Monday, May 16, 2011

Synthetic Cubist Still-Life

An essay from back in the day...

A Brief Meditation on Existentialism and Modern Art

The period from 1880 through World War I was filled with “…sweeping changes in technology & culture.” (Kern 1) Books like Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time & Space document the advances as well as the losses from this rapidly changing era. In William Barrett’s Irrational Man it is noted: “In losing religion, man lost concrete connection with the transcendent realm of being; he was set free to deal with world in all its brute objectivity. The loss of the church was the loss of a whole system of symbols [and] images…” (Barrett 25) This ‘brute objectivity’ is a world not governed by reason or intelligence; per Nietzsche, ‘God is dead.’

Living in this period of great flux and change artists created new forms that would keep them connected with their artistic traditions while articulating the experience of a new perspective. This perspective is “…not simply an external and quantitative change in the number of forms an artist can assimilate, it is also, and more profoundly, an internal and qualitative change in the spirit with which the artist appropriates these forms.” (Barrett 47)

The works of art produced from this perspective are part of man’s effort to utilize his new found condition as well as an attempt to reinvent a meaningful set of symbols and images which would reconnect him with the “transcendent realm of being.” The transcendent is no longer simply associated with rising to ‘new heights’ heavenly or otherwise but also refers to going beyond, to exceed or outdo. It is much more like the Latin word: alto which can mean both ‘high’ and ‘deep.’

These works became a part of an existential symbol structure – a body of work full of images dealing with the problems of being and the new articulations of the artists’ conceptions of their relationship with the world – an understanding of which is essential in comprehending “…the new turn in the human spirit…” that helped define modern man. (Barrett 49)

“Existentialism,” “Art” and “symbol” are crucial, plurisignitive terms and for the purposes of this paper here is the context, background and definition for them.

existentialism (ɛɡzɪˈstɛnʃəˌlɪzəm)
a modern philosophical movement stressing the importance of personal experience and responsibility and the demands that they make on the individual, who is seen as a free agent in a deterministic and seemingly meaningless universe

Philosopher Antony Flew defines existentialism as “ a view that the problem of being must take precedence in philosophical investigations. Being cannot be made the subject of objective enquiry; it is the fact of the individual’s presence and participation in…[the] world? (Flew 107)

I turn to Martin Heidegger to define ‘art.’ He uses the Greek word ‘techne.’ For Heidegger: “Techne means neither art nor skill to say nothing of technique in the modern sense. We translate ‘techne’ by ‘knowledge’ but this requires explanation. The knowledge meant here is not the mere result of observations concerning previously unknown data. Such information, though indispensible for knowledge, is never more than accessory. Knowledge in the authentic sense of ‘techne’ is the persistent looking out beyond what is given at any time. The Greeks called art ‘techne’ because art is what most immediately brings being (i.e. the appearing that stands there in itself) to stand, stabilizes it in something present (the work).” (Heidegger 159)

Heidegger’s ‘techne’ is art that reveals. It is a kind of ‘know-how.’ It is looking out beyond the superficial without losing sight of what appears to the senses. It is art that fully embraces the breadth & depth of human experience while recognizing perceptive ability and human creative potential.

I now turn to Paul Tillich to discuss the concept of a ‘symbol.’ For Tillich, “The first function of a symbol…is the representative function. The symbol represents something for which it stands and in the power and meaning of which it participates. So, why don’t we have that for which it stands directly? This is the main function of a symbol – the opening up of levels of reality [/experience] which are otherwise hidden and cannot be grasped in any other way.” (Lowe & Wainwright 481. Paul Tillich. Religious Symbols and our Knowledge of God) To achieve this level of expression art relies on symbol (the method by which hidden levels of reality – transcendent levels – are uncovered) while often becoming symbolic in and of itself.

A potent segment of these newly emerging sets of symbols in the synthetic cubist still-life work grandly exemplified by Picasso’s Still-Life with Compotier, 1914-15 as an early example and Still-Life with Grapes, 1927 as a late example by Georges Braque.

Still Life with Compotier
Still-Life with Grapes

In this paper I will examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of synthetic cubist work and defend the view that this work maintains a powerful, life-affirming value as part of the creation of a new set of symbols directly linked to changes of perception and understanding of the world brought about by new technologies and the philosophy that would come to be known as ‘existentialism.’

