OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 2, Part 4
Spiritualism and Nihilism: The Second Decade
However ironical Duchamp's Large Glass, it has many of the trappings of an old-fashioned, conventional picture: It is figurative, it tells a story, and it creates the illusion of space. In fact, it aspires to the condition of literature, as all the notes accompanying it suggest. It is not simply the illustration of an idea, but of a rather elaborate text. It is also a mannerist picture: Its absurd space, sexual meaning and general tone of alienation are standard mannerist features. Francis Picabia's Nature Morte: Portrait of Cézanne/Portrait of Renoir/Portrait of Rembrandt (1920) makes a much cleaner break with the past. It is the archetypal Dadaist work of anti-art. It is explicitly offensive -- a rather nasty attack on painting: Cézanne, Renoir and Rembrandt are stuffed monkeys, and painting is dead. The stuffed monkey -- a found object -- in the center of the panel illustrates the text of the title that surrounds it. The monkey is a kind of exclamation point in what is essentially a verbal performance. The crude lettering of the title and the shabby look of the monkey make the subversive point bluntly. Picabia makes a monkey of painting, and its use of the model from nature.
The work makes no pretense to esthetic merit or artistic authority, though the use of stuffed animals was picked up by Robert Rauschenberg more than a half century later. Also, it survives only in photographic form, like so many later conceptual performances. In fact, it may have been made to be photographed, as Picabia's Ici, C'est Ici Stieglitz (1915) -- the pioneer photographer Alfred Stieglitz symbolized by a folding camera -- suggests. The photograph had come of age in the 20th century, and Picabia realized that it would become the major means of promulgating and legitimating ideas. Its ironic originality -- it could be reproduced but it was one of a kind -- gave it a peculiarly Dadaist character. The photograph was a new kind of document, all the more so because it had the authority of a machine behind it, and machines had more authority than people, as Picabia's substitution of machines for people implies. The substitution has something decadent about it: Like Huysmans' decadent hero Des Esseintes, Picabia prefers artificial machines to natural people -- although people who act like machines and natural phenomena that look artificial are acceptable.(24)
Picabia was "a negator. . . . Whatever you said, he contradicted," said Duchamp, his close friend,(25) and he used the machine to negate and contradict the human. Indeed, he monumentalized the machine, as Very Rare Picture on the Earth (1915) and Machine Tournez Vite (ca. 1916-17) indicate, at the expense of the human. It is not clear that Picabia's machine imagery -- his hallucinatory technology -- is as ironical as it is supposed to be, although it is clearly provocative for its time. Picabia idolizes the machine, worshipping it as the new deity: It is the godlike imperturbability and impassivity of the machine -- its profound indifference to human affairs -- that he identifies with. It may also be what has been called an "influencing machine" -- a symbol of his paranoia, a projection of his sense that he was being controlled by forces beyond his control -- social as well as unconscious forces that threatened to turn him into an obedient automaton.
In fact, the machine is an objectification of his inner life -- a self-portrait. Painting should picture "not things, but emotions produced in our minds by things," he said -- a decadent idea, found in Mallarmé and Pater, and confirmed by Picabia's Edtaonisl (1913) and I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914), his two most notorious paintings. The former supposedly pictures the heart of a Dominican friar, palpitating as it watches a young dance star rehearse with her troupe, while in the latter, spark plugs and coil springs represent sexual organs (Picabia was an automobile fanatic.) Not only is the implication of perverse sexuality typically decadent, but, more crucially, Picabia's skewed pictorial syntax -- the general sense of rupture and disorientation that informs his visual language -- is quintessentially decadent.
Art should show "the objectivity of a subjectivity," he declared, stating what later became a dogma of Surrealism, and Picabia's fractured objects convey his subjective sense of himself as a disturbed machine. His obsession with the machine does not simply convey his "mania for change" and search for "scandal," as Duchamp said it did. If it was a means of "revolt," the revolt consisted in using the objective subjectively. Picabia's crazy machines convey his feeling of going crazy in a crazy world. The "rancor against men and events" which he expressed in a seemingly "inexhaustible" barrage of "plastic and poetic sarcasms"(26) was justified by the social disintegration of the first world war, the objective correlative of his own fear of disintegration, which such rage invariably signals. The machine also signals the feeling of depersonalization that pervades the modern world, a depersonalization that it helps create. Indeed, Picabia's machines dramatize the depersonalization, if only because they suggest that people are really machines in disguise.
Attitude, then, is absolutely crucial for understanding Dadaism, and the Dada attitude is invariably hostile and anxious. Duchamp's use of ordinary objects and Picabia's use of mechanical drawings have been understood as liberating and enlivening -- not to say cunning and witty -- but they are also sardonic and unsettling. Picabia, visiting the Armory Show in 1913, found the Queensboro Bridge fantastic, and in 1915 Duchamp said America's bridges and plumbing were the best art it had produced. But while this expanded the boundaries of art, it also deprecated it. The cynical violence of Dadaism is epitomized by Man Ray's Gift (1921) -- a row of metal tacks down the center of a flat iron -- and Morton Schamberg's God (ca. 1918), a plumbing trap turned upside down, like Duchamp's bicycle wheel. It is the ultimate Dadaist statement of nihilism -- a conceptual "construction" suggesting that God is full of shit -- the world's shit. The innovative use of everyday objects and imagery and the destructive attitude towards art went hand in hand in Dadaism, suggesting a deep conflict about the relevance of art in the modern world of machines and war -- war that depended on the efficiency and "intelligence" of machines rather than on the natural strength of the human body.
But for all their black humor about art as well as life, Dadaist anti-paintings were heavily dependent on avant-garde painting, as the Synthetic Cubism of Man Ray's The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (1916) makes clear. The figure is constructed of intersecting planes, and while the rope appears six times, suggesting its movement, its chance shape is turned into an eccentric Cubist plane, like the rope in Duchamp's Three Standard Stoppages. Similarly, Ray's 1919 Aerograph, made entirely with a spray gun and stencil, is a distinctly Cubist construction. So is his innovative Rayograph (1927), made by exposing objects placed on or near photographic paper to light. This automatic, camera-less process produced stylishly abstract, uncanny images, which distill Cubism to its planar fundamentals, even more than the flat figures of Duchamp's Large Glass. Even The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920), an assisted readymade, is oddly Cubist. Ray wrapped a sewing machine -- the female symbol in Lautréamont's famous metaphor of sexual intercourse (Isidore Ducasse was his non-pen name) -- in cloth and tied it with rope, suggesting both female mystery and bondage. At the least, it suggests a sexual secret, like Duchamp's Underwood typewriter cover -- something obscene must be hidden under it. The work is a kind of intellectual pornography, as it were, like Duchamp's Large Glass, which presents sex as a mechanical activity performed by unfeeling automatons, as in pornographic imagery. (Duchamp's female figures are sex machines, and such later works as Please Touch (1947) [a foam rubber breast], Female Fig Leaf (1950), Objet-Dard (1951) and Wedge of Chastity (1954) are ironically pornographic.) Another throwaway Dadaist work, Ray's enigmatic object survives only in a photograph -- it was probably made to be photographed, like many Dadaist "performances" -- making it even more enigmatic. In the photograph, the construction loses much of its three-dimensionality, and the lines formed by the rope fragment the cloth into curved planes, which seem to overlap in a Cubist manner.
Like Duchamp's readymades, Ray's wrapped object depends on Picasso's invention of collage for its artistic credentials, however indirectly. Indeed, one can't help wondering whether Ray was inspired by the first collage, Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), an oval painting with a rope frame. Picasso's paradoxical incorporation of an actual object into a work of art prepared the way for Duchamp's ironical presentation of the actual object as a work of art. The painting was dispensed with and the object was imaginatively conceptualized as art. Art still involved an "imaginative logic," but it was less dependent on the artist's hand, and more on his unconscious mind, which no doubt made it seem absurd. Nonetheless, Duchamp's Tu m' -- a painting in which every element, whether collaged object or shadowy image, has more conceptual than physical significance, so that it seems self-contradictory (the work is one of the first "conceptual paintings," as they came to be called) -- still has the human hand at its center. Prestidigitation -- if not as brilliant as Picasso's -- still has a place in art, that is, art is still a matter of putting things together by hand, to conceptual and emotional effect. Even physicality mattered: The striking physical presence of Ray's wrapped object came to seem more important than its ironic sexual associations. It came to be respected as a sculptural innovation -- one of the first assemblages.
