his emphasis on the material qualities of the artwork is deeply tied to the devastating encounter with industrialized mass destruction that emerged in the trench warfare of World War I.

In 1996 the historian and art historian Philippe Dragen wrote Le silence des peintres: les artistes face à la Grande Guerre, taking an interesting stance, particularly when it comes to the French avant-garde artists. While the English artists rose to the occasion, looked the war directly into the eye of this first modern war and created, out of the avant-garde vocabulary, a language to express the death and devastation, the destruction of an entire swarth of landscape and the desolation that followed the loss of a generation upon which the future had once depended, the French artists looked away. As will be discussed in the next post, the vast bulk of French art was prints and posters, with almost none of the major pre-war artists approaching the war in any fashion expect indirectly at best. It is difficult to account for such a vast difference–eloquence on one hand and repression on the other, but it should be remembered during the first month of the War, France was delivered a death blow which was still bleeding in 1940, when on a fine day in June, the Germans once again marched down the Champs Elysees.

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Edward Wadsworth: Vorticism Goes to War, Part One

Edward Alexander Wadsworth (1889-1949)

In 1914, Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) writer, pointer and leader of a band of English radical artists issued the Manifesto for a new avant-garde movement, Vorticism, designed to counter the exhortations of Futurism. In “Long Live the Vortex” he declared:

Our vortex is not afraid of the Past: it has forgotten it’s existence.

Our vortex regards the Future as as sentimental as the Past.

The Future is distant, like the Past, and therefore sentimental.

The mere element “Past” must be retained to sponge up and absorb our melancholy.

Everything absent, remote, requiring projection in the veiled weakness of the mind, is sentimental.

The Present can be intensely sentimental—especially if you exclude the mere element “Past.”

Our vortex does not deal in reactive Action only, nor identify the Present with numbing displays of vitality.

The new vortex plunges to the heart of the Present.

The chemistry of the Present is different to that of the Past. With this different chemistry we produce a New Living Abstraction.

The Rembrandt Vortex swamped the Netherlands with a flood of dreaming.

The Turner Vortex rushed at Europe with a wave of light.

We wish the Past and Future with us, the Past to mop up our melancholy, the Future to absorb our troublesome optimism.

With our Vortex the Present is the only active thing.

Life is the Past and the Future.

The Present is Art.

There is a great deal more where that came from, but Lewis, writing in the first (and second last) issue of BLAST, demanded that the artist live in the present. The Cubists lived in the past, honoring French traditions; the Futurists yearned for the future; only the Vorticist artists lived fully in the present, the now. In retrospect, this stance, emphasizing acting and being in the moment, gained a certain poignancy, with the Great War just weeks away, the now was all that many young men would have. In the very brief time, the few months before the Great War began, when a few rebellious English artists in London came together under the banner of Vorticism, Lewis was mainly concerned in making sure that the public understood what Vorticism was not. As his advertisement in The Spectator announced,

The Manifesto of the Vorticists. The English Parallel Movement to Cubism and Expressionism. Imagism in poetry. Death blow to Impressionism and Futurism, and all the refuse of naïf science.

The fact that mere months earlier the Vorticist artists had appeared in an exhibition combining Post-Impressionism with Futurism in the Doré Gallery made the explanation of the goals of Vorticism imperative. But the now-strange juxtaposition of the two movements, one of the nineteenth century and one of the twentieth century, colliding in an art exhibition, was a portrait of the English art scene.This was an art scene that, so far, had fail to spawn an English avant-garde movement, an art scene still in the grips of the previous century, and, when confronted with European art, one that was not particularly interested in Cubism. As the name indicates, the Doré Gallery had been established for the purpose of exhibiting and supporting the art of Gustave Doré, but its space was also available for other exhibitions. In 1913 the last year of its operation, the Gallery, commissioned Frank Rutter (1876-1937), an art writer to curate an exhibition, Post-Impressionist and Futurist Exhibition. Perhaps because Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944) had close connections to the London art world, Rutter began his version of avant-garde progression with Camille Pissarro, to counter the selection of Édouard Manet and Paul Cézanne provided by Roger Fry (1866-1934) in 1910. Rutter, who, in his spare time, was a leading voice in the Men’s Political Union, which supported women’s suffrage, had helped to publicize the term “post-impressionism” and sought to drag British art into the twentieth century. The Post-Impressionist and Futurist Exhibition exhibition was significant because it followed Fry’s attempts to construct a chronology of modern art, and Rutter included English artists in his time line. The catalogue for the show stated that

..this exhibitions an attempt to set forth in a coherent and so far as possible in a chronological order examples of various schools of painting which have made some noisier the world during the last quarter of a center.” He continued, “That ‘cubism’ and ‘futurism’ have already stirred English artists is shown by the contributions of Mr. Wyndham Lewis, Mr. Wadsworth, Mr. Nevinson and others.

The leader of what was the first and only English avant-garde movement, Vorticism, Wyndham Lewis, insisted that only the British artists could fully understand modern art and modern life, because it was in England that the Industrial Revolution began, stating, “The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius.” In fact, being from the upper classes, most of the Vorticist artists had little experience with machines and industry. All except one artist. Hailing from the Industrial heartland of the British Isles, Edward Wadsworth was the best-educated and best-prepared to celebrate the industrial revolution and all that that social and political “event” had wrought. Like Wyndham Lewis, Wadsworth came from a wealthy family in Yorkshire, but he was educated in Munich to be an engineer. His father expected him to follow in the family business, E. Wadsworth & Sons, a worsted-spinning enterprise in Cleckheaton. The well-laid plans went awry and the decision to polish the son and heir in Munich proved to be a mistake. While improving his German, Wadsworth translated a small book by a Russian avant-garde artist, Vassily Kandinsky, currently working in the area. Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912) inspired Wadsworth to become, not an industrialist, but an artist of industry.

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John S. Currie, Some Later Primitives and Madame Discern (1910)

Left to right: Currie, Mark Gertler, C.R.W. Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and Madame Tisceron

With the intention being an artist, Wadsworth returned to England to attend the Bradford School of Art and the famous Slade School, from 1909 to 1912, where he met the future Vorticists. Perhaps the training that marked him most profoundly was that of restoring paintings by sixteenth century artist, Andrea Mantegna, under the tutelage of Roger Fry. Because the Renaissance artist had used egg tempera, Wadsworth had to learn how to master the laborious process, which, unlike oil was unforgiving. Wadsworth was trained to have a sure hand, one well suited to producing works of art dedicated to industry. Unlike the personalized painting styles of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, Wadsworth pioneered in a neutral mechanistic style of drawing in flawless outlines and filling in shapes and designs with flat uninflected paint. The result was the abolition of the “hand” or the unique touch of the artist himself in favor of depersonalized application of materials within a design that was inspired by the Vorticist mash-up of Cubism and Futurism.

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Edward Wadsworth. Cape of Good Hope (1914) (lost)

Along with the other London artists, such as Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wadsworth became involved with the Vorticists, an association which meant pulling away from his mentor Roger Fry and siding, as it were, with ringleader Wyndham Lewis, a Canadian, and his associate Ezra Pound (1885-1972), an American, who suggested the name “Vorticism.” Lewis and Pound promoted Vorticism and the artists of the movement through BLAST, and the work of Wadsworth appeared on the cover of the second and last issue.

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The breakaway artists formed another group, the Rebel Art Centre in order “to familiarize those, who are interested, with the ideas of the great modern revolution.” According to art historian Timothy Materer, the Vorticists looked to the machine and the city, artificial creations of the Industrial Revolution, as their source of inspiration. Eschewing the natural, Vorticist art was composed of “the forms of machinery, factories, new and vaster buildings, bridges and works” of the dehumanized “iron jungle.” A year after the establishment of the Centre, the first Vorticist exhibition was held in June 1915 at the hospitable Doré Gallery, included the official “Vorticist artists,” Jessica Dismorr, Frederick Etchells, Helen Saunders, William Roberts, and Edward Wadsworth, and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzesk, and some related artist, such as Canadian artist, David Bomberg, British artist Duncan Grant and the English Futurist, Christopher Nevinson. The news of the death of Gaudier-Brzesk on the battlefield overlaid the exhibition, the first and last in which the Vorticist artists were together. Sadly, for our understanding of many of these artists, these early but seminal works have been lost.

