Serendipity - Bizarre Cubiques by Hal Duncan

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Bizarre Cubiques
by Hal Duncan

A New Space

Pharis, 1910. A young Sinese boy flies a box-kite, whooping as he runs. An aviator in leather jacket and goggles banks a Stupar biplane of "stick-and-wire" construction; swooping low, he guns the engine. Amorican tourists trooping by the Eiffel Tower gaze up, thinking of steel frames of skyscrapers being built back home in New Amsterdam. All of these sights I have encased in rollfilm, in a metal cartridge, in the Kodak Brownie under my arm.

All of these sights I have encased in my imagination as I gaze at the Cubique painting on the gallery wall in front of me.

The Cubique painting banishes the grid and vanishing point, rejects the unified space of Renaissance perspective for the geometry of fractured glass, as with Bricasso's Le Reservoir: Horta de Ebro, (1909, Private Collection). The Cubique painting deconstructs form into fragments; it dissolves the subject into free-floating extra-rational abstractions; it demands recombination, analysis and synthesis, hence the naming of the movement's two great stages.

The overlapping facets of these paintings... they suggest these objects are being seen from many viewpoints, multiple perspectives, manifold frames of reference, as with The Guitar Player Cadaques (1910, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Pharis).

I have burned the journals I once had, the record of my week long stay in Pharis as a young man with a dream of one day being a writer. I have only disconnected memories now: of lying beneath the Eiffel Tower at night after an evening of jazz and conversation (sparked up by the offer of a Camel cigarette in the Caveau de la Huchette on Boulevard St Michel); of Melmoth's grave in Pere Lechaise, and Morrison's, signposts in vandal's ink, scrawled sacrilege on stone; a box-room in the student halls of the Universite de Vincennes in St Delice.

Bricasso and Paque denied the notion of multiple viewpoints; they explained that this Cubique restructuring of the subject was a means by which they might encode all the essential information of a 3D object, as an architect's projected plans exploded on a 2D canvas. In such works, more flattened than foreshortened, surfaces of planes may intersect at angles which express no sense of depth as we desire it. To Paque the basic principle of Cubique painting was to manifest "a new space"; the underlying purpose of the Cubique shattering of shape was the establishment of space, of motion in space.

Bizarre Cubiques

I met the gargoyle and his missus on the train heading from Caerlundein (Euston, I believe) to Felixstoff, to catch the ferry to Diephe. Grey stony wings and leather luggage, black box camera around his neck, outsized brown-tinted glasses and a Yankees baseball cap, he settled his suitcase on the seat (reserved) beside me and grinned, offered a McNugget. When the girl arrived to claim her seat (reserved), he made a show of stubborn innocence. Could she not find another seat?

After a while, under a porter's stern officiation, he relented. Amoricans. Sometimes the most modern are the most barbaric.

Developing the old geometries of primitive creation, of Afritan tribal masks, Iberian sculpture, or Egylphan bas-reliefs, the Cubique painters fused these with the new geometries of patchwork vision in the landscapes and still lifes of Saul Cézanne, expanding on the strange, skewed sense of space and stylised relationshifts. Works consist of facets not combined in tesselated surfaces of tiles but as transparent planes turned and transformed, superimposed. The clear-cut edges hint of mass in motion in space. One finds in the Cubique construction, as employed eventually by Litan futurists, an implication of technology, of the vanguard of a dynamic century.

In the Azurian Collection of the Louvre Zoo, I sketch a karibu, its eagle wings folded along its oxen torso, human head lowered to feed, the curls of its great braided beard, long as a hobben scholar's, jutting out beneath the nosebag. Muscles ribbed more architecturally than a horse painted by Stubbs, it is a thing of antique grace; four thousand years of age, it once stood guard, with its bull mate, outside the gates of Babylon. My pencilwork on paper does not do it justice, so I blush as passing tourists crane their necks to glimpse my awkward sketch.

From 1906 through 1907, Bricasso synthesized his sources, old and new, into his seminal Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, now hung in the Museum of Modern Art, New Amsterdam. Paque, one of only a few artists who both viewed and understood Bricasso's painting at the time, immediately transformed his own style in response.

Not everyone was so sympatico.