Post-Impressionists, Fauves, Futurists, Expressionists and the Cubists all emerged from this tumultuous era of change, discovery and creativity. Cubism evolved and spread in response, not just to the changes in the art community but, to changes in how the artists perceived the world at large.

In the early stages of cubism (as opposed to synthetic cubism) the artist’s palette was dominated by ochres, grays and blacks. Also, it seems as if “…the painters had begun with a more or less naturalistic image which was then fragmented and analyzed (and thus to a certain extent abstracted) in the light of the new cubist concepts of space and form. Now [in the work I’m most concerned with] the process was reversed: beginning with abstraction the artists worked up towards representation.” (Stangos 66 Cubism by John Golding) This reversal was a positive act of creation rather than deconstruction by analysis. This positivity along with the subject matter is what gives synthetic cubist still-life its existential punch.

The artists also began to employ an expanded color palette including greens, blues and oranges along with techniques from other schools of painting and the decorative arts to go along with their creation of the collage. (See collage appendix after this paper.)

The dotting techniques the cubists appropriated from the pointillists will provide an example of a process employed, with varying degrees of success, in synthetic cubist still-life painting. The masterpieces of this style are not the product of arbitrary gestures, but the thoughtful, skillful use of techniques to demonstrate new concepts of relationships between space and object. The method was used “…to enliven surfaces, to evoke a play of light, to counteract the monotony of planes of one color [and integrate their union] and create a decorative effect.” (Cooper 194) It is a tool that calls for a balanced use so its significance and value are not diluted.

Louis Marcoussis, in his Still-Life on a Table, 1921 has most of the surface covered with dots making it difficult to discern any descriptive function. Instead of breaking up monotony they create it by covering 90% of the surface. They provide little to no sense of depth or light.

Still-Life on a Table

In a painting such as Picasso’s Still-Life with Compotier, 1914-15 (seen earlier) however, the technique, through changing color points, helps make plane transitions while the pointillist planes themselves add a greater sense of depth to the whole composition. The planes that compose the ‘easily readable’ objects in the painting are on a horizontal and vertical orientation while the dotted planes enter the composition diagonally and if they were diving into and extending from the picture surface. This sense of depth is further accentuated by the use of shading behind the pointillist planes.

As can be seen, the paintings are built up with planes, interlocking and overlapping as the form an integrated environment on the picture surface. It is this concern with integration that inspired Georges Braque, in a statement of 1917 to say: “the subject is not the object, it is a new unity….” (Chipp 260) This integration is uniquely different from that pursued during the Renaissance; it is not primarily a visual recreation but a conceptual one.

And while Braque may have had a more abstract subject in mind, in the still-life work the objects and their interrelationships embody the new unity. Most of the things – bottles, glasses, fruit, musical instruments and newspapers are the everyday objects of the artist’s life and, as such, have been the classical subject matter of the still-life genre.

Still Life with Plums

These are the objects Apollinaire called “impregnated with humanity” - objects that illustrate, with cubist treatment, a basic unity within man’s environment. (Stangos 61) Objects created by man and for man and infused with the human touch from creation to utilization. This demonstration of object leading into object and plane into plane is one of synthetic cubism’s greatest strengths.

The foremost criticism of cubism centers around the question of accessibility when trying to ‘read’ a cubist work. Contemporary critic Donald Kuspit considers a “will to unintelligibility” to be the desired end of all modern art, including cubism. (NAE 26) He contends that modern art seeks to exist as mystery rather than reveal any mysteries or noteworthy spatial or conceptual relationships, and that if the mystery in a modern painting is uncovered it will “lapse into the banality of outspokenness.” Also, after hundreds of years filled with art subject to “certain methods of representing a three-dimensional object or a particular volume of space on a flat or nearly flat surface” it may be difficult to look at space and object rendered in a new way,” (Lucie-Smith 145), a way other than that developed in the Renaissance.

