PAINTING BEFORE WORLD WAR I
In our account of art in the modern era, we have already discussed a
succession of "isms": Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism,
Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Divisionism, and Symbolism. There are
many more to be found in twentieth-century
many, in fact, that nobody has made an exact count. These "isms" can
form a serious obstacle to understanding: they may make us feel that we
cannot hope to comprehend the art of our time unless we immerse
ourselves in a welter of esoteric doctrines. Actually, we can disregard
all but the most important "isms." Like the terms we have used for the
styles of earlier periods, they are merely labels to help us sort things
out. If an "ism" fails the test of usefulness, we need not retain it.
This is true of many "isms" in contemporary art. The movements they
designate either cannot be seen very clearly as separate entities, or
have so little importance that they can interest only the specialist. It
has always been easier to invent new labels than to create a movement in
art that truly deserves a new name.
Still, we cannot do without "isms" altogether. Since the start of the
modern era, the Western world (and, increasingly, the rest of the world)
has faced the same basic problems everywhere, and local artistic
traditions have steadily given way to international trends. Among these
we can distinguish three main currents, each comprising a number of
"isms," that began among the Post-Impressionists and have developed
greatly in our own century: Expressionism, Abstraction, and Fantasy. The
first stresses the artist's emotional attitude toward himself and the
world; the second focuses on the formal structure of the work of art;
the third explores the realm of the imagination, especially its
spontaneous and irrational qualities. We must not forget, however, that
feeling, order, and imagination are all present in every work of art.
Without imagination, it would be deadly dull; without some degree of
order, it would be chaotic; without feeling, it would leave us unmoved.
These currents are not mutually exclusive, and we shall find them
interrelated in many ways. An artist's work often belongs to more than
one, which may in turn embrace a wide range of approaches, from the
realistic to the completely non-representational (or non-objective). Our
three currents, then, do not correspond to specific styles but to
general attitudes. They represent parallel responses to the realization,
intuitive as well as intellectual, that after
people were living in a different age. The primary
concern of Expressionism is the human community; of Abstraction, the
structure of reality; and of Fantasy, the labyrinth of the mind. And we
shall find that Realism, which is concerned with the appearance of the
world around us, has continued to exist independently of the other
three, especially in the United States, where art has often pursued a
separate course. These strands bear a shifting relation to each other
that reflects the complexity of modern life. To be understood, they must
be seen in their proper historical context. Beginning in the mid-1930s,
however, the distinction between them begins to
break down, so that after 1945
it is no longer meaningful to trace their evolution
In examining twentieth-century art, we shall find it anything but
tidy. On the contrary, we quickly discover the visual arts are like
soldiers marching to different drummers. A purely chronological approach
would reveal just how out of step they have generally been with each
other—but at the cost of
losing sight of their internal development. Does this mean that the
other visual arts have shared none of the same concerns? No, that is not
the case either. The three main currents we outlined in painting—Expressionism,
Abstraction, and Fantasy—may
be found as well in sculpture, architecture, and photography before
1945. But they are present
in different measure and do not always carry the same meaning. For that
reason, the parallelism between them should not be emphasized.
The twentieth century may be said to have begun five years late, so
far as painting is concerned. Between
several comprehensive exhibitions of the work of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and
Cezanne were held in Paris, as well as Germany. For the first time the
achievements of these masters became accessible to a broad public. The
young painters who had grown up in the "decadent," morbid mood of the
1890s were profoundly
impressed by what they saw. Several of them formulated a radical new
style, full of the violent color of Van Gogh and bold distortions of
Gauguin, which they manipulated freely for pictorial and expressive
effects. When their work first appeared in 1905,
shocked critical opinion that they were dubbed the Fauves (wild
beasts), a label they wore with pride. Actually, it was not a common
program that brought them together, but their shared sense of liberation
and experiment. As a movement, Fauvism comprised a number of loosely
related individual styles, and the group dissolved after a few years,
most of its members unable to sustain their inspiration or adapt
successfully to the challenges posed by Cubism. It was nevertheless a
decisive breakthrough, for it constituted the first unequivocably modern
movement of the twentieth century in both style and attitude, one to
which every important painter before World War I acknowledged a debt.
the oldest of the founders of twentieth-century
painting. The Joy of Life (fig.
1036), probably the most important picture of
his long career, sums up the spirit of Fauvism better than any other
single work. It obviously derives its flat planes of color, heavy
undulating outlines, and the "primitive" flavor of its forms from
Gauguin (see fig. 996).
Even its subject suggests the vision of humanity in a
state of Nature that Gauguin had pursued in Tahiti. But we soon realize
that Matisse's figures are not Noble Savages under the spell of a native
god. The subject is a pagan scene in the classical sense: a bacchanal
like Titian's (compare fig. 670).
The poses of the figures have for the most part a
classical origin, and in the apparently careless draftsmanship resides a
profound knowledge of the human body. (Matisse had been trained in the
academic tradition.) What makes the picture so revolutionary is its
radical simplicity, its "genius of omission."