In March 1909, the French art critic Louis Voxelles, was reviewing the Salon des Indépendants; he referred disparagingly to how Paque's style... reduced, broke everything apart to "little cubes" . . . bizarre cubiques. Hence, the name Cubique began as derision, a term of insult and abuse.

A Palette of Greens And Greys

In scorn of all mimesis, The Republic of Platon contains what Crochet called "a solemn, celebrated, rigorous negation of representation." It stresses four key points. One: in its remove from what is real, art imitates appearance. Two: in fooling our perceptions, art deceives. Three: the artist's ignorance of any function to the objects being represented empties art of truth. Four: these forms of mimesis call to the irrational in us.

But Cubique art quite clearly deviates from Platon's theory. Unlike the art Platon describes, neither deceptive nor mimetic, neither ignorant nor sensual, it arouses a response that's intellectual, abstract, honest.

I stand before the grave of Bastian Melmoth, sculpted back in 1910 by Giacovvi Efstein as a block of great, grey tomb in the Art Deco style. An angel flies above the wild one's name, perhaps the poet as a naked Icarus; his penis, though, is long since gone, snapped off, a tour guide says, to stop the pédés improper and impertinent advances—on all fours, ass in the air, abusing themselves upon this altar to the alternative.

Still, green lipstick kisses cover Melmoth's mausoleum, a moss of strange desire. I wish I'd brought the bravery to plant my own.

Inviting speculation on the real relation between actuality and artifice, Cubique's fragmented forms must be assembled by the viewer into elements we know. Despite this radical technique, though, the Cubique chooses the everyday over the epic. Subject matter is traditional—portraits, landscapes and still lifes—and fragments of the faces, or guitars, or wineglasses can be detected in the shifting contours of these patches painted with a palette of greens and greys, ochres and umbers. The paintings in the early phase, before the war, clearly originate in nature. From the beginning though, Cubique is interested in more than simple imitation.

— The Rocky Horror Picture Show? she smiles.

I peel the headphones back and click my Walkman off, hold up the cover of the cassette—black background, disembodied lips in lurid emerald. I nod.

Her hair is a shade of iridescent blue-green I associate with pigeons, peacocks, long and curled in bangs that roll around her shoulders; Natalie flicks it back now as she pulls her own earpieces out.

We talked briefly on the train from London; sat, by accident, beside each other on the ferry. Now . . . it seems we've tastes we share, a fortunate musical excuse to overcome my shyness.

A Clear Portrait Of A Man

She's on her way to Nunes to spend summer as an au pair. I'm on my own backpacking "Grand Tour" of Elysse, starting at Caerlundein, following a path through Pharis, down to Canis and then Noce, Amor and Vrienze, back up through the Alphs, through Baal and, finally, by ferry from Oustenne, back home to Albion. The ticket's good for two months; I can stop off anywhere along the route, for any length of time. My first stop will be Pharis.

She spots my tape of Strange Days, by The Doors.

— You've got to go to Pere Lechaise, she says.

Bricasso's Whilhelm Uhde (1910, Private Collection) depicts a clear portrait of a man, and yet his head and body have been broken into small, semi-regular planes. Despite the protestations of the artist we can say that these allow the subject to be seen from several angles simultaneously. More importantly these planes also insist on being recognised as entities in their own right, not simply as a technique of description.

Indifferent to the past, to the traditions of perspective, the perspectives of tradition, aligned perpendicular to the flow of history, Cubique attempts to present the subject in the most complete manner.

I remember how much of my awkward way with this ephemeral nymphen friend—whose travelling companionship would only last until we parted on the platform in a Pharis station, Gare du Nord—was down to panic. An ungainly adolescent, gay only in sexuality, I was unused to such attention from the naeads, dryads, sylphs and nymphs of rural Caledonia; a year or two spent at the University of Kentigern were nowhere near enough for as furtive a faery as I was to undo decades of bitten lips, held tongues and indeterminate pronouns. I was afraid that she might . . . like me.

Cubique works after 1912 are not concerned as much with deconstructing form as with the reconstruction of it using these new elements of artifice. In his Still Life With Chair Caning (1912, Musee Picasso, Pharis), Bricasso introduces non-painting materials into painting; he includes a strip of oilcloth, indirectly challenging the very nature of his art. Still Life is extraordinary also because here Bricasso substitutes an oval canvas for the normal rectangle. This accentuates the sense, the presence, of the painting as an object in its own right. And shatters the metaphor of the canvas as a window on the world.

