In 1907 Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon changed the relationship between viewer, space and canvas forever. Shattering the illusion of naturalism that had beguiled audiences for centuries, the four prostitutes threaten to burst forth into our comfortable domain, their angular forms, impossible poses and strange disfigurements challenging our expectations of how space and three-dimensional form should be interpreted by the eye. Ironically, for all its jarring qualities and representational inconsistencies, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was Picasso’s claim to truth: he believed that the multiple viewpoints and shifting planes of Analytical Cubism were far more indicative of how the eye actually receives and records sensory information than Renaissance verisimilitude.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon presents an ambiguous space which seems to be constructed by cascading drapes and shards of mirror-like glass – what results is a conscious mockery of the Western tradition of the ‘window on the world’ that had been used to represent the laws of vision since the Renaissance. Yet the dissolving of boundaries between inside and outside and real and space that was artfully created began in the previous century. The Impressionists strove for a more scientifically advanced recording of natural sensations on canvas that was informed by both optical theory and the Positivist currents that were dominating 19th century art and literature – currents that aimed to replicate empirical methods of research through language and paint.
By the same token, the Impressionists also sought to banish the pretence that the painterly surface was anything more than just that: a two-dimensional flat plane onto which the artist’s personal interpretation of the natural world could be posited. Through his 1891 representation of circus peformers in motion – Le Cirque, the Neo-Impressionist, Seurat, cropped the scene via a simulated frame created from tiny, luminous violet dots: his aim being to highlight the artificiality of what had traditionally been presented by the Academy as natural. Playing with illusions in this way was part of a wider desire to react against established artistic rules concerning the representation of the three-dimensional space of a flat surface that had become entrenched in state-sponsored art schools since the 17th century. Seurat exposes the viewer’s conditioned desire for ‘truth’ through his visual trickery, whilst Picasso assaults visual expectations even more aggressively by highlighting the flatness of the picture plane and clearly revealing the tactile qualities of paint and brush strokes used to create the scene. To pretend that a painting is anything other than an interpretation of nature is a sham – conversely, to deny this artfulness through a fixation with linear perspective and the perfectly smooth licked finish of the canvas was to denigrate the unique skill of the artist who occupied a special position in society due to his phenomenological powers.
Disorientating the viewer in an attempt to challenge the Academy, and by extension, the hegemonic control of the Bourgeoisie, lay at the heart of the Futurists’ ambitions in Italy. They too, inspired by the spatial distortions of Cubism, aimed to blur the boundary between inside and out, picture plane and viewer’s space. Informed by the new and exciting scientific philosophy of Henry Bergson that related to the simultaneous experience of receiving the external world, Boccioni’s 1912 The Street Enters the House overturns the Renaissance trompe l’oeil of the open window. The urban vista implodes as a woman looks down on the construction of the city from her balcony. It is hard to determine what is taking place within the home and what occurs beyond its walls. The tilting perspective, dissolving planes and cacophony of colours encourage the confusion that the Modernists believed embodied the simultaneity of the modern experience in which the senses were barraged with a wealth of new information that needed to be rapidly received at once. The spatial, sensory experiences of the woman, and in turn that of the viewer, collide to create a liminal space that appropriately mirrored the state in which Italy found herself at the beginning of the 20th century. As the Italian nation moved rapidly towards an accelerated industrial modernity, the visual language of the Renaissance was no longer equipped to address such flux.
Dr Penny Wickson
Head of History of Art