Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

X.CUBISM AND ABSTRACT ART: MALEVICH AND MONDRIAN

In its initial development, Cubism described the world with a language that continued to increase in geometric regularity. In a drawing like Picasso Nude of 1910, even the complex and irregular shapes of the human form are distilled into a vocabulary that admits only the straight line and the arc. But, if the major Cubists soon veered away from this austere direction, which threatened to obscure completely their pictures' essential contact with external reality, there were other artists who could draw very different conclusions from Cubism's radically unreal metaphor of reality. Some of the Cubist masters themselves--Delaunay, Villon, Nicholson--occasionally eradicated entirely their pictures' references to reality, arranging as independent forms those geometries which Cubism had so carefully extracted from the world of appearance; but their pursuit of so purified an art constantly alternated with the creation of works whose roots depended on the close observation of concrete objects.

A few masters, however, were to be more consistent in their commitment to the world of pure geometry that Cubism had momentarily adumbrated in 1910-11 and then rejected--the Russian Kasimir Malevich ( 1878-1935) and the Dutchman Piet Mondrian ( 1872-1944).

In the years around 1910, a country's artistic radicalism often seemed to correspond inversely to the closeness of its contact with progressive currents before these years. By comparison with the quiet and, at times, relatively conservative development of Cubism in Paris, Italian Futurism and English Vorticism displayed an obstreperous modernism whose radical flavor was largely intended to resurrect a moribund tradition. In Russia, the enthusiastic interest in the avant-garde displayed by artists and collectors around 1910 was also a partial means of thrusting a nation that had been on the artistic periphery of the Western world into the forefront of contemporary experience. Here, as elsewhere, Cubism was the style that first appeared to convey the most vigorous acceptance of the modern world, though an even more radical fracturing of mass may have preceded it in the form of Rayonism, a movement begun in 1909 and officially inaugurated in 1911 by Michael Larionov and his wife Natalia Gontcharova. But, apart from such questions of historical priority, Cubist paintings were well known in Moscow around 1910, not only through periodicals and the great collection of Sergei Shchukhin (which contained fifty Picassos), but through such exhibitions as those held by the Jack of Diamonds group, which in 1912 showed works by Picasso, Léger, Gleizes, and Le Fauconnier.

The rapidity and originality with which Cubism was assimilated in Russia is suggested in a painting of 1911 by Malevich, the Woodcutter. Like Léger, Malevich often interpreted Cubism in terms of forceful physical activity, paralleling the vigorous movement the Frenchman had elaborated in his 1910 Nudes in

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