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September 03, 2007

Singular Multiplicity

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In the dawning 20th century, Western painting's parting from traditional ways accelerated. Ideas filled the garrets, studios and coffee houses of Continental Europe, especially in Paris.

As 1910 approached, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque invented the Analytical form of Cubism.

Sabine Rewald of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art writes here that

The Cubist painters rejected the inherited concept that art should copy nature, or that they should adopt the traditional techniques of perspective, modeling, and foreshortening. They wanted instead to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas. So they reduced and fractured objects into geometric forms, and then realigned these within a shallow, relieflike space. They also used multiple or contrasting vantage points.

In Cubist work up to 1910, the subject of a picture was usually discernible. Although figures and objects were dissected or "analyzed" into a multitude of small facets, these were then reassembled, after a fashion, to evoke those same figures or objects. During "high" Analytic Cubism (1910-12), also called "hermetic," Picasso and Braque so abstracted their works that they were reduced to just a series of overlapping planes and facets mostly in near-monochromatic browns, grays, or blacks.

Here is one of Picasso's best-known portraits from his Analytical phase.

Portrait of Amboise Vollard - Picasso - 1910

Picasso's Vollard was the 30 November 2002 Guardian "Portrait of the Week." The article by Jonathan Jones is here. Jones contends

There is not a single aspect of his face that is "there" in any conventional pictorial sense. The more you look for a picture, the more insidiously Picasso demonstrates that life is not made of pictures but of unstable relationships between artist and model, viewer and painting, self and world. And yet this is a portrait of an individual whose presence fills the painting. Vollard is more real than his surroundings, which have disintegrated into a black and grey crystalline shroud.

Donald Pittenger of 2Blowhards contends that the Guardian's Jonathan Jones' assertions are nonsense.

I say that Picasso's Vollard is, at best, an interesting attempt at decorative art. The physical Vollard is barely discernible, the psychological or emotional Vollard even less so.

If one strips away the Modernist false god of "honoring the picture plane" and the decorative aspects of Analytical Cubism, one soon comes to the matter of multiple perspectives of the painting's subject.

Question: Is breaking the subject into bits seen from different viewpoints and reassembling those bits into a single object the best way of showing multiple aspects of the subject? I think not. This feature of Analytical Cubism results in visual confusion and a serious decrease in viewer understanding of what is being portrayed.

If the goal is to show a subject in multiple guises or viewpoints, there are better solutions. And such solutions pre-dated Picasso and Braque. Consider the following pictures. The first apparently was a study to assist a sculptor and the second represents a long tradition of engineering and fabrication drawing.

Triple Portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu - Philippe de Champaigne - c. 1642 - National Gallery, London

General arrangement drawing of Lockheed SR-71A

In any event, Cubism in its Analytical form proved to be something of a dead-end. I suppose some artists still turn out such paintings, but I can't recall noticing any lately. Picasso himself went on to other things, as usual. But he didn't completely abandon Cubist details. Thirty years later, was still rearranging faces, placing both eyes on the same side of the nose.



posted by Donald at September 3, 2007


For those who are interested, this page has other artistic portraits of M. Vollard, albeit--sadly--no photographs.

The range of impressions given off by the various works varies quite substantially from the cherubic fat man of Renoir to the rather distant intellectual of Cezanne. Picasso seems almost to be trying to create a 20th century icon--Vollard comes off as a rather terrifying creature.

Of course, this could have easily been, ahem, flattery. Not that Picasso would have ever stooped to something like that.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 3, 2007 1:21 PM

Art criticism like that bit of Jones's reminds me of Nabokovian narrators: beautiful phrases and interesting perspectives seducing us far away from the sane world. I wish, how I dearly wish, that a painting could do for me what Jones claims this one aims to do. Alas, no.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 3, 2007 1:31 PM

As a former magazine illustrator, I can't help seeing cubism as a stylistic quirk or gimmick that might be adopted for one or a dozen pictures, and then abandoned when the the novelty wears off. You are correct to observe that cubism utterly fails to live up to its billing as some kind of "breakthrough" enabling simultaneous views from multiple angles, or a means of achieving more penetrating psychological insights. It's absurd to ascribe some high-minded theory to cubism. It seems to me that the "theory" is simply to break things up in a boxy-woxy doodlely kind of way, and apply shading to some of the angles, and make things pointy where you can. Analytic cubism doesn't analyze anything really -- it's the exact opposite of analysis -- especially if you consider how deeply academic painters of the previous fifty years had studied and -- yes -- analyzed every last detail and ramification of their subject matter and its lighting. You have characterized cubism perfectly as a decorative mannerism. That's all it is.

Posted by: faze on September 3, 2007 5:54 PM

I would like to ask again what you make of medieval European art.