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Edward Wadsworth. Newcastle (1914)

Although Wadsworth did some paintings (mostly missing), by 1914, he was already making woodcuts, the medium of choice for the next decade. There is letter that Gaudier-Brzesk wrote to Wadsworth on November 18th in 1914, very early in the War, thanking him for the woodcuts. “I have your letter with the woodcuts; it’s a relief to touch civilization in its tender moods now and then.” The sculptor mentions Flushing and preferred the print, Rotterdam, which along with the other works he had received were “quite new to me.”

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Edward Wadsworth. Rotterdam (1914)

In the following year, the Vorticist artists were discussed by Lewis in BLAST in March 1915, a write up that included Wadsworth.

Mr. Edward Wadsworth’s Blackpool appears to me as one of the finest paintings he has done. It’s striped ascending blocks are the elements of a seaside scene, condensed into the simplest form possible for the retaining to its vitality. It’s theme is that of five variegated cliffs. The striped swings of Cafés and shapes the stripes of bathing tents, the stripes of bathing machines, of toy trumpets, of dresses, are marshaled into a dense essence of the scene.The harsh jarring and sunny yellows, yellow-greens are especially well used, with the series of commercial blues. One quality this painting as which I will draw special attention to. Much more than any work exhibited in the last year or so by any English painter of Cubist or Futurist tendencies it has a quality of life..To synthesize this quality of life with the significance or spiritual weight that is the ark of all the greatest art, should be, from one angle, the work of the Vorticists. (Note that Lewis did not know how to use “its”or “it’s,” which he used incorrectly on both occasions.)

What makes the inclusion of Wadsworth interesting is that he used his unimpeachable credentials as the heir to a huge industrial production in Yorkshire to produce images of twentieth century industrialization in the ancient modes of tempera and woodcut, media worth of a Renaissance artist. What we know of his lost paintings can be found through the extant woodcuts based on the paintings.

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Edward Wadsworth. View of a Town (1914)

The avant-garde tradition in all Western nations would be marred by great losses, particularly after 1930, when much of the art fell under the power of hostile totalitarian regimes, but the missing work of the English Vorticist artists were the first to disappear, usually by the hands of the artists themselves.

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Edward Wadsworth. Landscape (1914)

Wadsworth was separated from his colleagues by the War. As shall be seen in the next post, he joined the Navy where he produced his most famous and characteristic works. The last great avant-garde body of work produced by Wadsworth was a series of woodcuts on the Black Country, the dark heart of the industrial heartland of Great Britain. The rest of the work of Wadsworth, the bulk of his production, was a renunciation of Vorticism and all that it stood for. In his sudden conversion to conservatism in art, Wadsworth was typical of the post-war generation, heeding the call to “return to order.” But there was one last and extraordinary body of work to come from Wadsworth that epitomized modernity, his War work, discussed in the next post.

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The Forgotten Movement: Vorticism in England

Welcome to the Vortex

One hundred years before Europe began to industrialize and enter into the modern age, England was already totally involved in what would be called the Industrial Revolution. This Revolution, one of those rare historical events that change everything, actually began in Great Britain and visitors from Europe who wanted to see the future had only to walk the streets of London. writing for Georgian Britain Michael White recounted the rapid transformation of a rural society in a mere few decades of the eighteenth century.

Constant power was now available to drive the dazzling array of industrial machinery in textiles and other industries, which were installed up and down the country. New ‘manufactories’ (an early word for ‘factory’) were the result of all these new technologies. Large industrial buildings usually employed one central source of power to drive a whole network of machines. Richard Arkwright’s cotton factories in Nottingham and Cromford, for example, employed nearly 600 people by the 1770s, including many small children, whose nimble hands made light-work of spinning. Other industries flourished under the factory system. In Birmingham, James Watt and Matthew Boulton established their huge foundry and metal works in Soho, where nearly 1,000 people were employed in the 1770s making buckles, boxes and buttons, as well as the parts for new steam engines.

A hundred and fifty years later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Great Britain was at the top of the world, dominating all other European nations and yet, perhaps because of a preoccupation with empire building and industrial might, lagging behind in the arts. The facts and figures tell the tale: by 1900 85% of the population lived in towns, London alone had four and a half million inhabitants, and in 1914, England a tiny island, had amassed a great empire, covering one fifth of the earth. The social and psychological instinct in the face of such rapid metamorphosis was to retreat into the past and the British public, after some initial hesitation, embraced the brilliant narrative paintings of the Pre-Raphaelistes and spent the nineteenth century revisiting long lost times. But by the second decade of the twentieth century, the bill for industrialization and empire had come due–the culture had to reckon with its own modernity. The world, Ezra Pound, asserted had fallen into a vortex and, he wrote in 1914, “The vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency.” The best way to explain the vortex that was the past and the future breaking apart was an art that confronted the machine itself–Vorticism.

After a century of decorous exchanges with the Royal Academy, the British art scene could look back to the rebellions of James Whistler (1834-1903), an American expatriate artist, who went his own way as an avatar of the fin-de-siècle avant-garde. However, ten years after Whistler’s death, for London, Post Impressionism was considered the avant-garde. These daring artists, led by Walter Sickert (1860-1944), congregated decorously in “groups,”the Camden Town Group and the London Group. These British Post-Impressionists stopped short of the shores of Cubism but dappled with a careful cross-breeding of English artists and continental artists of the same era. For example, Sickert combined Whistler and Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who were friends in real life, and sprinkled in some early twentieth century touches from Paris with his psychologically penetrating portraits of Edwardian life. Sickert had lived in Dieppe until 1906 and surely knew of current Parisian movement, yet when he returned to London to preside over a small group of progressive artists, such as young Spencer Gore (1878-1914) in his studio on Fitzroy Street, he remained affiliated with a Whistlerian version of Post-Impressionism. The “Fitzroy Street Group” evolved into an independent exhibiting society which evolved into the “Camden Town Group” which became the “London Group.” It was just this sort of belated and backward response to modernity that infuriated yet another element of London’s small avant-garde world, a handful of young men and women who would decisively break away from the languor of Edwardian England–the Vorticists.

In the summer of 2011, the Tate Museum acknowledged the only British avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century in the exhibition, The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World. Earlier that year, the Guggenheim Venice presented the first show on Vorticism in Italy, The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914-1918, its title underscoring the fact that many of the prominent figures in the movement were of English-American-Canadian origin. The exhibition traveled to the Tate Britain, completing its odyssey through time, returning home. This comeback, after a century of being ignored, underscores the fact that “Vorticism,” as a movement, scarcely figures in the annals of modern art. For nearly a century this strange and seminal movement, so indicative of its own time, was overlooked by art history. The swan song of Vorticism happened in New York at the Penguin Club where the art was exhibited in the winter of 1917, just as America was busy entering the Great War–not the best time for an art show. Then in 1956 the Tate attempted to set the record straight by presenting Wyndam Lewis and Vorticism, but the public was uninterested. Perhaps the bombastic attitude of Lewis who said, “Vorticism was what I personally said or did at a certain period,” dampened enthusiasm, especially since the movement’s founder, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) had been associated with proto-Fascism. During the fifties, the art critics were hostile to Lewis and artists were looking towards the continent, particularly to Paris for guidance. Vorticism languished in the shadows.

Not until 1976 did the great British historian, Richard Cork, did a substantive account of the ill-fated avant-garde movement emerge. Today, Cork’s Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age: Origins and Development, Volume I and Volume II can be purchased for hundreds of dollars. This large project was preceded by the author’s 1974 book, Vorticism and its Allies, the catalogue of an exhibition of an exhibition at the Hayward. The fact that there have been exhibitions is significant because, according to Cork, much of the art made during those few years is missing. Reprising his role as the chief chronicler of this obscure moment in art, Richard Cork appeared at the Venice Guggenheim in January of 2011 speaking on The Scandalous Epstein, a discussion of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. According to Cork in 1976, Vorticism was “an indigenous form of English abstraction,” which reacted to the age of machines, now dominating the world. But unlike the Futurists who were the midwives, so to speak, of Vorticism, the British artists did not worship the machine: they knew and feared it.