Still Life with Chair Caning seems to break down the boundary between art and the world and, more tentatively, the boundary between painting and sculpture: Ordinary materials -- a rope and a piece of oilcloth -- are incorporated into a painting of a rather disjointed, murky still-life, making it seem like a kind of relief. The effect is startling and estranging at once, confirming the strangeness and intricacy of the picture. Much has been made of the irony of the oilcloth, which simulates chair caning. Such oilcloth was actually used to cover café chairs and tables, so that they could be easily cleaned. The streaks of black and gray paint that cross it are like dirt to be wiped away, even as they serve to embed the oilcloth in the picture. Thus the oilcloth is a kind of joke, even as it represents something real, and is itself materially real. Incongruities abound: Everything in Picasso's picture seems feigned and real, farcical and serious, symbolic and material at once, even the rope. It is a useful everyday material that makes a mockery of the traditional ornamental frame. Its unfamiliar use for an esthetic purpose makes it exotic. The rope ironically represents the unity the work lacks: It holds together a picture that has fallen apart -- a representation that has become "unrepresentative." Picasso's Herculean rope is yet another inventive duplicity: an interface that suggests that his picture is like any other object in the world while setting it apart in a world of its own. The rope cordons the picture off from the world, the way works of art may be separated from the public by a rope in a museum, in effect privileging them as unique objects in a realm of their own. Art can use such commonplace materials as rope -- but only if they confirm its extraordinary autonomy. There is a boundary between us and the work of art that is unbridgeable, however many familiar things it refers to and even literally contains.
It was Picasso's collage rather than Duchamp's readymade that first made clear the ironical doubleness of art, as though to objectify Budelaire's description of the artist as an "omo duplex." That is, it was Picasso's collage that first established the idea that visual art could be a kind of conceptual nonsense poetry. Full of irresolvable ambiguities, and thus inherently uncertain, it became speculative, perceptually as well as intellectually. Picasso's collage is physically nihilistic, which seems to make it "etaphysical." It is an epistemological, "spiritual" problem even as it seems to be disintegrating in front of our eyes. Is it an illusion of art, just as the oilcloth is a piece of real material that is at the same time an illusion of another kind of material? The eye is fooled, even as the flatness of the canvas is asserted by the flatness of the oilcloth. There is a further referencing of painting here: An oil painting is a kind of "oilcloth." Because it is an illusion within the illusion of the picture, and physically and perceptually like a painting, the deceptive oilcloth forces us to reflect on the nature of painting. Picasso uses the pun of the oilcloth to deconstruct painting, that is, to show us that it is not what it conventionally seems to be, even the opposite of what it supposedly is: Still Life with Chair Caning is the presentation of a certain kind of surface -- a strange textural and visual terrain -- rather than the representation of everyday reality.
Like the two-dimensional oilcloth, the three-dimensional rope is a kind of surface. Its texture is as twisted as that of paint, and seems to magnify the texture of the caning. But the rope seems more uncompromising -- blaspheming painting -- than the oilcloth, which is, after all, a kind of art -- kitsch art, by reason of the illustration of chair caning printed on it. Picasso perversely spatters the cloth with paint, ironically assimilating it into the painting, as though it were high art. But the rope is unmarked by paint and simply presents itself. Its color is close to that of the caning, which seems to make it a formal part of the picture, but it also remains conspicuously real. It is a lasso thrown around the picture, as though to bring it under control. The rope contradicts the picture -- an abstract composition, which can be understood as an ironic conceptualization of ordinary objects (despite the gratuitous gestures on the oilcloth) -- with its raw, intransigent physical presence. The rope is practical and truly objective -- unmistakably itself -- whereas the picture is absurd and subjective. Thus, the non-artistic margin is as important as the artistic center. The difference between the rope and the oilcloth increases the tension -- standoff? -- between literalness and deception. It is as though Picasso has made painting conscious of itself by making its doubleness or "duplicity" transparent.
Braque's Homage to J. S. Bach (1911-12), with its illusory wood graining, created by using a decorator's comb, prepared the way for Picasso's illusory chair caning, but Picasso's collage is much more aggressive and deceptive. Braque's wood graining is clearly an illusion -- a trick of the painting trade -- while Picasso's chair caning looks real, and the rope is real. But Braque's painting, with its repetitive verticals, and general aura of geometrical regularity, prepared the way for Synthetic Cubism, while Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning still belongs to Analytic Cubism, as its upper half indicates. Braque seems to be rebuilding the musical instrument -- it makes a hallucinatory appearance in the center of his picture, as though precipitated out of the surrounding geometry -- rather than tearing it down. Instead of dissecting objects into their formal components, as in Analytic Cubism, the formal components are used to reconstruct objects, however incompletely and awkwardly, in Synthetic Cubism. It also involves a return to color, which now competes with line to convey space. While Braque's painting is generally colorless, the wood graining is relatively colorful. It not only introduces color as a kind of abstract idea or "concept," but vividly projects out of the picture's corner, its mustard color adding an ironic bit of detached light to the intimate indoor scene.
In general, instead of "dead," if at times biting color -- mostly browns and grays, with provocative traces of black -- there is a return to bright, lively color in Synthetic Cubism. The tendency to obscurity evident in Analytic Cubism is reversed: Things are easily recognized, if still not conventionally intelligible. This is certainly the case in Picasso's first papier collé (pasted paper) work, Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass (1912), with its sky blue centerpiece, recognizable guitar and glass shapes (the former flat, the latter intricately faceted), white floral pattern and readable musical score and newspaper print (the ironical headline: "the battle is engaged"). It is also the case in Juan Gris' blue Homage to Pablo Picasso, comic Man at the Café, and The Watch (all 1912). In these paintings the planes are arranged more systematically than in Analytic Cubist paintings, and "synthesize" to form a relatively clear, sedate scene. The spatial coordinates remain intact, and the scene is seen from an everyday point of view. Also Spanish, Gris became a follower of Picasso, developing what Apollinaire called "Integral Cubism." The term suggests the new sense of integration and calculation -- compactness and control -- in Cubism. Gris' tightly constructed paintings are the consummate example of Synthetic Cubism.
Nonetheless, at this stage, for all the order and measure in Synthetic Cubist works, they remain fundamentally fragmented and precariously balanced. Formal and expressive issues continue to be more important than the representation of objects. Irreconcilable abstract forms bring the picture to expressive life. There is a change of expressive pace, but that hardly means Synthetic Cubism is visually tamer than Analytic Cubism. There is no return to old-fashioned static representation, but rather the development of a new pictorial dynamics. Just as the obvious difference between the grid pattern on the flat oilcloth and the oval shape of the canvas, vividly accentuated by the round rope, activates the surface of Still Life with Chair Caning, so the subtle differences in texture and tone between the wallpaper, music paper and newspaper activate the surface of Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass. Spatial contradictions make Gris' paintings "moving," however passive his figures. The turgid jumble of abstract shapes in Analytic Cubism has been replaced by a grid-like structure, making for a greater if forced sense of overall harmony -- but the sense of instability remains. Gris' paintings are houses of cards that can collapse at any moment. Thus, his objects exist more in name than presence -- more as text than as substance. Indeed, text plays a much more conspicuous part in Synthetic Cubism than in Analytic Cubism.
Flatness is more emphatic in Synthetic Cubism than in Analytic Cubism, but the real difference between them has to do with mood: Analytic Cubist pictures have a tragic aura and epic look, while Synthetic Cubist pictures are more lyric and light-hearted. Brutality has been replaced by elegance. Synthetic Cubism is still sober, as Braque's Still Life with Guitar (1912) makes clear, but it has lost the harshness of Analytic Cubism. Indeed, the exquisite series of still-lifes of pasted paper and charcoal that are Braque's major contribution to Synthetic Cubism are perhaps his most restrained, graceful works. Synthetic Cubist objects are less weighty and burdensome than Analytic Cubist objects, and in fact seem to float in space, like Braque's guitar. Physical gravity has been overcome, with no loss of emotional gravity.