Posted by: BP on September 4, 2007 10:39 AM

Glad someone appreciates technical projection drawings as I do! But than, I'm always conflicted - as an engineer by first profession I feel at home with projection drawings, as an interior designer - I like perspective drawings as they are easier to understand for a client.
But the perspectives are so easy to manipulate, to cheat in accentuating of the planes...almost like the cubist technique: you can shatter the plane and than bring in focus what you want the client to pay attention too; never mind that when built, the thing might not be that much noticeable...

Posted by: Tatyana on September 4, 2007 11:23 AM

Technical drawings do and can rock, no?

I kinda like cubism - I get it, I semi-buy the explanations for it (maybe the modernist brainwashing I was given as an impressionable youth had some effect). But mainly, I find it a fun style. I can't take it as seriously as many critics can. I guess my attitude towards it is pretty much like Faze's -- he/she describes it well. Plus I'm happy to go on about some ill effects in a Larger Sense I see it responsible for. (The main one: contributing to the overemphasis on novelty that's been such a curse, and thereby helping turn art into a branch of fashion. I like fashion, at least when it occurs to me to look at it, and I think fashion is a subset of art. But art as a subset of fashion? I go into tut-tutting mode real fast there...)

But setting aside the pompous case that often gets made for analytical cubism ... I like the visual tricks, the lots-of-veggies-floating-in-pea-soup quality of it, etc. I mean, try thinking of the Picasso Vollard painting not as "a timeless monument of Western genius" but instead as "the cover of this week's issue of The New Yorker." Not bad! Cute! Funny! Audacious! Skillful in its own nutty way! Not a big deal, but a perfectly good New Yorker cover. And then on to the next thing.

So, as is often the case with modernism for me, I can sometimes get a kick out of the individual works. It's two other things that tend to irk me: the cases that get made for them, 90% of which strike me as pretentious baloney; and the way the School of Modernism And its Descendents goes around acting like it's art and everything else is not-art. Phooie to that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 4, 2007 12:10 PM

Friedrich -- Getting painted by members of his artist stable was one of Vollard's interesting quirks. Photos of him exist, of course. And then there are the books he wrote about Cezanne and (I think) Renoir -- not to mention a book of anecdotes and tales that Dover has reprinted.

J. Goard -- My eyes glaze when I try to read most academic art criticism of the sort that tries to describe or interpret a painting. Critics can be useful scene-setters, but paintings speak for themselves. Whether they actually have anything to say is another matter...

faze -- Thank you for backing up my take on Cubism.

BP -- Well, I'm pretty ignorant about Mediaeval art. That's because it never appealed to me much. Maybe I'll get around to studying it, but I need to continue working on the period 1750-1950 -- the era most relevant to The Problem of Modernism, a major concern on this blog.

Tat -- Ah, renderings. If reality could only match the promise ...

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 4, 2007 12:24 PM

Donald: rendering - it's what i'm going to do right now. My hands are itching - such a rare pleasure, novadays, to do something manually. And I l-o-v-e the mix-medium.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 4, 2007 1:19 PM


In a previous posting you said you didn't care for non-Western art, and I asked about medieval art because it has some things in common aesthetically with modern art.

Obviously we all like what we like, and the art you respond to is Western art from 1750-1950. That's fine, but realize that this is a tiny minority of the art that human beings have produced. And obviously, even if some modern academic art really is just a self-congratulatory intellectual game, medieval Christian art and traditional Japanese art are not; they were created, and appreciated by millions, deeply and sincerely. So it seems that if your way of approaching art is incapable of recognizing value in anything outside a tiny part of our species' artistic output, something is wrong.

Posted by: BP on September 4, 2007 4:28 PM

I think parallels between Modern art and Medieval art are more than a bit strained. While finding points of comparison is possible, if I had to choose which was the dominant category, the similarities or the differences, I'd have to go with the differences every time. Ditto for traditional Asian art.

Moreover, I would bet a very large sum of money that I could dig up examples of Medieval and traditional

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 4, 2007 9:23 PM

BP -- I didn't say that I wasn't interested in pre-1750 art -- I said 1750 is about the earliest limit to what I've been trying to study.

Further, I'm sorry if I've given the impression to some readers that I expect people to conform to my views on art. Asian art is art, but it doesn't usually grab me in any significant way. I write here mostly to entertain myself and readers while providing, I hope, a smidgen of mental stimulation. Part of this process is spouting my opinions, which I try to indicate are such, and not some kind of dogma.

The main "art" that I question whether it is really art in the broadly accepted sense would be some of the contemporary stuff that makes use of Duchamp-inspired "found objects" and related stunts. Things have long ago reached the point where any publicity-starved Bohemian is taken seriously when he proclaims he has created "art" when all he did was something that used to be considered silliness. This is simply chaos, think I. I believe standards are needed and that Comments discussions in thss blog might be helpful in nudging things in that direction.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 4, 2007 10:16 PM

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