In May of 1915 a fierce trench battle near Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a town in Northern France, was raging. A young lieutenant and his men were rushing across a wide field that was being bombarded by artillery. Men were falling left and right, ripped to bloody pieces by the unceasing fire and exploding shells. The young lieutenant had been lucky in the past, narrowly avoiding death in situations just like this, but this time his luck ran out. A shell exploded nearby sending shards of metal through his head, and he collapsed in a heap. When the fire fight had waned stretcher bearers looking for survivors found him half alive amongst all the chopped corpses. The doctors in triage made the familiar decision to trepan, opening up his skull to make room for his swollen and bruised brain. When he finally came to, in unbelievable pain, his head swathed in bandages, he found that he was now blind. For Georges Braque, the “other” innovator of Cubism, the Great War was all but over.
“The things that Picasso and I said to one another during those years will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them anymore. It was like being roped together on a mountain.” Georges Braque.
John Berger, “The Look of Things: Selected Essays and Articles,” 1972.
Strokes and Speed
Back in 1907 it seemed to innovative painters that Cezanne’s broken “geometries” could offer a more direct way to interpret the collapsing world of single point perspective. Nearly all of the artists of the “School of Paris” were hot for those packets of strokes, Picasso and Braque especially. The young Cubists were seeing the world with new eyes, seeing their lives through mechanization, through new motorized technologies, through camera lenses and motion pictures. This accelerating world did not stay put or hold together long enough to really get a good look at it, understand it. Static vision, Alberti’s grand legacy, couldn’t define the way this new world should look, couldn’t “see” this new world as it was. The city nights were newly electrified with light, automobiles were beginning to clog the streets and powerful airplanes had begun to fly through the skies over Europe. It was absurd to think that pictures made from the visual pleasures of the past could offer a clue about this moment. Painting had no choice but to find a way to keep up.
The simplest solutions are always the best, so painters were using Cezanne’s flat, thick world breaking painting down into its parts. They tried to make vision lighter, abstracting painting into its processes – color, stroke and surface. Painted images themselves were becoming simpler, less involved, more conceptual in look and feel. In other words Modernism was cooling down the medium of painting, removing the intensity of details, stepping back from the in-depth visual immersion so loved by the Academics. And in doing so Modernists began to outsource visual meaning, to forego imitation in favor of reality. For the first time actual elements from everyday existence began to appear on the surface of paintings. Reproduction and replication, used almost exclusively in Postmodern practices, made their first appearances here changing our relationship to naturalism, to images and to painting itself.
“An object could now be presented by some foreign element that was an equivalent, as opposed to an image, of itself. A piece of newspaper, for instance, could stand for a newspaper; it could also signify anything else the artist wanted it to signify. Drawing could then function simultaneously and independently to indicate volume and integrate the real element (the piece of newspaper or wallpaper) into the composition. Furthermore, by enabling color to function independently of form, paper collé made it easier for Picasso and Braque to introduce positive color into a cubist composition.”
John Richardson, A Life of Picasso The Cubist Rebel 1907 – 1916, pg 249, 2007.
But we get ahead of ourselves….
How does one see a thing when nothing is certain, when the world slips past one’s gaze? What causes a thing to become ephemeral, disintegrating before one’s sight? How does one paint time and space when perspective has become useless? How does one paint a subject, for that matter what is a subject, when one’s connection to time and space is now so radically different? The Cubists found that in order to represent this accelerated world one had to move away from depicting it as an image, a picture, and instead, explore the idea of Abstraction, conflate an image with a sign, simplify the visual into a concept. The Cubists broke down the spaces between things, compressed visual time, and painted that breaking point as their new reality. In this way the artist still remained “outside” the vision in a strangely classical way, still maintained a point of view, so to speak. With the collapse of time on the surface of the painting subjects could be experienced from many perspectives seemingly all at once. This idea of an omniscient viewpoint was more than a technical innovation. It was a way to attack the idea that painting had to conform to grounded vision, to the history of painting as it was known, where the image unfolded to consciousness through sequential thought and single point perspectives.
Braque, Fruit dish and glass, collage, 1912.
But there were also other issues about painting that had to be dealt with on the way to the Abstract. From Manet to Matisse, painters were still tied to the conventions of subject matter and genre. These early Modernist artists innovated within the confines of that history of painting, within those rules. In this way painting was always tied to the past no matter how radical the visual technique seemed. Cubism, by dismantling the final vestiges of naturalism, broke through these lingering conventions. There was no longer the need to approach painting through the filter of the Natural World or the history of painting. By insisting on a more fluid Abstraction, Cubism began to move the focus of painting inward, and in so doing, opened the door to a new idea of painting as logos, as language.
In that first decade of the last century there was none of the homogeneity of cultural theoretics among the progressive classes that we experience today. It seemed that every art form, every discipline in society from medicine to civic planning, from philosophy to sexuality, was under the pressure of radical change supercharged by proliferating technological innovation. Everything that was known and accepted as truth had suddenly become alien and tragic. The artist was being recast as not just an innovator of culture, but as a societal revolutionary, a world changing radical, and as such, nearly every manifesto, every cultural work in the studios of Paris had a political edge. New technologies bring new organizing cultural/societal structures. And in just a few years Europe would discover that this new look, smell and taste of existence, these new theoretical challenges set before it, would unleash new kinds of barbarism, new kinds of tribalism, deep racial divides and resurgent nationalisms. The most surprising outcome of radical innovation and change would be the rediscovery of feudal Europe. This “Modern” world was now looking at science, politics and culture from a darker perspective.
