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Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Impact of Cubism

Today, as we artists muddle through the nuts and bolts of putting our ideas, impressions, and environmental visions into concrete form with paints on various prepared surfaces, we hardly think at all of the many art movements of the past hundred years. In the Postmodern era, art movements have become passe'. There may still be regional differences in our art, just as there is in our music or the way we pronounce words--what we would call accents--but in general, we pretty much all speak the same language, at least in the "Western" world. This makes it all the more difficult for us to comprehend the stunning advent of the most powerful art movement of the twentieth century, and the effect it had upon painting in particular for the next fifty or more years. This "bombshell" exploded from the enormous easel of Pablo Ruiz Y Picasso in 1907, a stroke of genius (many strokes, actually) seemingly with a life of its own that may well have taken the Spanish painter himself by surprise.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1909, Pablo Picasso
When Picasso began Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (left),  judging from his preliminary sketches (one is below, right), he had in mind only to paint the parlor of a brothel on the Carrer d'avinyo (Avignon Street) in Barcelona. Drawings show a seated sailor, five nude women, and a student with a skull. The composition appears to have been loosely based upon a small painting by Cezanne (itself a study for a monumentally larger work). As the work evolved, the sailor and student (skull and all) bit the dust. What was left was the five women in poses suggestive, not of sex but violence, faces evoking visions of horror rather than eroticism. There is a demonic quality many have said calls to mind Picasso's fascination with African masks, especially in the two figures on the right, yet if the artist himself claims his interest in African tribal sculpture for the most part came months after this work was completed. (Many believe Picasso repainted the African faces at that time.) Whatever the case, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, not only his friends, to whom he privately showed the picture, but Picasso himself, seem to have been quite stunned by what he had wrought. It was several years before the work was publicly displayed.

Preliminary oil sketch for Les Demoiselles
d'Avignon, 1907, Pablo Picasso
The Ladies of Avignon was merely the flash point. By the time it was shown, Picasso was harvesting a crop of equally revolutionary works that came to be called Cubism. The seed was planted and the art that sprouted from it could be likened to Jack's beanstalk. Nothing like it had ever hit the art world. Working in association with Georges Braque, the two explored this new visual discovery in paintings virtually indistinguishable from one another. Picasso's Seated Woman from 1909 is an interesting measure of their progress which continued through most of 1912. Though they remained aloof from what was developing into a full-fledged artistic revolution with the publication of various treatises on Cubism (one of which went through fifteen editions and was translated to English) the two artists and their work were the most influential art forces in the first half of the twentieth century. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp (Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2) and Fernand Leger (Disks), as well Robert Delaunay (Homage to Bleriot) followed in their giant painted footsteps almost before they were dry. Fifty years later, the abstractionists of the New York School, such as de Kooning (Woman I, below), were still speaking their names in awe, and using mental images of their work to guide their owns brushes.
Woman I, 1950-52, Willem deKooning

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