The sense of floating in space is particularly strong in Robert Delaunay's Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912). It is an "audacious. . . dramatization of colored volumes," as Apollinaire said. He called Cubism an "art of conception" as distinct from the traditional "art of imitation," and labeled Delaunay's brand of Cubism "Orphic," referring to Orpheus, a legendary Greek figure whose music was able to move inanimate objects. Delaunay was in fact influenced by Kandinsky's theory of musical painting, and his Windows series was especially musical, in that it involved the rhythmic repetition of colorful planes, creating what Apollinaire called a "harmony with unequal lights." A "pure art. . . created entirely by the artist himself," rather than "borrowed from the visual sphere," it "give[s] a pure esthetic pleasure." Such rhythmic repetitions were already evident in Delaunay's apocalyptic "Eiffel Tower" series (1911) -- the modern wonder looks like a crumbling tower of Babel, even as it suggests the triumph of technology, for it dominates the city of Paris -- but they become systematic in Delaunay's Circular Forms series (1913), which also have an engineered look. Like the more choppy Eiffel Tower pictures, the music of the Windows and Circular Forms pictures is unequivocally modern: Dissonances and discontinuities -- unresolved chords of color notes, as it were -- abound within the geometrical continuity imposed by the pattern.
Disc (The First Disc) -- a color or solar wheel, perhaps mystical in import, and certainly hypnotic -- is unequivocally abstract compared to Simultaneous Windows on the City, which has vestigial, fairytale imagery in it. But the important thing about the Eiffel Tower, Windows and Circular Forms series as well as Fernand Léger's Contrast of Forms (1913) and Frantisek Kupka's Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors (1912) -- also among the first Cubist-derived abstract paintings -- is their emphasis on motion. They may distill the "pure essence of painting," as Delaunay said, but they also show a fascination with the mechanics of motion, like Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. It was painted in the same year as Kupka's painting, which ostensibly tracks a moving ball and the movement of the girl playing with it. Similarly, the important thing about the circular forms in Leger's colorful painting is that they are in motion. He has in effect broken his earlier machine figures -- Three Nudes in the Forest (1909-10) is a noteworthy example -- into tubular sections, transforming each one into a rolling cylinder.
Geometrical abstraction emerged from Cubism, but it is not as pure as it is supposed to have been. It is an attempt to represent movement in quasi-mathematical terms, as though to show that artists could be as scientifically precise as engineers. To be modern means to be on the move, and avant-garde art showed that it was on the move by suggesting that even the most static objects were in motion -- this is the underlying point of Impressionism, which rendered their vibrations, and the Pointillist optics which codified them -- and finally by focusing on movement as such, as the most absolute reality. It was a complete reversal of traditional art, which represented objects in a static way, confirming its preference for stillness over motion. Indeed, the traditional artist tried to find the static, enduring form in a moving, changing object. Such form was more essential or "eternal" than the motion that "existentialized" and exemplified it, as though by accident. But in the avant-garde picture, motion had a certain logic, however apparently contingent and circumstantial. The picture was reconceived as a dynamic balance of forces instead of a static harmony of forms. Force took priority over form, which became its expression.
It is impossible to understand the fascination with motion as a phenomenon in itself without referring to Futurism. Its first manifesto was published on the front page of Le Figaro in February 1909. The author was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian poet and intellectual. A year later, The Manifestos of Futurist Painters was published, and in April 1910, Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto appeared, signed by a number of painters. The ideas in these manifestos were widely circulated, no doubt because of the sensational, bombastic way in which they were presented, but also because they seemed to be quintessentially modern. For the first time, "a style of motion" was explicitly advocated. "The gesture which we would reproduce on canvas shall no longer be a fixed moment in universal dynamism. It shall simply be the dynamic sensation itself (made eternal). Indeed, all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing."
These ideas, propagated in Paris, London and Milan, had to have influenced Delaunay, Duchamp, Kupka and Léger: They were all in search of the right style for motion. Film may have influenced them -- although Léger's 1925 film Ballet mécanique and Duchamp's 1926 film Anémic Cinéma suggest that it was only fully appreciated later, when it became trendy and technically sophisticated (Duchamp thought of film as "a more practical way of achieving my optical results" -- but the Futurist celebration of motion influenced them as much if not more. Futurism offered a way out of Cubism, which began to seem conservative and redundant by 1912. It had, in fact, become a widespread orthodoxy, as Apollinaire's history of it, published that year, suggested. It was the new conformism: Apollinaire classified every artist worth anything -- and some not worth much in historical retrospect (nor regarded as Cubist) -- under the rubric of either Scientific Cubism (Picasso, Braque, Gris, Albert Gleizes, Marie Laurencin), Physical Cubism (Le Fauconnier), Orphic Cubism (Delaunay, Léger, Picabia, Duchamp) or Instinctive Cubism, which seems to be Expressionism ("Born of French Impressionism, this movement has now spread all over Europe"). Is that why Picasso, ever the nonconformist, re-invigorated Cubism with collage the same year? Certainly Synthetic Cubism is an attempt to reinvent it.
But the Futurists re-vitalized it even more: Many of the artists whom Apollinaire appropriates for the cause of Cubism are in fact Cubo-Futurists. Duchamp's various machine figures show him to be one. Even his readymades can be understood as Cubo-Futurist in import: His bottlerack, shovel, urinal and hatrack, as well as the bicycle wheel, embody or suggest motion, in a very original "style" -- an anti-style. This great debt to Futurism has been downplayed because, after the first world war, Marinetti became associated with Fascism. No doubt the French chauvinism evident in Apollinaire's remarks about Instinctive Cubism is also responsible. (He missed the important Lithuanian painter M. K. Ciurlionis (d. 1911), whose "abstract expressionist" pictures were directly inspired by music, including his own.) But the fact remains that the various abstract styles of motion that emerged during the heyday of Futurism were inspired by it -- the critic Roger Allard thought that Delaunay's Eiffel Tower series was directly derived from it -- which is why they look much more modern than Synthetic Cubism, which seems quaint in comparison.
Giacomo Balla's Streetlight (1909) has been understood in relation to Seurat's Pointillism, an influence which Balla supposedly derived from Giovanni Segantini. But the Futurist element in the painting is not its technique, but its subject matter: The electric light -- a kind of mechanical torch -- that stands at its center, symbolizing the technological future of mankind. Technology is benign: It miraculously creates light in the midst of darkness. Indeed, the streetlight, with its dynamic Pointillist aura, is literally cut out of a wall of darkness, which surrounds it and threatens to overwhelm it. It is as though the artist has broken through the gloom of the past and arrived at the bright future. Balla's picture is about the power of technology -- a power for the good. It is a Promethean picture: Technology has stolen fire from the gods, making humanity independent of nature. Balla's artificial light shines more brightly and radiates more broadly than natural light. The streetlight is a monumental presence compared to the small, insignificant crescent moon trapped in its aura. There is a certain reciprocity between Balla's pointillist technique and his technological subject matter. Pointillism, which attempts to represent light scientifically, is used to represent light created by technology, the practical application of science. Thus, the artistic revolution serves the scientific and technological revolution, and is inspired by it. In Balla's painting, art has become the advocate of technology, and in fact seems submissive to it. At the same time, his painting conveys the thrill of technology: The agitated aura of the streetlight registers the excitement aroused by the new inventions that transformed everyday life at the beginning of the 20th century.
Marinetti seemed to have had a special, very intimate relationship with the automobile -- "I stretched out on my machine like a corpse on a bier; but I revived at once under the steering wheel, a guillotine that menaced my stomach" -- but the Futurists were ready to romanticize motion wherever they found it. The automobile was the new centaur, as Marinetti called it, but The Swimmers (1910) of Carlo Carrà, the dancers in Gino Severini's Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin (1912), and the bicycle in Umberto Boccioni's Dynamism of a Cyclist (1913) were also capable of "mad speed." In fact, the Futurists painted many if not more images of human beings in motion than of machines in motion. It was the intoxicating dynamics of movement that fascinated them, not the mundane object that did the moving. In 1912, Balla paints Dynamics of a Dog on Leash (Leash in Motion) and in 1913, he paints Abstract Speed -- Wake of a Speeding Automobile. The former may seem amusing, the latter may look chaotic, but both are attempts to render motion as precisely as possible, and above all to abstract it from the object that does the moving. Indeed, the Futurists became increasingly abstract, as Balla's Mercury Passing Before the Sun as Seen Through a Telescope (1914) makes clear. In this remarkable work science and art find common ground in abstraction. This occurred even earlier, in Balla's Iridescent Interpenetration (1912), where the flow of light is broken down, in a quasi-scientific "analysis," into exquisitely elongated, elastic, repetitive geometrical structures, which at the same time suggest that it is a mystical-esthetic enigma. This prescient, hypnotic work, which is part of a series, and was painted in the same year as Delaunay's Window series, but is much more abstract -- unequivocally abstract -- heralds the interest in literal, autonomous light that emerged later in the 20th century, reaching a climax in the work of James Turrell. There is an ongoing attempt in the 20th century to bring the light of the sky, emblematic of spirituality and transcendence, down to earth, and to scientifically understand it, not in order to demystify it, but to appreciate its mystery and life-giving power more completely. Balla seems to unite Newton's mechanical and Goethe's mystical ideas of light, suggesting that a scientific analysis of light may be a consummate "cosmic" experience, as well as high art.