Everything that possibly can be has been left out
or stated by implication only, yet the scene retains the essentials of
plastic form and spatial depth. What holds the painting together is its
firm underlying structure. (Matisse venerated Cezanne and owned one of
Its leader was
Painting, Matisse seems to say, is not a representation of observed
reality but the rhythmic arrangement of line and color on a flat plane.
But it is not only that. How far can the image of nature be pared down
without destroying its basic properties and thus reducing it to mere
surface ornament? "What I am after, above all." he once explained, "is
expression . .. [But]
... expression does not
consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face.
. . . The whole arrangement of my
picture is expressive. The placement of figures or objects, the empty
spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part." What, we
wonder, does The joy of Life express? Exactly what its title
says. Whatever his debt to Gauguin, Matisse was never stirred by the
same agonized discontent with the decadence of our civilization. He
instead shared the untroubled outlook of the Nabis, with whom he had
previously associated, and the canvas derives its decorative quality
from their work (compare fig. 998).
He was concerned above all with the act of
painting. This to him was an experience so profoundly joyous that he
wanted to transmit it to the beholder.
Matisse's "genius of omission" is again at work in The Red Studio
By reducing the number of tints to a minimum, he makes
color an independent structural element. The result is to emphasize the
radical new balance he struck between the "two-D" and "three-D" aspects
of painting. Matisse spreads the same flat red color on the tablecloth
and wall as on the floor, yet he distinguishes the horizontal from the
vertical planes with complete assurance using only a few lines. Equally
bold is Matisse's use of pattern. By repeating a few basic shapes, hues,
and decorative motifs in seemingly casual, but perfectly calculated,
array around the edges of the canvas, he harmonizes the relation of each
element with the rest of the picture. Cezanne had pioneered this
integration of surface ornament into the design of a picture (see
fig. 984), but
Matisse here makes it a mainstay of his composition.
Henri Matisse. The Joy of
Henri Matisse. The Red
Studio. 1911. Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
(1871-1958), would hardly have agreed with
Matisse's definition of "expression."
For him this had still to include, as it had in the
past, "the passion mirrored upon a human face"—as
we can tell from his Head of Christ (fig.
1038). But the
expressiveness does not reside only in the "image quality"
of the face. The savage slashing brushstrokes
speak equally eloquently of the artist's rage and compassion. If we
cover the upper third of the picture, it is no longer a recognizable
image. Yet the expressive effect is hardly diminished.
The other important member of the Fauves,
Rouault was the true heir of Van Gogh's and Gauguin's concern for the
corrupt state of the world. However, he hoped for spiritual renewal
through a revitalized Catholic faith. His pictures, whatever their
subject, are personal statements of that ardent hope. Trained in his
youth as a stained-glass worker, he was better prepared than the other
Fauves to share Gauguin's enthusiasm tor medieval art. Rouault's later
work, such as The Old King (fig.
1039), has glowing colors and
compartmented, black-bordered shapes inspired by Gothic stainedglass
windows (compare fig. 510).
Within this framework he retains a good deal of the
pictorial freedom we saw in the Head of Christ, which he uses to
express his profound understanding of the human condition. The old
king's face conveys a mood of resignation and inner suffering that
reminds us of Rembrandt, Daumier, and Van Gogh.
Rouault. Head of
Rouault. The Old
Fauvism exerted a decisive influence on the Expressionist movement
that arose at the same time in Germany. Because Expressionism had deep
historical roots that made it especially appealing to the Northern mind,
it lasted far longer in Germany, where it proved correspondingly broader
and more diverse than in France. For these reasons, Expressionism is
sometimes applied to German art alone, but such a limit ignores the
close ties and numerous similarities between them. To be sure, Fauvism
was generally less neurotic and morbid, but although German
Expressionism was characterized by greater emotional extremes and a more
spontaneous approach, the two branches were not separated by any
fundamental difference in style or content.
Through its totally bohemian lifestyle, Die Briicke
cultivated a sense of immanent disaster that is one of the hallmarks
of the modern avant-garde. Their early work not only reveals the direct
impact of Van Gogh and Gauguin but also shows elements derived from
Munch, who was then living in Berlin and deeply impressed the German
Expressionists. Self-Portrait with Model (fig.
the group's leader, reflects Matisse's
simplified, rhythmic line and loud color. Yet the contrast between the
coldly aloof artist and the brooding model, who looks as if she has been
violated, has a peculiar expressiveness that can have come only from
Munch, whose work was often fraught with a palpable sexual tension.
Expressionism in Germany began with Die Briicke (The Bridge), a
group of like-minded painters who lived in Dresden in
(1883-1970). Under the
influence of ethnographic art and Gauguin's woodcuts (see fig.
prints, such as our Woman before a Mirror (fig.
1041), imitate the
straightforward manner of the early German "primitives" (compare
figs. 562 and
713) rather than
the example of Durer that had originally inspired Die Brucke.
Self-Portrait with Model.
