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How science and technology changed art.

Andrea Wolter-Abele looks at how machines and industrial society provoked new concepts of creativity.

The invention of photography by the French painter Louis Daguerre in 1837 radically changed the relationship of the human being to the image. Photography proved that it was possible to give an objective likeness of reality using mechanical means. Moreover the development of architectural, industrial and specialised photography substantially reduced the previous scope for artistic commissions involving the most accurate and detailed reproduction of objects possible. Henceforth creative art and photography were to be in constant tension or competition.

The art critic, Charles Baudelaire, despised photography as being a product of industry. He felt it provided a picture of reality which lacked the `spiritual momentum' which came from the imagination. On the other hand, the painter, Gustave Courbet, recognised photography as a useful aid in depicting motifs. But even in the mid-nineteenth century he was giving his paintings a physical consistency which photography could not achieve by means of the thickness with which he applied colour and the intensity of his palette. He wanted to illustrate by his means that photography is only a copy of reality while painting is `concrete' reality.

Inspired by technological progress in optics, photography and electricity, artists in the second half of the nineteenth century and in particular the Impressionists, became convinced that the truth of an object could not be recognised in photographic reproductions. Instead it had to be broken down into its individual parts and their relationship to their surrounding had also to be examined. The Pointillists such as Georges Seurat built on the theories of the Impressionists, taking them further by consciously applying unmixed colours from the prism in the form of dots so that as the viewer the picture the flickering play of sunlight would be recreated in the retina.

It was an important factor in the further development of art that Impressionism and Pointillism for the first time destroyed the coherence of what objectively existed, and used colours on the basis of scientific and theoretical considerations. Finally, it was Paul Cezanne, the `father of modernism' who went beyond Impressionism from 1880 onwards by reducing nature to geometric and three-dimensional basic forms in his pictures. Building on his Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso developed a new creative principle which was seized upon and further developed by a whole generation of artists at the beginning of the twentieth century: the `Cubist' adventure, `dismantling' actual reality and `reassembling' it as an autonomous pictural reality. In breaking the concrete world down into its elements artists recognised the `inner' truth which had to be depicted. The crucial discovery of the Cubists was the autonomy of the work of art, its obedience to rules of its own: `The picture carries the justification for its own existence within itself ... it is itself an organism' (Albert Gleizes, Du Cubisme, 1912).

For Fernand Leger, who like Braque began to create landscapes structured according to Cubist principles in 1909, Cubism meant the opportunity to give expression to a new feeling of life which bore the stamp of the machine and its dynamics. What Leger described in 1924 in his `Aesthetics of the machine' was valid for him right from the start: `Modern man lives more and more in an order where geometry is predominant. All human creativity, whether mechanical or industrial, is based on geometric intentions'. Particularly in the works he produced between 1912 and 1914 Leger dismantled women's bodies and townscapes, reassembling them as conical tubes, cylinders or sections of a cone. Through the use of contrasting colours a pictural dynamic was engendered that corresponded to the constant movement of modern life.

While the Cubists concentrated primarily on the development of artistic expression, other groups of artists in the first decade of the twentieth century were also concerned with radical changes in political, social and cultural life. They called themselves `Futurists', and saw themselves as `pioneers storming forward to the future'. The Milanese poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, published his Futurist Manifesto on February 20th, 1909, a hymn to speed which professed faith in the modern machine age while all previous art was declared dead.

Like their French contemporaries, the Futurists started by developing the theories of the Impressionists further, and in so doing they used the iconographic language of analytical Cubism. However they were also endeavouring to give the picture ever greater dynamism and make the element of time visible. The medium of film which the Lumiere brothers had developed in 1895 was seen as a technical and artistic challenge. From 1912 attempts could be seen in the work of Giacomo Balla to reproduce phases of movement simultaneously in a picture. The art dealer and critic, Daniel Kahnweiler, reported that Picasso considered setting his pictures in motion using a clockwork mechanism or producing a series of works which could be shown in rapid succession, as in a film, around the same period.

At the `Salon des Independants' exhibition in 1912, Marcel Duchamp's painting Nude descending a staircase No.2 (in which he formulated his artistic answer to the advance of photography) was perceived as so shocking that it had to be withdrawn. Those attending the exhibition could not read or understand the painting. The picture, inspired by Duchamp's familiarity with Jules Etienne Marey's photographs of movement, encapsulates the movement of a female body dismantled along the lines of Cubist analysis, while at the same time using the means of painting: `Chrono-photography was all the rage at the time and I was very familiar with studies of galloping horses and onlookers in step-by-step positions, of the kind that can be seen in Muybridge's albums'.

