Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cubism, Caravaggio and Stella

Last year I visited the modern art gallery in Lille on my way back to England. It has a couple of rooms set aside for cubism, presenting the usual story of progression from Cezanne to Picasso and Braque and  then their influence on other artists of the time.

 When I first started making sculpture my  tutor said to me that he thought that cubism was a cul-de-sac and not an advisable one to go down. I didn't quite see it in that way, I felt that Picasso and Braque, realising the ties with representational art were loosening, had set about trying to build a new visual language for the future.  They thought that  art needed a new language, or at least some way of putting together the visual elements  in a painting or sculpture that did not involve the representation of a human figure or landscape. They never got as far as abandoning representation totally and at first their work became a subject for ridicule by the established  art world.

I'm not saying that that's how you see it
I'm not saying that that's how I see it '
I tell you that that's how it is

 You bring me that?
A cube model to serve you, since now you're 'cubist'
Here, I had no idea that it was done like that ...

Their attempts to keep some figurative or representational  element in their painting led to major difficulties, especially when sculptors attempted to follow suit and sculpt the human figure in terms of flat planes, cubes and cylinders. There is a fundamental  difference here between sculpture and painting, as painting deals with illusion, it uses visual tricks to give it three dimensionality; sculpture however is  real, what you see is what you get. Many sculptors and painters of this time took what Picasso and Braque were doing too literally or copied it without understanding what was being attempted. This  resulted in a great deal of painting and sculpture in the cubist style  much of which seems lacking and dated these days. 
Ferdinand Leger.
I don't feel he ever really got what cubism was all about.
'The Mud Bath'   1914   by David Bomberg
An  English artist, one of the few who really did grasp what cubism was about.

A cubist sculpture by Jaques Lipchitz and  a painting by Picasso

 For sculpture  to abandon the human body,  a new way of structuring three dimensional form would also have to be found. Geometry can play a part in this and  there is a sense that all sculpture could loosely be termed cubist, as the cube and the sphere are the basic  geometric forms. All three dimensional  forms can be seen as distortions of a cube or a sphere.

A Kandinsy painting of 1911

At the same time that Picasso and Braque were trying to use Cezanne’s  experiments  as a way of building a new language  Kandinsky and Malevich, using a different route to the same destination, took it  all the way to total abstraction  and were largely ignored for it.

Malevich's Black Square painted in 1915
Dazzled by Picasso's  genius, artists in the following decades took their eye off the ball.  Picasso abandoned the search for a new language deciding instead  to develop his own  idiosyncratic language. It is interesting to speculate what  the story of modern art might have been had Picasso died in the first world war.

Such was his genius and powerful influence that for a long time every painter had to come to terms with what he was doing. It was not until  the 60’s  that  the American Abstract Expressionists  and then Pollock managed to firmly establish that painting could exist as a thing in its own right without reference to anything external to itself.

What I have written so far is a cause and effect linear story, of the sort that an art historian might write and I feel uneasy because I know in reality that things are not so linear and or so simple.  I like to entertain the thought that  maybe there is nothing that is new. Perhaps it has all been done somewhere, sometime in the past in some culture or other. Individual artists  struggle with the visual language that they inherit  and some are great enough to have lasting influence on future artists. Perhaps that's all you can say.

Cover of Frank Stella's book Working Space
Recently I acquired a book by the American painter Frank Stella, called “Working Space” and was quite encouraged to find that he also felt that a main strand of Cubism has been ignored  and that returning to this could be useful  for a modern painter. I have greatly enjoyed reading this book about painting written by a painter, not a critic or historian, his knowlege and insight into painting from all periods is staggering and I have learned a great deal.

Caravaggio's Matyrdom of Saint Peter,  has great sculptural properties
 One of the most surprising things is that he also sees a way forward for abstract painting  of today in the work of Caravaggio.  A 17th century  painter whose ultra realistic modelling  of light and form I would have said  had nothing to offer modern non figurative art . But Stella’s arguments are powerful,  though sometimes difficult to follow as  he suffers from the inexactness of language to describe visual properties, The book has  made me look at Caravaggio’s work in a totally different way.  For Stella the way that Caravaggio's paintings create their own space and seem to come out of the canvas is something very important to him.

Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
The skill with which this is painted gives the feeling  that the figures are coming out of the picture plane, The space of the painting is 3 dimensional and defined by the figures and not the canvas edges.
 There is a danger that Stella is seeing what he wants to see in Caravaggio as Stella's own work  has centred around creating paintings that are not hampered by the edge of a canvas but create their own space.

No one handles 3 dimensional form with colour as well as Stella does.
I have always avoided using  colour in sculpture as usually it works against the sculptural form by delineating one plane from another and destroys the feeling of solidity. While there have been others attempting this no one comes near to achieving what Stella has achieved.  He doesn't make painted sculpture but sculpted painting.

If you look closely at these two paintings you can easily start to see connections. For example, the cylinder on the right of the Stella does the same job as the the upper arm of the front figure in the Caravaggio in bringing the space out towards the viewer. The disc does the same, the many lines converging on the right hand of the figure with the wound are echoed by the cones on the left of the Stella and so on. 
I realise that these could all be coincidences but the Stella print was done over the exact same period 1982-1984 that he wrote about his love of Caravaggio's painting. It  gives much food for thought and does seem to reinforce Stella's argument that the work of Caravaggio has plenty of relevance for todays painters.. 

Frank Stella

Frank Stella

Frank Stella
On my last two visits to London I have been lucky enough to come across exhibitions of Stella’s work, Work which has excited me far more than almost anything I have seen in years.