The artists of Die Brucke were idealists who sought to revive
German art. Toward that end, they took up woodcuts, which they regarded
as a uniquely national medium. The first to do so was Kirchner, but the
finest printmakcr of the group was
somewhat apart. Older than the rest, he was already working in an
Expressionist style when he was invited to join the movement in
1906. Nolde shared Rouault's
preference for religious themes, and his figures show a like sympathy
for the suffering of humanity. The thickly encrusted surfaces and
deliberately clumsy draftsmanship of The Last Supper
1042) reject pictorial
refinement in favor of a primeval, direct expression inspired by
Gauguin. Ensor's grotesque masks, too, come to mind (see fig.
1003), as does the
blocklike monumentality of Barlach's peasants (see fig.
Before a Mirror.
One Brucke artist,
(1886-1980). In 1910,
he was invited to Berlin by the publisher of
Der Sturm (The Storm), which soon attracted members of Die Brucke
and Der Blaue Reiter. His main contribution is the portraits
he painted before World War I, such as the moving Self-Portrait
in figure 1043. Like Van
Gogh, Kokoschka sees himself as a visionary, a witness to the truth and
reality of his inner experiences (compare fig.
994). The hypersensitive
features seem lacerated by a great ordeal of the imagination. We may
find in this tortured psyche an echo of the cultural climate that also
produced Sigmund Freud.
Another artist of highly individual talent was the Austrian painter
Kokoschka's most memorable work is The Bride of the Wind (fig.
1044). Based on
Romantic paintings of Dante's tragic lovers Paolo and Francesca, it
shows the artist with Alma Mahler, the "muse" who inspired so many of
Germany and Austria's leading cultural figures. In this awesome canvas,
the entire universe resounds in a great chord of exaltation at the
of the Wind. 1914.
The most daring and original step beyond Fauvism was taken in Germany by
Wasily Kandinsky (1866-1944),
the leading member of a group of Munich artists called
Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) after one of his early
paintings. Formed in 1911,
it was a loose alliance united only by its mystical
tendencies. Kandinsky began to forsake representation as early as
1910 and abandoned it altogether
several years later. Using the rainbow colors and the free, dynamic
brushwork of the Paris Fauves, he created a completely non-objective
style. These works have titles as abstract as their forms: our example, one of the most striking, is called
Sketch I for
"Composition VII" (fig.
1045). Perhaps we should avoid
the term "abstract," because it is often taken to mean that the artist
has analyzed and simplified visible reality into geometric forms.
(Compare Cezanne's dictum that all natural forms are based on the cone,
sphere, and cylinder.) Kandinsky did indeed derive his shapes from the
world around him—
landscapes that he freely invented—but
by transforming rather than reducing them.
for "Composition VII." 1913
As the first part of his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art,
published in 1912, makes
clear, Kandinsky s aim was to charge form and color with a purely
spiritual meaning (as he put it), one that expressed his deepest
feelings, by eliminating all resemblance to the physical world. To him, the
only reality that mattered is the artist's inner reality. Kandinsky
acknowledged the Symbolists as his ancestors. Like Gauguin, he wanted to
create an art of spiritual renewal. But in contrast to Rouault or Nolde,
his was an art without a specific spiritual program, though it has close
affinities with the theosophy of Rudolf Steiner, which influenced many
early modern artists in Germany. Kandinsky believed with Steiner that
humanity had lost touch with its spirituality through attachment to
material things, and he sought to rekindle that dreamlike consciousness
through his art.
The second part of the book is concerned exclusively with the formal
aspects of painting, above all color. Kandinsky studied the color
theories of Seurat and his followers, as did many other Expressionists, but the
meaning he attached to specific hues was no less individual than Van
Gogh's. However, not until after his return from Russia in
1922 were the implications of his
discussion of form fully realized when he adopted geometric abstraction.
What does all this have to do with Kandinsky's paintings themselves?
The character of his art is best summed up by his later statement:
"Painting is the vast, thunderous clash of many worlds, destined,
through a mighty struggle, to erupt into a totally new world, which is
creation. And the birth of a creation is much akin to that of the
Cosmos. There is the same vast and cataclysmic quality belonging to that
mighty symphony—the Music
of the Spheres."
Kandinsky's antinaturalism was inherent in Expressionist theory from
the very beginning. Whistler, too, had spoken of "divesting the picture
from any outside sort of interest." He even anticipated Kandinsky's
"musical" titles (fig. 964).
But it was the liberating influence of the Fauves that
permitted Kandinsky to put this approach into practice: when the upper
third of Rouault s Head of Christ (fig.
1038) is covered, we recall, the rest becomes a
non-representational composition strangely similar to Kandinsky's in its slashing brushwork and
How valid is the analogy between painting and music? Although
Kandinsky was careful to acknowledge the differences between the two art
forms, he sought a painting that, like music, was an absolute because it
was divorced entirely from the "objective," material realm. When a
painter like Kandinsky carries it through so uncompromisingly, does he
really lift his art to another plane? Or could it be that his declared
independence from representational images now forces him instead to
"represent music," which limits him even more severely? Kandinsky's
advocates like to point out that representational painting has a
"literary" content, and they deplore such dependence on another art. But
they do not explain why the "musical" content of non-objective painting
should be more desirable. Is painting less alien to music than to
literature? They seem to think music is a higher art than literature or
painting because it is inherently non-representational. This point of
view has an ancient tradition that goes back to Plato and includes
Plotinus, St. Augustine, and their medieval successors. The attitude of
the non-objectivists might thus be termed "secular iconoclasm."