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William Roberts. The Vorticists at the Restaurant Tour de la Eiffel, Paris: Spring, 1915

Before the arrival of the Futurists at the Sackville Gallery in the spring of 1912, the English art world enjoyed a comfortable art world, divided between the academic world of the tried and true old masters and the Pre-Raphaelites and the local proponents of Post-Impressionism, the Bloomsbury Group and the Camden Town artists. In terms of art, nothing of note was happening; in terms of literature, everything was pending with Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) three years away from publishing her first novel. But she was alert to the significance of the work of her colleague Roger Fry (1866-1934). In 1910 Fry mounted Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries and, in her essay, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf famously remarked ”On or about December 1910 human character changed.” She was comparing the pervasive mode for Victorian writing with the coming of a modern form of writing: ”Able by nature to spin sentence after sentence melodiously,” she wrote, ”they seem to have left out nothing that they knew how to say. Our ambition, on the other hand, is to put in nothing that need not be there. What we want to be there is the brain and the view of life; the autumnal woods, the history of the whale fishery and the decline of stage coaching we omit entirely.” Woolf’s comparison could be made not just between an old and new approach to writing fiction but also to the modern determination to sweep away the realist details of the visual arts to uncover something more essential and expressive.

In 1910, the Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries work up the dormant art world. The horrified reaction of the Londoners over and exhibition of long dead artists well-known in France is both amusing and a measurement of how far out of step the art world in England had become. The London News was typical of the strong array of responses: “some who point the finger of scorn, some who are in blank amazement or stifle the loud guffaw; some who are angry; some who sleep.” The year 1912 must have been an even greater shock, given that the Futurists, famously provocative and confrontational, appeared in March and the year closed with Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist exhibition. Virginia Woolf, who stood strongly by Fry who faced scorn and ridicule recalled that “every now and then some red-faced gentleman, oozing the undercut of the best beef and the most succulent of chops, carrying his top hat and grey suede gloves, would come up to my table and abuse the pictures and me with the greatest rudeness.”

For the next two years, Futurism and Post-Impressionism, English style, co-existed in London, and while it was true that both movements were multimedia, involved with experimental literature, art and décor and fashion, they were poles apart, representing different centuries. Nevertheless the future Vorticist artists were nurtured in the Omega Workshops of Roger Fry, who worked with the London elite, redecorating their once-stuffy Victorian parlors with brightly colored fabrics and hand-painted furniture and light colors inspired by Post-Impressionist art. It is hard to imagine the strong minded Wyndham Lewis and the creative Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949) working in harmony with Fry, who was the undisputed boss; and, indeed, these artists were dismayed to find themselves in a collective where their work was not properly credited. It was an argument over credit for the work done for the “Post-Impressionist Room,” staged for the Daily Mail’s “Ideal Home Exhibition” in 1913 that caused the generational break.

Led by Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), the disgruntled artists seceded from Omega and set up their own organization, the Rebel Art Centre, headquartered at a house on Great Ormond Street. Here gatherings were held, lectures were given, harangues were delivered, and, incidentally, some art was made by the breakaway artists, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, Edward Wadsworth, Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946), and Kate Lechmere. Inspired by the Futurists, the Vorticists recognized the need to be of one’s own time but were uninterested in the Italians’ obsession with movement. The Futurists understood modernism through its manifestations, its toys, its objects, all the things that went boom and swoosh. The Vorticist artists understood the links between technology and the machine and mechanics and dynamism and knew that the force behind runaway unstoppable industrialization was energy. This energy, symbolized by the vortex, was caught in the dialectic between the lingering Victorianism that clung to England and the omnipresent force driving technological progress.

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But the most remarkable artifact that emerged from the house on Ormond Street were the two issues of the publication, BLAST, in capital letters, like everything the Vorticists did. The magazine was published only twice, the first issue appeared on the eve of the War in July of 1914 and the second publication, the “War Number” came out a year later, announcing the death of the French sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1881-1915), one of the original Vorticists. Gaudier-Brzeska, like so many of the young men who went off to this War was killed at war in the trenches, dying of senselessness. The dual issues of BLAST railed against polite English society at a time when its traditions were dying in fields in Belgium and France and after 1915, the publication quietly closed and the artists, now scattered by the war, translated the vocabulary of Cubism and the lines of force borrowed from Cubism into the Vorticist language that could evolve from an edgy abstraction to a compelling picture of the Great War.

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

Thank you.

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Cubism, Futurism and the Great War, Part One

Creating a Modern Visual Vocabulary of War

Part One

In 1911, the Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) organized an exhibition of fifty Futurist paintings for the working class. Called Esposizione d’ate libera, the show featured Carlo Carrà (1881-1966) and Luigi Russolo (1885-1947). This spring showing of Futurist art attracted at least one detractor who defaced the organizer’s work, Laughter (1911). Although Boccioni was routinely lecturing on the topic of dynamism, a major Futurist concept connected to modernity, apparently the artists had yet to find the ideal vehicle for their ideas of speed and movement through space. It was Gino Severini (1883-1966), who lived in Montmartre and who was familiar with the new styles emerging in Paris suggested that the Futurists of Milan visit certain ateliers in his adopted city. It is this fateful fall visit to Paris at the end of 1911, that sealed the fate of the Futurists in the eyes of the French. Immediately the Futurist paintings and sculptures showed the impact of the venture to Paris–Balla painted the childish Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash and Boccioni fashioned Development of a Bottle in Space both early in 1912. What is particularly interesting about the works of 1912 is the abandonment of the visualization of social theories compared to the works of the previous year.

Russolo,_Carrà,_Marinetti,_Boccioni_and_Severini_in_front_of_Le_Figaro,_Paris,_9_February_1912

Futurists Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini in front of Le Figaro, Paris, February 9, 1912

Something had happened to Futurism–its visual and conceptual language became less political and more directed to an abstracted modernity. In her book, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (2009), Christine Poggi discussed Boccioini’s struggle to reconcile politics, class concerns, style and symbolism with the concepts of modern machine propelled dynamics. The Futurist artists were fascinated with technology and were witnesses to the changing relationship between humans and the mechanics of labor but while it was relatively straightforward to write of the abrupt change from traditional to modern, the precise visual language eluded them. Clearly, the geometrics of Cubism compared to the dappled brushwork of neoimpressionism suggested a more compatible and more expressionistic approach to dynamism. One could say that the Futurists were freed from illustrating and could now express movement formally and neutrally. To get a sense of how quickly the Futurists had to scramble, adjusting their style from post-Impressionism to what seemed to the Parisians to be a style inspired by their visits to Parisian studios, it needs to be stressed that the Futurist exhibition in Paris opened a mere few months later.

Understandably, the Futurists were very sensitive about being understood in terms of their own context, which would be the writings of their leader, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944). Enamored by speed and enchanted with the force of rapid change, their philosophy was directed towards modernity not only towards modern art but this distinction was lost to the French who saw the stylistic debt owed to the Cubists. Ever since their debut in Paris, February 1912 at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, the Futurists had been slighted by the French critics who initially denounced the interlopers as being derivative of Cubism. To be fair, the French were merely striking back. The catalogue essay, written by Umberto Boccioni, was impolitic at best and extremely combative towards Cubism. Futurism and Cubism had developed during the same time, but in different places, and, while the two movements seemed superficially stylistically similar, the goals and aims were quite distinct. Rather than making the concept of Futurism clear and instead of outlining its differences plain in a cool and dispassionate manner, Boccioni took it upon himself to confront the French artists in the famously provocative Futurist manner.

Writing in manifesto-style, the artist stated, among other things that the Cubists “continued to paint objects motionless, frozen, and all the static aspects of Nature; they worship the traditionalism of Poussin, of Ingres, of Camille Corot, ageing and petrifying their art with an obstinate attachment to the past, which to our eyes remains totally incomprehensible.” He asked, referring to the Cubists, “is it indisputable that several aesthetic declarations of our French comrades display a sort of masked academicism? Is it not, indeed, a return to the Academy to declare that the subject, in painting, has a perfectly insignificant value? Boccioni seemed to find the Cubist adherence to tradition particularly worthy of contempt. “..To paint from the posing model as an absurdity, and an act of mental cowardice, even if the model be translated upon the picture in linear, spherical and cubic forms..”

Having read this diatribe, it is no wonder that the art critics and the Cubist artists struck back. Cubist supporter, poet and art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) took aim at Boccioni’s paintings. ‘This is the most dangerous kind of painting imaginable. It will inevitably lead the Futurist painters to become mere illustrators.” True, the triptych States of Mind (1911) by Boccioni, had been repainted in response to Cubism, but its meaning, as explained in the catalogue stated, “We thus create a sort of emotive ambience, seeking by intuition the sympathies and the links which exist between the exterior (concrete) scene and the interior (abstract) emotion.” To be accused of being “mere illustrators” meant that Futurism would have to fight for its rightful place in avant-garde art as innovators, and, more than that, as true modernists, more modern than staid Cubism. For decades, the Futurists were still considered to be “derivative” of Cubism, but this judgment was based upon a morphological similarity and such a formalist comparison can be very misleading.

