Cubism started as an inquiry into the meaning of life.
"Habits of perception and assumptions about the nature of things that had been stable since the 17th century were falling away. ... In science, mathematics and philosophy, the laws of a clockwork universe established by Sir Isaac Newton in the Baroque age were giving way before the first world war to extraordinary notions - that time and space are one, that light waves curve, that no two observers ever see exactly the same thing. ... Mathematicians, philosophers and physicists at the beginning of the 20th century were recognising that many absolute truths were convenient caricatures of a universe that might be far stranger, far further from common sense than anyone thought. Western painting had its own scientific assumptions, established in the Renaissance. Picasso and Braque unmasked these as conventions. The concepts of absolute gravity and time that gave way to relative ones in the early 20th century had been established by Newton in the 1600s. The doctrine of single-point perspective, whose inadequacies Braque and Picasso exposed, had been asserted by Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi two centuries before.
The perspective system invented in Florence in the 15th century was a shorthand for the way things looked, a brilliantly usable fiction of the appearance of the world. Our sense impressions are complicated, chaotic data that the brain has to make sense of. Seeing in pictures appears to be necessary in our lives. Alberti and Brunelleschi showed how those pictures can be made consistent and logical by fixing a distant point towards which objects recede - what's further away looks smaller than what's near. The inventors did not make their intellectual revolution against this centuries-old system in a cool, considered mood, but with turbulence and fury. There was a violence in their assault on perspective".
For Picasso, (at least in his major works) color remains a dominant factor so he continues in the path of the innovators of the precedent generation. But he leaps over realism and the rules of drawing associated to it, as such he follows in the footsteps of Gauguin but he will eventually go well further. He is indeed making intellectual efforts at understand reality and in his quest he will be immensely influenced by his friend the mathematician Maurice Princet and the French thinker Henri Poincaré.
Picasso was a curious man. He quested science about the 4th dimension but simultaneously he was attracted by primitive arts. This shows clearly in 'Les demoiselles d'Avignon' where his lines are strongly influenced by primitivism. As the pictures attest, his evolution is towards more abstraction with few curves and mostly straight lines and angles. If his journey started as an inquiry into sense, into understanding the new paradigms of the scientists of his time, form finally prevails over content. And if Picasso rejected realism, he only succeded to create one non realist form of painting about reality.
Not far from a century later, Picasso's lines have clearly been interiorized by our Western society at large and his influence is apparent in contemporary architecture and design for exemple.
By the turn of the 20th century, the speed of changes was accelerating under the impact of trains, cars, electricity,... and futurists painters had in mind to express that speed visually.
"Our growing need of truth is no longer satisfied with Form and Color as they have been understood hitherto. 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. ... Thus a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular.
All is conventional in art. Nothing is absolute in painting. What was truth for the painters of yesterday is but falsehood today."
Formalist was how Cubism was perceived in many circles. Kandinsky has one of the most elaborate and compelling critiques. He saw Cubism as being stuck in one form and this form then displacing content at the margins of the artwork. Breton's critique was along the same lines.
At the outcome of the 1st world war, the changes in the scientific paradigm and the changes, induced by the introduction of new techniques on people's daily lifes, are central determinants to the artists' quest for changes in art.
As reaction to the limitations of Cubism through its formalism, artists' will now place content at the forefront of their preoccupations. To summarize the situation, I would say that artists are concerned primordially by:
- the rejection of realism, as a way to copy reality as it is perceived.
the rejection of reality itself.
- the urge to strip art of all routines and former accepted ways.
The surrealist movement will focus on those topics and attract to its debates all thinking artists. It is thus evident that it will be fragmented, not that it will create chapels in competition with one another, but rather sub-groups acting as if specializing in particular aspects. As such it would be better to speak about a mouvance than about a mouvement. Andre Breton is clearly the intellectual light of the mouvance, giving it its central tenets: content, interiority and automatism.