They do not condemn images as wicked, but
denounce them as non-art.
The case is difficult to argue, and it does not matter whether this theory is right or wrong, for the proof of the pudding is in
the eating, not in the recipe. Kandinsky's—or
any artist's— ideas are
not important to us unless we are convinced of the importance of the
work itself. The painting reproduced here has such density and vitality
that it impresses us with its radiant freshness of feeling, even though
we may be uncertain what exactly the artist has expressed.
880-1916) was the unconscious life of animals in
nature. Motivated by the pantheistic feeling of the Romantics, which was
heightened by his association with Kandinsky, the artist's paintings
represent humanity's desire to return to a state of harmony with the
universe—a central concept
of Rudolf Steiner's theosophy. Marc devised a color symbolism as
personal as that of Van Gogh, who had inspired his early work.
He wrote: "Blue is the masculine principle, robust and spiritual. Yellow
is the feminine principle, gentle, serene, sensual. Red is matter,
brutal and heavy" But it was the Orphism of Robert Delaunay, with whom he formed a friendship in
1912, that showed Marc the full
potential of color to express his mystical beliefs. Later that year,
Futurism enabled him to depict the dynamism of nature by creating
rhythms that echo those of the cosmos, or so he believed. In Animal
Marc's poetic vision has attained apocalyptic intensity. With its
interpenetrating crystalline forms looking like so many pieces of jagged
stained glass, the picture is even more terrifying than Stubbs' Lion
Attacking a Horse (fig. 863)
in evoking the cataclysmic forces that overwhelm these
uncomprehending beasts. Here the artist was indeed on the verge of
depicting a "higher" symbolic reality. Small wonder that a year later he
abandoned representation almost entirely for an abstract style no less
advanced than Kandinsky's. Soon, however, he was drafted into the war,
which claimed his life.
The subject matter of
After the pivotal Armory Show of 1913,
which introduced the latest European art to New York,
there was a growing interest in the German Expressionists as well. The driving
force behind the modernist movement in the United States was the
photographer Alfred Stieglitz,
who almost single-handedly supported many of its
early members. To him, modernism meant abstraction and its related
concepts. Among the most significant works by the Stieglitz group are
the canvases painted by Marsden Hartley in Munich during the early years
of World War I under the direct influence of Kandinsky.
Marc. Animal Destinies.
Americans became familiar with the Fauves through
Portrait of a
German Officer (fig. 1047)
is a masterpiece of design from
1914, the year Hartley
(1887-1943) was invited to exhibit with Der Blaue Reiter. He had already been introduced to
Futurism and several offshoots of Cubism, which he used to
discipline Kandinsky's supercharged surface. The emblematic portrait is
testimony to the militarism he encountered everywhere in Germany. It
incorporates the insignia, epaulets, Maltese cross, and other details
from an officer's uniform of the day.
1047. Marsden Hartley.
Portrait of a German Officer.
The second of our main currents is Abstraction. When discussing
Kandinsky, we said that the term is usually taken to mean the process
(or the result) of analyzing and simplifying observed reality into
geometric shapes. Literally, it means "to draw away from, to separate.''
Actually, abstraction goes into the making of any work of art, whether
the artist knows it or not, since even the most painstakingly realistic
portrayal can never be an entirely faithful replica. The process was not
conscious and controlled, however, until the Early Renaissance, when
artists first analyzed the shapes of nature in terms of mathematical
Cezanne and Seurat revitalized this
approach and explored it further. They are the direct ancestors of the
abstract movement in twentieth-century art. The difference, as one
critic has noted, is that for the latter, abstraction has been both a
premise and a goal, not simply a reductive refinement. Abstraction has
been the most distinctive and consistent feature of modern painting to
which even its most vocal opponents have responded.
stimulated as much by the Fauves as by the retrospective
exhibitions of the great Post-Impressionists, he gradually abandoned the
melancholy lyricism of his Blue Period (see fig.
1006) for a more robust style. He shared
Matisse's enthusiasm for Gauguin and Cezanne, but he viewed these
masters very differently. In 1907
he produced his own counterpart to The Joy of Life,
a monumental canvas so challenging that it outraged even Matisse
(fig. 1048). The title,
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon ("The Young Ladies of Avignon"), does not
refer to the town of that name, but to Avignon Street in a notorious
section of Barcelona. When Picasso started the picture, it was to be a
temptation scene in a brothel, but he ended up with a composition of
five nudes and a still life. But what nudes! Matisse's generalized
figures in The joy of Life (see fig.
seem utterly innocuous compared to this savage
PICASSO'S DEMOISELLES D'AVIGNON.
It is difficult to imagine the birth
of modern abstraction without
Pablo Picasso. About
The three on the left are angular distortions of classical figures,
but the violently dislocated features and bodies of the other two have
all the barbaric qualities of ethnographic art. Following Gauguin's
lead, the Fauves had discovered the aesthetic appeal of African and
Oceanic sculpture and had introduced Picasso to this material.