First, the word “Cubism” was not a specific term at that time and, second, in the pre-war period, there were many manifestations of “Cubism” in Paris, from Albert Gleizes to Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso, all of which looked to Paul Cézanne as the founding father or the fountainhead of the Parisian avant-garde. As late as 1978 Georges Édouard Lemaître, writing of modern literature, said bluntly, “Futurism may be considered as a derivation of Cubism.” And this was a very French perspective, lingering long after Apollinaire. But today, contemporary scholarship stresses that which is Italian about Futurism and the 2014 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, attempted to restore the original Futurism, a decades long movement that, regardless of its “derivative” status, inspired numerous movements by simply evoking the word “futurism.” In fact, although the Futurists did not exhibit in the notorious Armory Exhibition in New York in 1913, the words “futurist” or “futurism” were evoked as a synonym for “modern art,” which itself meant “the future.”

Italian-Futurism_ph_850

Regardless of what “futurism” would mean in other contexts, the Italian Futurists were aware of the trends in French art and had been exposed to Cubism in its many Parisian manifestations and were well aware that Cubism was advertised as being on a historical line, part of a traditional sequence that extended back to Courbet and linked to Cézanne, who inspired the present avant-garde. The artists certainly had some idea of Cubist philosophy, the aims of the movement, and its historical lineage as put forward by Gleizes and Metzinger in Du Cubisme of 1912. Once the Futurists moved beyond the Paris-Milan trajectory, the chain of mutual awareness was broken and the distinctions between the two movements were lost in translation. The catalogue essay, which followed Marinetti’s famous 1909 Manifesto, spend three or four pages discussing Impressionism and Cubism in order to separate Futurism from French movements. It is unclear how the opening duel with Parisian artists played in other cities, the various Futurist exhibitions in Europe.

This exhibition of thirty-six paintings traveled to London, horrifying the British, an event to which I will return, then landed in Berlin, where it fell into the hands of Herwarth Walden’s Galerie Der Stürm. Here, in Berlin, where French chronology did not matter, Futurism suffered its cruelest fate as it careened from being misunderstood to being misrepresented. From the standpoint of the international art market, Berlin was, like Paris, a place of exhibition and selling and buying, and to show well in Berlin was extremely important, because here, unlike parochial Paris, people would buy art from many nations. The marketplace of Berlin was truly international and the artists there were receptive to outside influences. However, the Italian artists were distinctly unhappy with the presentation of Futurism in Berlin. They had reason to be perturbed.

The exhibition which was a month long was accompanied by the catalogue that was traveling with the Futurism art, Zweite Ausstellung : Die Futuristen : Umberto Boccioni, Carlo D. Carra, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini : Berlin, Königin Augusta-Strasse 51 vom 12. April bis 31. Mii 1912, clearly stating the stance of these artists. The best discussion of the Berlin excursion comes from Günther Berghaus in International Futurism in Arts and Literature (2000). In this book edited by Berghaus, John White, in “Futurism and German Expressionism,” noted that by the time the Futurists reached Berlin, the larger movement was already spreading to literature. The visual artists preferred to not confuse the movement of their international début in the Spring of 1912 and arrived in Berlin as a unified group, minus Balla, represented by Boccioni, and absent a presentation of one of the famous Futurist evenings. White attributed the low key presence of Futurism in Berlin to the minor role the city played in constructing the avant-garde, but Berlin was an important regional depot for modern art, a gathering place as it were for eastern Europe.

It is in this context that Boccioni’s displeasure with the exhibition at the Der Stürm Galerie can be understood. Given the gallery’s significance as a seller of avant-garde art, the lack of publicity on the part of Walden would have seemed odd to the Italian artist, but, then, this exhibition space hardly needed to advertise. Most importantly, Futurism could not be hung here–installed on the gallery walls–as a movement in its own right, properly distinguished from other artists of other nations. After all Der Stürm was a sales room, not a place where a group of artists could establish their historical role in art. The prothelyzing goals of Futurism was thwarted in Berlin.

White analyzed the way in which Waldern, a master salesperson, marketed the Futurists in ways that were apparently confusing for an artist, like Boccioni, who was on a mission.

It is worth bearing in mind that the main reason for the Italian Futurists’ decision to exhibit in Berlin, the heartland of Expressionism, was the presence of Herwarth Walden, a genius of an impresario with enviable contacts to a whole galaxy of modernist painters sculptors, writers, and musicians. Walden’s copious network of artistic connections, both within Germany and beyond in most of Western Europe,was probably unparalleled. Here was someone through whom Marinetti hoped to establish a bridgehead into German Expressionism.

Whether or not Boccioni was dismayed at the way in which the paintings were arrayed–adjacent to inhospitable neighbors–becomes less important than the impact of Futurism on Expressionism and upon Expressionist artists. On the eve of the Great War, Futurism was caught up in a battle of styles and of attribution, fighting for its place in the emerging twentieth century avant-garde. The catalogue essay written by Boccioni had words of interest to the Expressionists: “We thus arrive at what we call the painting of states of mind.” He wrote of “force-lines.” And a few lines down, the artist presents what seems to be a prediction of the state of war: “Confused and treipdating lines, either straight or curved, mingle with the outlined hurried gestures of people calling one another, will express a sensation of chaotic excitement. On the other hand, horizontal lines, fleeing rapid and jerky, brutally cutting into half lost profiles of faces or crumbling and rebounding fragments of landscape, will give the tumultuous feelings of the persons going away.” Once the war broke out, the position of Futurism as a style suddenly changed. As shall be seen in the next posts, these descriptions will resonate in pre-war paintings of Franz Marc and the most eloquent artists of the Great War, the British painters.

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Podcast 59: Pablo Picasso and the Making of the Art Market

Pablo Picasso, Part One

Although we accept Picasso as one of the great artists of the twentieth century, he was not born a famous artist, he was “made.” This podcast discusses the role of the Great War and the creation of the post-war market in buying and selling avant-garde art. In order to be successful, Picasso had to be polished as an artist and Cubism had to be tamed as an art market suitable for collectors.

 

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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Introduction to Pop Art

DEFINING ART AS POPULAR CULTURE

DEFINING POPULAR CULTURE AS ART

Introduction

“A walk down 14th street is more amazing than any masterpiece of art,” commented Allan Kaprow, a Pop artist in New York. This statement sums up what Pop Art was reacting to and what this movement was against—the “artiness” of “art,” the “masterpiece,” the “artist as genius,” creating art out of the personality and out of the history of “art.” Pop Art emerged out of an American post-War materialism and its ranks were swelled by young and irreverent artists who had not known the deprivation of the Depression and had been too young to be concerned with the moral questions raised Second World War. They had grown up in a world so new that the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, referred to the social space between these children and their parents as “The Generation Gap.” These artists were children of the material age of rock ‘n’ roll, sock hops, drive-in movies, comic books, mass media advertising and the mass-produced omnipresent culture called “popular.”

Reaching their maturity, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, these artists faced an art world increasingly commercialized and internationalized and could clearly see the bankruptcy of an Abstract Expressionism which had become academic and absorbed by the commodity machine called the “avant-garde.” The Pop artists had little patience with their predecessors’ seriousness and repudiated their concepts of High Art. Instead they looked to the streets, to Low Culture, to the vernacular, to Popular Culture, and incorporated this previously disparaged and intellectually degraded material into the sacred precincts of the gallery and museum. The magic metamorphosis was achieved by translating a style purloined from commercial art transferred onto an “art signal,” a canvas, upon which an image was made by an art world approved medium, oil or acrylic paint; and then the object would be placed in a gallery or museum. Any element of popular culture could be elevated into high art by changing the materials and by changing the location of the image. The delighted public was pleased to see, at long last, art they could recognize and understand.