The more dynamic or accelerated the motion, the more it seems to be an autonomous, rhythmic fluid force or force field -- a field of energy composed of repetitive lines of force -- which suggests the complete malleability or elasticity of matter, which Boccioni demonstrated in Elasticity, Materia and the sculpture Anti-Graceful (all 1912). (The last two works are portraits of his mother.) One can't help thinking that the Futurists took their idea of "physical lines of magnetic force" from Michael Faraday -- those are his words -- and their idea of dynamism from James Clerk Maxwell's Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. In 1865 Maxwell wrote: "The theory I propose may therefore be called a theory of the Electromagnetic Field, because it has to do with the space in the neighborhood of the electric or magnetic bodies, and it may be called a Dynamical Theory because it assumes that in that space there is matter in motion, by which the observed electromagnetic phenomena are produced."(27) Faraday thought of the magnet as "a system of forces perfect in itself and able therefore to exist by its own mutual relations," which sounds like the Futurist conception of an object, and like their idea of an abstract painting.
In a belated effort to link science and art, or else to force art to catch up to science, the Futurists displayed lines of force everywhere in their work, initially loosely associated with objects, as in Boccioni's The City Rises (1910-11), officially the first Futurist painting, and finally independently of them, as in Severini's Spherical Expansion of Light (Centrifugal) (1914). Often the object was reduced to lines of force, or incorporated in a force field, as in Balla's Flight of Swifts and Swifts: Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences (both 1913). It had in effect become a magnet, rhythmically radiating electricity, sometimes in an irregular way, as in Carrà's Rhythms of Objects (ca. 1912), sometimes with a regularity bordering on the routine, as in Luigi Russolo's Plastic Synthesis of the Actions of a Woman (1911). The sense of redundancy, not to say ritual, gives a certain look of order -- emerging or explicit -- to the picture, even as it resonates with limitless energy.
The result is meant to be scientific, not just esthetic, however much science becomes the source of a new esthetics. Science and art had been closely connected before -- in the Renaissance, when art was empirical, and dependent upon perspective theory -- and they became so once again in Futurism. But there is a decisive difference: Where the truth of science was adjunct to and instrument of ideal beauty in the Renaissance, it displaces beauty in Futurism. Science has also become more conspicuously abstract and theoretical, if also more empirically precise. There is a more basic difference: What had been done in the Renaissance was undone by Futurism. The Futurist idea of the picture as a hermetic system of forces marks the end of the Renaissance idea of the picture as a window affording a certain perspective on the world. The scene no longer originates in the eye, as it were; instead, its movements must follow those of the dynamic scene. That is, the active scene no longer obeys the passive eye, but rather the eye must flow with the scene -- let itself be activated by the scene -- or be lost in it, indeed, remain permanently disoriented.
Moreover, instead of dealing with "the matter of which our senses are aware," as the traditional artist did, the Futurist artist will try to render "another kind of matter -- the only true matter, in his opinion -- which will no longer have anything but geometrical qualities, and the atoms of which will be mathematical points subject to the laws of dynamics alone," to use the words with which Henri Poincaré differentiated the traditional physicist from Maxwell, the physicist of the future.(28) The problem, as Poincaré says, is how to render these "invisible and colorless atoms" -- this purely conceptual matter, as it were -- without making it seem like "ordinary matter." The traditionalist renders ordinary matter, the Futurist renders conceptual matter, suggesting their radically different senses of reality.
Futurist lines of force replace the orthogonal lines of perspective just as invisible modern matter replaces traditional visible matter. Futurism is as concerned with the structure of matter as traditional art, but the structure and the matter are different. The cracking and collapse of the perspectival container that structures matter in traditional art occurs in Futurism -- not in Cubism, which uses perspective to ironical spatial effect. (Cubism transforms tradition rather than cancels it. The transformation is radical -- perhaps nowhere more clearly than in Picasso's Cubist "redoing" of traditional masterpieces -- but the ideas of tradition are preserved.) The orthogonal pillars of perspective buckle, shake and crumble in Carrà's Jolts of a Cab and What the Streetcar Said to Me (both 1911), and matter begins to dissolve into its dynamic fundament. One reality is being destroyed, and a new one coming into view. Perspective and matter are not even afterthoughts in the rather flat, immaterial looking abstractions of Balla and Severini. They are beside their point, although one often sees their hallucinatory afterimage in more conservative Futurist pictures, as might be expected of concepts that were regarded as realities -- natural and normal -- for centuries.
The difference between Balla's realistic painting The Staircase of Farewells (1908) and his abstract sculpture Boccioni's Fist -- Lines of Force (1915) shows the enormous esthetic distance Futurism traveled. A placid human scene, painted in a subdued manner, has been replaced by a wildly dynamic construction, painted in glaring red. The rhythmic repetitions of the winding staircase have been replaced by the staccato performance of fragmentary shapes. The staircase descends into the depths of the picture, the fist explodes outward. Regularity has been replaced by irregularity. Lovely smiling women have been replaced by belligerence. Violence has been done to art and to life.
But, however physically inflammatory, most Futurist works are introspective and melancholy. Severini's Dynamic Hieroglyph of the Bal Tabarin is the famous exception. Its collage of sequins and bright colors adds to its lightheartedness, although the scissors the naked woman rides suggests that the work, after all, is a triumph of violence: Presumably they have been used to cut the scene to Cubo-Futurist pieces. It is not just ceaseless movement -- the swirling waltz, as the sign suggests -- that is conveyed, but chaos. The joyous dancehall is a free-for-all -- anarchic and menacing. The Futurists were drawn to anarchic crowd scenes, for political as well as esthetic reasons. They liked the violence of the crowd, for it suggested rebellion against the common lot as well as authority, and because it showed human action at its most dynamic. But there is a melancholy, brooding dimension to Boccioni's Riot in the Galleria (1910), Carrà's Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1910-11) and Russolo's The Revolt (1911). The general atmosphere is luminous, but the figures tend to be dark. (It is worth noting that Carrà's picture is modeled on Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano (ca. 1445), although the action is greatly intensified by the lines of force -- Uccello's spears in motion. (Similarly, Boccioni's sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) looks like a Renaissance warrior whose armor has been set in motion.)
The Futurists were not only interested in the expression of motion, but of emotion, as Boccioni's marvelous States of Mind triptych (1911) makes clear. Indeed, the representation of motion serves to convey the intensity of emotion. The lines of physical force are also lines of emotional force. There are two states of mind, that of Those Who Go and of Those Who Stay, and a third state, that of The Farewells, in which those who go and those who stay are indistinguishable. For they share the same state of mind: That of the sadness that accompanies separation. Boccioni wanted to express the "difference in feeling" between departure and arrival, as he remarked, but, as the grim, dark, cramped character of all three paintings suggests, there is no essential difference. It is worth noting that it is the same "morbid state of sensitivity" that another melancholy Italian painter, the proto-Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, described in his 1912 Meditations of a Painter, and expressed in the deserted spaces of such works as Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure) (1914). Like Boccioni's The Farewells, it pictures a railroad station and locomotive. There are only two tiny figures in de Chirico's picture, and they are much more isolated than those of Boccioni, who huddle together in a crowd. Unlike Boccioni's looming locomotive, de Chirico's locomotive is a remote shape -- barely a signifier -- on the distant horizon. De Chirico's depression seems deeper than that of Boccioni.
