Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Elephant No. 262: Cubism

I have to admit that I've never really understood how Cubism works, nor how to create a Cubist drawing or painting. I know what Cubist works look like, but I've never gotten how they were produced. This meant that today's elephant could be interesting—or just plain weird.

Cubism developed sometime between 1907 and 1911 as an avant-garde art movement. Pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism not only changed the visual arts, but also influenced architecture, music, and even literature. The word itself is often said to derive from comments by artist Henri Matisse, referring to the "cubes" of colour he saw in a 1908 painting by Braque. Art critics, however, were already using the word "cube" in 1900 to describe similar work. However it originated, by 1911, "Cubism" was an established artistic movement.

La Femme en pleurs ("The Weeping Woman"), 1937
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)
Collection of the Tate Britain, London, England

The chunky depiction of three-dimensional forms by French artist Paul Cézanne is thought to have had a major influence on the development of Cubism. Cézanne was the first major artist to deconstruct objects into planes and geometric shapes such as cubes, spheres, cylinders, and cones—something that was revolutionary at the time.

Cubism took Cézanne's concept one step further. In Cubism, objects are broken down into various sections—as seen from different vantage points—then reassembled in an abstract fashion. In this way, the artist is thought to be representing the totality of the subject matter.

Maison et arbres  ("House and Trees"), 1890–1894
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)
Collection of the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

The first organized group exhibition of Cubist art was held in Paris in 1911, featuring artists such as Fernand Léger, Henri Le Fauconnier and Robert Delaunay—although oddly, no works by either Picasso or Braque. In addition to Picasso and Braque, important early Cubist painters included Juan Gris, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp. Sculptors such as Ossip Zadkhine and Jacques Lipchitz followed soon afterwards.

Nu descendant un escalier n° 2, 1912
Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)
Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, U.S.A.

Cubist architecture was a natural progression in many ways. Just as Cubist artists break down three-dimensional objects into a series of planes and geometric shapes, architects works with planes and shapes to create three-dimensional structures. Cubist architects, such as Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius focused on deconstructing and reconstituting three-dimensional forms, using pared-down geometric shapes. Elements were overlapped, wedged into one another and made transparent, all while maintaining spatial relationships and structural integrity.

Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh, India.
Le Corbusier (1887–1965)

Cubist music follows similar principles: structural elements of conventional music are broken apart then reassembled into a new form. A frequently cited example of Cubist music is Igor Stravinsky's Piano-Rag-Music for solo piano. Written around 1919, when Stravinsky lived in France, the piece includes harmonies and rhythms from Russian music and American ragtime.

In literature, Gertrude Stein created Cubist works by repeating phrases to build paragraphs, or even full chapters. Poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau also used Cubism in their poetry, which would laterinfluence Dada and Surrealist writings. The 1917 poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens is considered a good example of Cubism's multiple perspectives in poetic form.

Today, Cubism continues to influence the work of contemporary artists. In addition to Cubist paintings, sculptures, writing and music, mixed-media work in a Cubist style has grown considerably in popularity in recent years. Interestingly, Cubist "drawings" and "paintings" are now produced as often by computer as they are by hand.

Although my brain was slightly reluctant to engage with Cubism, the more I read, the more straightforward the concept appeared. This didn't mean I would find it easy to translate into a work of art, but at least I understood the concept.

From a few websites describing "how to make Cubist art", here is my distilled cheat sheet:

1. Forget about making something realistic. Forget, too, about classical ideals of beauty and proportion.

2. Try to see things in segments. Instead of seeing a three-dimensional object against a background, see the individual planes and shapes that make up the object and/or its background. Consider imagining what you can't see as well, even if it's on the other side of the object. For example, Cubist art often features noses and eyes seen as if straight on, despite the fact that a face may be in profile. The idea is to see the individual parts as your brain might focus on them, rather than the whole that your brain stitches together.

3. Consider your subject in terms of simple geometric shapes. Use squares, triangles, cones, ovals, and of course cubes.

4. When you assemble your image, don't worry too much about how things fit together. It's a bit like an eccentric collage—or flattened roadkill.

5. Use hues within the same colour family and tonal range. Cubists often used browns, greys, and blues. Shading is often done within the shapes to give each its own texture and modelling.

6. Outline your shapes with lines of various weight.

Although the concept almost sounds simple—break the object into shapes, stick them together any old which way, add shading—I had a feeling that this was going to be one of those things that's so simple it's a nightmare. Still, I felt more like drawing and/or painting than building or glueing anything, so this seemed like a good alternative.

I decided to use watercolour pencils today, because I didn't really feel like dragging out a bunch of paints, but I also wanted to be able to get a painterly effect if I felt like it. The beauty of watercolour pencils for me is always that you can turn them into paint if you want.

I thought it would be best to work from a photograph to keep myself from going completely bonkers trying to deconstruct and reconstruct something imaginary. I suppose it would have been possible, but my brain is tired these days, so I just didn't want to. I chose the photograph below, because it seemed to have lots of interesting angles, and would force me to imagine the opposite side.

African elephant.

I started by staring at the photograph, trying to figure out what I was doing. I decided to simply begin by drawing shapes that I could see in the planes of the elephant. This mostly meant triangles.

So far, it wasn't as painful as I had expected, so I kept drawing angular shapes until I'd finished the elephant. I ended up with something that looked like an animation wire form.

I had originally thought I would leave the background blank, but I'd seen a few Cubist works with intersecting curves lines, and liked the effect. So I swooped green lines across the background.

When I liked the general outlines of everything, I coloured it all in with Derwent Inktense watercolour pencils, using two shades of purple, and two shades of green. I modulated the saturation of the colours within each shape, to give it some visual interest.

Once I'd coloured in everything with the pencils, I got some water and a paintbrush, turning the watercolour pencil into paint.

This took me most of the afternoon, but that was primarily because I took so long to colour and paint everything. The drawing itself took me a little under an hour, and some of that was time spent staring and trying to figure out how to draw a Cubist elephant.

Once I felt that I'd gotten the general idea, I didn't mind this at all. It doesn't have enough of the elephant's other angles to be good Cubism; then again, Cubism Lite may be as good as it gets for me. And, although this wasn't my favourite drawing exercise, I can still see trying it again sometime.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Sometimes elephants really won't take no for an answer. In early 2012, an elephant was seen lurking under a coconut tree in a family's garden in Sri Lanka. Having experienced previous elephant raids on their home, the men of the family jumped up, got their flashlights and ran outside to chase the elephant away.

The elephant moved off the property and seemed to be heading back into the bush, when it turned around and charged the men. The men had just managed to flee back inside the house, when the elephant rammed the wall of the home. The wall exploded in a volley of bricks and cement, injuring one of the men.

Wall destroyed by elephant, Sri Lanka, February 2012.
Photo: SLWCS

Once the wall was broken, the elephant calmly stuck its head inside. While the family scrambled to get out of the room, the elephant reached down with its trunk, picked up a bag of rice and sauntered off. By the time the village had mobilized to chase the elephant away, it was already long gone.

Hole through which the elephant reached to snag a bag of rice.
Photo: SLWCS

This was not the first time an elephant had attacked the house. Only two nights before, an elephant—according to the family, perhaps the same one—had destroyed the wall on the exact opposite side of the house, also making off with a bag of rice.

Lurking elephant, Sri Lanka.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

No comments:

Post a Comment