Over fifty years ago, in the March/April 1967 issue of New Left Review, the late John Berger’s sixty-year commemoration appeared of a seminal artistic change which he dubbed ‘The Moment of Cubism.’ Many of us would be relatively familiar with the way Berger re-contextualised our understanding of artistic practices and ideals. He traces how Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso can be seen responding, between 1907 and 1914 in Paris, not merely to other artists and techniques, notably though not exclusively the late Paul Cézanne, but also to technological developments impacting upon European cities: the invention of radio and cinema, the development of motorised land and especially aerial transport, the skyward erection of steel and aluminium constructions, the accelerating use of synthetic materials and pharmaceuticals, electricity and explosives.
Such a convergence at a time of globalised competition and warfare amongst nation-states co-incided with a marked re-conceptualisation of time and space accompanied by a revaluation of human knowledge and understanding of as well as human responses and relationships to the world at large. This was the territory Berger influentially sketched for subsequent scholars of the arts.
In the context of a Double Dialogues experiment inviting Ekphrastic practice that took place in New York, this essay examines some significant ways in which the Parisian avant-garde painters in the half-decade before 1914 can be considered a rupture, a break, and why. More particularly, we shall illustrate our enquiry by way of some MoMA examples of works associated with the overlapping Futurist and Cubist movements. However, our concern is not to chronicle lists of creative works and deeds and artistic networks and allusions: this has been amply if not exhaustively covered by scores of art historians, curators, and biographers. Rather, let us probe contrasting ways these artworks have actually been encountered or interpreted by artists and spectators, asking ourselves what conception of rupture or breakage is being presumed or rejected.
Notice, in querying ‘what conception,’ we are of course opening ourselves to a welter of highly nuanced ways we have of talking about breaking. So, before proceeding, perhaps we should ask ourselves, What half-dozen synonymous expressions come immediately to our minds when thinking of the act or process of breaking something? It quickly becomes apparent that the sheer semantic traction of ‘break’ shows itself as we highlight its synonyms across a range of categories, for example:
* to discontinue, to disrupt, to pause (in the case of activities)
* to exceed, to overcome, to surpass (challenges)
* to deprecate, to infringe, to subvert (conventions)
* to shatter, to smash, to split (physical objects)
* to fragment, to dissolve, to annul (relationships)
* to detach, to excoriate, to lacerate (surfaces).
However, there is more to breaking or rupturing than its applicability to so many categories. The act or process of breaking also implicates at least a six-fold multiplicity of factors:
someone or something
was/is/will be/will have been
could be/might be/must be/should be/would be
someone or something
by/when/whilst doing something
according to someone or something
In short, the act or process of breaking is both deeply contextual and, often implicitly, evaluative to the point where breaking in one respect need not necessarily signify breaking in another respect. Alternatively expressed, it is possible to construe an action, an event, a process as simultaneously continuous and discontinuous. That said, the question of ‘Why do things break?’ appears to add another layer of complexity. Is the question of ‘why’ here inviting an explanation of causation of the kind associated with the physical sciences? Or is the question inviting an explanation of significance of the kind associated with the human sciences? Or are both in play?
Now, returning to Futurist and Cubist artworks, let us begin with the initial Futurists whose manifestos preceded their artworks before touching upon the initial Cubists whose artworks preceded their theories. Thereafter, we shall conclude with the way this contrast between artistic practice and its theoretical interpretation can alter approaches to artistic breaking.
The Futurists generally claimed to be rejecting the past, although their attitude towards the previous artistic practices, as recently summarised by Rosalind McKever (2016), often vacillated in a stream of paradoxical proclamations, twisting facts to suit their relentless pursuit of publicity. Inspired by the wealthy, bi-lingual poet, Filippo Marinetti, the Futurists quickly made their mark, led by one whose brutish, domineering, provocative personality knew no limits to self-promotion. Notoriety was immediately assured with the publication of Marinetti’s novel Marfaka le Futuriste in 1909. Its violent protagonist endowed with an eleven-meter penis and its explicit depiction of his rape of a Negress resulted in three trials for obscenity welcomed by the author.
For his ‘foundation’ Futurist manifesto, Marinetti purchased the front page of a leading Paris newspaper, Le Figaro, in February 1909, the first of dozens of rapidly and widely disseminated leaflets. In it, he extols the new urban world of machinery, speed, and warfare (‘the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals’; ‘bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts’; ‘deep-chested locomotives’; ‘sleek flight of planes’; and ‘war—the world’s only hygiene’ (1909b: 148)). He upheld the violent demolition of everything and everyone associated with the past (‘set fire to the library shelves…flood the museums… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!’ (1909b: 149)). For him, the new art of the Futurists ‘can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice’ (1909b: 149). Indeed, ‘No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece’ because Futurists are ‘fed with fire, hatred, and speed’ (1909b: 148 & 149). However, as John Golding (1986) succinctly notes, such incendiary, intoxicating manifestos
were not written to support or explain existing attitudes or bodies of work, rather they were blueprints for experiments and experiences that were still to come.