Nonetheless it was Picasso, not the Fauves, who used primitivist art as
a battering ram against the classical conception of beauty. Not only the
proportions, but the organic integrity and continuity of the human body
are denied here, so that the canvas (in the apt description of one
critic) "resembles a field of broken glass."
Picasso, then, has destroyed a great deal. What has he gained in the process? Once we recover from the initial shock, we
begin to see that the destruction is quite methodical. Everything—the
figures as well as their setting—is
broken up into angular wedges or facets. These, we will note, are not
flat, but shaded in a way that gives them a certain
three-dimensionality. We cannot always be sure whether they are concave
or convex. Some look like chunks of solidified space, others like
fragments of translucent bodies. They constitute a unique
kind of matter, which imposes a new integrity and continuity on the
entire canvas. The Demoiselles, unlike The Joy of Life,
can no longer be read as an image of the external world. Its world is
its own, analogous to nature but constructed along different principles.
Picasso's revolutionary "building material," compounded of voids and
solids, is hard to describe with any precision. The early critics, who
saw only the prevalence of sharp edges and angles, dubbed the new style
Demoiselles d'Avignon. 1907
That the Demoiselles owes anything to Cezanne may at first
seem incredible. However,
Picasso had studied Cezanne's late work (such
with great care, finding in Cezanne's abstract
treatment of volume and space the translucent structural units from
which to derive the faceted shapes of Analytic (or Facet) Cubism. The
link is clearer in Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (fig.
was one of the leading print publishers and dealers of the time—which
Picasso painted three years later. The facets are now small and precise,
more like prisms, and the canvas has the balance and refinement of a
fully mature style.
Contrasts of color and texture, so pronounced in the Demoiselles,
are now reduced to a minimum; the subdued tonality of the picture
approaches monochrome, so as not to compete with the design. The
structure has become so complex and systematic that it would seem wholly
cerebral if the "imprismed" sitter's face did not emerge with such
dramatic force. Indeed, this is as commanding a portrait as Ingres'
Louis Berlin (fig.
886), one that fully conveys the
power of his complex personality. Of the "barbaric" distortions in the
Demoiselles there is no trace; they had served their purpose.
Cubism has become an abstract style within the purely Western sense, but its distance from observed reality has not significantly
increased. Picasso may be playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek
with nature, but he still needs the visible world to challenge his
creative powers. The non-objective realm held no appeal for him, then or
Portrait of Ambroisc Vollard.
Cubism was well established as an alternative to
had been joined by a number of other artists, notably
Georges Braque (1882-1963),
with whom he collaborated so intimately that their work
at that times is difficult to tell apart. Both of them (it is not clear
to whom the chief credit belongs) initiated the next phase of Cubism,
which was even bolder than the first. Usually called Synthetic Cubism
because it puts forms back together, it is also known as Collage Cubism,
after the French word for "paste-up," the technique that started it all.
We see its beginnings in Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning
of 1912 (fig.
Most of the painting shows the
now-familiar facets, except for the letters; these, being already
abstract signs, could not be translated into prismatic shapes. But from
beneath the still life emerges a piece of imitation chair caning, which
has been pasted onto the canvas, and the picture is "framed" by a piece
of rope. This intrusion of alien materials has a most remarkable effect:
the abstract still life appears to rest on a real surface (the chair
caning) as if it were on a tray, and the substantiality of this tray is
further emphasized by the rope.
Within a year, Picasso and Braque were producing still lifes composed
almost entirely of cut-and-pasted scraps of material, with only a few
lines added to complete the design. In Le Courrierhy Braque (fig.
we recognize strips of imitation wood graining, part of
a tobacco wrapper with a contrasting stamp, half the masthead of a
newspaper, and a bit of newsprint made into a playing card (the ace of
hearts). Why did Picasso and Braque suddenly prefer the contents of the
wastepaper basket to brush and paint? In wanting to explore their new
concept of the picture as a tray on which to "serve" the still life,
they found the best way was to put real things on the tray. The
ingredients of a collage actually play a double role. They have been
shaped and combined, then drawn or painted upon to give them a
representational meaning, but they do not lose their original identity
as scraps of material—
they remain "outsiders" in the world of art. Their function is both to
represent (to be a part of an image) and to present (to be themselves).
In this latter capacity, they endow the collage with a self-sufficiency
that no Analytic Cubist picture can have. A tray, after all, is a
self-contained area, detached from the rest of the physical world.
Unlike a painting, it cannot show more than is actually on it.
