- M A D I S
O N _G R A Y |
- "One learns to look behind the
facade, to grasp the root of things. One learns to recognize the hidden
currents, the prehistory of the visible.
- One learns to dig below the surface
of things, to uncover, to find causes, to analyze." ---Paul Klee
- "Through the channel of my painting
I arrived at my architecture." ---Le Corbusier
- It is only 93 years
since Picasso's Demoiselles. Though technically not the first Cubist painting
(that honor is accorded to Braque a year later), it marks unequivocally the
decisive, explosive move in the emancipation of form and the emergence of
abstraction. It is the icon of modernism. There are still lessons to be learned.
I'm working on a few in anticipation of the centenary in 2 0 0 7...
Demoiselles d'Avignon: The
6th Woman and Transfigurative Space
can only imagine the impact this larger-than-life painting had on contemporary
viewers 93 years ago---its attack on the very foundation
of painting's presumed visual raison d'etre is so original that the disturbance
must have been visceral. Braque was one of the first to see it. It altered
the genetic code of his plastic intelligence forever. I suspect that for many
today, certainly for these eyes, it has lost none of its power to challenge,
interrogate or instruct.
- It is typically discussed by art historians in terms of content:
a brothel---as I see it, 5 prostitutes, an enigmatic room, the ephemeral
fabrics of curtains, clothes, and wallpaper, table, tablecloth, still-life
(fruit), possibly a chair. In terms of influences: Egyptian
profile-art (the woman at the left), African tribal masks (the two right figures)
and the indigenous painterly influence of Picasso's fellow Spaniard, El Greco
(e.g., the vertical elongation of the women). Or in terms of representational
devices: the owl-like head swivel of the seated woman on
the right (an early, literal example of "simultaneity"), the planar
flattening of the noses of the two woman second and third from the left, and
the elemental vocabulary of geometric formal integers that
comprise the iconoclastic aesthetic system (lozenges/ovals, trapezoids, triangles,
wedges, diamonds and amalgamations of these).
- Rarely does the discussion extend to the spatial
qualifications of the painting: the assertive spatial contraction
within a dynamic, fluctuating and indeterminate z-axial picture
space, signified in part by aggressive dismembering and foregrounding of body
parts (such as the left hand of the woman on the left; the left leg of the
second woman from the left; the head of the seated-woman on the right), which
contribute to spatial contradictions, autonomies,
contingencies and ruptures as violent and
independent-minded as the angular anatomical translations themselves. This
describes an inherently architectural condition of the painting---space---and the breaking
of the conventions we associate with everyday space.
called everyday space (the space we associate with perspectival reality) visual
space. He called the collapsed and contradictory painterly space
that Picasso suggests here tactile space. "Visual space
separates objects from one another. Tactile space separates us from objects,"
he wrote. When paint is in the service of situating its subject as much within
the realistic boundaries of the two-dimensional x-y plane as within the illusional
boundaries defined by the z-axis, tactile space is the result. In other words,
tactile space is the "real" space between us and the surface of
the painting itself. Perception of this space is heightened when the illusion
of perspectival visual space is reduced. Ultimately, then, the interplay
of form and space in the Demoiselles contributes to a game
of affirmation and denial vis a vis the illusion of perspectival space versus
the reality of the flatness of the painting canvas itself. Folded fabrics
(i.e., surfaces), folded forms, and folded space are rendered with beguiling
equivalence---oscillating between solidity
- How does this relate to architecture? I start with two basic
premises: 1) the overlap of painting and architecture is form and space. These
are the two sine qua non that neither can avoid addressing -- no matter how
mundanely or unreflectively; 2) as English painter and critic Patrick Heron
said, ""The visual life which we lead through our eyes merely by
having them open is the subject of painting." I maintain that
the visual is the ineluctable subject of architecture, as well. To
whatever degree an architecture addresses a complex matrix of invisible/visible
functional---it's manifestation is ultimately
and irreducibly visual. Painting teaches visual lessons about form and space.
It teaches how to see. How to decipher visual systems. It teaches the conventions
for organizing the "figure|field" relationships (left/right, up/down,
front/back and so forth) that comprise visual structures.
- The following diagrams, for example, help
to clarify the overlapping readings of the Demoiselle's simple organizational
structure. Within the optical distraction of the painting's tempestuous activity,
there is the surprising stabilizing condition of its conventional, almost
neo-classical, order. Competing readings play symmetry against asymmetry,
not unlike the syncopated complexities and upbeats of music or dance. (And
is that not what one may discern within the temperamental structure of this
painting, the spirit of music and dance?)
Diptych (1:1): Two women on either side of the woman in the center.