This change from high to low in cultural perspective can be seen in the photographic work of Robert Frank, whose major body of photographs, The Americans, was completed in 1955, the same year as Jasper Johns’s Targets and Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, and Willem de Kooning’s Woman series. The Americans was nothing less than a deadpan, dead-eyed social critique of the overlooked “America,” famously seen through the curious eyes of a Holocaust survivor. In “looking at the overlooked,” as Norman Bryson would say, the Swiss photographer photographed, seemingly at random, but Frank ultimately selected which of the 7,000 works to publish with the ruthless perspective of a non-believer. In borrowing and quoting the already ready, the already seen, and the already known, Jasper Johns assaulted the citadel of Originality, and in pinning his paint spattered bed to the wall, Robert Rauschenberg mocked the vaunted ideal of Creativity. These works of art herald the shift from an art of feeling, such as De Kooning’s slashes of paint on women, to an art of detachment. It was now hip to be cool.

Some art historians have selected certain precursors to Pop Art—Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy—American artists of the 1920s who utilized advertising in their art. Like the American artists, Italian Futurism, in its concern with technology and modern life, used the stylistics of Cubism to celebrate the dynamic modernité of everyday life. Other historians might also include Purism in Paris between the wars and its interest in objects produced via mass technology or Francis Picabia’s hybrid machine-human forms resembling mass produced products. However, the best precedent would be Dada, particularly the (anti)art of Marcel Duchamp, and his discovery of every day objects: the Readymades, the ordinary mass-produced objects the artist “found” by chance and dubbed with a “new thought.” It took decades for the ideas of Duchamp and everyday life to be assimilated by the art world and, in the twilight of his long life, the underground artist began, at long last, to be understood by the Neo-Dada artists.

After the death of Pollock, the art world of New York had its first martyr and Abstract Expressionism was consecrated. With the rise in the prices of American art, it was clear that, the center of gravity of the art world had shifted from Paris to an American scene, and once-quiet neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village, became thriving areas for ateliers and galleries and a new generation of dealers. Buoyed on a wave of prosperity and rising expectations, the art market boomed and art became a commodity, like stocks and bonds, and artists became stars, receiving instant glory, fame, and fortune.

The struggle for the acceptance of “modern” art was over and the struggle for commercial success had begun. But this new situation was not as favorable to the generation of Jackson Pollock. The new generation of dealers were looking for something “new” and Abstract Expressionism was not new, hence the swift success of Rauschenberg and Johns. No sooner than had Abstract Expressionism become accepted (if not loved) by the art audience than a new group of artists arose in an Oedipal rejection. Pop Art was a leading indicator of changing times and new attitudes. Although Neo-Dada may have been a precursor to Pop Art, it would not be the beginning of Pop Art.

British Pop Art

In the 1950s Europe lay prostrated and in ruins; and, during the next two decades could do little more than respond weakly to American innovations in art. But Pop Art was a notable exception. True Pop Art came from American sources, but Pop Art would be inaugurated and would be christened in a most unlikely place, England, in its “austerity” season, following a war it supposedly won. Although “Pop” art is a phrase coined in response to a certain strain of British art, Pop Art was specifically and uniquely American in content and style, for it was America which had taken the lead in creating kitsch–the lowering of high art–the raw material of the Pop artists. The American culture that reached the British people, who were still on rationing, was a culture of abundance. The English consumers leafed through magazines from America and encountered a visual feast of advertising products for the post-war Paradise that was America. The only message was “buy” and the only moral was to “enjoy.”

The post-war artists in England were, like most artists after the Second World War, casting about for a new way to make new art, were dazzled by American products and American graphic design. A group of artists from the Institute of Contemporary Art in London who were interested in American culture began to come together to discuss the barrage of American popular culture. Their leader, Lawrence Alloway, was an art critic and an organizer who was enamored with all things American and absorbed the snappy patter of advertising. It was he who used the phrase “pop art,” it was he who explained how “the aesthetics of plenty” had created a “continuum” between fine art and mass culture, and it was Alloway who rejected the traditional boundaries between high and low culture.

The ICA artists preceded the Pop artists in New York by almost a decade in their experiments with popular culture. Unencumbered by the weight of Abstract Expressionism, unburdened by a mission to supplant Paris as the capital of the art world, these young artists laid the groundwork for the project of how to make art out of life. Many of the most famous British Pop “icons,” were made, not as works of art, however, but as occasions for discussions. As early as 1947 Edouardo Palozzi pasted together American tabloids and advertising in I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. The small collage made in 1956 by Richard Hamilton raised the question, What is it about Today’s Homes that make them so Different, so Appealing? and featured a new Garden of Eden full of American personalities and American products from television to canned ham. The works of Hamilton and Palozzi were small in scale and hand made. Their collages, careful cutouts from American magazines, were extensions of pre-war Photomontages. Totally lacking in social critique, their exuberant exaltation of the vernacular and their innocent pleasure in visual stimulation would characterize Pop Art.

Formally titled the Independent Group, these artists mounted as series of important exhibitions in the early fifties, before Johns or Rauschenberg had become recognized artists. The exhibitions included Parallels of Life and Art, 1953, Man, Machine, and Motion, 1955, and This is Tomorrow, 1956—all were derived from the world of commerce. In a uniquely British approach, these exhibitions of things that existed in the now for America were cast in the future, something that England would aspire to. As Alloway said, “movies, science fiction, advertising, Pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically.” Indeed soon the city of London would begin to “swing” in the Sixties and the Beatles would conquer the world.

French Pop Art

In Paris Pop Art was called Le Nouveau Réalisme (“New Realism”), a term coined by Pierre Restany in 1960. Sidney Janis used this title for his 1962 exhibition in New York which introduced the then-scattered American Pop artists to the art world. However, besides the title, Pop Art in France was quite different from Pop Art in New York. In Paris, Restany issued manifestos and these statements of purpose were signed by artists–like in Dada or Surrealism—in a nostalgic replay of art before the war. Indeed when art critic Lucy Lippard viewed the works of these Parisian Pop artists in 1962, she saw the traces of Surrealism. Indeed the so-called “Pop” artists had little in common with American or British artists beyond making art in the same time period. The French group was so disparate that they had to justify their affiliation under the concept of “collective singularity.”

It is difficult to think of an American or British counterpart to artists such as Yves Klein, Arman, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Mimmo Rotella or Niki de Saint Phalle. It seems apparent that New Realism in Paris is closer to Neo-Dada in New York, for these artists also merged art and life, a key goal of the Neo-Dada artists, especially Robert Rauschenberg. In fact, Rauschenberg was well acquainted with some of the artists, such as Niki de Saint Phalle. All of these Parisian artists were better grouped within Fluxus where their “recycling of industrial and advertising reality,” as Restany described it, would be channeled into “events” the equivalent to “Happenings” and installations and performances.

New Realism in New York and Paris introduced new issues in art, concerned with an aspect of the real, or realism without transcription or interpretation. “New Realism” and earlier terms, such as “Neo-Dada,” and “New American Sign Painters,” were quickly replaced by the more upbeat and less formal sounding British term—Pop Art. However, the term New Realism had an important story to tell: Pop Art or New Realism was a return to representation, a return to realism, a return to figuration. By the 1950s, in the wake of European modernism, it was impossible to bring back an academic way of making art—traditional realism—but a new form of popular realism could be smuggled into art through the appropriation of “life” and its preexisting detritus.

Pop Art in New York

In New York, Pop Art was a rejection of Abstract Expressionism and all its high art pretensions and a celebration of all that had been banished from Fine Art. It was a rebel movement of art outlaws that celebrated the commercial consumerist aspects of post-war art. Although it was thought of as “American,” Pop Art was also a regional art, born and bred in the advertising agencies of New York City. Only Andy Warhol referred to the pop culture of Hollywood; the rest of the artists were embedded in the world of New York commercialism. They used, abused and denied the crass origins and adopted the look of advertising, the bright attention-getting colors and the sharp legible lines and the simple centered designs.

In contrast to the angst of creation suffered so dramatically by the Abstract Expressionist artists, Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was cheekily un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating low culture. Pop Art insisted on leveling the playing field and made the point that all things from life were suitable materials for artists. But it would be to facile to insist that Pop Art was a juvenile rebellion of an adolescent. Pop Art was cobbled together from the raw materials of that way the artists grew up and lived. Pop culture was their culture and the artists merely reflected their own times.

Pop Art signaled a “Return to the Object” and a rebellion against Abstract Expressionism. In contrast to the un-readability and transcendence of Ab Ex, Pop Art was easily identifiable, using specific and recognizable images, from low art mass media sources. Andy Warhol did copies of diagrams of dance steps. George Segal cast his friends and neighbors in their everyday lives. In 1961 Claes Oldenburg sold his papier maché Pop Art objects in his own establishment, The Store. The curators of these earlier exhibitions pulled together this new generation of artists, many of whom were working with popular culture without knowledge of each other. Only when they saw each other’s work in shows, such as New Realism, did they realize a “new” “ movement” had begun and that they were part of “Pop Art.”