The difference between the two phases of Cubism may also be defined
in terms of picture space. Analytic Cubism retains a certain kind of
depth, so that the painted surface acts as a window through which we
still perceive the remnants of the familiar perspective space of the
Renaissance. Though fragmented and redefined, this space lies behind the
picture plane and has no visible limits. Potentially, it may even
contain objects that are hidden from our view. In Synthetic Cubism, on
the contrary, the picture space lies in front of the plane of the "tray." Space is not created by illusionistic devices, such as
modeling and foreshortening, but by the actual overlapping of layers of
pasted materials. The integrity of the non-perspective space is not
affected when, as in Le Counter, the apparent thickness of these
materials and their distance from each other are increased by a bit of
shading here and there. Synthetic Cubism, then, offers a basically new
space concept, the first since Masaccio. It is a true landmark in the
history of painting. Before long Picasso and Braque discovered that they
could retain this new pictorial space without the use of pasted
materials. They only had to paint as if they were making collages. World
War I, however, put an end to their collaboration and the further
development of Synthetic Cubism, which reached its height in the
Pablo Picasso. Still Life
with Chair Caning. 1912
Newspaper, Bottle, Packet of Tobacco (Le Courrier).
issue addressed finally by
(1885-1941) and his wife,
(1885-1979). They evolved
a totally abstract style, called Orphism, after the legendary Orpheus,
by the poet Apolli-naire (1880-1918),
the chief theorist of the movement. Following the
concepts of Chevreul, Seurat, and Gauguin, they sought to produce pure
color harmonies as independent of nature as music. Late in
1912, Delaunay began to paint his
series Simultaneous Contrasts (fig.
in which the swirling movement is meant to evoke
the rhythms pulsating throughout the universe. The idea was in the air:
at almost the same time the Czech painter Frantisek Kupka
working independently in Paris, came to the identical solution. It was
soon taken up as well by the Americans Stanton Macdon-ald-Wright
and Morgan Russell (1886-1953),
also active in Paris, who called their movement
Synchromism. Orphism proved to be short-lived, however. Even the Delaunays
were able to maintain this non-objective style for only a few years and
soon turned to Futurism. Nevertheless, the movement proved of great
importance. Among its early members were Marcel Duchamp and his brother
Raymond Duchamp-Villon. In addition to Franz Marc, it also affected Fernand Leger, Marc Chagall, and even Paul Klee.
Robert Delaunay and
The Cubism of Picasso and Braque was little concerned
Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon.
As originally conceived by Picasso and Braque, Cubism was a formal
discipline of subtle balance applied to traditional subjects: still
life, portraiture, the nude. Other painters, however, saw in the new
style a special affinity with the geometric precision of engineering
that made it uniquely attuned to the dynamism of modern life. The
short-lived Futurist movement in Italy exemplifies this attitude. In
its disciples, led by the poet Filippo Tommaso
Marinetti, issued a series of manifestos violently rejecting the past
and exalting the beauty of the machine.
(1882-1916), the most original of the Futurists,
was able to communicate the energy of furious pedaling across time and
space far more tellingly than if he had actually depicted the human
figure, which could be seen in only one time and place in traditional
art. In the flexible vocabulary provided by Cubism, Boccioni found the
means of expressing the twentieth century's new sense of time, space,
and energy that Albert Einstein had defined in
1905 in his special theory of relativity.
Moreover, Boccioni suggests the unique quality of the modern experience.
With his pulsating movement, the cyclist has become an extension of his
environment, from which he is now indistinguishable.
At first they used techniques developed from
Post-Impressionism to convey the surge of industrial society, but these
were otherwise static compositions, still dependent upon
representational images. By adopting the simultaneous views of Analytic
Cubism in Dynamism of a Cyclist (fig.
Umberto Boccioni. Dynamism
of a Cyclist.
As its name implies, Cubo-Futurism, which arose in Russia a few years
before World War I as the result of close contacts with the leading
European art centers, took its style from Picasso and based its theories
on Futurist tracts. The Russian Futurists were, above all, modernists.
They welcomed industry, which was spreading rapidly throughout Russia,
as the foundation of a new society and the means for conquering that old
Russian enemy, nature. Unlike the Italian Futurists, however, the
Russians rarely glorified the machine, least of all as an instrument of
Central to Cubo-Futurist thinking was the concept of zaum, a
term which has no counterpart in English. Invented by Russian poets,
zaum was a trans-sense (as opposed to the Dadaists' nonsense)
language based on
new word forms and syntax. In theory, zaum could be understood
universally, since it was thought that meaning was implicit in the basic
sounds and patterns of speech. When applied to painting, zaum provided
the artist with complete freedom to redefine the style and content of
art. The picture surface was now seen as the sole conveyer of meaning
through its appearance. Hence, the subject of a work of art became the
visual elements and their formal arrangement. However, because Cubo-Futurism
was concerned with means, not ends, it failed to provide the actual
content that is found in modernism. Although the Cubo-Futurists were
more important as theorists than artists, they provided the springboard
for later Russian movements.
The new world envisioned by the Russian modernists led to a broad
redefinition of the roles of man and woman, and it was then in Russia
that women emerged as artistic equals to an extent not achieved in
Europe or America until considerably later.
(1889-1924), who studied in Paris
in 1912 and visited Italy
in 1914. The combination
of Cubism and Futurism that she absorbed abroad is seen in The
Traveler (fig. 1054).
The treatment of forms remains essentially Cubist, but the painting
shares the Futurist obsession with representing dynamic motion in time
and space. The jumble of image fragments creates the impression of
objects seen in rapid succession. The furious interaction of forms with
their environment across the plane threatens to extend the painting into
the surrounding space. At the same time, the strong modeling draws
attention to the surface, lending it a relieflike quality that is
enhanced by the vigorous texture.