In a sense, Boccioni's trilogy is an elaboration of the situation pictured in Balla's The Staircase of Farewells. Balla is taking leave of the women on the stairs below him. A sense of loss pervades the pictures, conveyed by the abyss of the spiral staircase. The sense of loss is in fact the emotional basis of Boccioni's work. It is signaled as early as Bankrupt (1902), self-evident in Mourning (1910) and implicit in The Laugh (1911), as the diminutive male figures surrounding the giant female laughing at them -- they cannot have this jolly goddess -- indicates. Again, the dynamics of apparently different states of mind turn out to be the same at bottom, however differently "colored." (Similarly, Duchamp's equally small, subordinate Bachelors cannot reach and possess the divine Bride -- also an inaccessible idol -- that towers over them. It should be remembered that all these male avant-garde artists were hardly more than adolescents at the time they made their "breakthough" works, and had sexual and, more broadly, romantic problems -- problems relating to women, whom they regarded ambivalently as desirable monsters. They are clearly working through their problems in their art. Making original art was their solution to their otherwise unoriginal, all too human problems.)
Thus the movement we see in Futurist works is not simply abstract but anxious. The figures are moving away from us -- sometimes fleeing. They convey loss as well as manic energy. It is as though the Futurist will to dynamism is a defense against the sense of helplessness that comes with loss. There is even something sad about Futurist aggression -- it is a protest against abandonment. The fog in Russolo's The Solidity of Fog (1912) is a fog of sadness -- an emotional, not simply physical, atmosphere. Thus, the Futurists are Symbolists in 20th century disguise.
"The Farewells was constructed of flame-like lines in which embracing couples were wafted like Paolo and Francesca," writes Joshua C. Taylor, signaling the theme of love that subliminally informs the work, as it does Balla's The Staircase of Farewells. "In Those Who Stay, persistent depressing vertical lines engulfed the vague forms of figures slumping off into the distance. In contrast, Those Who Go was marked by the clacking rhythm of a moving train; glimpses of fleeting houses and anxious faces barely escaped the mad rush of diagonal lines."(29) It is as though Boccioni had illustrated the swerving path of the atoms -- the deviation from the vertical, in effect a loss of balance, caused by Venus -- that Lucretius described in De rerum natura. Those Who Go pictures a manic state of mind, Those Who Stay pictures a depressive state of mind, and both states are pictured in The Farewells, the depressive state to the left of the locomotive, the manic state to its right. But it is not simply lovelorn human beings who suffer from bipolar disorder -- matter itself is manic-depressive. It oscillates between depressing vertical lines, forming a harmonious electromagnetic field, and rushing diagonal lines, disrupting the field. Matter is at war with itself -- the war that Marinetti glorified in the first Futurist manifesto (1909).
In Those Who Stay, there are parallel lines -- a formation or regiment of forceful lines waiting for marching orders, as it were. The figures that appear through their curtain are intact. On the other hand, in Those Who Go, the lines are out of control. They have broken formation, and charge through the crowd of figures (in 1914 this became The Cavalry Charge) destroying them. Those Who Go is the image of a disintegrating field, Those Who Stay is the image of an integrated field. As the Futurist riot pictures indicate, the Futurists were as interested in the disintegration of the electromagnetic field of forces as they were in its integration.
Paradoxically, it is the machine that is responsible for both in the States of Mind series, suggesting that the Futurists were more ambivalent about it than they cared to admit in their manifestos. The locomotive is the center of attention in The Farewells. With its golden number and "red-hot belly," to use Marinetti's phrase, it symbolizes the triumph of modern technology. But it is also responsible for the emotional catastrophe the series pictures. And the physical catastrophe: Like so many Futurist machines -- Boccioni's bicycle, Carrà's cab and streetcar, the lamp in Ardengo Soffici's Displacement of the Planes of a Lamp (1912), the propeller in Mario Sironi's Composition with Propeller (1915) -- it seems to be simultaneously a magnet generating a field of forces and a disruptive element in the field. It at once composes and decomposes the field -- holds it together and tears it apart. That is, it is simultaneously originative and entropic -- a paradoxical machine that signals the Futurists' awareness of the contradictory character of matter in motion and the perverse character of modernity, which destroys in the very act of creating, fragments in the very act of proposing a new unity. It is the two-faced machine that is responsible for the ironical cohesiveness of the Futurist picture.
Boccioni's locomotive seems to move through a landscape, but it remains the unmoved mover of the deeply moving States of Mind. In The Farewells the locomotive is at the center of the stormy emotions it has aroused. It has stripped matter of its illusory stillness, revealing the storm of motion within it. It is also erotic -- more regressively erotic than the automobile was for Picabia and chess was for Duchamp. In the fantasy of Des Esseintes, Huysmans' decadent hero, the locomotive was a phallic woman. In Boccioni's fantasy, it is Priapus -- a symbol of phallic grandiosity. All the passion in the picture, symbolized by the lava-like red flow, seems to erupt from it, or else streams towards it. What we are witnessing is the eroticization of technology. This is more than a matter of projecting one's erotic fantasies onto the machine, which is what Picabia and Duchamp seem to do. It's a matter of experiencing the machine as inherently erotic, which is what Marinetti and Boccioni seem to do. The Futurists disclosed the erotic dynamic in modern movement -- the erotic dynamic that seemed to inform everything in modernity, even the still life, as Boccioni's sculpture of the Development of a Bottle in Space (1912) indicates. Boccioni's erotic bottle has a family resemblance to Duchamp's ironically erotic Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2 (also 1912) -- the moving figure has been understood to symbolize masturbation -- but the bottle's rhythmic movement is inherent rather than imposed.
The Futurists, then, are a kind of advance on Cubism, in that they bring modern technology into art. Their idea of the eros of movement and celebration of the machine -- emblems of the magnetism of modernity, as it were -- influenced Duchamp as well as Delaunay. In a sense, they were more modern than both -- more aware of the drama and complexity of the modern world, as Carrà's brilliant "Free Word" Painting (Patriotic Celebration) (1914) indicates. Word play -- as distinct from the appearance of words -- occurs in Picasso, but in Carrà's collage it has taken over the work. In Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning, Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass and The Scallop Shell: 'Notre Avenir est dans l'Air' (all 1912), "jou" is not only shorthand for "journal" but for "jouer," the French word for play and the slang term for sexual play. Thus "jou" may also refer to "jouet," a toy or laughing-stock, and "jouissance" or pleasure. (In other works, the suggestive "urnal" appears. One wonders if it inspired Duchamp's Fountain.) The word play is self-referential and ironical: The Cubist picture is playful -- an esthetic toy or artistic game -- as well as a laughing-stock from the point of view of conventional taste. Similarly, the French word for musical score is "partition," a reference to the divisions or partitions that proliferate in a Cubist picture. In Landscape with Posters (1912), the cube of Kub Bouillon -- the French product used the German word for cube -- is also self-referential. That same year, Louis Vauxcelles called Picasso "a kind of Pčre Ubu -- KUB," suggesting that he was as anarchic and destructive as Pčre Ubu and as alien and brutal as a German. As Wilhelm Uhde said, Picasso's art was "Gothic."
The tension between the forms in a Cubist picture is sexually suggestive: They are as incommensurate or "asymmetrical" as man and woman, but forced together -- literally glued together in the pasted paper works -- and made "symmetrical." They are incongruous yet harmonize, for all the friction between them. They form a tense intimacy: The Cubist picture wittily turns in on itself, in ironical self-praise. But in Carrà's work the forms explode outward in a centrifugal whirlwind, and language is as exciting as color. Indeed, the work is a colorful image of colorful language. Carrà's innovative word painting is much more free, abstract, conceptual and lively -- much more of a physical and intellectual process -- than Picasso's Cubist pictures. There are make-believe words -- composites of letters that imaginatively propose a word -- not simply suggestive fragments of familiar words. And the words are presented as speech in progress -- they have the freshness of spoken words -- rather than as a written text to be contemplated at esthetic leisure. The contrasts in Carrà's picture are more abrupt, and its dark core more pointedly aggressive than the murky, intimidating atmosphere of the Analytic Cubist portraits. It is a hymn to Italian aviation, as the words "Italia aviatore" -- implicitly the Futurists themselves -- in the center suggest, and violent death is in the air: We are being bombarded by language. The over-all effect is chaotic, however concentrically organized the picture.