Umberto Boccioni with four artistic colleagues were the first of the Futurists to attempt to apply Marinetti’s clarion call to artistic practice in their ‘technical’ manifesto which first appeared in April 1910. In it, they declared that form and colour as previously understood must grapple with gesture, no longer as ‘a fixed moment,’ but ‘dynamic sensation itself’ (1910: 27). Only then can perception be captured on canvas in a world where everything is ‘rapidly changing’ (1910: 27). The task of the painter is to depict how ‘moving objects constantly multiply themselves,’ objects whose ‘form changes like rapid vibrations’ (1910: 28), as later exemplified by Giacomo Balla and Boccioni himself.
What we need to understand is that ‘All is conventional in art. Nothing is absolute in painting’ (1910: 28). Space, as conceived in discrete terms, no longer exists. Instead, figurative painting can only be rendered through ‘the whole of its surrounding atmosphere’ since creative acts have ‘doubled’ the ‘power of our sight’ and are ‘capable of giving results analogous to those of the X-rays’ (1910: 28). Furthermore, objects and figures were traditionally ‘placed before us,’ but now the spectator is to be ‘in the centre of the painting’ (1910: 28). Even before reaching this manifesto’s nine declarations—ranging from despising all forms of imitation and glorifying all forms of originality to expunging previous subjects in favour of ‘our whirling life of steel…of fever…of speed’ (1910: 30)—it is clear that we have entered a different terrain.
Within two years, Boccioni and colleagues elaborated upon their initial manifesto of ‘revolutionary art,’ emphasizing that they were ‘absolutely opposed’ to Cubists such as Picasso and Braque who still supposedly adhered to ‘motionless, frozen…static’ subject-matter (1912: 46). Indeed, given their ‘points of view pertaining essentially to the future,’ the Futurists saw themselves as seeking a ‘style of motion’ never previously attempted with the goal of ‘determin[ing] completely new laws’ of painting in which ‘painting’ and ‘sensation’ are ‘inseparable’ (1912: 46). That said, Boccioni declares the ‘intoxicating aim of our art’ is ‘simultaneousness of states of mind in the work of art’ (1912: 47). How is that to be achieved? Through ‘the dislocation and dismemberment of objects, the scattering and fusion of details,’ thereby rendering ‘dynamic sensation’ or ‘the particular rhythm of each object, its inclination, its movement…its interior force’ (1912: 47).
These ‘tendencies of its forces’ are ‘revealed by its lines,’ the ‘decomposition’ of which is
not governed by fixed laws but…varies according to the characteristic personality of the object and the emotions of the onlooker (1912: 48).
To that extent, the onlooker, who engages a pictorial ‘synthesis of what one remembers and of what one sees’ (1912: 47), ‘participate[s] in the action’ where
force-lines must encircle and involve the spectator so that he will…be forced to struggle himself with the persons [or objects] in the picture (1912: 48).
Within this self-declared new conception of the paintings of Boccioni and his colleagues, he believes their
spots, lines, zones of colour which do not correspond to any reality…musically prepare and enhance the emotion of the spectator. We thus create…by intuition the sympathies and the links between the exterior (concrete) scene and the interior (abstract) emotion (1912: 49-50).
At least two issues arise from these outpourings: the first is its loose adaption of notions influentially associated with the then highly popular philosopher Henri Bergson and the second is its unwitting adoption of the actual practice of Cubist painting, particularly by Picasso, at this time. In the first place, despite the sheer diversity of interests and approaches by those advocating Cubist and Futurist artworks, they tend, as Mark Roskill partly demonstrated, to ‘rest their central argument on dichotomies, in which the negative aspects, representing what is being denied or rejected,’ largely dominate. (1985: 29). Roskill detects several commonalties, including:
* the opposition to ‘the semblance of truth’ as represented by ‘the ‘exterior
appearance of objects’’;
* the treatment of spatiality supposedly explicable by reference to ‘theorems of ‘the
* compositions ‘seen as reflecting the changed conditions of modern experience’
such as ‘the coming of the automobile and airplane and their effect on consciousness’
captured by the term ‘dynamism’;
* the configuration of ‘turning form(s)’ and the ‘opposition of planes’ under the
concept of ‘duration’ which resulted in the portrayal of objects from multiple, non-
hierarchical points of view, or as a ‘fusion of objects’; and
* the appeal to the concept of ‘simultaneity’ which in effect combines those of ‘dynamism’ and ‘duration’ (1985: 29-32).
