Monday, August 1, 2011

Thinking, once more, about Cubism

The "early"/Analytic phase of Cubism came together through the combined efforts of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Cubism came of real struggle. No-one had ever pulled all the pieces together before. And the resulting new painting was harsh, jagged, deep, an ugly overthrow of everyone whose recent art was so pleasing, from Klimt to Renoir. "Synthetic" Cubism, then, coming later, when the tempest winds were calmer, amounts to something far less potent.

I had not ever worried about this distinction until now. But I have just been reading "Dime Novels," the final chapter of Rosalind Krauss's "The Picasso Papers." And while distinguishing between these phases is not her full argument, it is a distinction she feels to be crucial. Were the later practitioners leaning on their oars?

Douglas Cooper's The Cubist Epoch changes the names and takes, as he says, the terminology of Renaissance art (which, he says, held sway for about four hundred and fifty years by painting "only what the eye sees of things, incomplete and deceptive though this may often be" until Cubism arrived). Cooper prefers the terms "early" Cubism (from the end of 1906 until the summer of 1910), "high" (summer of 1910 until winter 1912), "late" (a.k.a. Synthetic, the time of collage, roughly 1912-14) and an "aftermath" (not a Renaissance term, but a time of freer development of the art by Braque, Gris and Picasso).  "Early" and "high" Cubism are also, for Cooper, "True" Cubism, and Picasso's "Three Musicians" was the end of Cubism entirely, he says (pp. 11, 13 15-6).

If we think of the important phases of Cubism as those which taught us to see... taking the slight upward tilt of Cezanne's tables all the way, or thinking of all sides of an object instead of just one... yes, both sets of categories, Krauss's and Cooper's, work perfectly. The latter phase does seem to be weaker. Let's look....

Two examples, one from "early" and one from "late" Cubism here.... The first, "early" work is by Georges Braque, "Piano and Mandola," from 1909-1910, here shown in a detail:

Cooper says that, generally, Braque's work from this time is "painterly, lyrical, suave and cohesive," and he says about this work that it is "superb," the "faceting" is "elaborate," yet "the objects represented remain legible' (p.44).  Yes, to all that; also, there is an incredible, dizzying depth here, that I can't readily unpack.... and yet the whole work looks effortless.  Our second example is by Albert Gleizes, again in a detail; this "late" Cubist painting is called "Harvest Threshing," and it is from 1912:

Cooper is very critical of this work, saying that "nowhere are the geometric forms derived from the objects represented, nor do they serve to create volumes; sometimes they are awkward stylizations, often their significance is ambiguous" (p. 74).  And I agree; while the painting is very pretty, with a round frame of figures that functions almost as a wreath, its tidiness is very flat.  It is totally off its point, it seems to me; if I were looking at this without its title, I would see it as a portrayal of an indoor scene, dancers and spectators on couches.  One-point perspective is still there, I would argue, just a little dazzled by a refined re-arrangement; not the point of the Cubist endeavor, not at all.

So,  the "late" works, the Synthetic works are, with a few exceptions, different. Perhaps it isn't fair to say that the painters are leaning on their oars, since Gleizes, for instance, is a co-author of a treatise on Cubism; he took its directives seriously. Maybe the temptation towards the harmonies of one-point perspective are unconscious, here, but the pull seems clear to me. Stand just there and don't move. The pull of that vanishing point is so ingrained that these artists didn't see it there... it's just that, in this painting, the vanishing point is in the center. Still pulling us in, hypnotically, not breaking the spell... Cubism may not be "a monument" (see my May 11th entry) but it does mean to break the spell.

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