Posts Tagged ‘cubism’


Oh, trees!

If you’re a Mondrian-lover you stand in front of one of his paintings, like the one above, and exclaim, “I just love the way he painted trees!”  Right?

You have a friend who doesn’t understand Mondrian, so you volunteer to give her a tour of the moderns at the Art Institute of Chicago or the MoMa.  You position yourselves in front of the Mondrians, and you learnedly explain that here we have the essence of tree-ness.  Right?

Mondrian was painting simplified trees.  Right?

Mondrian drew diagrams of trees. Right?

Abstract trees. Right?

Oh, please!

No one has ever looked at a Mondrian and seen trees. Right?


Then why do we constantly get the evolution of his paintings—The Mondrians—from trees.



[The] process of simplification and reduction would continue until he wasn’t even painting from nature at all.

The rise of Cubism also gave Mondrian a means to segment and reduce objects to their most basic forms.


Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived in Paris when he was in his early 40’s.  There he met Braque and other Cubists.

To interpret Cubism as “reducing objects to their most basic forms”  is as blatantly ridiculous as the other cliché about cubism, namely that a cubist painting shows us an object from all four sides.  I’ll post just one example here, Picasso’s “Portrait of D.H. Kahnweiler,” 1910. Have a good look. You are seeing Mr. Kahnweiler’s “basic forms” and you’re seeing him from all “four sides.” Correct?




Cubism is so scary to think about that people, even otherwise intelligent people, repeat these absurdities about “basic forms” and “four sides.”  You’ll find this sort of thing not only on internet pages but, with more academic circumlocutions, in serious publications. The Cubists—Picasso and Braque–are scary to think about because they made a clean break with the past.  Naughty, naughty. Thou shalt honor thy father and mother…  The only father the Cubists honored was Cézanne and he, in Robert Hughes’ words, painted DOUBT.

Let’s see now, we don’t have any commandments honoring doubt.

In 1910, art that threw out all previous assumptions was difficult to take.  Still is.  But doubt is so much more invigorating than having answers without first having questions.  Medieval certainties and Renaissance illustrations of mythological characters are not invigorating, are they?!

The Cubists—and they didn’t call themselves that—came up with something new.  The painting is now not an illustration but a work in its own right.

You must be kidding?  In its own right?  The audacity!

That’s right.  Audacity.

So, are Mondrian’s paintings abstractions or essences or diagrams of trees?  No.  They are something completely new.  They stand in their own right as objects.  Something to contemplate.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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The layering in this painting is uncanny, so pay attention. You think the “window” in those Cubist browns (1) is on top of the blue CubustWindowFinalAnalysis“background.” Look again. Those browns used to cover the whole painting and then the blue (2) washed over everything, leaving that “window.” That created enough of a puzzle, but the artist felt the painting needed a line somewhere in the blue expanse. Indeed. The line materialized, quite literally, not as paint but as a piece of yellow yarn, which was glued onto the canvas with acrylic matte medium. The effect of this humble yellow line is that it amplifies the three-dimensionality of the pictorial space, in that we now have the illusion of a horizontal plane below the yellow line and above it, a wall. Now the “window” really pushes forward. As you look at this, you know you’re being fooled by the simplicity of means and at the same time you gladly give into the illusion.
Keren Vishney, acrylic on canvas, 30” x 40”

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Drapery? Where? You mean those whitish-bluish triangles and trapezoids?
Picasso was twenty-six when he painted this. By the time he was fourteen, he had mastered the skill to create the illusion of drapery or any other illusion he might have felt like creating. There was big money in illusions in the 1890’s. But not for Picasso. With Picasso the illusion-achievements of the Renaissance come to an end. And that means, for one thing, drapery is dead. Finished.
The question is, do you have to master the Renaissance skills of drapery, anatomy and perspective to be an artist? The answer is “no,” but it’s an uncomfortable no. I’m uncomfortable about dismissing the value of drapery drawing/painting for two reasons. One is in the looking: drapery in an image draws the viewer in and focuses the mind like a labyrinth; more on this in the next post. The second reason is in the doing and for similar reasons: drawing drapery develops visual concentration since you are always drawing from the image in your mind; and it focuses the mind, resulting in the kind of high that comes from a)intense concentration on a limited problem and b) repetition of minutiae. This is drawing for the sheer pleasure of drawing, meaning the “high” you get from moving that pencil.

This is my pencil drawing of some drapery I set up for a demo in drawing class last week. Students watched over DraperyGreenDemomy shoulders and asked questions. As I was drawing I explained the procedure. This 17”x11” page took about an hour. Without my talking, I estimate it would have taken less than a half hour. It looks so easy and the principles of light-shadow-reflected light are a piece o’cake.
But the doing takes practice. But, hey, it’s not like there’s ever nothing to draw. Look around you. Throw your coat over a chair, leave the dish towel on the kitchen counter, don’t make your bed—drapery drapery everywhere….
In “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the need and result of practice. He has made the 10,000 hour rule famous: to get good at anything takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice. That comes to 3 hours a day.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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The Moment of Cubism

“The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art.  The incongruity of that moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it, is the secret of art.  What is the meaning of that incongruity and the shock which accompanies it? It is to be found in the distinction between the actual and the desirable.  All art is an attempt to define and make unnatural this distinction.

For a long time it was thought that art was the imitation and celebration of nature.  The confusion arose because the concept of nature itself was a projection of the desired.  Now that we have cleansed our view of nature, we see that art is an expression of our sense of the inadequacy of the given—which we are not obliged to accept with gratitude.  Art mediates between our good fortune and our disappointment.  Sometimes it mounts to a pitch of horror.  Sometimes it gives permanent value and meaning to the ephemeral.  Sometimes it describes the desired.

Thus art, however free or anarchic its mode of expression, is always a plea for greater control and an example, within the artificial limits of a “medium”, of the advantages of such control.  Theories about the artist’s inspiration are all projections back on to the artist of the effect which his work has upon us.

The only inspiration which exists is the intimation of our own potential.  Inspiration is the mirror image of history:  by means of it we can see our past, while turning our back upon it.  And it is precisely this which happens at the instant when a piece of music begins.  We suddenly become aware of the previous silence at the same moment as our attention is concentrated upon following sequences and resolutions which will contain the desired.

The Cubist moment was such a beginning, defining desires which are still unmet.”

–John Berger quoted from his essay “The Moment of Cubism,” 1969.

Georges Braques. “Le Sacré-Coeur,” Paris, winter 1909-10

Pablo Picasso. “Woman with a Mandolin,”  Cadaqués, summer 1910

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