But they are the concentric circles of modern hell, viewed from an airplane in rapid flight. Indeed, the picture moves like an airplane propeller (as though in anticipation of Duchamp's rotary discs). Severini's Flying Over Reims (ca. 1915) -- which brings to mind Gertrude Stein's remark that she finally understood Cubism when she saw the earth from an airplane -- makes the same aggressive point. But Carrà's picture is an urban landscape of signs rather than a rural landscape of houses and hills. It is a kind of riot picture -- words substitute for people -- as well as a target: Patriotic fervor has become combative. The picture, in fact, appeared in the avant-garde review Lacerba on Aug. 1, 1914, as though heralding the first world war, which broke out that month. The outcry of EVVIVAAA L'ESERCITO and EEVVIIIVAAA IL REEE ("Long live the Army" and "Long live the King") changes into the sound of terror and hysteria, as TRRRRRR and the redundant HU suggest.
Carrà's work is more performative than declarative, and in fact is not only a demonstration of what Marinetti called the "free words" of "the wireless imagination," which was an even more liberating, modernizing step than free verse, but of what he called Total Theater -- a theater of words not only instantly communicating but engulfing the audience. Wave after wave of words roll over us, with no end in sight. It is in fact the infinite stream of modern media and mass consciousness -- the same consciousness evident in the newspaper clippings that Picasso and Braque incorporated into their work, now forming a steady, relentless, confusing flow, indeed, an overflow of information and ideas. Their collages tried to master the flow by appropriating bits and pieces of it, but in Carrà's picture it has become uncontrollable. We no longer fish in the stream, but are swept along by its strong current, and finally drown in it, the victims of a journalistic Juggernaut. If the Cubist collage is an attempt to subsume collective consciousness in the individual consciousness of the artist, then Carrà's collage shows individual consciousness swamped by collective consciousness, represented by journalism.
Indeed, Carrà's work is a testimony to its power in the modern world. He pictures what Friedrich Nietzsche deplored: The big mental and social change that occurred when people began the day with a newspaper rather than a prayer. They were no longer concerned with the eternal, but the topical -- no longer oriented to the absolute, but to the contingent. Believing in a manufactured timeliness, they lost all sense of the timeless. The human figure has been replaced by manufactured words, suggesting the irrelevance of the individual in a world of mass communication -- the modern world of banner headlines and ever-changing news -- of more information that any individual can possibly digest. The information glut, and the conflicting variety of languages -- Carrà's turbulent work is a kind of tower of Babel -- was already evident. Words came to have a reality of their own, and evoked a reality that came to seem more abstract than real. Indeed, Carrà's words, displayed as though on a billboard or in an advertisement, form an abstractly expressive map of Italy, as fragmented and eccentric as Italy itself. (The dialectic of collective and individual consciousness is a recurrent feature of 20th century art, with the balance sometimes tilting in favor of the collective, as in Pop art, sometimes in favor of the individual, as in Surrealism.)
Taylor has compared Carrà's painting to a strident siren, and in fact, before the Dadaists, the Futurists were making dissonant sound works. Russolo's The Art of Noise, "one of the most significant of all Futurist manifestos" according to Michael Kirby,(30) appeared in 1913. "Russolo wanted all sound to be possible for music" -- this long before the neo-Dadaist composer John Cage -- rather than the "small part of [the] infinite field of sound. . . acceptable in Western culture as 'music'." Russolo had heard F. Balilla Pratella's Futurist music shortly before -- Kirby thinks his manifesto was inspired by it -- and carried it one step further in his own Futurist music, which used new musical instruments he called "intonarumori" or "noise-intoners." Wooden boxes with megaphones or funnel-shaped acoustical amplifiers, "they were 'played' by means of a protruding handle that moved in a slot on the top or side of the instrument." These music-making machines producing the "exploding, crackling, humming and rubbing" that Russolo celebrated in The Art of Noise. Russolo's two "noise spirals," The Awakening of a Great City and A Meeting of Motorcars and Aeroplanes, were played in London in 1914 by what the Times called "noisicians." The excited audience shouted "no more" after the first work, but stayed to hear the second. Russolo went on to develop new musical instruments, including his "psofarmoni," a keyboard that "foreshadow[s] John Cage's 'prepared piano'," as Kirby suggests. "Some of these new sounds imitate nature: wind, water, etc. Others the voices of animals: frogs, cicadas. . . ." These artificial natural sounds would no doubt have pleased Huysmans' Des Esseintes.
Futurist music may sound like a passing novelty, but it signals the new openness and freedom of 20th century art in general. This new open and free format, in which words from every kind of discourse seemed welcome, also appeared in typography -- Carrà's work is the most conspicuous example of it. Again before the Dadaists, who have been given credit for so much that the Futurists did, the Futurists splayed words across the page in an extravagant example of the shaped poem, only it was more everyday prose than obscure poem. Similarly, Carrà's work can be understood as an example of what Enrico Prampolini called "scenic dynamism, the essence of theatrical action."(32) It involves the "projection, refraction and diffusion" meant "to give spiritual life to the environment. . . while measuring time in scenic space" that became so important in Prampolini's later proposal for a Magnetic Theatre. In general, Carrà's "Free Word" Painting (Patriotic Celebration) epitomizes the Futurist obsession with kinetics, wherever it was to be found (which was everywhere). Carrà's work is also a crystal-clear demonstration of the Futurist idea of the work of art as an electromagnetic field -- a self-contained system of forces, however much they derive from the world beyond the work, and whether they are man-made or natural. For the Futurists, the Fireworks of Sacred Speed (to refer to the titles of non-objective performances by Balla and Prampolini) were the substance of art and life, which were commensurate -- however incommensurate they looked on the surface.
The influence of Picasso was enormous, as Paul Klee's Homage to Picasso (1914) makes clear. But it owes more to Delaunay's colorful, abstract Orphic Cubism than Picasso's somber, figural Cubism, as Klee himself realized. Picasso was beginning to look old-fashioned because he was not sufficiently abstract, however technically innovative and imaginative such sculptures as his various Guitar constructions of 1912-13 and Glass of Absinthe (1914) were. The former are made of sheet metal or cardboard, the latter is a painted bronze incorporating a silver-plated spoon -- a found object. It is in effect a three-dimensional collage, on the way to becoming what later came to be called an assemblage. Even such subtle sculptures as Constantin Brancusi's abstract portraits of Mademoiselle Pogany (1912-13) and Princess X (1915 and 1915-16) - Matisse's Jeanette V (1916) has a similar phallic head -- seemed like dated avant-garde work. For they remained, however equivocally, descriptive, figural, and "classical." When finally Brancusi produced his abstract, totemic Endless Column in 1918 -- its repeated rhomboid modules later influenced the Minimalism of Carl Andre -- it seemed like a non sequitur in his oeuvre.
Just as truly unequivocally abstract gestural art was developed by a Russian outside of Paris -- Kandinsky in Munich -- so truly unequivocal abstract geometrical art was developed by a Russian outside of Paris: Kazimir Malevich in Moscow. Malevich was influenced by French avant-garde art, which was exhibited in Moscow as early as 1907, but it is for his revolutionary Suprematism, as he called it, that he is famous. Like many young would-be advanced Russian artists (for example, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov), he rapidly assimilated Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Cubo-Futurism -- The Gardner (1911), The Woodcutter (1912-13), Life in the Grand Hotel (1913-14) and Aviator (1914) are examples -- but unlike them, he truly came into his own when he renounced representation to produce completely non-objective works. Octavio Paz regards Picasso as the "wisest" as well as the "most vital of modern artists" because he realized that "we cannot escape nature," only "disfigure it" and "destroy it," operations which are themselves "a new homage to nature." But Malevich showed that one could in artistic and emotional fact escape it. One could move beyond Picasso's sadistic crimes against nature, as Paz called them - Picasso's angry, futile struggle to escape it by violating it -- into a transcendental realm beyond it. Malevich made more than his fair share of works that emulated "the mutilations, the deformations, the furious stylizations that Picasso delights in," but he finally gave them up to make works of geometrical wholeness, symbolizing a new spiritual integrity in defiance of the modern secular world. Geometrical fragments are integrated in a dynamically equilibrated unity, as in the Suprematism: Painterly Realism of a Football Player, Color Masses of the Fourth Dimension (1915), or else geometrical gestalts take over the canvas, and even seem to merge with it, even as the gestalt finesses its flatness, as in Red Square: Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions and Black Square (both 1915) and the subtly white Suprematism (1918).