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many art writers were repelled by the vulgar sources. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers made Pop Art into a marketable commodity, the old guard art writers stood aside and refused to accept this new form of art as serious art at all. None was more opposed than Clement Greenberg whose worst nightmares were coming true. The art audiences who had never really embraced Abstract Expressionism loved Pop Art; it was art of their own time. Pop Art in America was the first really popular movement in Avant-Garde art.

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Piet Mondrian

PIET MONDRIAN (1872-1944)

Although Mondrian’s painting and his artistic convictions evolved in France, his art is most closely identified with the Dutch movement, “De Stijl.” Mondrian spent most of his life in Paris where he lived and worked and developed his definitive style of abstract art and he died in New York. But these simple facts are lost when he is identified with the Dutch group with which he was reluctantly and loosely affiliated for only five years. Mondrian was caught in Holland, visiting his family, and when the Great War broke out, he was thrown together with a number of artists he would otherwise have never met. Despite the French origins of his style, much ink has been spilled trying to link Mondrian to the flat Dutch landscape because Mondrian’s paintings were “flat.” Such morphological formalism does little to elucidate what his art was really about.

An important indication of the underlying meaning of Mondrian’s art is one of his last representational paintings, the Evolution triptych of 1910, a symbolic evocation of a human journey to spiritualism. Mondrian had been an adherent of the pan-philosophy, Theosophy, since 1909, and embraced its idea that absolute laws rule the universe. Founded by Madame Hélène Blavatsky at the end of the nineteenth century, Theosophy attempted to explain why neither science nor religion could provide the answers to life’s mysteries. Theosophy was widespread and many early twentieth century artists, such as Kandinsky and Malevich and Klee, were adherents of the philosophy. The Dutch artist, J.L.M. Lauwerkis stated that, “The concepts of Theosophy are preeminently suited to be expressed by art because of their magnitude and profundity.”

Lauwerkis was referring to abstraction. However, Mondrian’s triptych was too literal to express concepts that should not be illustrated. According to Blavatsky, “The interior world has not been hidden from all by impenetrable darkness. By that higher intuition acquired by Theosophia–or God-knowledge, which carried the mind from the world of form into that of formless spirit, man has been sometimes enabled in every age and every country to perceive things in the interior or invisible world.” In Holland, the local Theosophical Society was interested in visualizing their concepts through mathematics. Blavatsky’s prominent follower, Rudolph Steiner described Theosophy, not as a religion, but as a philosophy, which explained religion. As Steiner stated,

“Put shortly, and in the language of the man of the street, this means that God is good, that man is immortal, and that as we sow so we must reap. There is a definite scheme of things; it is under intelligent direction and works under immutable laws. Man has his place in this scheme and is living under these laws. If he understands them and co-operates with them, he will advance rapidly and will be happy; if he does not understand them–if, wittingly or unwittingly, he breaks them, he will delay his progress and be miserable. These are not theories, but proved facts. Let him who doubts read on, and he will see.”

When Mondrian saw Cubist art at an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1911, he moved to Paris to pursue the possibility of employing the new style to express his Theosophical ideas. By 1912, he was making “abstract” paintings of the sides of buildings in Paris, which had retained ghost traces of the structure built next to it and then torn down. Clearly Mondrian rejected Cubist content—the life of the artist—for a universalist content discussed by Theosophy, but he went through several years of “apprenticeship” to the analytic phase. He moved from his Cubist-inspired Still Life with Ginger Pot of 1912 to his Oval Composition of 1914, which is totally abstract. Composition VII of 1913, another Cubist abstraction, is painterly, but this working of the surface would change. Mondrian had abandoned a twenty year career as a Symbolist, and this decade would be one of struggle and transition and philosophical meditations as he moved from one perspective to another. By the time he was stranded in Holland, Mondrian was ready to develop his unique and individual style combining the tenets of the Parisian avant-garde and Theosophy.

It is in Holland in the town of Laren that Mondrian developed his characteristic approach to painting, the grid composition. The grid evolved out of his observation of the ocean and the way the piers jutted out into the water. His Piers and Ocean series of 1915, became Composition in Line of 1916-17 with “plus” and “minus” lines. The reduction of nature to horizontals and verticals and the monochromatic approach of Cubism marked a turning point of his work. Picasso and Braque had reduced their colors in order to explore the disintegration of form. But Mondrian was not interested in fragmentation of objects in the real world; he was interested in disclosing the unity underlying reality. The purification of his paintings continued, and, just before he returned to Paris, his approach began to cohere. Composition with Grid 8 (1919), like Composition in Line (1916-17) was inspired by nature, a walk Mondrian took along the seaside at night and was his “reconstruction of a starry night.” Unlike Vassily Kandinsky, Mondrian’s abstraction came from nature and from his desire to find the harmony of the universe through repetition and standardized elements.

Mondrian’s five years in Holland were necessary to the development of his art. It is important to understand that the artist had abruptly changed course from a late Symbolism to a radical avant-garde Cubism in his middle age. His output during these years of transition was relatively small while he slowly digested what he had learned and decided what he wanted to do with this new approach. The move to Holland and the isolation during the Great War was yet another jolt that disrupted his art. He lived in the small rural town of Laren where he worked with a new friend, the painter Bart Van Der Leek. In Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, Carel Blotkamp, noted that the two artists produced “a radicalization in the formal language of their paintings” and that they helped one another eliminate any traces of the “old” and to seek the “new.” A younger artist, Van Der Leek was already making abstract paintings that were completely unrelated to anything going on outside Holland.

In 1917 Mondrian and Van Der Leek were approached by Theo van Doesburg, who was forming a group of artists to represent De Stijl, “The Style” that would be the only possible style, the ultimate style of modern art. Both artists were reluctant to join with van Doesburg, but it is clear why he wanted to recruit them. Although their purposes were somewhat different from De Stijl, Mondrian and Van Der Leek were seeking a universal language that was modern, and both were working with abstraction, obviously the next step beyond Cubism. De Stijl sought to make the universal concrete, a project similar to what these artists were attempting. In addition, van Doesburg was publishing a journal, De Stijl, as a vehicle for discussing modernity in art. Both artists published in the journal and one suspects that they were more interested in circulating their ideas than in being part of a group. Under the influence of Van Der Leek, Mondrian reintroduced colors, temporarily eliminated line, and eventually he reduced the number of his colors to the primaries, red, yellow and blue. He also learned to paint without inflection and the areas of color were smoothed out.

These wartime paintings show that there were formal questions for the artists to debate. What colors should be used, should they be mixed or pure, should there be lines, should the lines extend to the edges or not, what shape was best to contain the painted manifestation of the absolute? Tiny decisions, maybe, but a major reworking of visual language for the artists was being developed. Mondrian attempted to combine his Theosophical beliefs that painting his art was an “outward sign” of the philosophy with his formal artistic journey to purity. The resulting essay, “Neo-Plasticism: The General Principle of Plastic Equivalence” was published in De Stijl over a number of issues in 1920. Although the essay was long and obscure and difficult to read, it was published in French in 1920 and in German in 1925, the year Mondrian would finalize his break with De Stijl. The essay on new form seems to parallel his slow struggle to formulate a new language.

Mondrian’s opening paragraph appeared to be a re-statement of the goals of De Stijl, which was to free art from individual expression and to seek the universal. Rejecting the subjective, Mondrian wrote that art “must also be the direct expression of the universal in us—which is the direct expression of the universal outside us…” For Mondrian art was an expression of opposites: that of which we are “conscious” and that of which we are “not conscious.” We are aware of the reality of forms but what we are actually seeing is but a manifestation of the universal. Art has to express the universal through a “new plastic expression” that would reconcile these opposites in an “equiliberated relationship.” Mondrian stated that this equilibrium could not be achieved through nature; therefore “plasticity” expressed these relationships, not specific forms. He equated the “new spirit” with “pure plastic expression,” something he would achieve only years later. What Mondrian needed was a structure in which colored elements could be balanced harmoniously.

