Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Path to Cubism

Nicolas Poussin  1594 - 1665

A few years after Nicolas Poussin painted Landscape with Saint John in 1640 the French Royal Academy adopted the artist’s opinions as its ultimate authority on painting.  As a classicist painter Poussin believed his highest aim was to appeal to the rational mind, depicting the Platonic ideal, a view of what the world would be if only nature were perfect.  As such, his landscapes are as carefully arranged as stage props in a theater presentation.  People are captured in noble gesture, static as though modeled from ancient Greek or Roman statues.  They are as adverse to true emotion as is the corsage fixed to a chiffon swathed breast at the prom dance.

Landscape with St. John at Patmos  1640

Paul Cezanne  1839 - 1906

Paul Cezanne exiled himself from the Impressionist art scene of Paris, preferring an isolated existence in a village near Mont Sainte-Victoire, a mountain view he would obsessively paint time and again, an image that was often represented in his later work.  He wasn't interested in the charms of everyday life as depicted by Renoir or the play of light captured by Monet.  Cezanne was quite familiar with the works of art inhabiting the Louvre, including the paintings of Poussin, and he admired their solid, controlled approach.  But Cezanne wasn't interested in capturing the surface reality that fascinated both Impressionists and traditional painters alike.  He sought the inspiration given him by the natural world and portray it with a new reality of paint on canvas.  These works would not be expressions of rapture but, rather, a studied, deliberate analysis of form defined by color.  Cezanne would famously say that all objects of nature are based on cone, sphere and cylinder.  His exploration for qualities beneath the accident of appearance lead him to simplicities found in abstraction and a surface image mostly ignorant of perspective.  The paintings of Cezanne increasingly developed an identity independent of the objects they defined.

Sainte Victoire  1895

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon  1907

Georges Braque  1882 - 1963

1907 was a momentous year in the development of Georges Braque the artist.  This was the year he viewed a large retrospective of Cezanne’s work and was also exposed to Picasso’s challenging painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with its aggressive flattened figures and provocative mask-like images reflecting the influence of African sculpture.  Contained in the works of these two artists were the sensibilities that would influence much that was new to art in the 20th century.  Braque soon began his own investigation into painting a personal reality that quickly evolved into what became known as Cubism.  His Seaport, painted the following year, exhibited characteristics adopted by this new movement – pictorial details were eliminated to emphasize geometrical form, space was restricted to a flat picture plane and the palette was severely limited so that color would not distract from the exploration of forms.  His efforts attracted the attention of the young, ambitious Pablo Picasso.  Together, their search would lead them to the verge of total, non-objective art; art without visual reference to the natural world.  But neither were willing to take that final step of art that was purely art for art’s sake. 

Seaport  1908

Pablo Picasso  1881 - 1973

Picasso’s 1910 Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler is as close as the artist would come to eliminating objects of the visual world from his canvas.  Details of the subject’s face are clearly present as are his clasped hands but the painting is mostly abstraction with little concern for depicting illusion.  Picasso’s interest in Cubism had, by now, peaked and he would soon leave any further exploration  of its potential to Braque.   Picasso was too much the story teller, too engaged with his imaginative, unique emotional expression of humanity to discard it all in favor of works meditating on the color blue or a simple black line crossing a field of white.  That would be a talent wasted – much like the loquacious writings of Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg being abandoned in favor of adopting the limited, austere poetry of Japanese haiku.  The artist must first know his own mind in order to choose his correct path.

Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler  1910

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