Malevich's Suprematism showed that it was possible to maintain the revolutionary momentum of avant-garde art at a time when Picasso began to turn away from Cubism -- without abandoning it, as its consolidation in the refinements of Synthetic Cubism indicates -- toward realism. In 1914, Picasso began an exquisite series of portraits in the manner of Ingres, virtually all of people important to his sense of self -- people who supported him, such as the dealer Ambroise Vollard and the poet Max Jacob (both depicted in 1915), as well as Apollinaire (depicted in 1916). This seemingly regressive turn to tradition and with it to stability and clarity after the excesses of instability and obscurity in Analytic Cubism was an attempt to avoid imitating himself. "To copy others is necessary, to copy oneself is pathetic," he said. But in fact he copied -- indeed, institutionalized -- himself in the Cubist costumes and stage sets he made for Parade, a 1917 production by the Russian Ballet of Serge Diaghilev (whom he also portrayed). The writer Jean Cocteau, the choreographer Léonide Massine, and the composer Erik Satie -- all avant-garde figures -- were also involved. A "parade" was a sideshow performed outside a theater to lure the public inside, but Parade was performed inside -- it was the main show. It signaled the institutionalization of the avant-garde: It became a public performance rather than a private reverie. Taken out of the studio and staged, it showed that avant-garde art could be as entertaining and popular as the movies or vaudeville -- as any mass entertainment.
But the 39 non-objective paintings that Malevich exhibited in December, 1915 in "O, 10 (Zero-Ten)," the second "Last Futurist Exhibition," were not at all entertaining or theatrical. Where the works he exhibited earlier that year in "Tramway V: First Futurist Exhibition" -- for example, An Englishman in Moscow and Lady at the Poster Column (both 1914) -- were standard avant-garde fare for the time; the later works were not only completely abstract but sacred icons in all but name. (Both exhibitions were held in Petrograd.) They represented a "new painterly realism," as Malevich called them -- his 1916 statement, "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, The New Painterly Realism" made it clear that they were the next avant-garde step into the future of art -- but they were also spiritual in import. The idea of a new spiritual or transcendental art was already implicit in the so-called "transrational" (zaum) texts of Victory over the Sun, the 1913 performance of the "First Futurist Opera," for which Malevich made Cubo-Futurist costumes and stage sets. (Like Futurist performance, it was a precursor of the more vulgar, socially and artistically subversive Dadaist performance.) Overthrowing "logic and philistine meaning and prejudice" in his 1913-14 Transrational Realist style, as he called it, he finally reached the high sacred ground of eternal geometry in 1914, freeing art, as he said, "from the burden of the object," that is, the representation of conventional reality. It was replaced by the representation of a higher reality -- a reality represented, as it was for Plato, by geometry, whose forms were liberated from the dross of ordinary temporal appearances, and seemed to be autonomous, self-sufficient objects -- absolute, as the sculptor Naum Gabo said, not just abstract.
Interestingly enough, as Malevich wrote in The Non-Objective World, a collection of essays published in 1927 by the Bauhaus, these forms are emblematic of feeling as such: Non-objective or pure forms symbolized non-objective or pure feelings. "Under Suprematism I understand the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art," Malevich wrote. "Hence, to the Suprematist, the appropriate means of representation is always the one which gives fullest possible expression to feeling as such and which ignores the familiar appearance of objects." We are back in Symbolist territory -- like Mallarmé, Malevich differentiates between everyday practical language and evocative artistic language -- but with a difference: Feelings are no longer evoked by objects, but transcend them. They are as autonomous as geometrical forms, and also seem to exist in a realm of their own. Suprematism is thus a new emotional fundamentalism as well as a new artistic fundamentalism. "The emotions which are kindled in the human being are stronger than the human being himself." "The true essence of art" is their expression, Malevich declared. Just as the emotions human beings experience are "stronger" than the person who experiences them -- the very essence of the person, independent of the person's environment, as Malevich suggested -- so geometrical forms are "stronger" and more essential than any environment in which they become evident. Like the Futurists, to whom he acknowledged a debt, Malevich was inspired "by the latest achievements of technology, and especially of aviation" -- a symbol of transcendence -- which is why he said "one could refer to Suprematism as 'aeronautical'" -- but he found a new way to represent the flight of the feelings, not only of the airplane.
Piet Mondrian's transition from representation to abstraction -- evident in the shift from his naturalistic to abstract landscapes and finally to such seemingly "free-standing" grid abstractions as Painting No. 1 (1914) -- seems more laborious and agonizing than Malevich's apparent sudden, high-spirited leap, but the transition was also spiritual in import, and Mondrian's geometrical works, like those of Malevich, are religious icons. Indeed, they are as abstract religious icons, even if non-figural -- although Malevich's square can be understood as a kind of figure, and Mondrian's grid can be understood as integrating figure and ground without completely merging them. Indeed, the tension between them is heightened by having the same plane function simultaneously as figure and ground. The transition was not just a matter of achieving a new "dynamic equilibrium" or a new "plastic expression" of "the new reality," but the fact that, like Malevich's "new painterly realism," it was a spiritual reality, and the issue was articulating it in as convincing and strong a way as possible.
In fact, the right angle that came to structure Mondrian's paintings can be understood as an abbreviated cross, and his grid can be understood as a series of interlocking crosses. The cross is embedded and hidden in Mondrian's grid, like the deus absconditas. The cross is even implicit in such works as Composition in Color A (1917) -- a ghostly presence evoked by the play of the verticals and horizontals. They form a kind of aura around the free-floating Suprematist squares -- perhaps symbols of resurrection, as their primary colors of red and blue suggest. (They are also the Virgin Mary's colors. Color in general is used to charge geometry with emotion -- make it expressive -- in both Malevich and Mondrian.) It is as though Mondrian broke the tragic cross into black dashes in the process of suggesting the more optimistic and transcendent Suprematist square. Neither Mondrian nor Malevich were capable of separating art and spirituality, abstract art being the only medium of spiritual experience for them, indeed, the only medium in which religiosity could authentically and articulately survive in the modern world. For them abstract art was a new spiritual realism -- a new religious art independent of religious institutions.
In fact, later in life (ca. 1938-40), Mondrian wrote of the need for a "new religion," all the more so because "the new Nazi and Soviet religion is oppressive, just like the old traditional religion,"(33) arguing that "the new religion is for those capable of abstraction." He drew an explicit parallel between the new religion and the new art: "The new religion without churches is the old religion free of all oppression. The new art is the old art free of all oppression." It is "Life's purest expression." "Faith in life. . . grows out of inner life and no longer comes to us from outside. It is what it was in the 'fond' [depth] of all religion," "the great inner power that strengthens us where reason cannot see." Faith in life, preserved in all its purity, is what Mondrian expressed in his new spiritual abstraction. Malevich's Suprematist square embodies the same faith in life -- the same fundamental feeling for life. Both Malevich and Mondrian worked through the vestiges of secular representation in Cubism and Futurism, finally purging them to create an ascetic new spiritual art. Indeed, as Malevich suggests, they turned art into a desert, which they entered like ascetics hoping for revelation. Again and again he describes the experience of being in "a 'desert' in which nothing can be perceived but feeling. . . nothing is real except feeling." It was in this state of mind that the revelation of a new art came, which it embodied. "Suprematism. . . will build up a new world -- the world of feeling." More particularly, it will show the "'true objectivity' [of] spiritual feeling." It was in the emotional desert that they converted from the old religion of representation to the new religion of abstraction -- purged themselves of the old art to crusade for the new art. But it was not simply a matter of art, it was a matter of emotional life and death. Only abstract forms made them feel psychically alive in a world they experienced as emotionally dead or, at best, mechanically alive.
