The Fractured Whole


At the turn of the twentieth century, Europe entered a new age, characterised by rapid progress being made in areas of science, industry, philosophy and psychology. In the wake of this progress, the modernist movement emerged in art and literature, embracing the impetus of change and rejecting traditional modes in order to capture the experience and energy of the new. The different movements that emerged within modernist art reveal the tensions for and against the changes occurring in the rapidly modernising world. Where primitivism hearkens to an idealised and “uncontaminated” (Kirschenbaum 1972, pg. 168) past, Futurism embraced the rise of technology and industrialisation. The rise of the avant-garde within Modernist art furthered the inextricable link between art and political criticism, and where it depicted the energy of the new, it also described the changing and tumultuous political situations that accompanied the expanded world. By following the evolution of key movements that emerged within the Modernist art scene – primitivism, cubism, futurism and suprematism – this essay will explore the ways in which Modernism rejects the traditions laid down by classical art.

As the European world view expanded, artists were exposed to other cultures and art forms. In particular, art forms from exotic and primitive countries like Africa and Tahiti were adopted, evoking a nostalgia for an “imagined pre-cultural state uncontaminated by the ills of civilisation,” (Kirschenbaum 1972, pg. 1972) in stark opposition to the rapidity of progress in modern Europe. Primitivism and its subsequent influence on the Cubist movement rejects traditional art forms that idealised true representations, in favour of an instinct and spontaneity that produced a more naturalised, raw and expressive image (Herbert 1997, pg. 1274) The form is characterised by the fragmentation and abstraction of a naturalised image, with an aim towards directness, immediacy and economy of means (Kirschenbaum 1972, pg. 169). 

The influence of African art and primitivism, which was key to the formation of Cubism, demonstrates a rejection of tradition as artists were exposed to new influences and cultures outside of Europe, leaving the notion of the traditional form behind. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles dAvignon (1907) is placed at the forefront of the Cubist movement, and demonstrates an engagement with the expanding world.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907

The figures are stylised, foreign looking, and range in representation from Egyptian, to the two Iberian women in the centre, to the African women on the right, caricatured by faces that don tribal masks (Chave 1994, pg. 606). Born in southern Spain, Picasso’s Demoiselles evoke a connection to the artist’s homeland, that bordered Northern Africa, producing a sense of “looking back” that is characteristic of primitivism. The flatness of the figures upon the canvas conveys Cubism’s awareness of the two dimensionality of the canvas. Where Renaissance art invites viewers to peer through a window, creating the illusion of three-dimensionality, the Cubist art rejects classical tradition by maintaining an awareness of the two-dimensional canvas, and reconstructs images in order to present the view of an object from varying sides within the constraints of a flat surface. Les Demoiselles marks a “disintegration of the great traditions of painting”(Chave 1994, pg. 600) in its departure from the idealised form of the female nude by depicting its figures with disparate, angular physiognomy. Due to the raw, disjuncture of Picasso’s imagery, critics speculated that the work was incomplete and better suited to the studio than public display (pg. 600).

The primitivism of Picasso’s figures also creates another connection: a metaphor between the European fear of the “other” and the increasing anxiety towards female sexuality, as urbanisation afforded women a greater freedom of movement. With greater visibility came concerns about female sexual continence, and the inability to distinguish decent women from indecent (Chave 1994, pg. 600). Les Demoiselles prompts Chave (1994) to ask the question, “Does pleasure, for masculine sexuality, consist in anything other than the appropriation of nature, in the desire to make it (re)produce, and in exchanges of its/ these products with other members of society?” (pg. 600). While this question responds to the economisation of female sexuality in an increasingly urbanised world it could also be extrapolated to include a larger criticism of the effects of the new century. With the prostitute embodying the new plague on social order, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles becomes a fitting symbol for the “paradigm of all modern art,”(Chave 1994, pg. 600).