Even a brief consideration of how Bergson begins to define our consciousness by differentiating it in terms of time and space reveals how fertile his thinking was for theoretically inclined Futurist practitioners such as Boccioni and his Cubist counterparts, Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. Take, for instance, the last-mentioned notion of duration. What Bergson claims we are immediately conscious of is duration (la durée) in which ‘several conscious states are organized into a whole’ and which ‘permeate one another’ (1889: 110 & 122). This is not a ‘quantitative’ process characteristic of intellectual analysis. There, by contrast, we enumerate states of consciousness in an act of categorizing or externalising one state distinct from another and represent them by a succession of linguistic or mathematical symbols. Yet, in a grief-stricken mood for a dead infant, for example, we might experience various transitions from denial to anger, anger to depression, and so forth. Here, not unlike orange blurring into red and yellow within the colours of a rainbow, these states are continuous with one another. They need not successively negate each other; rather, they inter-penetrate each other.
Psychologically speaking, because no two moments are ever identical to our consciousness (despite avowals of déjà vu experiences), duration according to Bergson (cf. 1889: 198) involves not only a heterogenous unfolding but also a conserving of the past. Alternatively expressed, although memory recollects the past, it implies that what we experience is difference, not sameness. Why? Because as each moment occurs it is added to all previous ones. It is as if the present moment prolongs past moments, as if past feelings permeate present feelings. Within duration, as Lawlor & Moulard-Leonard (2016) add, our sense of unfolding motion is accordingly prior to what we classify as moving in that what moves is an abstraction from movement. Moreover, since our consciousness vis-à-vis duration is not an act of externalising, it functions as one of internalising—’immediate intuition’ as Bergson (1889: 114) calls it—which comprises acts of entering into a phenomenon rather than approaching it from its spatially manifested outward characteristics.
Without pursuing Bergson further, it already seems that he provides a network of contentions Boccioni and fellow practitioners such as Carlo Carrà and Gino Severini have raided centred upon duration with its connexions to multiplicity, memory, intuition, internalisation, and so forth. However, is the same true of Braque and Picasso? Hardly, as neither artist actually explained Cubism before the 1914-1918 war. Even the 1912 monograph, Du ‘Cubisme’ by Gleizes and Metzinger suggests it is less a theory of Cubist practice and more one of art in general and the role of the artist. After contesting the belief that an ‘object possesses an absolute form, an essential form,’ they insist that it has as many ‘forms’ or ‘images’ as there are ‘eyes to contemplate it’ and ‘minds to understand it’ (1912: 13). Indeed, they contend, because for ‘most people the external world is amorphous,’ then to ‘discern a form is to verify it by a pre-existing idea’ (1912: 6), often to the point of habituated, unselfconscious expectations. However, discerning forms ‘without external assistance’ can only be undertaken by ‘an artist’ (1912: 6). Consequently,
the crowd long remains the slave of the painted image, and persists in seeing the world only through the adopted sign. That is why any new form seems monstrous, and why the most slavish imitations are admired (1912: 6).
Furthermore, it is only the artist, by dint of his or her ‘taste’ and ‘sensitivity’ both of which are ‘tributary to the will,’ who imposes new ways of seeing ‘in order to move, to dominate, to direct, and not in order to be understood’ (1912: 16 & 18). The question of whether this willed, creative role of the artist conveyed by Gleizes and Metzinger is, as John Nash (1980) has long argued, redolent of the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche or, as Mark Antliff (1988: 347-348) counter-argues, of Bergson shifts us from continuities and discontinuities in artistic practice to those in the history of ideas.
If, to return to how artists such as Picasso and Braque manifest new ways of seeing, then is there not a case for asserting that they, in effect, provided the Futurists new ways of seeing? Notwithstanding stylistic differences, Futurist techniques were already employed by Cubist artworks—multi-planar, multi-perspectival, non-narrativised, and flattened if not two-dimensional configurations of objects and/or bodies. Cubists exemplified before their Futurist counterparts the removal of horizons, the removal of light sources, the removal of mimetic coloration, and later the incorporation of objet trouvé collage elements.
To that extent, they embody what Alfred Barr, founding director of MoMA, depicted as ‘a period or a generation…obsessed by a particular problem’ (1936: 381).