The finest painter of the
The first purely Russian art of the twentieth century, however, was
Suprematism. In one of the greatest leaps of the symbolic and spatial
imagination in the history of art,
(1878-1935) invented the Black
Quadrilateral, as seen in figure 1055.
How is it that such a seemingly simple image should
be-so important? By limiting art to a few elements—a
single shape repeated in two tones and fixed firmly to the picture plane—
he emphasized the painting as a painting even
more radically than had his predecessors. Simultaneously, he transformed
it into a concentrated symbol having multiple layers of meaning, thereby
providing the content missing from Cubo-Futurism. The inspiration for
Black Quadrilateral came in 1913
while Malevich was working on designs for the opera
Victory over the Sun, a production that was one of the most
important artistic collaborations in the modern era. In the context of
the opera, the black quadrilateral represents the eclipse of the sun of
Western painting and of everything based on it. Further, the work can be
seen as the triumph of the new order over the old, the East over the
West, humanity over nature, idea over matter. The black quadrilateral
(which is not even a true rectangle) was intended to stand as a modern
icon. It supersedes the traditional Christian Trinity and symbolizes a
"supreme" reality, because geometry is an independent abstraction in
itself; hence the movement's name, Suprematism.
According to Malevich, Suprematism was also a philosophical color
system constructed in time and space. His space was an intuitive one,
with both scientific and mystical overtones. The flat plane replaces
volume, depth, and perspective as a means of defining space. Each side
or point represents one of the three dimensions, while the fourth side
stands for the fourth dimension, time. Like the universe itself, the
black surface would be infinite were it not delimited by an outer boundary, the
white border and shape of the canvas. Black Quadrilateral thus
constitutes the first satisfactory redefinition, visually and
conceptually, of time and space in modern art. Like Einstein's formula
E=mc2 for the theory of relativity, it has an elegant simplicity that
belies the intense effort required to synthesize a complex set of ideas
and reduce them to a fundamental "law." When it first appeared, Suprematism had much the same impact on Russian artists that Einstein's
theory had on scientists: it unveiled a world never seen before, one
that was unequivocally modern. The relation between art and science is
closer than we might think, for despite the differences in approach,
they are united by the imagination. In fact, the key to solving the
theory of relativity came to Einstein as a visual image.
Later, Malevich began to tilt his quadrilaterals and simplify his
paintings still further in search of the ultimate work of art.
Malevich's efforts culminated in Suprematist Composition: White on
White (fig. 1056), his
most famous composition, which limits art to its fewest possible
components. It is all too tempting to dismiss such a radical extreme as
a reductio ad absurdum. Seen in person, however, the canvas is
surprisingly persuasive. The shapes, created by two subtly different
shades of white, have a revelatory purity that makes even Black
Quadrilateral seem needlessly complex.
The heyday of Suprematism was over by the early
1920s. Reflecting the growing
diversity and fragmentation of Russian art, its followers defected to
other movements, above all to the Constructivism led by Vladimir Tatlin.
Kasimir Malevich. Black
Suprematist Composition: White on
Our third current, Fantasy, follows a less clear-cut course than the
other two, since it depends on a state of mind more than on any
particular style. The one thing all painters of fantasy have in common
is the belief that imagination, "the inner eye," is more important than
the outside world. We must be careful how we use the term fantasy. It
originated in psychoanalytic theory, and meant something very different
in the early twentieth century than it does now. It was thought of as
mysterious and profound, anything but the lighthearted and superficial
view we take of it today.
Why did private fantasy come to loom so large in twentieth-century
art? We saw the trend beginning at the end of the eighteenth century in
the art of Goya and Fuseli (see figs.
perhaps this suggests part of the answer. In fact, there seem to be
several interlocking causes. First, the cleavage that developed between
reason and imagination in the wake of rationalism tended to dissolve the
heritage of myth and legend that had been the common channel of private
fantasy in earlier times. Second, the artist has a greater freedom—and
social fabric, giving him a sense of isolation and favoring an
introspective attitude. Then, too, the Romantic cult of emotion prompted
the artist to seek out subjective experience, and to accept its
validity. Needless to say, this process took time, so that in
early-nineteenth-century painting, private fantasy was still a minor
current, but by 1900
had become a major one, thanks to Symbolism on the one hand and the
naive vision of artists like Henri Rousseau on the other.
such as Mystery arid Melancholy of a Street (fig.
1057). This deserted
square with endless diminishing arcades, nocturnally illuminated by the
cold full moon, has all the poetry of Romantic reverie—but
it has also a strangely sinister air. This is an "ominous" scene in the
full sense of the term: everything here suggests an omen, a portent of
unknown and disquieting significance. The artist himself could not
explain the incongruities in these paintings—
the empty furniture van, or the girl with the
hoop—that trouble and
fascinate us. De Chirico called this Metaphysical Painting: "We
who know the signs of the metaphysical alphabet are aware of the joy and
the solitude which are enclosed by a portico, by the corner of a street,
or even in a room, on the surface of a table, or between the sides of a
box.... The minutely
accurate and prudently weighed use of surfaces and volumes constitutes
the canon of the metaphysical aesthetic." Later, after he had returned
to Italy, he adopted a conservative style and repudiated his early
works, as if he were embarrassed at having put his dream world on
display, even though he secretly continued to paint copies to meet the
commercial demand for them.