Columnar, caught between a diagonal stance and assertive frontality, the center
woman divides the canvas essentially in half. Thus, in the context of a work
of startling invention, we find the ultimate convention: a solid object in
the middle of a painting (a figure in the center of a field). (I call it "target-art,"
because it implicitly defines a spatial field in a manner analogous to that
celebrated by an archer, for whom hitting the bull's eye is the thing. Cubism
did little to disrupt this convention.) Due to the placement of this woman,
as well as to the handling of other aspects of the painting, lateral
centripetal forces prevail---that is, the principal orthogonal
visual rays, though distracted at times to the periphery, tend inward towards
towards a shifted center, slightly to the right, in keeping
with the diagonal forces that lead the eye to the right into the z-axis of
the visual space. With linear precision, Picasso gives visible evidence to
these two invisible vertical axes by a series of contour breaks, contiguities,
intersections and edges along their length. Note also the exactitude with
respect to the horizontal centerline. The principal diagonals of the x-y plane
(shown in the diagram) clearly inform the geometrization of the canvas, both
in terms of formal inflections and figural positioning. Moreover, they establish
diagonal centrifugal forces, in tension with the centripetal
Triptych (1:1:1) Reading from left to right: one woman +
two women + two women. The canvas is divided into dynamically counterbalanced
thirds. This second set of diagonals also clearly contributes to delineational
Split-screen 1 (2:1) Another reading of sub-division
into thirds, this time 2/3 against 1/3. Three women, left, are played against
two woman, right. The attention shifts to the second woman from the left,
the center figure of the trio. We focus on her aggressively frontality.
sub-frame or variation of split-screen 1, employing the contours of the left
trio of women themselves as boundaries, shows the second woman from the left
to be even more precisely the emphatic "central" focus of the painting
at this moment in time. Note how her right upper arm becomes for a moment
spatially dislocated, advancing enigmatically into the foreground. (This is
true also of her "dismembered" left leg, as mentioned above.)
Split-screen 2 (1:3) The left woman, embedded in
the terra cotta wall, is isolated from/played against the other four. She
is "inside," they are "outside"---or the reverse.
Jagged, simultaneously layered and flat, this woman and her interlocked background
give authority and presence to the periphery. Picasso has
established a rectilinear architectonic datum or edge---a condition that
would inform Mondrian's paintings beginning in 1916. The canvas is effectively
divided into four vertical parts. The right vertical line proves to be as
practical as the other two. Again the diagonals are organizationally meaningful.
And the vertical sub-division second from the right invites contemplation...
- In all these readings,
there is the problem of the center, Through a choreography of displacements,
Picasso affects a calculated and highly refined conflict of centers
and sub-centers, and charges the painting with an interplay
of competing lateral, diagonal, centripetal and centrifugal forces. The following
two diagrams show other geometric systems of organization that also help to
rigorously determine the spatial location of the 5 women and their compositional
interconnections. Three primary forms, parallelogram, ellipse,
and lozenge determine the major interrelated three- and two-dimensional
relationships and their inherent tensions. Picasso has left clear traces
of their presence, like the light pencil guidelines of an architect's plan
that are not erased, They provide spatial amplitude and give force to the
principal progression of depth, which extends diagonally along the implied
z-axis from bottom left to upper right. Their invisible geometries establish
an intricate force-field and symbolize the competing
aesthetic systems, one built on angles and the other on curves.
- If these 5 women, geometrically arranged,
each assuming center stage for a time and commanding our attention, are the
ostensible visual subject matter of the painting, then an equally significant
visual counter-subject matter can also be identified, I believe,
if the inquiry is extended. As the right diagram above shows, a point of crucial
intersection, and consequently a significant visual focus, is the small white
diamond (marked in the black and white diagram below) just below
the center woman's left breast. This in turn helps shift our attention to
the entire right contour of the center woman (her left side), and the idiosyncratic
vertical spatial interval---the blue void---to the right that this contour
helps to define.
principal rip in the homogeneous fabric of the painting's
spatial constriction is here, at the third-point from the right, where the
illusion of deep space is simultaneously affirmed and denied.
On the one hand, space can be inferred as extending into the atmospheric blue
(and clouds) of day. It is the deepest space in the painting. The three women
to the left lead the eye along the diagonal into the z-axis
of the painting, and the gaze is released through the gash in the fabric to
the landscape beyond. It is a window to the world outside.
The standing woman at the right, positioned the deepest of the five, together
with the seated woman in front of her (looking simultaneously back at us and
out the "window"), assist in ushering our gaze on out through this
irregular aperture. They contribute to the impression that a significant
void is being allowed to open into and out of the cramped tent-like
quarters of the brothel. As if a waft of wind breezes through to refresh the
scene and expand the otherwise compressed foreground and middleground. On
the other hand, no sooner does one construe it in this way than the space
immediately jumps forward---advancing in solid
mirror-like fragments to occupy a z-axis space between the two right woman,
if not advancing to the ultimate foreground, and thus insisting on the tactile
space of the painting. That is, it suddenly becomes an advancing reflective
solid as opposed to a retreating atmospheric void.
