Friday, October 07, 2016

Abstraction, Cubism, and All That

Artists in ages past began their training learning menial studio jobs then moved into drawing sculpture or anatomic casts to drawing from life and then to painting or etching or whatever pursuit they chose. Painting and drawing showed the real world in an accurate way, for the most part. Regardless of the final medium the artist followed, the goal was unswerving representation of the real world.

Pablo Picasso, "Still life with chair caning," 1912
Just over a century ago, art changed radically as abstract art grew out of traditional picture-making. Abstraction of representational images can actually be considered a part of Impressionism and many of the isms that followed. Impressionists quite often employed patches or spots of color in a way to emulate but not imitate reality--think of Monet's haystacks or his series of paintings of the cathedral at Rouen for example. Monet's work reproduced a more or less realistic image but superimposed atmospherics and altered color as well altered shapes.
Pablo Picasso, "The Weeping Woman," 1937
The Post-Impressionists, most prominently  Paul Cezanne, pushed images into impossible or illogical shapes and added false color changes too. From those beginnings in part came other movements like Pointillism, Cubism, Fauvism, etc. and artists like Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Georges Braque (cubists) as well a Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky and many many others, leading through the century to the Abstract Expressionism movement.

Ideas about why representational art gave rise to abstraction are manifold. Perhaps the most obvious is that the sea change in artistic expression came because of the rapidly changing social environment of the time in the West--industrialization, immigration, political injustice and social upheaval. The despair engendered by World War I, whose new horrors were an extreme shock, added even more momentum.
Wassily Kandinsky, "Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love III)," 1912

Looking at abstract art with understanding is hard for many because alterations in shape, color, and form, depending on the artist, often make the resulting pictures seem incomprehensible. Furthermore, abstraction is an amorphous, all-encompassing term that can include a great deal of variety. Some abstractionists' images remain rooted in the real world, even today, while others like Kandinksy, make almost totally untranslatable pictures. And as abstraction evolved, it shattered into all kinds of movements. Cubism for example has been said to contain several categories, including analytic cubism and synthetic cubism.

A friend and mentor, Roberts Howard, once told me that he believed there was a great deal more to be done in the cubist tradition. Perhaps he's right. Certainly the ideas encompassed in early cubism are interesting in themselves. Cubism at its most basic means breaking up the shapes and planes of the object and rearranging them differently. Cubists spent time fitting shapes together in new ways using tools of representation like differences in line and value and color. They took what they saw and made it shockingly different, though the objects were often recognizable. The work by Picasso posted above is a famous example of early cubism. In that work abstracted representations of a newspaper, a knife and a cut lemon, a napkin, and a pipe among other recognizable things that appear to be set on a chair that has a cane seat. (I have to note that this work is also one of the earliest collages since the caning is a pattern he pasted on.) None of the things in the picture looks at all like the actual object. This kind of cubism depends on analysis of the objects in question. From that time and in the time between the world wars Cubism faded as other movements came into vogue, but Picasso and some of his colleagues continued to make more complicated and colorful cubist works like The Weeping Woman even while exploring other isms. Cubism, though an abstract movement, remains rooted in the tangible object.

"Skull," oil on panel, 2010


In my own art practice, abstract work has played a tiny role, mostly because my drive has always included a desire for accurate draftsmanship and presentation. Seeing an object or person as accurately as I can is fundamental. Nonetheless, there is something to be learned from nearly any artistic attempt, so that over the past few years I have occasionally dipped my toe into the abstract ocean. To the left is a painting that might be called analytical cubism but without the sharp edges. It's an image of a skull that I keep in the studio which I exploded in the painting into various shapes and facets facing different directions and occupying different space. The dark palette was based on early works that Picasso and Braque produced. The dome of the skull is quite obvious, as are the eye sockets but the lower portion has been broken into pieces, although with a bit of concentration you can make out a gaping mouth, few teeth, a cheekbone, and so on.

"Self portrait in the studio," oil on panel, 2009
Here is another abstract work, which could be called synthetic cubism I suppose. Synthetic cubism has been defined in a number of ways but many agree it was the late phase of the movement and employed more color and texture and a synthesizing of discovered forms. Again the sub-genre is rooted in the real. In my self portrait, as in synthetic cubism, the shapes are broken apart, overlapped and reassembled. The colors are closer to reality though clearly not real. Further, there's a sense of depth rather than flatness and there is modelling in the background. Even so, this one is similar in several ways to some of work by Picasso between the world wars, though not modeled on them. As an example, Picasso's "The Weeping Woman," painted in the late 1930s (above), is a recognizable but clearly unreal portrait of his mistress, Dora Maar. He turns his analysis and abstraction of her into an elaborate and psychologically penetrating image. There is an indication of depth behind the head because of outlining but the color handling is mostly flat areas without modelling. The fraught relationship between the two is etched into the synthesized shapes and colors, particularly in the face and hands.

[Knowing their relationship and Picasso's issues with women makes the whole series of weeping woman images even more affecting. He once said of Maar, "For me she's the weeping woman. For years I've painted her [like this]....not through sadism...obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one" (quoted by Brigitte Leal in Picasso and Portraiture, 1996).]
"Empty eye," oil on panel,
While this final piece is not really cubist, neither is it purely abstract. It owes something to my explorations of cubism though, so I've included it here to show a possible direction my work could go in the abstract. Originally this small panel began as a representation of something, though in truth I don't remember what. I scraped that one off, mostly, then sanded the small panel smooth to touch but still with a lot of color. Another sketch superimposed on that wasn't to my taste so again I scraped and sanded. Then somehow an image began to emerge. From there the work evolved into the image you see. It's a small panel but the varying edges and colors provide a sense of depth, as if the central forms are floating in a grey world punctuated by drips or strips of color that might be blood or might only be colored string. The grey shape might be a half-mask, or a half-skull but could as easily be the back of a soldier's helmet. Although the original idea wasn't melancholy at all, to me the picture evokes sadness, loss, and confusion.


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