I picked up The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes when looking through the library for a book which could give me an overview of art in the 20th century, It seems to be quite a good read for me at this stage of the course as it is written in fairly straightforward language which will serve as an introduction to the subject prior to any further in-depth reading.
Chapter One: The Mechanical Paradise
This chapter introduces the notion that the speed of change in scientific and technical discoveries and the rise of the machine age at the beginning of the 20th century is reflected in the pace of change in art. Robert Hughes cites the Eiffel Tower as example of the change in our visual perspective with the symbol of change not only the view of the tower itself but the view the spectator gains from the top of the tower; this view creating a new landscape based on frontality and pattern rather than the familiar recessive and depth perspective.
He used Cezanne’s remark that one must detect in nature the sphere, the cone and the cylinder, as evidence that he was the father of abstract art and his paintings of Mont Set-Victoire, with the broken outlines and blocky brush strokes, as pointers towards a greater abstraction of the image.
He then goes on to look at Cubism, mainly the work of Picasso and Braque. A couple of notable things from the text were that firstly, that our knowledge of an object is made up of all possible views of it – the front, back sides, top, etc., and that cubism tries to encompass all those views into one image. Secondly, that in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso (said to be the first ‘modern’ art painting) by leaving out the men (two were in the original sketches for this painting, a sailor and a medical student) Picasso has turned the viewer into voyeur. Thirdly, that cubism stacks the forms up the canvas in a pile, as through the ground has rotated 90 degrees to the eye. All these things I need to think about trying in my drawings – a multi-viewpoint of one object; leaving out something in a drawing thereby changing the nature of the interaction between the viewer and the image; and, stacking the shapes up the canvas (e.g. my Dungeness drawings).
Hughes states that Cubism took abstraction only to the point where enough of the real world is left to supply tension between reality and the visual language within the frame. He goes onto say that they actually moved back from pure abstraction in their later pieces by including pieces or images of actual objects in their collages.
This chapter goes onto to look at the work of Delauney, who explored the mechanical age via its light, structure and dynamism, and Futurism, whose practitioners believed that the machine should be worshiped and could be the saviour for all social ills. The work of Francis Picabia, I See Again in My Memory My Dear Udine (1914) and Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), (1915-23), are discussed which Hughes states explores machine action and sexuality.
This was an interesting opening chapter for me as it both sparked ideas for my own art (outlines in a previous paragraph) and introduced a number of new works to me. It is of course just one work on this era of art written from one critic’s point of view and I will bear that in mind as I continue reading the book.