distortion: good from far but far from good

Distortion and fragmentation are the cliches, now almost generic that has come to dominate understanding of the modern figure at a mass level. Maybe it conveys the “creative destruction” of capitalism in its natural habitat? But, do any technical explanations of illogic, irrationality and the absurd to justice to and adequately explain the abnormal character of the figure; a disruption of the artistic senses, pushing the envelope closer to the edge of complete disintegration. Like an old record with a skipping needle, even the redundancy was strange indeed….

Donald Kuspit: The figures that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque painted at the height of Analytic Cubism (1910-11) seem completely disintegrated, and as such only nominally figures. Indeed, they have a mosaic quality, being a patchwork of tessera-like gestures, each an expressive end in itself. They look like fragments of a shattered whole, as though Picasso and Braque were archaeologists who had pieced together shards of some murky ancient figures they dug up from the depths within themselves, even if the peculiarly archetypal result seems incomplete, indeed, a kind of chaotic construction of fragments that does not quite add up to a harmonious figural whole, however memorable. The conventional art historical explanation of them as rendering the figure simultaneously in two and three dimensions — as both flat and rounded — misses the motive for this simultaneity. When, later, Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror (1932) splits her face in two, with each side clearly suggesting a different emotional state — her profile is pale mauve, the rest of the face bright yellow, with a splotch of red marking the cheek — he is surely doing more than showing his cleverness.

---First amongst these was his confrontation with Cézanne’s great achievement at the posthumous retrospective mounted in Paris a year after the artist’s death in 1907. The retrospective exhibition forced the young Picasso, Matisse and many other artists to contend with the implications of Cézanne’s art. Matisse's Bonheur de Vivre of 1906 was one of the first of many attempts to do so, and the newly completed work was quickly purchased by Leo & Gertrude Stein and hung in their living room so that all of their circle of avant-garde writers and artists could see and praise it. And praise it they did. Here was the promise of Cézanne fulfilled—and one which incorporated lessons learned from Seurat and Van Gogh, no less! This was just too much for the young Spaniard.--- Read More:http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/les-demoiselles-davignon

My point is that the innovations of modern art, for which it is justly famous, cannot be explained exclusively on formal grounds. Indeed, their formal appearance is a consequence of deeper issues. “ModernStarts” goes far in changing our ideas about what started in modern art, but not far enough. Let me make my point by examining in detail Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), perhaps the most famous, sensational work of art produced in the first decade of the 20th century. Indeed, it has been called the first truly 20th-century painting. Picasso’s painting was so avant-garde — so unpredictable, unprecedented — that it made the avant-garde art that preceded it seem quaint, indeed, obsolete. Paradoxically, Picasso was almost excommunicated from the avant-garde for painting it. Henri Matisse initially thought it was a hoax or joke, ridiculing modern art. No doubt he felt threatened by it. Georges Braque, who had just met Picasso, and who was soon to develop Cubism with him — Picasso remarked that they were tied together like two mountaineers or a married couple — said to him that he “wanted to make us eat tow or drink kerosene.” In other words, Les Demoiselles was in bad taste, even to those ready and eager to accept anything avant-garde.

---Matisse. Amy Martin:The Joy of Life has taken an inanimate form in the vibrant sensuality of the painting. In this pastoral paradisiacal scene, the good in life is boiled down to lounging nudes, nudes frolicking through nature, and nudes who are content to play their instruments in the sun. Yet, to describe the painting just for its actions does it no justice. What first grabs you are the colors, unjustly reproduced in every reproduction- no slide, postcard, or print can effectively convey the life of the colors. Sherbet oranges, pale frothy sea foam green, a nude skin of pinkish lilac, the crispest red, fresh Kelly green, summer sun and sand yellow- they "set my soul vibrating". Each reaches to the viewer, moving the eye into the pictorial plane- inviting me to the paradise behind the frame. Emanating with energy, in a psychedelic dream the colors meld together, bringing cohesion and coherence to the isolated figures pasted in this paradise. Read More:http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/courses/beauty/web3/amartin.html

And that is part of its point: the disavowal of what had hitherto been regarded as good taste, as though that is what art is ultimately about. The undermining, overthrowal and dismissal of the whole idea of tasteful art is central to its message. Its lack of taste — its contradiction and refusal of taste, as though to deny that the value of a work of art resides only in its tastefulness, that only the consensus of taste, which is a social measure, makes it significant — is what makes the Les Demoiselles revolutionary. In a sense, it is truly avant-garde because it refuses to be pleasing, because it disaffliates itself from the usual measure of artistic success — to give pleasure, or to represent pleasure in a pleasurable way, the way, for example, Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) (1905-06) does. A somewhat more tempting, very different grouping of naked young women, it was painted only a short time before, but suddenly seemed passé, both in its attitude and forms. It was the anti-sociality — it was much deeper than a matter of being “tasteless” — of Les Demoiselles that Picasso’s colleagues intuitively recognized and found offensive. And that anti-sociality was rooted in the expression of painful feelings. Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/kuspit1-10-06.asp

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