Last year I visited the modern art gallery in Lille on my way back to England. It has a couple of rooms set aside for cubism, presenting the usual story of progression from Cezanne to Picasso and Braque and then their influence on other artists of the time.
When I first started making sculpture my tutor said to me that he thought that cubism was a cul-de-sac and not an advisable one to go down. I didn't quite see it in that way, I felt that Picasso and Braque, realising the ties with representational art were loosening, had set about trying to build a new visual language for the future. They thought that art needed a new language, or at least some way of putting together the visual elements in a painting or sculpture that did not involve the representation of a human figure or landscape. They never got as far as abandoning representation totally and at first their work became a subject for ridicule by the established art world.
I'm not saying that that's how you see it
I'm not saying that that's how I see it '
I tell you that that's how it is
You bring me that?
A cube model to serve you, since now you're 'cubist'
Here, I had no idea that it was done like that ...
Their attempts to keep some figurative or representational element in their painting led to major difficulties, especially when sculptors attempted to follow suit and sculpt the human figure in terms of flat planes, cubes and cylinders. There is a fundamental difference here between sculpture and painting, as painting deals with illusion, it uses visual tricks to give it three dimensionality; sculpture however is real, what you see is what you get. Many sculptors and painters of this time took what Picasso and Braque were doing too literally or copied it without understanding what was being attempted. This resulted in a great deal of painting and sculpture in the cubist style much of which seems lacking and dated these days.
I don't feel he ever really got what cubism was all about.
|'The Mud Bath' 1914 by David Bomberg |
An English artist, one of the few who really did grasp what cubism was about.
|A cubist sculpture by Jaques Lipchitz and a painting by Picasso|
|Malevich's Black Square painted in 1915|
Such was his genius and powerful influence that for a long time every painter had to come to terms with what he was doing. It was not until the 60’s that the American Abstract Expressionists and then Pollock managed to firmly establish that painting could exist as a thing in its own right without reference to anything external to itself.
What I have written so far is a cause and effect linear story, of the sort that an art historian might write and I feel uneasy because I know in reality that things are not so linear and or so simple. I like to entertain the thought that maybe there is nothing that is new. Perhaps it has all been done somewhere, sometime in the past in some culture or other. Individual artists struggle with the visual language that they inherit and some are great enough to have lasting influence on future artists. Perhaps that's all you can say.
|Cover of Frank Stella's book Working Space|
|Caravaggio's Matyrdom of Saint Peter, has great sculptural properties|
|Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio|
The skill with which this is painted gives the feeling that the figures are coming out of the picture plane, The space of the painting is 3 dimensional and defined by the figures and not the canvas edges.
|No one handles 3 dimensional form with colour as well as Stella does.|
I have always avoided using colour in sculpture as usually it works against the sculptural form by delineating one plane from another and destroys the feeling of solidity. While there have been others attempting this no one comes near to achieving what Stella has achieved. He doesn't make painted sculpture but sculpted painting.
If you look closely at these two paintings you can easily start to see connections. For example, the cylinder on the right of the Stella does the same job as the the upper arm of the front figure in the Caravaggio in bringing the space out towards the viewer. The disc does the same, the many lines converging on the right hand of the figure with the wound are echoed by the cones on the left of the Stella and so on.
I realise that these could all be coincidences but the Stella print was done over the exact same period 1982-1984 that he wrote about his love of Caravaggio's painting. It gives much food for thought and does seem to reinforce Stella's argument that the work of Caravaggio has plenty of relevance for todays painters..
On my last two visits to London I have been lucky enough to come across exhibitions of Stella’s work, Work which has excited me far more than almost anything I have seen in years.