Figuration was still alive and well, particularly in sculpture, whether in the conservative figures of Ernst Barlach and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, which gingerly used the new abstract planarity (simplifying it in the process), or in the resolutely avant-gardized figures of Aleksander Archipenko, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Lipchitz. The issue was whether to Cubo-Futurize or not -- more particularly, whether to signal the old emotional depth and suffering, as Lehmbruck's isolated, depressed Seated Youth (1917) does, or to leave all that behind and become optimistically and naively modern, which sometimes meant ingeniously superficial, as Archipenko's colorful, dancing Médrano II (1913) -- a Cubo-Futurist maenad -- suggests. But Lehmbruck's figure suggests the nether side of modern life, which remained visible in German Expressionism, and would become all the more conspicuously visible in the German art of the 1920s and later in the German Neo-Expressionism that emerged after the second world war.
Duchamp-Villon's Futuristically twisted The Horse (1914) seems to epitomize the tension between the two sides of modern life -- the ground for objective hope and optimism embodied in its technology, and the emotionally realistic despair that also permeates it, that is, sense of the devaluation of individual life that follows in the wake of its increasingly sophisticated machines, which bespeak the general mechanization and standardization of the modern world. The horse, clearly an old-fashioned, doomed means of transportation by 1914, is modernized into a dynamic machine, even as its spiraling form turns inward, as though reflecting on its unhappy fate -- its impending obsolescence. The more one looks at it, the more human it seems.
The issue comes to a head, and remains unresolved, in the fate of Jacob Epstein's The Rock Drill, made between 1913 and 1915, and changed in 1916, under the impact of the first world war. A perverse Cubo-Futurist mixture of the organic and mechanical, like Duchamp-Villon's horse -- all the more so because of the phallic, aggressive, American-made pneumatic drill that was initially part of Epstein's sculpture -- it was a daring avant-garde innovation for its time. As Richard Cork writes, "Epstein was almost alone in proposing that a machine could play a legitimate part in a work of art,"(34) although he was not so extreme as to call a machine a work of art, as Duchamp did. Epstein's work "seemed like a bold sculptural expression of the Vorticists' theoretical insistence on 'the point of maximum energy'," but he did not join the aggressive Vorticist group, although Wyndham Lewis, one of its leaders, praised the robot-like sculpture for its "dream-like strangeness." In the first issue of Blast (June 1914), Lewis declared that the Vorticists were "proud, andsome and predatory" -- like modern machines. In a way reminiscent of Marinetti, he celebrated the machine, and suggested that works of art were good only to the extent they were like it. No doubt Lewis found the qualities he admired in Epstein's ruthless, oddly heroic, even Promethean sculpture.
But in 1916 The Rock Drill changed -- it lost its drill and legs, and one arm, and became a crippled robot. Re-exhibited as Torso in Metal from "The Rock Drill", it looked "melancholy and defenceless," as Cork says. Plaster had changed to metal, but the figure remains "pitifully vulnerable" -- unexpectedly human. It is no longer an invincible, ruthless, predatory creature -- a kind of grotesque humanoid insect. It has been castrated, and turned into a hollow shell of its former belligerent self. Epstein has stripped the figure of its weapon, as it were, changing it from a strong to a weak figure. Also, brilliantly, he has a turned a whole figure into a fragment, suggesting that, however ominously masked, its spirit was broken. Torso in Metal from "The Rock Drill" was Epstein's "mortified response to the war." From being an "agent of construction," the machine became "the instrument of wholesale obliteration." The mechanical was used to destroy the organic -- human life -- and, implicitly, to replace it. In fact, The Rock Drill's machine seems ambiguously constructive and destructive. Construction of the new requires a good deal of destruction of the old. To be modern, it must be ruthlessly replaced. Epstein turned away from avant-garde art, "telling his New York patron John Quinn that 'you are inclined to overrate what you call advanced work; not all advanced work is good, some of it is damn bad'." That is, some of it is nihilistic, in both intention and form.
Risen Christ (1917-19) signaled Epstein's return to traditional figuration and spiritual themes, like the primitivist Sun God (1910) and the allegorical figure on The Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1909-12), both pre-war. Risen Christ negates all that Epstein accomplished in The Rock Drill, emotionally and technically. He restores the old religion of transcendental figuration, with its acknowledgement of the vicissitudes of life and its generally tragic sense of life. It replaces the new religion of avant-garde art, and, implicitly, of machine and spiritual abstraction, which now seem tarnished by history. Is it a regressive or progressive step? The tragedy of existence had returned by way of history, after a short-lived period of faith in technological progress and spiritual sublimation. But of course tragedy never left. This paradigm or oscillation, in which now technology and abstraction, now melancholy figuration seem important, were to be repeated again and again in twentieth century art.
With tragedy came the human body, in all its expressive fullness. It also had never left. Brancusi told Epstein that Michelangelo's figures had too much flesh on them -- but the body's flesh is the vehicle of its tragic vulnerability, and a symbol of human tragedy in general. "The human spirit, which is expressed by the esthetic-plastic, seeks a visual manifestation that is free of the tragic," Mondrian wrote. "When line is tensed to straightness. . . the tragic can be destroyed." It is as though straightness is transcendence and immortality for Mondrian. But the body's lines cannot be tensed to straightness without destroying it, or turning it into a machine -- which is the same as destroying it -- without waiting for it to show its mortality. Epstein's transformation of The Rock Drill is a parable of modern art. It attempts to transcend the body -- which is what abstraction is ultimately about -- and achieve a new spiritual and technological art. But the result can be a new nihilism. Thus, it has to deal with the tragedy of the body, and with it the predicament of human existence, whether it wants to or not, as Epstein realized.
Modern art never lost religion, which, as Daniel Bell says, "is not an ideology, or a regulative or integrative feature of society," but "a constitutive aspect of human experience because it is a response to the existential predicaments which are the ricorsi of human culture."(35) However, modern art found religion in unexpected esthetic places, sometimes despite itself.
Notes(24 ) The influence of Huysmans on Duchamp and Picabia cannot be overestimated. It was probably as great on the Futurists, suggesting that their art also had deep Symbolist roots. In an 1880 article Huysmans describes Degas dancers "in a mixture of animal and mechanical vocabulary," as Annette Kahn notes in J.K. Huysmans: Novelist, Poet and Art Critic (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987), p. 36. Huysmans describes the "clownlike dislocations" of their bodies, "whose hinges refuse to bend." This image-concept of the body probably influenced Duchamp's Cubo-Futurist Nude Descending A Staircase as well as Cubism in general. It can be understood as a deliberate dislocation of the body, whether of a figure, a landscape, or a still life. In Huysmans' A Rebours (Against the Grain) (1884), Miss Urania, one of des Esseintes' mistresses, is described as "an American girl. . . with muscles of steel and arms of iron." In an 1887 article, he describes Dutch women as "beautiful machines. . . equipped with steel biceps and iron hams." In Lá-Bas (Down Under) (1891) Huysmans' hero Des Hermies asserts: "The heart, which is supposed to be the noble part of man, has the same form as the penis, which is the so-called ignoble part of man. There's symbolism in that similarity, because every love which is of the heart soon extends to the organ resembling it. The moment the human imagination tries to create artificially animated beings, it involuntarily reproduces in them the movements of animal propagating. Look at machines, the action of pistons in cylinders: Romeos of steel and Juliets of cast iron. Human expression does not differ at all from the back-and-forth motion of our machines." (All quotations from Kahn, pp. 36-37.) The profound influence of Huysmans and other Symbolists suggests the literary basis of avant-garde visual art. It also suggests that there can never be such a thing as pure art, visual or literary. Indeed, Huysmans was inspired by Degas and Redon -- among many other visual artists, almost all his contemporaries, as his art criticism makes clear -- however much he interpreted them in his own inimitable creative way.
(25) Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Viking, 1977), p. 32. All subsequent quotations from Duchamp are from this source unless otherwise noted.
(26) Picabia's wife, quoted in Rubin, p. 27
(27) Quoted in W. P. D. Wightman, The Growth of Scientific Ideas (New Haven: Yale University, 1953), p. 307
(28) Ibid., p. 312
(29) Joshua C. Taylor, Futurism (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961), p. 48
(30) Michael Kirby, Futurist Performance (New York: Dutton, 1971), p. 33
(31) Quoted in Kirby, p. 86
(32) Octavio Paz, Alternating Current (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 28
(33) Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, eds., The New Art -- The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian (New York: Da Capo, 1993), pp. 318-19
(34) Richard Cork, Jacob Epstein (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 37
(35) Daniel Bell, The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys,1960-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1980), p. 347
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here