By 1918, the grid appeared in a spring series of paintings, but the grid was regular and the colors were still muted and mixed. One of the big issues facing the artists was whether or not to start with nature or with an aesthetic principle, and when he returned to Paris, Mondrian was able to get beyond any consideration of nature and arrive at complete abstraction. By 1920, he had arrived at his signature style of vertical and horizontal lines, the use of the right angle, the restriction to primary colors, red, yellow and blue, confined within a grid of black lines on a flat white plane. Gray, seen in Composition A: Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow and Blue (1920), was allowed but disappeared in the 1920s only to reappear in the 1940s. Mondrian evoked Aristotle in his utopian ideal of exact and equal relations of pictorial elements that signified the invisible but absolute harmonies that ruled the universe.

In Mondrian’s mature canonical style, the grids became irregular so that the colored units had to be formally balanced. The black lines of the grid became more assertive and the shapes are not equal, nor are the colors evenly distributed, nor are they of equal size. However, Mondrian learned how to balance the elements, turning asymmetry into symmetry, harmony and balance. The red, yellow and blue, the primary colors signified the unchanging and absolute elements of the universe; the vertical and horizontal, the eternal and unchanging laws of the absolute. Eventually the lines met the edges, implying a larger and wider field stretching beyond the painting itself. Mondrian carefully considered the demarcation of his surfaces and brought the frame forward, rather than allowing the canvas to be set into a surround, giving the impression of depth.

Mondrian’s studio in Paris was a place to paint, a place to live and think and a gallery where his art could be exhibited. 26, rue de Départ was sparsely furnished, resembling the plain Protestant interiors of a Dutch church. The visitor was met with an artificial tulip, painted white, rising out of a white vase. Unlike his old friend, Van Der Leek, Mondrian understood that there was an affinity between painting and architecture and the studio was a visual expression of De Stijl principles as much as it was a place of display and exhibition. Although Mondrian stayed true to these principles, as he understood them, Theo van Doesburg came under the influence of Dada and the art of the Russian Avant-Garde. By 1924, van Doesburg’s paintings began to display geometric forms tilted on a diagonal. The diagonal implied movement and dynamism and, above all, change. Mondrian’s art always revealed the changelessness of the universe and sought the absolute. He could no longer be associated with De Stijl or van Doesburg and wrote a letter explaining his withdrawal to his Dutch associate.

Although Mondrian could not abide the diagonal, his studio in Paris had a triangular, rather than a straight, set of walls at its far end. Ironically, as Nancy Troy’s sketch of the studio shows, the room itself, like van Gogh’s bedroom in the Yellow House, was an irregular shape, something that never appeared in his paintings. During the twenties, Mondrian’s grid opened and expanded and large blocks of color played off one another. However, Suzanne Deicher, in Mondrian, suggests that his art took a more decorative turn because the post-War style, Art Deco, had abandoned the utopian role for art. Her comment could explain why the rigid grid was elaborated by the addition of multiple lines painted close together in the 1930s. His work remained complex and the scale of the units was reduced but these paintings, bristling with lines, look less serene and more energetic.

Mondrian’s time in Paris was once again interrupted by another war. In 1938 he fled Paris and went to London, where the house next door was bombed. From London, Mondrian went to New York, a city he fell in love with. New York in 1940 was a city giddy from being on the edge of another great war. Mondrian, a lover of “jasband” and of modern dance, was in the capital of jazz. For him, jazz, like the color white, was the essence of modernity. Jazz dancing was made up of straight lines in contrast to the old fashioned round waltz. In Holland, he had long been known for his stylized dancing and his spiritual upward gaze, which won him the nickname “the dancing Madonna.” Wearing his neat round eyeglasses, Mondrian went dancing with the likes of Lee Krasner. He was surprisingly active in the New York art world, urging Peggy Guggenheim to support Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock.

One gets the feeling that the artist became a social being in his old age. In Paris he was alone and not much celebrated; in New York, he became a respected and sought-after artist. The abstract painter, Charmoin von Weingand, wrote eloquently of his pristine white studio and after his death the famous room was open to the public. Under the influence of the bright lights and the syncopated rhythms of the new city, Mondrian painted New York City of 1942. In Painting as Model, Yve-Alain Bois pointed out that Mondrian preferred the electric lighting of New York to the gaslights of Paris and he preferred to paint at night. After 1942, Mondrian eliminated the black line. He may have looked for the “truly modern man,” meaning the human who understood the essence of his or her time, but he was equally enchanted with jazz music and bright lights of Broadway, which may or may not be essential to modernity.

Mondrian honored the city of his exile with a series of three paintings that took advantage of a newly discovered material, the colored tapes seen in the New York City series. The artist had always worked intuitively and constantly adjusted the grid lines of his paintings. Suddenly, with tape, he had a easy way to make these adjustments. As one tape crossed over another, the two colors combined to make a third and the intersection became a three dimensional point. These tapes promoted him to tape and re-tape until he had canvases hanging on the stark white walls festooned with bits and pieces of color. This new approach to composition would give rise to the question of finality of these final works. His last great paintings were Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie. Gridded with colored lines, Victory Boogie-Woogie was in progress when Mondrian died of pneumonia in 1944.

With his life devoted to art, Mondrian had never married. His close friend, Harry Holtzman, was his sole heir and executor to his estate. Holtzman had been an admirer of the work of Mondrian from the 1930s and, as Gail Levin recounts in her biography of Lee Krasner, went to Paris in 1934 to meet the artist. The two artists became such close friends that, when the war broke out, Holtzman brought Mondrian to New York and helped him get settled in. After Mondrian’s death, Holtzman spent years collecting his old friend’s writings and finally getting them published. However, even the availability of Mondrian’s thinking, which showed that his art was a manifestation of Theosophy, could not prevent the elimination of his spirituality in favor of a more formal reading of his paintings. As late as the 1970s Holtzman wrote in protest about an art critic describing Mondrian’s work as “geometric.”

“Geometric” implied a particular style of painting: Cubist derived and opposed to Surrealism. This was New York thinking but not Mondrian’s purpose. His use of geometric forms was linked to the regularity of the rules that guided the universe. But under the spell of pragmatic American art criticism and art history, Mondrian became a exemplar of “flatness”—Clement Greenberg’s theories. Mondrian’s adherence to Theosophy, a philosophy unfamiliar to contemporary Americans, did not come to light again until the 1986 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, The Spiritual in Art; Abstract Painting. 1890-1985.

The next post deals with De Stijl Architecture.

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

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

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De Stijl

DE STIJL 1917-1931

Between 1914 and 1918 it became clear to any thinking person that an old world had died in an agonizing spasm and that a new world was desperately needed to take the place of a graveyard of discredited ideals. De Stijl or “The Style” was founded in Holland during the Great War, and the desire for harmony and balance expressed by the artists in this group certainly reflected their abhorrence of the chaos and conflict raging around them. De Stilj emerged at the same time as Dada and the Russian Avant-Garde movement—all dedicated to the rebuilding of a Brave New World out of the ruins of the old. Whether it was the nihilism of Dada or the missionary spirit of the Russians or the Utopian dreams of De Stijl, these groups were forged from the urgency of the time. Although the roots of the style of De Stijl can be traced back to Cubism from which it is derived, the dates of the movement itself are linked to the magazine, De Stijl. De Stijl the group and the journal, was founded in Leiden in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg, the organizer of the diverse group of artists and architects. Carrying on throughout philosophical disagreements and defections over doctrine, van Doesburg personified the group, carrying its ideas throughout Europe until he died in 1931. The journal ceased publication in 1932 with a commemorative issue edited by his wife. By then, the original artists had long since gone their separate ways.

It is useful to distinguish between the origins of De Stijl as a style, based on an abstraction of Cubism, and the impetus of the movement, which was founded in the consciousness of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. De Stijl evolved, as did many of the avant-garde movements during the early decades of the twentieth century, out of a realization that a new kind of society was coming into being and that this modern culture must be expressed by an entirely new art form. As van Doesburg stated in his Manifesto in 1918,

“1. There is an old and a new consciousness of time. The old is connected with the individual. The new is connected with the universal. The struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world of was as well as in the art of the present day. 2. The war is destroying the old world and its contents: individual domination in every state. 3. The new art has brought forward what the new consciousness of time contains: a balance between the universal and the individual. 4. The new consciousness is prepared to realize the internal life as well as the external life. 5. Traditions, dogmas, and the domination of the individual are opposed to this realization. 6. The founders of the new plastic art, therefore, call upon all who believe in the reformation of art and culture to eradicate these obstacles to development, as in the new plastic art (by excluding natural form) they have eradicated that which blocks pure artistic expression, the ultimate consequence of all concepts of art. “

The Manifesto needs to be read as a refutation of Expressionism and its emphasis on the individual, upon emotions, and upon spontaneity. The rejection of pre-War Expressionism was common after the Great War. Romantic notions of glory in war and of individual heroic actions led to the first mechanized war and the post-war world sought refuge in the universal laws. Van Doesburg concluded,

“7. The artists of today have been driven the whole world over by the same consciousness, and therefore have taken part from an intellectual point of view in this war against domination of individual despotism. They therefore sympathize with all who work to establish international unity in life, art, culture, either intellectually or materially.”