Pablo Picasso, Guernica 1937

In 1937, Picasso produced what is widely regarded as his greatest artwork. Over the course of six weeks, the artist completed Guernica in response to the horrific massacre of the people of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (Attia 2011, pg. 1561). Picasso’s reaction to the massacre demonstrates the alliance of the avant-garde art movement to political radicalism, as he graphically realises the devastation of the massacre upon its civilian victims (Attia 2011, pg. 1561)The fractured abstraction that characterises the Cubist movement is used to nightmarish effect to depict the incomprehensible chaos of war. By depicting the painting in black and white, the viewer’s perception is distorted, unable to discern whether or not the drama is unfolding during the day or night, and amid the confusion of rubble and stricken bodies a lightbulb glows at the top of the painting, making it unclear whether the scene of carnage is outside or inside a ruined building (Guill 2014, pg. 16). The composition of the painting distorts perspective, confusing planes of reference to add to the effect of the chaos of the massacre (pg. 17). The two-dimensionality of the painting freezes its subjects in a state of disabling fear (pg. 27), evoking a sense in the viewer that there is no place of safety to be found in the aftermath of war. Guernica provides an example of the modernist art movement’s commitment to engaging with the contemporary, whether that be embracing progress or criticising political instability. 

In contrast to the Cubists, whose foundations were inspired by the primitive and a nostalgia for the past, Futurism emerged in Russia in 1912, and was characterised by a rejection of the immediate past and the creation of the new (Compton 1981, pg. 343). Adapted from the ideas of French Cubism, Russian Futurism sought a “conscious equivalent of reality rather than a truthful likeness,” (Compton 1981, pg. 345). Kazimer Malevich is notable as a forefather of Futurism in Russia, and his painting, The Knifegrinder, Principle of Glittering (1912-13) inhabits an intersection between the old and the new. Malevich uses machinery as his subject, using the old machine of the knife-grinder to symbolise his “modernist principle of glittering,” (Herbert 1997, pg. 1280). The Knifegrinder draws upon the fragmentation effects of Cubism, using the multiplication of the knife-grinder’s limbs to express movement. The geometric fragmentation of the image produces a sensation of distortion to the viewer, in which the distinctions between the knife-grinder and his machine are almost imperceptible, imparting a Futurist ideology that resonates the progression of technology and the symbiotic relationship between human and machine.

kazimir malevich the knife grinder
Kazimir Malevich, The Knifegrinder (Principles of Glittering) 1912-13

Perhaps most infamous among Malevich’s works, however, is his painting, Black Square, which marks his foundation of the Suprematist movement. Supremetism diverges from tradition in its redefinition of art in terms of the “language of pure geometric forms,” (Taidre 2014, pg. 111). It rejected realism and purported a paradigm of universality, foreseeing not only the transformations that were occurring in urban spaces, but also in nature and cosmic space. As an avant-garde movement, Suprematism represented a juncture between a revolution in art and the social revolution occurring in Russia in 1917 under Stalin’s rule (pg. 112). Malevich’s Black Square represents the ultimate rejection of tradition, as in his Suprematist manifesto he expresses the desire to “nullify all art and start counting new art from zero,” (Taidre 2014, pg. 115). A single black square dominates the canvas, resetting the ideals of art to a single geometric form. Malevich challenges the public opinion of art, suggesting that the square is “the first step of pure creation in art. Before it, there were naïve deformaties and copies of nature,” (Malevich in Compton 1981, pg. 120). In a further renunciation of the tradition of classical art, in Malevich’s first solo exhibition in Moscow, 1920, “one room after another was covered with non-objective paintings” (Jakovljevic 2004, pg. 19), with the last room of the exhibition containing only empty canvases. Malevich’s aim in Suprematism was to create a non-referential art form, a sign able to create meaning in its own right without referent, and defined his work in terms that connoted movement: dynamism, rhythm and contrast (Levinger 2005, pg. 79). In Black Square, contrast is key, with the single black shape contrasted against the white background. However, in the new paradigm that Malevich constructs for art, background is just as important as foreground as it provides “the neutral space in which geometric forms seem to float,”(Jakovljevic 2004, pg. 20)

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915

Modernist art represents a break from classical art tradition, that favours idealised figures and allegorical or religious motifs. Instead, Modernism takes its inspiration from the rapidly modernising world. By investigating the different schools of art that have emerged from beneath the modernist banner, the tension between fear and rejection of the modern, and the pursuit of a redefinition of the relationship between man, technology, and art becomes apparent. Where Cubism evolves from a primitive nostalgia for the world left behind by the Industrial Revolution, Futurism embraces progress and the new relationship between man and machine, while Suprematism seeks to redefine art from a new ground zero. Modernist art embodies a rejection from tradition by abandoning the imitative stylings of their forbears, and creating a new style that celebrates raw and immediate expression to capture the energy of the new. 

By Felicity

art, fiction, poems, reading, flights of fancy

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