Yet, if we take a deeper look into art history and examine the work of the middle ages as well as other cultures we might find ourselves in agreement with Guy Habasque:

If we grant that a painting (and art in general) is a visual concretion of our knowledge of the outside world and expresses, not an immutable reality, but our conceptions of a reality that is forever changing (or anyhow gives us this impression, since we are continually discovering new aspects of it) and once we admit that the artist’s choice of plastic means is determined not by their purely imitative qualities but their adequacy to the results of his observation of the world around him and the values created by his cultural environment, then, surely, it is easy to see that cubism, far from distorting nature, provides a new interpretation of it, equally realistic, [valid] though other than that of the Renaissance. (Habasque 62)

With these words in mind let’s consider that to the modern/contemporary viewer the still-life work of Chardin may be, in some sense, more abstract than those of cubist painting. In such works as Attributes of Music, 1765 and Clay Pipe and Earthenware Jug, undated, Chardin uses most of the same objects revered by the cubists such as musical instruments, pipes, sheet music, cups and fruit dishes. Chardin place the objects on a table but basically minimizes background and foreground space, leaving the objects in a somewhat suspended state, idealized perhaps, but out of reach – not quite connected.

Attributes of Music
Clay Pipe and Earthenware Jug

The traditional presentation/perspective of the objects in Chardin’s work is, nevertheless, beautiful, especially in historical context. In modern art however (and by extension for modern man), “…organic forms have disappeared, and with them has disappeared the idealism which is always connected with organic forms.” (Tillich 94) Tillich is concerned with an idealism built around Renaissance views of a relationship with art and science and man and God that don’t exist anymore.

At issue, for me, (and I understand that this is deeply personal) with Chardin’s work is not concern over the ‘beauty’ of his paintings, but rather the lack of existential power his work has for this modern viewer. It seems more of a record or artifact then something providing a direct connection with the objects, space and meaning of our times.

I have chosen Georges Braque’s 1918 masterpiece Café-Bar as the quintessential synthetic cubist still-life and will now concentrate on an analysis of it and the new description of the relationships of space and object it provides.


First of all, the symbols inherent in still-life painting are generally the objects making up the composition. They can be a potent reminder of our mortality, as in a ‘vanitas’ (a painting, often with a skull), as well as a celebration of the joys of life with the depiction of objects that provide simple pleasures.

In synthetic cubist still-life work such as Braque’s Café-Bar not only are the objects symbolic emblems of the senses and emotions, but space and the relationship of space and object are articulated in a symbolic manner. This is the ‘new unity’ referred to by Braque.

Café-Bar centers around a café table viewed through a street front window. The table top is tilted – one of many facets evoking multiple perspectives. It is painted in expressive, muted greens and contains commonplace objects such as a fruit bowl with pear and grapes, a pipe, sheet music, a newspaper and a loosely constructed guitar.

In this painting Braque utilizes almost everything from his painterly bag of tricks. Trained as a decorator, Braque creates texture by adding sand to paint, combing (a wood graining technique) and faux bois. These methods help bring an earthy, impasto-like texture to an otherwise flat surface.

The border on the window serves as the frame of the composition as it ties in with the diamond-patterned floor. The floating letters that spell ‘café-bar’ suggest they are being seen from a distance, though the objects on the table appear to cross in front of the window sign. Considering, too, the clarity with which see the objects, a compressed, wide-angle view is suggested. By this I mean that a spatial distinction between background and foreground is difficult to distinguish even though, through the interlocking planes, the composition maintains an acute sense of depth. This paradox, and the work to see how it functions, is crucial to understanding cubism.

A gray-green plane with orange dashes weaves in and out of the composition only to be broken itself with a shadow effect created with a mottled gray-black that seems to quickly diminish as if the light source was somewhat direct.

The movement of the planes in white serves to help construct the fruit bowl and sheet music as well as to unify the feeling of ‘connectedness’ in the painting with the implied continuity of line behind planes which seem to cover it. In other words, the planes weave in and out from foreground to background.

The guitar is of particular note as Braque was very passionate about music and because it is not merely composed of planes, but a combination of planes that give it a floating airiness and solidity simultaneously.

