the origins of cubist art -- 8/17/18

Today's selection -- from The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes. Cubism was the first radically new type of painting in almost 500 years:

"The speed at which culture reinvented itself through technology in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, seems almost preternatural. Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph, the most radical extension of cultural memory since the photograph, in 1877; two years later, he and J. W. Swan, working independently, developed the first incandescent filament light­bulbs, the technical sensation of the Belle Époque. The first twenty-five years of the life of the archetypal modern artist, Pablo Picasso -- who was born in 1881 -- witnessed the foundation of twentieth-century technology for peace and war alike: the recoil­-operated machine gun (1882), the first synthetic fibre (1883), the Parsons steam turbine (1884), coated photographic paper (1885 ), the Tesla electric motor, the Kodak box camera and the Dunlop pneumatic tyre (1888), cordite (1889), the Diesel engine (1892), the Ford car (1893), the cinematograph and the gramophone disc (1894).

"In 1895, Roentgen discovered X-rays, Marconi invented radio telegraphy, the Lumiere brothers developed the movie camera, the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first enunciated the principle of rocket drive, and Freud published his fundamental studies on hysteria. And so it went: the discovery of radium, the magnetic recording of sound, the first voice radio transmissions, the Wright brothers' first powered flight (1903), and the annus mirabilis of theoretical physics, 1905, in which Albert Einstein formu­lated the Special Theory of Relativity, the photon theory of light, and ushered in the nuclear age with the climactic formula of his law of mass-energy equivalence, E = mc2. One did not need to be a scientist to sense the magnitude of such changes. They amounted to the greatest alteration in man's view of the universe since Isaac Newton.

Georges Braque, late 1909, Still Life with Metronome 
(Still Life with Mandola and Metronome)

"The feeling that this was so was widespread. For the essence of the early modernist experience, between 1880 and 1914, was not the specific inventions -- nobody was much affected by Einstein until Hiroshima; a prototype in a lab or an equation on a blackboard could not, as such, bear on the man in the street. But what did emerge from the growth of scientific and technical discovery, as the age of steam passed into the age of electricity, was the sense of an accelerated rate of change in all areas of human discourse, including art. From now on the rules would quaver, the fixed canons of knowledge fail, under the pressure of new experience and the demand for new forms to contain it. Without this heroic sense of cultural possibility, Arthur Rimbaud's injunction to be absolument moderne would have made no sense. With it, however, one could feel present at the end of one kind of history and the start of another, whose emblem was the Machine, many-armed and infinitely various, dancing like Shiva the creator in the midst of the longest continuous peace that European civilization would ever know.

"In 1909, a French aviator named Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel, from Calais to Dover. Brought back to Paris, his little wooden dragonfly of a plane was carried through the streets in triumph -- like Cimabue's Madonna, Apollinaire remarked -- and installed in a deconsecrated church, now part of the Musée des Arts et Métiers. It still hangs there, under the blue shafts of light from the stained-glass windows, slightly dilapidated, looking for all the world like the relic of an archangel. Such was the early apotheosis of the Machine. But the existence of a cult does not mean that images appropriate to it automatically follow. The changes in capitalist man's view of himself and the world between 1880 and 1914 were so far-reaching that they produced as many problems for artists as they did stimuli. For instance: how could you make paintings that might reflect the immense shifts in consciousness that this altering technological landscape implied? How could you produce a parallel dynamism to the machine age without falling into the elementary trap of just becoming a machine illustrator? And above all: how, by shoving sticky stuff like paint around on the surface of a canvas, could you produce a convincing record of process and transformation?

"The first artists to sketch an answer to all this were the Cubists. Even today, seventy years after they were painted, the key Cubist paintings can be obscure. They seem hard to grasp; in some ways they are almost literally illegible. They do not present an immediately coherent view of life, in the way that Impressionism set forth its images of mid-bourgeois pleasure and boulevard manners. They have very little to do with nature; almost every Cubist painting is a still-life, and one in which manmade objects predominate over natural ones like flowers or fruit. Cubism as practised by its inventors and chief interpreters -- Picasso, Braque, Léger, and Gris -- does not woo the eye or the senses, and its theatre is a cramped brown room or the corner of a café. Beside the peacocks of the nineteenth century -- the canvases of Delacroix or Renoir -- their paintings look like owls. A pipe, a glass, a guitar; some yellowed newsprint, black on dirty white when it was glued on two generations ago, now the colour of a bad cigar, irrevocably altering the tonal balance of the piece. Nevertheless, Cubism was the first radically new proposition about the way we see that painting had made in almost five hundred years."



Robert Hughes


The Shock of the New: The Hundred-Year History of Modern Art--Its Rise, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall


Alfred Knopf, Inc.


Copyright 1980, 1991 by Robert Hughes


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