Stencilled Letters And Numbers

Jadis, the poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote once, si je me souviens bien, ma vie était un festin où s'ouvraient tous les coeurs, où tous les vins coulaient. Un soir, j'ai assis la Beauté sur mes genoux.—Et je l'ai trouvée amère.—Et je l'ai injuriée. Je me suis armé contre la justice. Je me suis enfui. Ô sorcières, ô misère, ô haine, c'est à vous que mon trésor a été confié! Je parvins à faire s'évanouir dans mon esprit toute l'espérance humaine. Sur toute joie pour l'étrangler j'ai fait le bond sourd de la bête féroce. J'ai appelé les bourreaux . . .

When Bricasso and Paque invented collages and papiers colles in 1912, they began the stage known as Synthetic Cubique.

It began in the Cubique paintings of late 1910, where most references to nature are no longer overt: in Paque's The Portuguese (1911, Kunstmuseum, Baal), one can barely visualise the form of a guitarist in a café, never mind confuse the depiction with a real scene. Then, combining and contrasting the physical with the illusory image, Paque brought elements such as sand and stenciled letters or numbers into the Cubique vocabulary, rendering the relationship of art to life conceptual, not mimetic.

Once, I translate from Arthur Rimbaud's fine French, if I remember right, my life was a feast where opened all the hearts, where all the wines flowed. One evening, I sat Beauty on my knees—And I found her bitter.—And I reviled her. I armed my self against the justice. I fled my self. O sorcery, o misery, o hate, it was you who my treasure was entrusted to! I managed to make faint within my spirit all human hope. On every joy, to throttle it, I made the deaf bound of the fierce beast. I called for hangmen...

The use of these letters reasserts the dominance of the picture-surface itself, and emphasizes the nature of the canvas as a two-dimensional object, a study of color and light.

— Confronted with these various alphabetical, numerical and musical symbols, says Robert Rosenblum (Cubique and Twentieth Century Art, p. 66), one realizes that the arcs and planes that surround them are also to be seen as symbols, and that they are no more to be considered the visual counterparts of reality than a word is to be considered identical with the thing to which it refers.

Synthesizing The Object

With the snapshots of the Kodak Brownie, painting had now lost its competition with photography. Now living in its shadow, it had no choice but to become an art focused on two dimensions.

So, we laid our objects flat upon the canvas, shown in facets, multiplying angles under which they could be seen to interpenetrate themselves, to lose their individuality, their identifiable discreteness. In this way, both Paque and I, both Bricasso and myself, well, we were proving that an independent painting could be crafted, one that would be free from any reference to the reality of the external world.

An achronistic writing, I think. This would be the narrative equivalent of Cubique, the line of language as essential to the tale as is the canvass surface to the painting. I think this as I fly (again, in memory) the long dark road from Pharis back to St Delice, having not known the Metro closes at midnight, having hitched the Rue de St Delice not knowing it's a red light district, having reached the lights of Pharis's suburban neighbour, only to realise, fuck, I've lost my passport somewhere on the way. Having returned to—fortunately—find it where it fell.

The introduction of bright color caused a further flattening of space, as did elaboration of the picture surface with such decorative devices as the stippling techniques of pointillism. Broken brush strokes, tone and shadow, distance between denser planes brought light. And still the distance being defined here was not depth.

Synthetic Cubique was the outcome of a new desire to describe visual reality without resorting to illusionistic painting. The artists strove to win their goal by synthesizing the object, even to the extent of including real components of it in a collage, thus creating a new, separate reality for it.

Strolling the tree-lined avenues, browsing the stalls of leatherbound books and lightweight watercolours along the Left Bank of the River Sine, I imagine myself a latter-day Melmoth, a wanderer in the wilderness of this city, distanced by my language from its denizens. I imagine myself as Alastor, Shelley's Spirit of Solitude... but the poet or his demon? Alastor. It was the name of one of the Erinnyes also, and I am as bitter a boy as I am fey, as prone to rage as romance.

Watching myself, I laugh now, but... pretence is all part of the construction of identity.

