Book Review: In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism and the Invention of Collage
In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage by Christine Poggi. 1992. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-05109-4
In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage by Christine Poggi is an academic book focusing on a short, but creatively explosive time between 1912 and 1919. The world at that time was experiencing growing pains, with changes in technology and mechanization, the proliferation of cheap, widely distributed printed media (newspapers, journals), and a looming war. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Juan Gris, Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, and poets such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti all responded to these changes by pushing the boundaries of their given mediums.
In Defiance of Painting is a densely written book that takes readers from Picasso's earliest constructions, through the exploration of collage by his colleagues, Braque and Gris, on to the innovations of Futurists artists and poets. The times were fractured, and so, too, were the works coming out of these studios. One over-riding question of the times was what is truth in art? These artists railed against traditional representation and, instead, opted for trying to capture the essence of a symbol or element in their works. Giacomo Balla, an Italian Futurist painter, wrote:
"Having arrived at this point of my art I thought, moreover, that I had only painted a simple door and that it would have been much better for the spectator to look at a real door rather than see it reproduced on canvas. All the more so because I would not have been good at exactly reproducing the real." (pages 246 and 248).
My first instinct was to balk at the idea that a specific person (namely Picasso) invented collage. It makes more sense to me that artists, poets, and others were talking to each other, experimenting and building upon techniques (both in and out of the formal art world) and expanding an already existing art form. But, taking the definition of invention to be "a device, contrivance, or process originated after study and experiment," as Merriam-Webster defines it, I can much more readily buy into Poggi's assertion. In a sense, Picasso explored the "truth" in his work by exploiting the tension between opposing elements and "inventing" his own brand of collage. Braque focused on touch as a dimension of painting, while Gris searched for conceptual purity. The Futurists (Boccioni, Severini and others) sought to capture and define energy in their work. The poets broke down language and exploited rhythm and sound to produce cacophonies that echoed the world around them.
Whether or not these artists and poets truly "invented" collage is arguable. I submit that collage, in various formal and informal constructs, existed long before the Cubists and Futurists brought it solidly into the art world. What is not in dispute is the incredible changes these artists brought about with their work. Not only did they push the boundaries of art making (moving it from an external to an internal process that attempted to capture the senses on canvas), they managed to change how viewers interact with the artwork in the process. No longer was viewing art a passive activity. The Cubists and Futurists, by their manipulation and fracturing of materials, forced the viewer to actually read (or attempt to read) the symbols contained within—or purposefully withheld from—the imagery. To understand the work, viewers had to think. No wonder these artists and poets ticked so many people off.
It took me a long time to get through this book. Not because it was difficult to understand—Poggi's writing style is approachable and the images contained within the book bring the text to life—but because there are so many thought-provoking passages contained within it. I think about this book a lot weeks after I finished it. It has changed the way I think about art and collage. I will, most likely, return to it for another reading.
Have you read this book? Let me know what I've got wrong (or right!).