[Part 3/3] Cubism: The Perfect Triangle

In 1913, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire dedicated his work The Cubist Painters to Cubism, thereby helping the movement attain broad renown. Painters like Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes made impressive contributions to the Cubist language of shapes. In 1912 one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century was created: the Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp. Aided by the Cubist vocabulary of shapes and his familiarity with Étienne-Jules Marey’s photos depicting movement, Duchamp painted a picture that moved the world. Five moments of the movement of one person, descending a spiral staircase, are captured in time-lapsed sequence, showing all the reciprocal movements triggered by her walking.

Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912. Oil on canvas, 147 cm × 89.2 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art , Philadelphia

In doing this, Duchamp introduced time as the fourth dimension in the painting. Though this nude triggered a scandal at the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York, some recognized the innovative character of this new work, calling it “the light at the end of the tunnel”. Duchamp, brother of the painter Jacques Villon, the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon and the painter Suzanne Duchamp, was anything but a consistent worker. His unruly soul quickly led him to experiment with different media and eclectic ideas that shocked the art world. In New York, he became friends with Francis Picabia, with whom he became responsible for Dada.

Simultaneity is the lyric expression of the modern view of life; it signifies the rapidity and the concurrence of all existence and action. In doing this, Duchamp introduced time as the fourth dimension in the painting. Though this nude triggered a scandal at the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York, some recognized the innovative character of this new work, calling it “the light at the end of the tunnel”. Duchamp, brother of the painter Jacques Villon, the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon and the painter Suzanne Duchamp, was anything but a consistent worker. His unruly soul quickly led him to experiment with different media and eclectic ideas that shocked the art world. In New York, he became friends with Francis Picabia, with whom he became responsible for Dada.

Marcel Duchamp. Bicycle Wheel, 1913. Metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool, 129.5 x 63.5 x 41.9 cm. Museum of Modern Art , New York

The Delaunays did not, like other artists, use this term to mean dynamism. They did not refer to the “élan vital” (“vital force”) as Bergson did, but rather to Chevreul’s theory of the law of simultaneous contrast. This theory, which dated from 1839 and had already played a role with the Impressionists, related colours and the relationship of objects to one another. Chevreul’s work was republished in 1890 and thus more present in the collective knowledge of artists. Sonia Delaunay, in her work Contrastes Simultanés (Simultaneous Contrasts) dared to jump directly into the abstract. Her painting was already a formal reference system of colour rhythms at a time when her husband Robert and artists Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Picasso were still slowly making their way towards detaching themselves from objects.

Robert Delaunay founded Orphism, also known as Orphic Cubism. On account of the orchestration of colour, Guillaume Apollinaire named Delaunay’s painting style after Orpheus, the singer of Greek mythology. The origins of his painting style derived from Impressionism, Analytical Cubism and from Cézanne. The new landmark of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, built in 1898, fascinated him. Its elegant design became the subject of the Windows series. He painted it again and again, in new variations and refractions, using light and bright colour harmonies based on the colour values of light separated by a prism.

Robert DelaunaySimultaneous Windows on the City, 1912. Oil on canvas, 55.2 x 46.3 cm. Guggenheim Museum , New York

Guillaume Apollinaire observed: “That which differentiates Cubism from the old schools of painting is that it is not an art of painting, but an art of conception which tends to rise to that of creation. In representing the concept of reality, or the created reality, the painter can give the appearance of three dimensions, he can, so to speak, cube it. He cannot do this in rendering simply the reality as seen, unless he makes use of an illusion either in perspective or foreshortening which deforms the quality of the form conceived or created.

Juan Gris. Pack of Coffee, 1914. Gouache, 64.8 x 47 cm. Ulmer Museum , Ulm.

In Cubism , four tendencies have manifested themselves, of which two are parallel and pure. Scientific Cubism is one of the pure tendencies. It is the art of painting new ensembles with elements borrowed, not from the reality of vision, but from the reality of consciousness. Every man has the perception of this inner reality. It is not necessary, for example, to be a man of culture to conceive of a round form. The geometrical aspect which so vividly impressed those who saw the first scientific canvases came from the fact that the essential reality was given with great purity and that the visual accidents and anecdotes had been eliminated. He concluded: I love the art of today because above all else I love the light and all men love light—above all else Man invented fire”.

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