Look, we don’t spend a lot of time in our art history classes or our late night bull sessions over cheap liquor and lukewarm beer, discussing the fact that Modernism, for all its talk about progress, process and materiality, had also been used as a reclamation project. What we don’t talk about is Modernism’s deep and abiding romance with the rediscovery and use of long buried mythologies, neo-religious belief, or its staunch anti-democratic theoretics. That’s right. For all of Modernism’s straight faced bullshit about form following function, its championing of the working classes as recipients of Art’s cultural largess, and its cool detached love for Neo-Platonic certainty, lurking at the bottom of most of its theoretics is a desperate search to connect to something spiritual, something primitive, something subjective and uncanny. We can see and understand these desires when we look at Modernism’s love affair with the sublime, its adoration for mystic numbers, its belief in geometric certainties, its fetishization of machine logic. It’s there in the tabula rasa, the deep distrust and disdain for the visual and the natural. From Kandinsky to Malevich, from Balla to Breton their manifestos marry Modernity and Modernism with what Freud had labeled the id, the unconscious, the primitive urge. What is apparent is that all of these promised futures come tied up with the ideas of a new glorious culture issuing out of technology, the creation of a golden age for humankind based on mechanization, and the promise of the final, brutal death of history itself.
In many of the photographs of the studios of Montmartre, there among all the avant-garde progression engendered by the technological innovations of the new century, are the fetish objects of older cultures, cultures steeped in the abstraction of mythology. This is something Braque never truly understood about the new vision he experienced and developed with Picasso. When he first saw the Demoiselles he could not stomach it. It was too dark, too primitive, too violent, and he told Picasso not to show it. This is the major difference between these two artists’ sense of the new century. Picasso had a psychic connection and a dark understanding of older cultures, with the way their Abstraction defined the inhuman, the otherworldly. Braque, however, never had that kind of deep connection with the “other” side of Abstraction. He enjoyed “primitive” works, thought they were wonderful forms of Art. But he never painted Abstraction as if it could slice you in two. You can see this difference especially in their paintings of figures. Braque wants to maintain an academic distance with the figure, wrap it in a flourish of technique, stand away from its presence. Picasso uses Abstraction to explore what was unseen, to open up to his own darkness, to create gods and monsters out of the other. Abstraction may be about concepts and signs, but in the hands of many of the early Modernists, it could also directly involve one in the unseen, hidden world of the human psyche in ways that traditional picture making never could.
Braque’s vision slowly returned during his long recovery, and he began to paint again, but never in the same way or with the same focus as he had during his early mountaineering days with Picasso. I sometimes wonder what Braque thought about Picasso’s rocketing fame, his turn away from Cubism after the war, and Pablo’s resurrection of Mediterranean Neo-Classicism during the Return to Order of the 1920s. Braque for his part painted Cubist-lite still life works cribbing from his own history, from Picasso and Matisse, and later, from the Surrealists. His work settled into a comfortable “Old Master” status, what we today would call “Blue Chip” professionalism; lightly historical, always dependable and well made, no surprises. Over the years Picasso, ever the self conscious self promoter, always shoring up his legacy to any and all who would listen, used Braque as the butt of sharp jokes aimed at his contributions to their shared discovery, calling him his “ex-wife,” hinting that Braque was merely following his lead, an also-ran who came to slow Pablo’s artistic progression. I’m sure it stung when Braque got wind of these slights. But there in Braque’s studio, when he was alone in front of his canvases, did he touch the nasty scars hidden beneath his hair, remember his fearful days spent in those foul trenches? Did it matter what the Modernists were saying when he had, somehow, been lucky enough to survive the ferocity of Modernity, lose and regain his sight and continue to paint, continue to work?
Abstraction as we know it today began with the Cubists. This art was still tied to the history of Western Vision, still the endgame of the Enlightenment, but it also opened the flood gates for what was to come. In those early years there was the back and forth, the still fresh arguments over the legitimacy of abstraction, the problems of the decorative, the conceptual, the spiritual. And that War, that “Great War,” changed everything, unleashed the societal challenges to come, irrevocably changed how everyone, especially artists, saw and interpreted the world around them. But mostly, it changed the world’s relationship to technology in ways that we still are trying to understand. Our Postmodern world, the outer skin to the core of Modernist theories and practices, carries all of these unresolved ideas and visions about mechanization, innovation, acceleration and technology. Most painters today, unlike Georges and Pablo, spend little time trying to confront the meaning of our technologies through paint, nor do we rethink the legacies of painting that we’ve inherited from the Modernists. Instead we allow our technologies to reinterpret the past, we put our faith in machines, so to speak. We do not think about or paint the theoretics grinding away behind our computer screens; those very theoretics that are shaping our societies, our cultures and our destinies.
“The new life of iron and the machine, the roar of motorcars, the brilliance of electric lights, the growling propellers, have awakened the soul, which was suffering in the catacombs of old reason and has emerged at the intersection of the paths of heaven and earth.
If all artists were to see the crossroads of these heavenly paths, if they were to comprehend these monstrous runways and intersections of our bodies with the clouds of heavens, then they would not paint chrysanthemums.”
Malevich “The Suprematist Manifesto” 1916.