Giorgio de Chirico.
The heritage of Romanticism can be seen most clearly in the astonishing
pictures painted in Paris just before World War I by
Giorgio de Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico.
of a Street.
Marc Chagall(1887-1985), a Russian who
went to Paris in 1910. I
and the Village (fig. 1058)
is a Cubist fairy-tale, weaving dreamlike memories of
Russian folk tales, Jewish proverbs, and the look of Russia into one
glowing vision. Here, as in many later works, Chagall relives the
experiences of his childhood. These were so important to him that his
imagination shaped and reshaped them for years without their persistence
The power of nostalgia, so evident in Mystery and
Melancholy of a Street, also dominates the fantasies of
I and the Village.
(1887-1968). After basing his early style on
Cezanne, he initiated a dynamic version of Analytic Cubism, similar to
Futurism, by superimposing successive phases of movement on each other,
much as in multiple-exposure photography (see fig. 1035). His
Nude Descending a Staircase (fig. 1059),
done in this vein, caused a scandal at the Armory
Show of modern art in New York in 1913
because it went against all traditional notions of what
a nude should look like. Although his objective was simply to paint "a
static representation of movement," this parody of the human figure
already shows the ironic wit that was to underlie his work.
In Paris shortly before World War I we encounter yet another artist of
fantasy, the Frenchman
Soon, however, Duchamp s development took a far more disturbing turn.
In The Bride (fig. 1060),
we look in vain for any resemblance, however remote, to
the human form. What we see is a mechanism that seems part motor, part
distilling apparatus. It is beautifully engineered to serve no purpose
whatever. The title cannot be irrelevant: by lettering it right onto the
canvas, Duchamp has emphasized its importance. Yet it causes us real
perplexity. Evidently the artist intended the machine as a kind of
modern fetish that acts as a metaphor of human sexuality. By "analyzing"
the bride until she is reduced to a complicated piece ol plumbing that
seems utterly dysfunctional, physically and psychologically, he
satirized the scientific outlook on humanity. Thus the picture
represents the negative counterpart of the glorification of the machine,
so stridently proclaimed by the Futurists. We may further see in
Duchamp's pessimistic outlook a response to the gathering forces that
were soon to be unleashed in World War I, toppling the political order
that had been created 100
years earlier at the Congress of Vienna.
Nude Descending a
Staircase No. 2.
Marcel Duchamp. The Bride.
THE ASH CAN SCHOOL.
In America, the first wave of change was
initiated not by the Stieglitz circle but by the Ash Can School, which
flourished in New York just before World War I. Centering on Robert
Henri, who had studied with a pupil of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania
Academy, this group of artists consisted mainly of former illustrators
for Philadelphia and New York newspapers. They were fascinated with the
teeming life of the city slums, and found an endless source of subjects
in the everyday urban scene, to which they brought the reporter's eye
for color and drama. Despite the socialist philosophy that many of them
shared, theirs was not an art of social commentary, but one that felt
the pulse of city life, discovering in it vitality and richness while
ignoring poverty and squalor. To capture these qualities they relied on
rapid execution, inspired by Baroque and Post-Impressionist painting,
which lends their canvases the immediacy of spontaneous observation.
became the leading representative or the Ash Can
School in its heyday. His masterpiece. Stag at Sharkey's (fig.
1061), shows why: no
painter in America belore Jackson Pollock expressed such heroic energy.
Stag at Sharkey 's reminds us of Eakins' William Rush Carving
His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (see fig.
967), for it continues the same
Realist tradition. Both place us in the scene as if we were present, and
both use the play of light to pick out the figures against a dark
background. Bellows' paintings were fully as shocking as Eakins' had
been. Most late-nineteenth-century American artists had all but ignored
urban life in favor of landscapes, and compared with these, the subjects
and surfaces of the Ash Can pictures had a disturbing rawness.
Although not among its founders,
THE ARMORY SHOW.
The Ash Can School was quickly eclipsed by the rush
toward a more radical modernism set off by the Armory Show held in New
York in 1913. It was an
outgrowth of the Independents Show three years earlier, which had
showcased the talents of a group of rising young artists known as the
Eight, who soon founded the American Association of Painters and Sculptors. The Armory Show was intended to
foster a "new spirit in art" by introducing Americans to the latest
trends from Europe and the United States. The exhibition began with a
survey of French painting from the Romantics to the Post-Impressionists,
especially the Symbolists. Needless to say, the modern section was also
heavily French, with a major emphasis on Matisse and Picasso. There were
curious lapses as well: German Expressionism was poorly represented,
while Futurism was omitted completely, although Orphism had a prominent
place. The selection of sculpture was haphazard at best. The American
art, which made up by far the largest part of the exhibition, included
works by members of the Ash Can School, the Stieglitz Group, and the
Eight. While it failed to promote the interests of its organizers, the
Armory Show did succeed in its goal of introducing a new cosmopolitanism
into the American art scene. It proved a succes de scandale with
the public, who bought an astonishing number of works from the