It is difficult to miss Andre Breton's central role in theorizing the rejection of realism and reality in the 20th century. Nothing better than a dialog with the artists themselves could give us access to the substance of what drove their thinking and their art. (Citations from Herschel B Chipp. Theories of modern art. University of California Press)
LAODAN: Mr. Breton, until you, I mean you and your close associates, the princip of the immediately visible reality had been the accepted subject of all artists. For sure, one can always find a quote by someone further down in the past that goes against this, but essentially it is a fact that your theorizing will unleash the greatest flourishing of trials at novelty in artistic creation in our world's history. Could you define for us the steps that your thinking followed?
BRETON: Well thank you for your comments on my contribution to modern art.
" .. let's not forget that in this epoch, it is reality itself that is in question.
... The plastic work of art in order to respond to the undisputed necessity of thoroughly revising all real values, will either refer to a purely interior model or cease to exist.
It remains to us to determine what is meant by the term 'interior model', and at this point it becomes a question of tackling the great problem raised in recent years by the attitude of those few men who have truly rediscovered a reason to paint, ..., I mean a truly insolent grace, which has enabled the mind, on finding itself withdrawn from all ideals, to begin to occupy itself with its own life, in which the attained and the desired no longer mutually exclude one another and thereupon to attempt to submit to a permanent and most rigorous censorship whatever has constrained it heretofore. After their appearance, the idea of what is forbidden and what is allowed adopted its present elasticity, to such a point that the words family, fatherland, society, for instance, seem to us now to be so many macabre jests. ... We have desperately to pursue in their footsteps, animated by the feverish desire for conquest, total conquest, that will never leave us; so that our eyes, our precious eyes, have to reflect that which, while not existing, is yet as intense as that which does exist, and which has once more to consist of visual images, fully compensating us for what we have left behind."
LAODAN: French intellectuals have the art to complicate things sometimes. For the sake of clarity and also because those words are the starting point of your thinking, I propose to summarize your words in a more understandable form.
Reality itself is in question. To survive, plastic arts have to refer to an 'interior model'. That means finding the freedom to look freely at what moves us deeply and this out of all ideologies. Having said that, we still don't know what we'll find.
BRETON: "Shall we ever know what awaits us at the end of this agonizing journey? All that matters is that the exploration be continued, and that the objective rallying signs tale place without any possibility of equivocation and follow one another uninterrupedly"
LAODAN: What we search for is unknown but what matters is that we persevere in our search. The act of painting is the result of a kind of psychiatric analysis that is conducted one painting after another without the artist really understanding his results.
BRETON: "In the depth of our minds harbor strange forces capable of increasing those on the surface, or of successfully contending with them, then it is all in our interest to canalyse them first in order to submit them later, if necessary, to the control of the reason. ... I believe in the future transmution of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak.
... Rene Crevel expressed himself in very much the same way in 'L'esprit contre la raison': 'The poet does not put the wild animals to sleep in order to play the tamer, but, the cages wide open, the keys thrown to the winds, he journeys forth, a traveler who thinks not of himself, but of the voyage, of dream-beaches, forests of hands, soul-endowed animals, all undeniable surreality".
LAODAN: The subconscient is participating in the build-up of our being. Our interest is thus to canalyse our subconscient in order to understand it later on, eventually through reason. Breton believes that subconscient (dream) and conscient (real) will fuse into a superior perception that will see the absolute reality.
There are two steps in this scheme:
- canalysing the subconscient in order to understand it. The tool to canalyse it is given by a psychiatric method, through automatic action: automatic speaking, writing, painting,... Breton recognizes the intellectual contribution of Freud in making this possible.
- reaching the absolute reality through understanding the workings of our subconscient. Breton thought that this would be made possible by suppressing the distinction between subjective and objective.
BRETON: "Preoccupied as I still was at that time with Freud, and familiar with his methods of investigation, which I had practiced occasionally upon the sick during the war, I resolved to obtain from myself what one seeks to obtain from patients, namely a monologue poured out as rapidly as possible, over which the subject's critical faculty has no control -the subject himself throwing reticence to the winds- and which so much as possible represents 'spoken thought'. It seemed and still seems to me that the speed of thought is no greater than that of words, and hence does not exceed the flow of either tongue or pen.