This first manifesto was signed by the principle artists associated with the group at that time, including Robert van‘t Hoff and Jan Wills, architects, George Vantongerloo, sculptor, and Vilmos Huzar, Hungarian refugee, and Piet Mondrian, both painters. Notably absent was Bart Van Der Leek, a close associate to Mondrian, attesting to the conflicting ideas among this loose group of artists, scattered among Dutch cities. Van Der Leek and Mondrian were from Laren, a rural town and a popular artists’ colony, while van Doesburg and the others, including J. J. P. Oud, were from the Leiden-Hague area. Eventually, Van’t Hoff and Oud, left the group, attesting to the difficulty of trying to get individual artists with clashing perspectives to work within an artists’ collective. Van Der Leek disagreed strongly with van Doesburg, who liked to blur the distinction between painting and architecture, and broke contact with the rest of the artists by 1920. Although he and Mondrian both contributed to the journal, they did not want to be associated with De Stijl, except as contributors. Mondrian, himself, left Laren for Paris after the War ended in 1919, and his contacts with van Doesburg were limited until he formally dissociated himself with the group in 1925. Despite the strong differences and divergences among the artists, certain key concepts emerged from De Stijl.

First, the group wanted to join art and life, to make art reflect modern life. There was a “new sense of beauty” that coincided with the new age. “The Brown world had to be replaced by a White one.” “The Brown” referred to the Baroque era of seventeenth century Holland, the Holland of Rembrandt, and, most importantly, to the reliance of previous art upon nature. “The White” was a world derived, not from nature, but from the elementary construction of Cézanne and Cubism, which would replace the vagueness of the Baroque with the logic and rigor of geometry. Second, the idea of “the style” is an absolute concept, meaning that De Stijl is the best and most appropriate to modern culture. Art can never return to representation. Art must eliminate the “profanity” of the illusion in its search for the absolute truth. The “absolute” is the cornerstone of De Stijl, for the absolute can be expressed only through abstraction. Therefore, De Stijl art is always abstract. This third idea united the artists who rejected the curves of Art nouveau and its sensual connections to reality. They also eliminated mixed colors in favor of the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. Straight lines and right angles ruled and eliminated all traces of the artist’s personality. “I abhor all which is temperamental, inspiration, sacred fire and all the attributes of genius that conceal the untidiness of the mind,” van Doesburg said. And finally, De Stijl sought the precision and exactness of the machine and its clean and efficient forms.

Because De Stilj was exclusively a Dutch movement, there has been speculation that the art and architecture is uniquely Dutch. However, any resemblance between the flat, human-produced landscapes of Holland and the flat paintings of the artists is purely coincidental. A better connection would be to the philosophical tendency towards abstraction through mathematics that is part of the Dutch tradition. Mathematics is a way of expressing the realities of the world in numerical terms. Numbers immediately abstract and universalize the particular and subject the local to the universal logic of abstract though. Equally Dutch was the tendency to eliminate the incidental in favor of abstraction, as exhibited in the iconoclasm of the Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One can better understand De Stijl from viewing a painting of the bare and stripped interior of a Protestant church by Emmanuel De Witte. De Stijl removed iconoclasm from its religious origins, eliminated nature, and substituted a more universal and absolute quest for a utopian harmony. “The art of painting,” van Doesburg said, “can be explained only by the art of painting.”

Cubism suggested to the De Stijl painters that it was possible to move into abstraction. Bart van der Leek stated, “Modern painting transmutes physicality into flatness by reducing the natural to the terms and proportions of the flat plane; and through the understanding of space, painting achieves relationships.” The Dutch artists seemed to understand that Cubism, particularly that of Braque and Picasso, suggested that line and color and form could be used as signifiers instead of as describers. If that was the case, then Cubism had created a new visual language that substituted ideas or concepts for resemblances. The Cubist artists themselves were unwilling to take the final step into total abstraction and to relinquish their hold on reality, but the De Stijl artists were concerned with concepts that were abstract compared to the more mundane sources of Cubism. In addition, Cubism was a pre-War movement and De Stilj was a post-War movement with the goal of rethinking the world. But the impact of Cubism upon De Stijl would be a strong one, particularly the author of the 1920 series of articles on “Neo-Plasticsm,” Piet Mondrian, who used cubist ideas as a vehicle through which he made concepts concrete through painting.

Van Doesburg brought the Section d’Or exhibition in the Salon des Indépendants to Holland in 1920: the Section d’Or-Paris: Works by Cubists and Neo-Cubists. The “neo-Cubists” were the Dutch painters who were compared to the French Cubists by van Doesburg as those who realized the abstractions of the Cubists. It is apparent two years later in the anthology issue of De Stijl published in the journal in 1922 that Mondrian emerged as the leading painter in the movement…in the eyes of van Doesburg. He gave the artist credit for inspiring new artists “with the possibility of a new creative image” through his series of essays on Neoplasticism in De Stijl. However the year to come would lead to a rupture between the two artists over van Doesburg’s “Elementalism,” a form of painting which would allow the dynamism of the diagonal, borrowed from the Russian Avant-Garde painting of Malevich. Mondrian, whose belief system was wrapped up in the idea of balancing opposites into a harmony of equilibrium, broke from the leader on the issue of the dynamic line in 1925.

From 1922 on, van Doesburg understood architecture as the primary means of expressing the Neoplasticism or new forms of De Stijl. His third Manifesto was devoted entirely to architecture. By this time, he was without his primary painters and even his architects are breaking away to attain their own goals. The leader becomes a traveler and promoted his movement, which became more and more of a dream than an actuality, throughout Europe. Increasingly, his travels brought him under the influences of other movements, which fit uneasily with the De Stijl precepts. Dada was of great interest to Rosenberg and is linked to De Stijl in its insistence that art and life should be merged. Equally compelling was the Russian Avant-garde artists who shared to dreams of a new world and a new utopia. However, both movements, like the educational ideas of the Bauhaus, were firmly rooted in real world situations. De Stijl always sought universality and absoluteness. The aim of the movement was to make the abstract concrete and, through this materialization, it would change the world.

Under the influence of new acquaintances, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius from Germany, van Doesburg began to think of architecture as the overarching and all-inclusive. The Bauhaus was founded on the principle of the medieval cathedral where all the arts were combined under the auspices of architecture. During the 1920s, De Stijl, outside of the Parisian studio of Piet Mondrian, was exemplified as architecture. In the exhibition of De Stijl art in Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie l’Effort Moderne, the movement was introduced primarily through a series of architectural models, based upon the De Stijl designs for Rosenberg’s proposed home. Unfortunately, only two examples of De Stijl architecture remain today, one of them being the famous Schröder House of 1924, built in Utrecht by Gerritt Rietveld, a cabinetmaker turned architect, who transformed a Mondrian painting into a building.

From the beginnings of De Stijl there had been a clash between painters and architects. While both agreed that it was important for both art forms to move forward and to manifest the modernity of the actual world and above all to merge art and life, the collaborations between the artists were difficult. Who should control the space? What should determine the space, the structure of the architect or the paintings of the artist within the structure? The painter did not want his/her paintings to be subordinated to the will of the architect any more did the architect want to allow the painter to undermine his/her vision. Mondrian approved of the idea of his theories of Neoplasticism being manifested in architecture and used his studio as a site where he manipulated space through the dispersal and arrangement of cardboard planes of primary colors. For a brief moment there appeared to be the possibility of the merger of painting and architecture dreamed of by van Doesburg in the Schröder House, where Rietveld dematerialized the exterior walls of the home by painting the Mondrian white against which the red balcony railings drew sharp lines in the air. In the end, De Stijl dissolved on its own and died with Theo van Doesburg in 1931. None too soon, the age of utopia was about to come to an end.

The next posts will focus on Piet Mondrian and on De Stijl Architecture.

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

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

[email protected]