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Monday, November 25, 2013

Cubist Sculpture

Mountains in the French Provence, 1870-80, Paul Cezanne--the roots of Cubism.
LEstaque, 1906, Georges Braque.
Cezanne's cubist roots sprout.
Yesterday, in discussing the work of Fernand Leger (the item directly below), I talked a great deal about Cubism. All too often when "artsy" people encounter Cubism, they tend to think first, foremost, perhaps even exclusively of Cubist painting. And, indeed, Cubism did begin on the flat surface of the painted canvas. However (and this is a big however), it didn't stay there for long. That's not surprising in that the cube, by definition, is three dimensional. Its presence in painting, therefore necessarily involves illusion. We often think that Cubism began with Picasso and Braque (left). Technically, it did, but the roots date back to Cezanne, a generation before (above). But Cezanne was no sculptor. Picasso was. However, one of the things that made Cubist painting fascinating was, in fact, the multiple viewpoints rendered illusionistically in a three dimensional manner. Here, Picasso and his followers (or imitators, take your pick) were breaking new ground.
Bust of Nefertiti, 1345 BC.
When one changes to a sculptural media, multiple viewpoints become a given, in that the viewer has the option of moving around the piece, as opposed to the 90 to 120 degrees that is optimal in viewing a painting (which, in any case, changes little, if at all, as one's viewpoint changes). Therefore, early Cubist sculpture was merely a translation of Cubist painting into three-dimensional reality. Unfortunately, such sculpture loses something in the translation--the magic of illusionistic space. For better or worse, sculpture occupies "real" space...painting, not so much. Thus, for thousands of years, sculpture projected a vision of reality toward which painting might strive, but seldom come close to matching. However, with the advent of photography, which largely freed painting from the burden of depicting reality, painting began to outpace sculpture as a means of exploring the multiple ways in which the mind sees and thinks. Sculpture, on the other hand, being little influenced or effected by photography, remained "mired" in reality.
Head of a Woman (Fernande),
1906, Pablo Picasso--the first
cubist sculpture
What Picasso, discovered in 1909, when he created his plaster sculpture, Head of a Woman (Fernande) (left), was that in switching to a three-dimensional media, Cubism added very little more to the understanding and appreciation of the varying planes of the human face than did the Bust of Nefertiti (above, right, discovered in Egypt about the same time) yet created some 3,300 years before. The result was not a new insight, but simple distortion of the human face. Thus, the tables were turned. Picasso's Cubist sculpture was simply an attempt to mimic Cubist painting through distortion rather than illusion. (The effect is not as noticeable in a 2-D photo as in viewing the piece in real life.)

Woman with Pears, Fernande Oliver,
1909, Pablo Picasso

Woman Walking, 1912,
Alexander Archipenko
Picasso moved on, from the synthetic phase of Cubism to the much richer vein of analytical cubism. Here, rather than attempting to reveal the intricacies of visual perceptions, he began exploring the distortions he'd encountered in doing so. Whereas his earlier form of cubism had been finite, bound by the lingering constraints of reality, in analyzing, rather than synthesizing, there was virtually no limit as to the heights (or depths) to which he might go. It was in this new mode that Cubist sculpture once more had relevancy. Sculpture could realize what painting could only illustrate. It was about this time (1914) when Picasso began bluring the lines between the 2-D and the 3-D combining sculptural elements into his paintings or adding paint to sculptural works then hanging them on a wall (bottom). It wasn't long before other sculptors began to take note of what Picasso was doing and the new freedom of expression afforded by analyzing rather than synthesizing nature. Alexander Archeipenko was one of the first with his, Woman Walking (above, left), dating from 1912, followed by Jacques Lipchitz, Joseph Csaky, Henri Laerens, and later Ossip Zadkine, none of whom could hold a candle to that rambunctous Spaniard who started it all.

Nature Morte, 1914, Pablo Picasso


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