... I began to cover sheets of paper with writing, feeling a praiseworthy contempt for whatever the literary result might be. Ease of achievement brought about the rest.
... To you who may be writing them, these elements are, in appearance, as strange as to anyone else, and you are yourself naturally distrustful of them. Poetically speaking, they are distinguished chiefly by a very high degree of immediate absurdity, the peculiar quality of that absurdity being, on close examination, their yielding to whatever is most admissible and legitimate in the world: divulgation of a given number of facts and properties on the whole not less objectionable than the others.
The word surrealism having thereupon become descriptive of the generalizable undertaking to which we had devoted ourselves, I thought it indispensable, in 1924, to define this word once and for all:
SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought's dictation in the absence of all control exerciced by the reason and outside all aesthetic and moral preoccupations".
LAODAN: Automatic speach is what the psychiatrist asks from his patients in order to understand what's going on deep inside the subconscient of those patients. You propose automatic writing or painting in order to access the subconscient. The result you conclude is not less objectionable than conscient writing or painting.
It is evident that automatic painting (or for that matter whatever other action) gives a real painting. This auto-psychiatric analysis is conducted one painting after another but the artist never really understands what he reaches as result. I guess that here lies the principal handicap of your approach. The artist canalyses his subconscient but does not understand it. Let's remember that your final stated goal is to understand the workings of one's subconscient in order to see the absolute reality. The artist being unable to understand his automatic production is incapable of seeing the absolute reality and thus automaticism fails as a systematic approach.
This does not mean that automaticism is dead. It will indeed be used, as a method, by various artists who will then try to canalize it towards their own visions.
BRETON: "The abandonment to verbal or graphic impulses and the resort to paranoiac-critical activity are not the only ones, and one may say that, during the last four years of surrealist activity, the many others that have made their appearance allow us to affirm that the automatism from which we started and to which we have unceasingly returned does in fact constitute the CROSSROADS where these various paths meet".
LAODAN: Yes there is indeed something as a crosspoint where most artists pass who engage in non-figurative, non-realist work. This point where the roads cross is some form or another of automaticism. But whe should be clear, the great majority of artists do not stop at this crossroad, they only pass through to go their own destinations. It seems to me that stopping at this crosspoint only leaves you stuck in irrationality and to be honest I do not see the interest to be stuck in irrationality.
MASSON: I totally subscribe to your view. "For us, young surrealists of 1924, the great prostitute was reason.
... Whatever it may have been, a few of us were in fear of the “other fault': of making of the appeal to the unconscious something as limited as the discredited rationalism, but all to no good. Towards 1930, five years after the foundation of surrealism, a formidable disaster appeared in its midst: the demagogy of the irrational. ... The conquest of the irrational for the irrational is a poor conquest, and the imagination is indeed sad which only associates those elements worn by dismal reason...
Thus in its turn, surrealism shut itself into a duality incomparably more dangerous than Cubism:
(a) by liberating the psychic menagerie, or, at any rate, making a pretence of this liberation in order to use it as a theme;
(b) by expressing itself by the methods left over by the academics of the preceding century.
Should one conform to this new academism? Of course not".
LAODAN: Let's be clear, when we condemn irrationality it does not mean that we automatically subscribe to its opposite, rationality. I hope, Mr. Masson, that we agree on this point. What we look for is indeed trying to make sense out of the fog that surrounds us. Thinkers, and artists are first and foremost thinkers, are concerned by finding sense in oneselves and in our environment that goes as far as the limits of our cosmos. Finding sense has nothing to do with irrationality that's a sure fact, but rationality can also be a trap in the fact that it most often refers to a generally accepted vision. A visual picture is what it is, a picture representing our understanding and our understanding depends largely upon our knowledge. I'am suggesting here that artists and thinkers liberate knowledge through images that touch the viewer.