Aesthetic Objects

Of all the original Cubique painters, Paque remained the most commited. Unlike Bricasso, he remained unbound by any ideology and kept his work remote from mere human or social interests. These concerned neither his art nor, consequently, Paque himself; his interest in material things was limited to their existence as aesthetic objects, there only to be exploited for pictorial motives. Continuing the decorative patterning and flattened planes of Synthetic Cubique, through the 1920's he progressed to greater freedom. By the beginning of the 1930's he was internationally hailed as a world master of still lifes of the calibre of Chardin.

I sat alone in the Caveau de la Huchette, drinking a vodka and limon, stretching it out a long hour as I scribbled thoughts now lost forever to fire, and counted out my coins, wishing I had enough for another drink or a meal in a decent restaurant. As I sat there I watched the barman with his drooping moustache, all the students' caricatures of him tacked up or taped to the wall behind. An inveterate doodler, I just had to draw my own and, with an excruciating mix of embarassment and bravado, gave it to him as I left.

Cubiques are not concerned with copying appearance, but with decomposing it to its intrinsic parts—a circle, a triangle or a square—or with constructing new forms of their own from these base morphemes. For the Cubique artist, the painting is itself a physical reality, not merely a mimicry of nature, and in this sense it embodies an attempt to establish a concept of paintingness, the idea of which Platon did not consider. It is this aspect of Cubique which will become the pure abstraction of Mondrian's early work Tableau No. 2 / Composition VII (1912, Guggenheim Museum, New Amsterdam).

I decide with wry amusement that I actually rather respect the thrawn refusal of Pharisiens to make even the slightest allowances for my guidebook butchery of their language. The old cliche that the natives will appreciate it if you "make the effort", is, I've found, a nonsense here.

— Un carnet du billet, s'il vous plait, I say to the man in the Metro kiosk.

I'm met with a blank stare, my pronunciation or my grammar (or perhaps both) clearly rendering me utterly incomprehensible. I think perhaps he wants precision. I would like to purchase, if I may, good man...

Paintings About Painting

Paque's works develops through his Guéridons and Cheminées and Canéphores, through the tables of musicians, chimneys, women holding baskets full of flowers and fruit. An interest in Greek themes leads him to try his hand at graphic work with etchings for Vollard's edition of Hessian's Theogony. A series that he paints from 1950 through to 1958 also reflects this interest in the antique, his paintings of birds like archaic pottery designs in their clean-lined but decorative simplicity. Then from 1948 to 1955, he paints eight grand Ateliers in which Cubique dispenses with all mannerisms, striving simply for the balanced composition.

I walk out of the Caveau de la Huchette, knowing—knowing tonight—the Metro has been closed for hours, and that I'll have to fly again the long dark road to St Delice to sleep in my rented accommodation. That's not my plan. Instead, I spread my wings, lower my horns and glide along the Sine towards the Eiffel Tower. Supine on a stone bench beneath its girdering, I gaze up at this complex gridwork of human endeavour. A circle of backpackers sits a little way away, but their guitar is quiet, my experience of Pharis's most noted landmark undisturbed.

The paintings that result from Cubique thought are, by Platonic standards, unimpeachable, offering no illusion, no deception: if they were held up at a distance, no one would question their nature. In fact, the viewer unfamiliar with the tropes of Cubique painting may well find it difficult to distinguish any elements whatever they will recognise. Cubiques, unlike the "ignorant" artists Platon exiles from his great utopia with its philosopher-king, concern themselves with painting as a theme, painters creating paintings about painting, painted only to be viewed and understood as paintings.

I gaze at the Cubique painting on the gallery wall.

I abandon linearity, temporality, in Pharis. I fly out of 1993 and into 1910. I buy a Kodak Brownie and take snapshots of the carts drawn by chimaera down the streets. I wear an aviator's leather jacket, goggles, fly a box-kite, think of skyscrapers now being built in the reticulated streets of old New Amsterdam. I pose as Melmoth, sipping absinthe in a pavement cafe. I step sidewise, slide into a boulevard world where Rimbaud never died but, bored of poetry and bored of guns, became a painter, shattering his art into these... facets of the senses, these bizzare cubiques.

Story Copyright © 2008 by Hal Duncan. All rights reserved.
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About the author

Hal Duncan is the author of Vellum, and the follow-up Ink. He lives in the West End of Glasgow, but you can find him over on his blog. This story was originally published in Fantasy.

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