In the bottom right-hand corner is a white silhouette of light on glass that seems to be caused my some sort of reflection, yet its vertical line immediately leads into an interior plane. The reflection picks up the pattern of the border and floor and supports, still more emphatically, the linear, planar, integrated aspects of synthetic cubism. ‘Reflection’ itself becomes a symbol of what is going on here, as does the glass window with its dual function as barrier to the elements but not the eyes.

In Café-Bar there is an astounding conceptual depth revealed in both the objects and space when they are given a flat, planar representation. It is a depth that is at once physical and spiritual. Physical in the sense that we are called to reexamine not only the relationship between object and space, but the objects we’ve surrounded ourselves with as well. Also, there is a spiritual depth, the depth Tillich calls “numinous realism.” He sees cubism as nothing else than an attempt to look into the “depths of reality.” (Tillich 95) Tillich is speaking of a realism, of a validity of experience that can only be encountered through the use of symbol. A spiritual realism as well as something living up to Heidegger’s sense of art as ‘techne’ looking out beyond mere appearance to explore relationships between things that may be easier to feel than see. The integrated relationships between space and objects in Café-Bar are an example of the effort to communicate this feeling – to make it visible.

The objects of these still-lifes are as basic to our existence as our existence is to us. The guitar that inspires, the fruit that sustains, the newspaper that informs, the pipe that soothes are made real in a numinous sense by being presented in a manner other than traditional perspective and woven into the fabric of space as perceived by Braque. There is an interdependence and connectedness in the construction of the composition that illuminates the firmly rooted and unified relationship of space, object and existence – firmly rooted in each other.

Although the cubists knew little or nothing of existentialism as a philosophical movement in the first 2 decades of the twentieth century, they surely spent plenty of time reflecting on their “own unique and concrete existence in time and space.” Works like Café-Bar are the evidence and fruit of these reflections; what they found. They were able to recognize a unique relationship with space and object that was basic to their “participation in the world” as visual beings.
For these artists this new ‘reality’ had come home. The world in all its ‘brute objectivity’ became man with the ability to respond to all the stimuli in his life, including the transcendental realm of being. The loss of belief in a responsible party with powers greater than their own and the consequent loss of the symbol structure erected and associated with these beliefs did not leave these men floating aimlessly in an abyss. They were breaking new ground, discovering how firmly rooted they are with this earth. They rediscovered the power of their humanness and demonstrated this power, symbolically, with their treatment and representation of commonplace objects and the space that surrounds them in an integrated fashion. This is the metaphysical ‘terra-firma’ of the early moderns, because like Apollinaire, they recognized the humanity in the objects they chose to celebrate and elevate to this level.

Appendix: Papier Colles and Synthetic Cubist Still –Life

While my paper is not directly concerned with collage I should not that with its re-invention by Braque and Picasso what we know as synthetic cubism might not have come to exist. For “it was only when Braque and Picasso understood more fully the significance of their discovery [of papier colles] the they began to translate papier colles into terms of oil paint…” (Cooper191) Papier Colle in many ways mark the onset of the stylr I’m most concerned with in this paper.

It seems important to note, too, that the materials they used/borrowed from reality such as sheet music, calling cards, packaging and newspaper are imbued with a significance that exists on several levels.

First of all, from Jack Flam’s essay in Robert Motherwell’s Collage Prints:

“…these objects are man made, and for the most part industrially manufactured rather than hand-made objects. Thus collage as a medium is very much an industrial medium – one that was viewed at the time with a sense of promise. Still, the objects used give us the sense that they were not only made for some other reason, but,, by their age [worn, yellowed newsprint and sheet music for example] seem to actually have been used for something else. It is this second hand aspect which posits them as fragmentary reminders and remainders of the passage of time – tangible evidence not only of past experience, but the notion of passing time. These tokens of the past (sometimes even dated) are understood as implicit symbols of the existence of time itself.

The papier colles affirms the existence of the real world, of the artist having passed though it. And in doing so, they [the objects] almost seem to affirm the notion that something like an objective reality might also exist.”

This affirmation is still further support of my thesis of synthetic cubism’s value as an existentialistic symbol. That we are firmly grounded in some sort of ‘objective reality’ and that there are relationships between space and object worthy of our consideration and worthy of artistic illumination can be seen as a pictorial contribution to our investigations into the problem of being.