MASSON: "... it is vital for the imaginative artist, who is only able to compose his work with elements which are already existing within reality, to keep his eyes open on the exterior world and not to see things in their perceived generality, but in their revealed individuality. There is a whole world in a drop of water trembling on the edge of a leaf, but it is only there when the artist and the poet have the gift of seeing it in its immediacy. However, to avoid making any mistakes, this revelation or inspired knowledge, and this contact with nature are only profound is so far as they have been prepared by the thought and by the intense consideration of the artist. This is the only way in which sensitive revelation can enrich knowledge. The tendancy to allow oneself to be swamped by things, the ego being no more than a vase which they fill, really only represents a very low degree of knowledge. In the same way a casual appeal to subterranean powers, the superficial identification with the cosmos, false 'primitivism' are only aspects of an easy pantheism.
Let us repeat the major conditions which the conpemporary work of the imagination must fulfill in order to last. We have seen that automatism (the investigation of the powers of the subconcious), dreams, and the associations of images only provide the materials. In the same way Nature and the elements provide the subjects. The real power of an imaginative work will derive from the three following conditions: (1) the intensity of the preliminary thought; (2) the freshness of the vision on the exterior world; (3) the necessity of knowing the pictorial means most suitable for the art of this time. It is also important not to forget that the saying of Delacroix “une oeuvre figurative doit etre surtout une fete pour les yeus” remains true".
LAODAN: I think that we speak about the same thing, the primordiality of the content of an art work above its form. In a sense, we both agree with Kandinsky when he says: “As a matter of principle it has no significance at all whether a real or abstract form is used by the artist”. We also agree that knowledge, of ourselves and of our environment or to say it otherwise of nature, is the base from which the content of an art work is derived. Without knowledge there can only be accumulation of elements leading to the representation of superficial subjects. And for the subjects to reach their viewers with a maximum intensity, their form has to be contemporary. Here again we rejoin Kandinsky and his theory of the evolution of form.
We spoke much about theory here but what about the practicallity in the act of painting. We agreed with Andre Breton that most artists, working out of realistic copy, in some way or another passed through the crosspoint of automatism on their way towards their own vision. Could someone describe his own painting road and own automatism plays in the final vision of the composition?
MIRO: "What really counts is to strip the soul naked. Painting or poetry is made as we make love; a total embrace, prudence thrown to the wind, nothing held back.
For me painting is never form for form's sake.
... At the time I was painting 'The farm', my first year in Paris, I had Gargallo's studio. Masson was in the studio next door. Masson was always a great reader and full of ideas. Among his friends were practically all the young poets of the day. Through Masson I met them. Through them I heard poetry discussed. The poets Masson introduced me to interested me more than the painters I had met in Paris. I was carried away by the new ideas they brought...
As a result of this reading I began gradually to work away from the realism I had practiced up to the farm, until, in 1925, I was drawing almost entirely from hallucinations. ... Hunger was a great source of these hallucinations. ...
... Little by little I turned from dependance on hallucinations to forms suggested by physical elements, but still quite apart from realism.
... And in the various paintings I have done since my return from Palma to Barcelona there have always been these three stages
first, the suggestion, usually from the materials
second, the conscious organization of these forms
third, the compositional enrichment.
... The first stage is free, unconscious; but after that the picture is controlled throughout, in keeping with that desire for disciplined work I have felt from the beginning".
Fortunes have been disbursed, for works of contemporary art in the 20th century, that appeared totally incomprehensible to their buyers. The critiques of Masson against the normalization of irrationality that took place in the name of surrealism were prescient but I doubt that Masson himself could have imagined the level of danger that was involved.
In this process, prostitute art marketeers succeeded in convincing some buyers that pieces of garbage were pieces of art. Art marketeers succeeded this extraordinary feet at giving to absolutely irrational and hermetic works the staus of art. They imposed their so called art specialist knowledge and in the process they gained the control over wide financial speculative movements. The acceptance by society at large during the second part of the 20th century and largely today of such art that is irrational and hermetic to normal comprehension led to the worse. That's how I can associate myself with Roger Kimball's fundamental rejection of art critics' productions in his piece "The rape of the masters" without nevertheless in any way following him in his ideological conclusions. I dwell in detail on this further down this book.