Art, abstract

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M001-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

3. Schematizing abstraction

The schematic rendering of figures, appearances and space of an appropriate sort, carried to the required degree, allows seemingly endless variations, for which no systematic classification has yet been devised. The following are the usual rough categories.

Analytic cubism and near relatives. Analytic cubism geometricizes contours, evacuates or etherealizes solids, and expunges much other detail. On the ampliative side, it repeats edges at different eye-levels, imports fragmentary contours from quite different points of view, and fractures objects and regions of empty space into overlapping facets or shards, as if an eccentric crystalline structure were being revealed. Since many of the interpolations and displacements are depictively cryptic or altogether nonfunctional, the perceptible nature of the motif tends to be obscured or confused. In classic cases (for example, Picasso’s Portrait of Kahnweiler, 1911) the central motif (a man dressed in a neat wool suit over a ribbed shirt, embellished by necktie and watch chain, with his hands folded, and a bottle on a table to his right, light coming in from his left, and so on) emerges from a farrago of translucent angular clutter. Carried to an extreme the process renders the motif unidentifiable. The appeal of this sort of abstraction has been explained in terms of its power to present a fuller representation of the subject by combining views and revealing hidden volumes. But if such was the intention, it can hardly be claimed to have succeeded. Viewers would obtain far more information about the exterior and interior form of Kahnweiler, say, from a conventional representation than from Picasso’s cubist rendering. (The same is true of Picasso’s first cubist sculpture, Head of a Woman, 1909.) Furthermore, no commentary to date has succeeded in connecting even a majority of the forms in this painting to specific parts of its subject. This is not surprising, since the aim when more fully spelled out proves doubtfully coherent. For a portrait subject to retain its unity the images of disparate parts would have to be better connected than is consistent with representing the parts from different angles. A more credible rationale is that the fracturing captures more faithfully than any traditional mode of representation could, the intricacy, instability or illusoriness of perception, or alternatively the inner vitality of the subject. But even that explanation seems less than adequate to the strange allure of the painting, which is among the remarkably few works by an acknowledged master of this mode that is capable of arousing more than wary respect. That its inventors passed beyond analytic cubism almost as soon as they had brought it to a well-wrought condition only deepens the enigma it poses.

Stroboscopically schematized representations of objects in motion appeared in parallel with analytic cubism though with no camaraderie between the two sets of artists. Duchamp’s famous nudes descending a staircase were scorned by the cubists. With more reason they distanced themselves from the explosive paintings of the Italian Futurists, for instance those of Carrà and Boccioni. The Italians celebrated political revolution and even industrial and urban noise, for which most French cubists had little sympathy; also their earlier artistic affinities were more with neo-Impressionist styles than with Cézanne and the Fauves. Emphasis on motion made their paintings on average more legible (less ‘intellectual’) than classic French analytical cubism.

Enthusiasm for motion also inspired the Russian avant-garde helping to propel Malevich toward suprematism, discussed in §4 below; and an etherealized motion figures in various ‘orphic’ works by Delaunay. On the pan-European stage Italian futurist painting outlasted analytic cubism by only a short margin. By 1916 its top rank was reduced by death (Boccioni) or diversion into other modes, notably in the case of Carrà, who was swept into Di Chirico’s more classically representational ‘metaphysical’ art. In Italy itself futurist sympathy with rising fascism led to a long continuance of the mode. A very few futurist sculptures had more lasting influence on European art due to the power of a few idiosyncratic examples. Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) is the chief case in point, and its success resulted in large part from its retaining more classical echoes than is strictly consistent with the futurist programme (Golding 1985).

Synthetic cubism and related modes. Synthetic cubism revises the schematizing process in two directions. Aspects that are curtailed further include atmosphere and depth. Compositions are dominated by template-like forms, often closely stacked, drastically limiting recession, and with it, atmosphere. Media motifs, printed materials and other inherently flat elements are deployed to similar effect, whether painted or affixed as collage elements to the surface. In the early years suggestions of ambient lighting and perceptual process, typical of analytic cubism, are also generally reduced or entirely banished. (Gris is an exception here.) All this, together with the evident arbitrariness of many of the forms, creates the impression of the composition having been built up (synthesized) from invented components rather than derived by analytic decomposition of a natural motif. Contrarily, descriptive content is in certain respects enhanced compared with the norm in analytic cubism. Some forms signify sizeable sections of recognizable objects (a guitar, a table, for instance). This increased legibility made synthetic cubism far more adaptable to the purposes of painting, as is indicated by its long-lasting vitality in the work of major painters, Picasso, Braque, Gris, the Purists and many others. It succeeded, as analytic cubism did not, in becoming common modernist currency. Variations upon it are found in the work of rising American stars in the 1940s, e.g. de Kooning, as in Painting, 1948.

Synthetic cubist figures may be invested with an uncanny presence, as they are in Picasso’s Three Musicians, 1921 (the Museum of Modern Art version). Having assumed some of the properties of the flattened planes of which they are composed, yet being represented in full view without any optical interference, the figures have become enigmatic new realities inhabiting an equally unnatural space. This contrasts with the effect in analytic cubism of normal objects in a placid setting seen through one or more radically fractured lenses. Scaled down forms of synthetic cubism are also far more capable than is any form of analytic cubism of radiant sensuality, as in Picasso’s The Dream, 1932. This work shows how selective and sly a cubist interleaving of aspects can be in the cause of preserving a strong sense of their belonging to a single, undeformed body. Braque’s masterly later work gives an equally impressive demonstration of how amenable the synthetic cubist idiom can be to enchanting colouristic and lighting effects.

Sculpture easily accommodated the synthetic cubist commitment to flat panels in shallow space (Picasso, Guitar, 1912) as well as to what may be considered analogous in a robustly three-dimensional medium, namely simplified, rounded forms intersecting at odd angles (Duchamp-Villon, Large Horse, 1914). Lipschitz’s Sailor with Guitar, 1914, reduces cubist displacements to the point where they leave the subject eminently legible, if slightly robotic looking. Countless particular sculptural forms, including Picasso’s wire sculptures of 1930, have a looser connection with the central cases in this category.

Other schematic modes. Another of the many currents of schematic abstraction closer to synthetic than to analytic cubism is generally described as lyrical or expressionist, good examples of which are found in various works of Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger and others. Objects and space are dematerialized by blurred and calligraphically naive transforms of the cubist schemata just cited, or by airy, prismatic planes, and by a dispersal of emphasis over the entire picture plane. Colour is typically dramatic or evocative. A radically different mode is found in Dada collage where a profusion of pictorial elements is arranged in a huge jumble. The effect is to fracture space in a quasi-cubist manner (as in Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919). In sculpture striking examples of lyrical schematic abstraction with no fracturing of planes whatever are provided by Brancusi and many others. Idiosyncratic, surrealist-inflected varieties are also abundant, as in the work of Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore.

Citing this article:
Brown, John H.. Schematizing abstraction. Art, abstract, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M001-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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