Friday, July 6, 2007

100 Years of Cubism

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

© 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The original painting is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This image was copied from Wikipedia.

Pablo Picasso finished painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon one hundred years ago this month. Les Demoiselles is the tipping point between old and new art. There have been some tipping points since, but none as important.

This post is a celebration of that moment.

It is the summer of 1907. Picasso and his contemporaries realize the photographer with camera is just as good at depicting reality as the painter. With the development of the moving picture camera, the output of the photographer in many ways outperforms anything the traditional artist can produce.

What can you as an artist of the day do to retaliate, to rebuff the onslaught of photography and cinema? Impressionism and post-impressionism are already decades old. To any young artist educated in any art school of the time it is clear that the oil painting of the day is heading into the backwaters of life. Current life (in 1907) is about cars, airplanes, radio and technology. Current life is about jazz, cinema, magazines, radio and revolution. As an average oil painter dabbing dots on canvas, your chances of swaying the collective intellectual consciousness of High Art are diminishing rapidly.

New techniques do not help. Every chemical, from eggs to oil, every dabbing tool from badger brush to palette knife has been tried. New subjects do not help. Depictions of rich and poor, beautiful or ugly religious or sacrilegious all exist and won't stop the onslaught.

What is needed is something new, something only artists can do, something that will shock and awe the intellectuals.

And Picasso does it. He invents a new way of seeing. A new way of processing visual data.

It's timeless. It's this second and that second and this era and that era all at the same time.

It's ubiquitous. It's this viewpoint and that viewpoint and and that location and this location all in the same place.

It's multi-valued. It's a reference to this and a reference to that and this dogma and that dogma all in the same story.

Now you just try and do that with your fancy little piece of machinery, Mr Photographer!

Thus Pablo Picasso in a single work (painting plus studies) virtually saves the Western tradition of oil painting as high art. Imagining hight art without Picasso is like imagining the American Revolution without Washington or modern physics without Einstein. One can do it, but it's not easy.

Are you OK on Picasso's singular achievement? If not there will be more another day. For the moment let's go back to the future which, for the moment, is today.

The world of art must surely be approaching another momentous tipping point. New works are increasingly derivative. The Internet is producing work that traditional oils painters can't do. The artists are getting left behind.

On hundred years ago, Picasso with help from Braque, Duchamp and others put forward a new way seeing the called Cubism. Something like this is going to happen again.

I submit to you that in the next few years the world will again lurch forward with a jump. My guess is that it will have something to do with interaction, with technologies we are playing with on the Internet and with the environmental and social issues of the day.

Maybe a future Les Demoiselles will look back at you differently depending on whether you are male or female, black or white, rich or poor, old or young...

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