Its spatial position and material substance is equivocal.
- On either hand, however, this vertical slot represents the
principal Negative Space of the painting. The principal figural
void. That is, it is as figurally intentional as the woman themselves.
I call it The 6th Woman of the Demoiselles. And it is involved in a
tension-filled space-form game of contiguity with the three woman who surround
and define it. The relationship with the center woman, especially, reinforces
the fundamental thesis of displacement that underlies this
painting, on many levels, intellectual as well as visual. The positive form
of this curvilinear woman and the negative space of the angular
fractured blue void (her negative counterpart) compete not only for
the center, and the center of attention, they compete for the inherent soul
of the painting, as well: is it about the women, or about the Cezanne-like
"solid space" that defines and is defined by the women? Ultimately,
Picasso implies, I believe, that it is about both. And through the mental
game of inversion, one is entitled, even asked or required,
to see the two phenomena as interchangeable and reciprocal. Picasso extends
his dialectical game, a game of equivocality and oppositions,
through color: the blue of the atmospheric void functions as the approximate
complement of the terra cotta opaque wall at the left. Together, these two
non-anthropomorphic fragments (assisted by the attenuated
right edge) function as principal vertical stabilizers and supplemental dialogists
of the significant field, simultaneously serene and hyper-charged.
- In perhaps the ultimate move of spatial abstraction in
this painting, Picasso links the blue void of the background with the table
and fruit of the foreground (bottom edge). Sometimes narrow, sometimes wide---sometimes window,
sometimes table with fruit---this remarkable figural
gash and visual caesura winds its way from top to
bottom of the painting on the slight x-y oblique.
- It thereby physically isolates the three woman on the left from
the two on the right, dramatically collapses the picture space from front
to back, underscoring the reality of the painting's two-dimensionality, and
creates the presence of a turbulent, unmistakable...
- non-residual space between.
- Finally, perhaps the standing woman on the right may be associated
with this sine qua non spatial disruption, as well. She is
clearly on the outside looking in, a mediator between background and foreground.
Thus, the outside-inside "gash" is enlarged. She
- Tthe folded
forms and folded spaces that comprise the quasi-homogeneous
fabric of the Demoiselles contribute, ultimately, to the assertion of the
fundamental paradox of modernism and abstraction, a paradox
that involves the calculated interdependence, if not ambiguity,
between figure and field. The paradox involves
this: the simultaneous assertion of the autonomy of form
and the destruction of the autonomy of the object.. On the one hand, form
is emancipated and finds autonomy vis a vis representational reality. On the
other hand, the object is contingent: It is no more, nor
less, important than the negative space it forms, and together they are locked---figure and field---in a complex, equivocal formal/spatial matrix.
- Complexity, density, and
equivocality continued to escalate for about four years after
the Demoiselles, in the Analytical Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque.
For example, were it not for the title, we might not know that Picasso's 1911
painting, below left, is a portrait: "The Poet." Perhaps we might
regard it as The 6th Woman of the Demoiselles, privileged, complexified and
sprung to life.
- Negative space was obviously
on the mind of Richard Diebenkorn in this painting, "Seated Figure with
Hat," 1967. The yellow fragments that bracket the back and front of the
woman (left and right) are just as intentionalized and figural as the body
of the woman herself. This allows an inverted reading wherein
the viewer can see yellow field fragments as solid and the woman as void,
thereby yielding permanence and equivocality to the positive/negative construction.
Though the periphery of Picasso's "The Poet" is weak, whereas the
Diebenkorn shows a heightened concern with the edges, each painting in its
own way diagrams the intercontingency of a principal figure
and its field. (See my essay Significant Space.)
the channel of my painting I arrived at my architecture." ---
- As an architect, the Interconnected, practical lessons from
Picasso and other painters help me design walls, and systems of walls, ceilings,
and floors (the primary constituents of the horizontal
and vertical architectural fields). These painting lessons provide a basis
for an advanced understanding of the fundamental, and potentially deep, issues
involved in organizing space-form constructs. From where/why/how
to position a window in an exterior wall, where/why/how (and what color) to
position a light switch plate on an interior wall, to where/why/how to position
a building on a lot and determine the building's relationship to the landscape.
- Take for example the development of this architectural
plan in 1996. I composed it on the basis of my analysis of the Demoiselles.
The plan needs development, but it hints at the possibilities...
© 2000|MADISON GRAY
............ .....................................transfiguring the
the only entirely new and probably the most important aspect of today's
language of forms is the fact that 'negative' elements (the remainder, intermediate,
and subtractive quantities) are made active." _Josef Albers
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