|Pablo Picasso, "Still life with chair caning," 1912|
|Pablo Picasso, "The Weeping Woman," 1937|
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|
[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,|