Five years after the 1914-1918 war, Picasso was interviewed by Marius de Zayas, the first to exhibit him in the ‘States. In it, Picasso rejects any intellectual attempt to analyse Cubist work, emphasizing that, when painting, the goal is ‘to show what I have found and not what I am looking for’ (1923: 215). Indeed, he continues, ‘intentions are not sufficient’: ‘What one does is what counts and not what one had the intention of doing’ (1923: 215). He explicitly acknowledges that the sciences, be they mathematical or psycho-analytical, ‘have been related to Cubism to give it an easier interpretation,’ yet all they have succeeded in doing is to produce ‘pure literature, not to say nonsense…blinding people with theories’ (1923: 217). Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than by literary theorist, Georges Polti, whose 1912 attempt to prove the presence of a fifty-five-year cycle ruling major historical and cultural events leads him to conclude at the time of writing:
…it is no longer a question for an epoch or even for the phenomena of life being reduced to algebraic propositions of a realism, of a naturalism, but better of a ‘Mathematism.’ Of something like a literary ‘Cubism’ (1912: 22).
Much of Picasso’s response in this interview deals with questions of truth, nature, and evolution in relation to art generally and Cubism particularly. Let us conclude by noting his remarks as they bear upon rupture or breaking. Re-casting an age-old adage, he firstly states: ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand’ (1923: 215). However, if artists become obsessed with scholastic, metaphysical pedantry, they can become ‘poisoned’ by efforts ‘to paint the invisible and, therefore, the unpaintable’ (1923: 216). Secondly, those who appeal to ‘naturalism in opposition to modern painting’ have conflated the distinction between nature and art, pithily adding that it is through art ‘we express our conception of what nature is not’ (1923: 216). Then, combining his approach to truth and to nature, Picasso asserts:
from the point of view of art there are no concrete or abstract forms, but only forms which are more or less convincing lies. …those lies are necessary to our mental selves…as it is through them that we form our aesthetic point of view of life and, in that respect, Cubism is no different from any other school of painting. The same principles and the same elements are common to all (1923: 216).
Thirdly, regarding how his painting evolved, Picasso quickly corrects a possible misapprehension: ‘Art does not evolve by itself, the ideas of people change and with them their mode of expression’ (1923: 216). Nor should ‘evolution’ be confused with ‘variation.’ If artists vary their mode of expression, then all that has changed is their ‘manner of thinking’ and that does not imply ‘an evolution, or…steps toward an unknown ideal of painting’ (1923: 216). For Picasso himself, he declares that he does not conduct ‘trials’ or experiments’ (1923: 217). Where the subject-matter of his painting motivates ‘different methods of expression,’ that in itself ‘does not imply either evolution or progress’ or that ‘Cubism is an art of transition’ (1923: 217). What it does imply in the here-and-now is ‘an adaptation of an idea one wants to express and the means to express that idea’ (p. 217).
So, where does Picasso stand here with respect to the ruptures or breaks attributed to Futurist and Cubist painting? Would he accept latter-day declarations such as that by Christopher Green that Le Bordel philosophique (alias Les Demoiselles) has the ‘status…as a painting that marks a dramatic break from the past’ (2001: 2)? He certainly avoided the kinds of proclamations voiced by Boccioni, notably, the quest for a totally new form of painting based upon totally new principles of composition and inviting a totally new role for the spectator. By contrast, Picasso emphasizes changes and continuities in the service of exploring artistic ideas. If we look again at Les Demoiselles, notice the contrasts between the three figures on the left and the two on the right. As photographer Valeriu Campan (2017) remarked, Picasso had no need to write a manifesto: he painted it. Ultimately, Boccioni speaks as a theorist and interpreter of past and future art; Picasso, as a practitioner rooted in the immediacy of the present.
Antliff, R.M. (1988), ‘Bergson and Cubism: A Reassessment,’ Art Journal, vol. 47, no. 4 (Winter), pp. 341-349
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Berger, John (1967), ‘The Moment of Cubism,’ in Tom Overton (ed.), Landscapes: John Berger on Art (London: Verso, 2016), pp. 113-140
Bergson, H.L. (1889), Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F.L. Pogson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1910)
Umberto Boccioni (& colleagues) (1910), ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’ (10th April), trans. R.R. Meyer-Sée [?], in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (ed.), Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 150-152
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Campan, Valeriu (2017), Private Conversation, New York (22nd April)
Gleizes, Albert & Metzinger, Jean (1912), Du ‘Cubisme’ (Paris: Eugène Figuière) [= in part ‘Cubism (1912),’ trans. R.L. Herbert,’ in R.L. Herbert (ed.), Modern Artists on Art, 2nd edn. (New York: Dover Publications, 2000), pp. 2-16]
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Green, Christopher (2001), ‘An Introduction to ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’,’ in Christopher Green (ed.), Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1-14
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