Picasso and Modernism
Central to the tenets of modern painting was the ideal of art as somehow 'timeless'; the modernist painting was to transcend the social environment of its production by virtue of its formal characteristics, which were said to be of 'universal' value. Theorists of art criticized the nineteenth century's preoccupation with the material at the expense of the spiritual, and earlier artistic movements were scorned as lacking the vital 'emotional' element. Thus art that accentuates actual content as well as the social is seen as less 'pure' than art in which the formal elements are stressed and the content is downplayed. The ideals of modernism are visible in the paintings of Picasso, who was perhaps the most famous modern painter; however, the tension between form and content is not simplistic or one-sided. Significantly, Picasso's paintings were never completely abstract; they always contained references, however obscure, to the material world. Additionally, while Picasso's works were often concerned with the 'universal' and Cubism helped to make abstract art possible, elements of social interest were incorporated into many of his works, further complicating his status as a 'modernist'. Thus, while Picasso's paintings contain 'modernist' formal elements, they can not truly be considered as 'pure' art in the modernist sense.
Many modernist artists and art historians conceived of a notion of modern art as concerning form rather than the representation of a material subject. The art of predecessors such as the Impressionists, considered overly concerned with representation and thus devoid of spiritual elements, was posited against the ideal of modern abstract painting.
"The idea of abstraction as a process tends to involve a kind of essentialism... [it] tended to entail the belief that a purer, or higher, or deeper, or more universal form of reality is revealed through the paring away of the incidental or 'inessential' aspects of things... The pursuit of abstract art was thus associated by many of its early practitioners and advocates as a kind of 'seeing through'; with the idea that the artist is one who penetrates the veil of material existence in order to reveal an essential and underlying spiritual reality" (Harrison 198).
The dialectic between 'spiritual' abstract painting and the 'materialist' representational painting of the Western tradition remained crucial to the construction of an ideal of what modernist painting should be.
While this definition of 'pure' or 'true' art did not exclude representative art, a painting's underlying abstract qualities were emphasized as defining it's status as art. According to the aesthetic hypothesis put forth by Clive Bell, the 'essential quality of art' is the emotion it is able to convey; for him, technically proficient illustrations which lack that element cannot be properly considered as art. "They may move us in a hundred different ways, but they do not move us aesthetically. According to my hypothesis they are not works of art. They leave untouched the aesthetic emotions because it is not their forms but the ideas or information suggested or conveyed by their forms that affect us" (Bell 114). The aesthetic standard is also distinct from any social or moral criteria;
"In [Tolstoy's] examples of morally desirable and therefore [by his criterion] good art, he has to admit that these are to be found, for the most part, among works of inferior quality. Here, then, is at once a tacit admission that another standard than morality is applicable. We must therefore give up the attempt to judge the work of art by its reaction on life, and consider it as an expression of emotions regarded as ends in themselves. And this brings us back to the idea we had already arrived at, of art as the expression of the imaginative life" (Fry 83).
The incorporation of current social or moral interests, while possible in some art, tends to undermine the "disinterested quality of contemplation" (Fry 83) that is a necessary part of art. Social or political concerns, being fleeting, would also tend to put the supposedly 'universal' nature of the artwork into conflict. Thus there remains a tension between form and content or representation in the judgement of 'true' art.
The paintings of Picasso illustrate the issues of form and content in modernist art. In many ways, they represent a necessary step towards abstraction and a heightening of the tendencies of modernist art. Picasso's cubist art in particular represented a hitherto unheard of level of abstraction. Following the cue of Cézanne, Picasso and Braque created in 'analytical' Cubism a style of painting in which the objective representation of a subject was broken down and and formalized. ""The basic intention of Braque and Picasso in creating Cubism was not merely to present as much essential information as possible about figures and objects but to recreate visual reality as completely as possible in a self-sufficing non-imitative art form" (Hilton 109). Significantly, the compositions themselves often took on oval forms because of the "internalized armature" (Hilton 111) which was employed by Picasso and Braque. Such an inner order could be seen as strongly indicative of the idea that Cubism was a 'pure' art in which formal considerations dictated what the painting would eventually look like. Likewise, 'synthetic' Cubism laid emphasis on the forms of the paintings themselves; the incorporation of collage made it impossible for a viewer to understand such paintings mainly in terms of their subjects and forcing them to view their forms in a 'disinterested' manner.
Picasso's paintings could also be seen as largely neutral in terms of social or political dimensions. The subjects of his earliest paintings are removed from a specific social mileu to "a loftier, timeless scale" (Hilton 29). The circus performers, impoverished beggars and prostitutes, and Parisian night life figures do not demonstrate a sense of contemporariness; rather, Picasso paints them as symbolic 'types'. Paintings such as The Two Brothers create a world in which the subjects
"are now so much stripped of their civilized resonances that we seem not just to be in an Adamic or prelapsarian world, but to be the witnesses of something more primitive still... Picasso's imagination has caught something of a world quite unimaginably old, before history... He has arrived at a metaphor for that chimerical obsession of modern art, the tabula rasa" (Hilton 73).
The still lifes of the Cubist period seem ostensibly removed from social criticism as well. These subjects, removed from an immediate social reality, could thereby allow for disinterested contemplation as well as make claims to a modernist 'universality'.
However, Picasso's art could also be problematic within the modernist ideal. Harrison considers Picasso's work as abstract only in a weak sense, as he painted nothing that was purely compositional; "According to the stricter criteria... Picasso could not be said to have made a single abstract painting during his long working life" (Harrison 185). He was thus still limited in his expression by having to maintain some degree, however small, of visual fidelity. Paintings executed in more realistic 'neoclassical' styles also tend to undermine his status as a modernist painter. "This was seen by some as a sheer betrayal of all that the new art had fought for" (Hilton 131). Thus Picasso could be seen as standing in an uneasy relationship with modernism, particularly after his Cubist period.
Additionally, his subject matter would not always be socially or politically neutral. While seemingly innocuous, the cubist still lifes could often contain hidden social criticisms. The scraps of newspaper in compositions such as Guitare, feuille de musique et verre could be seen as chosen not simply for formal reasons, but also to criticize bring attention to the events that were being covered in the paper. These paintings can "be literally read... Picasso cut pieces from the front page and page two, all with reference to the Balkan War" (Frascina 92). The inclusion of such articles would serve to make the works more involved with the ephemeral social and political realms, as such articles would be read or recognized differently by people living in different periods. Picasso's monumental painting Guernica presents similar problems. While it can be read simply as a symbol of the terror of war, it was painted in response to a particular event and original versions the painting even contained a Communist salute. "It is merely perverse to deny a social aspect to the painting, though we need to correct the way that it has long been over-interpreted as a major political statement" (Hilton 242). Such paintings are difficult to classify as 'pure' art in the modernist sense, as they are of political import and cannot be viewed without regard to contemporary politics.
While Picasso fits within the modernist ideal in many ways, his art also comes into contention with it. Many of his paintings must necessarily be looked at with reference to the content rather than purely the form, flouting the purely aesthetic ideal of the modernists. Thus, Picasso's status as a modernist is not an obvious one; it is necessary to realize the ways his art does not follow modernism as well as the ways in which it does.
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