Marcel Duchamp wa one of a circle of friends including Franz Kupka, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Leger, Jean Metzinger and the mathematician, Maurice Princet, who started meeting regularly on Sundays at the house of Raymond Duchamp-Villon in Puteaux in 1911. The artists discussed picture-spaces, non-Euclidian geometry, chrono-photography (motion analysis), the fourth dimension and the ideological implications of the theory of relatively evolved by Albert Einstein in 1905. In 1912 Leger and Duchamp visited the `Salon de la Locomotion Aerienne' at the Grand Palais along with the sculptor Brancusi. The sight of the aeroplanes and their triumphant testimony to engineering prompted Duchamp to say: `Painting is finished'. No paintings by Duchamp are known to exist from the two years subsequent to this experience. It was not until he arrived in New York in 1915 that he developed the radically novel art form of `ready-mades', which used everyday found objects, examining and representing their relationship to art.

While artists in Western Europe and the United States were consciously taking materials or objects from the normal surroundings of industrial society and elevating them into works of art in the form of collages or `ready-mades', artists in Eastern Europe reacted less euphorically to a glorification of the machine and of technical progress. Though Russian artists certainly took up the Futurist and Cubist vocabulary of forms, they used and developed them in a metaphysical mode. In this context Kasimir Malevich was a pioneer, evolving an abstract vocabulary of forms; with its many varied nuances this would be recognised right up to the present day as an `international' language of art.

Malevich and his Russian artist friends had intensive contacts with French, Italian and German artists in the first two decades of the twentieth century: the Futurist manifesto was translated into Russian in 1909. Marinetti himself went to Russia at the beginning of 1914 on one of his political propaganda trips. Vladimir Tatlin and Malevich travelled to Paris where they exchanged ideas about theories of art with Picasso and Braque. At the same time Wassily Kandinsky published his book On the Spiritual in Art in Munich in 1910, as well as painting his first non-representational Improvisations.

Malevich started from a Cubist-cum-futurist style with a markedly emotional stance bearing the imprint, in terms of form and colour, of the power of old Russian icon painting and then attempted to give form to his vision of an alogical, aimless, `liberated' art. `In 1913, in my desperate efforts to free art from the ballast of the objective world, I escaped to the form of the square'. He was convinced that art up to that time -- like science and technology -- had been directed towards an objective. Nature however -- to which he referred again and again -- was free of all logic, of all purposeful endeavours towards a specific aim. He called this aimless art `Suprematism' by which he intended to convey `the liberated nothing' or `pure sensation' of a nonrepresentational world.

Malevich was attempting to give expression to a new sense of the world lying beyond what can be experienced. From this point of view the Suprematist pictures of Malevich and his friends, such as Ivan Kliun, should be seen as products of contemplative, meditative thought. The geometric formal elements of Suprematist paintings are constructed in accordance with mathematical laws. In Ivan Kliun's picture the fixed forms are dissolved and gradually disappear into the white of the ground. Every attachment to what can be grasped in earthly terms seems to be dissolved in the process.

There can be doubt that the artistic impulse towards Abstraction and Constructivism came from Russia. In Central and Western Europe it then evolved into what was called the mathematical aesthetic which developed a multiplicity of styles. In France these included `peinture pure' and `abstraction-creation', in Holland, Mondrian's `De Stijl', in Germany, the age of the Bauhaus and in Italy, `artisti astratti'.

In contrast to abstract artists, there were other artistic trends crystallising in the first half of the twentieth century which rejected technological progress and industrialisation. In Germany, for example, Expressionist groups such as `Die Brucke' were formed, dealing in an emotional manner with urban culture and its anonymity and isolation. The Dadaist art language developed in parallel at the same period, criticising the social impact of technology. Another popular artistic movement was Surrealism which saw truth in irrationality, depicting it as the interpretation of a dream.

Coming to terms with mechanised, profit-orientated industrial society on an individual basis typifies the nature of artistic creativity in the twentieth century. This applies not only to the first half of the century. In the post-war period in Germany there was first a return to Germany's own artistic traditions, then many artists followed new international inspirations. Influences from the United States were readily accepted. Gunther Uecker with his `Nail objects', for example, demonstrated how new materials could be turned into a pictorial entity. Op-art experiments created moving light sources using metal foil or soap bubbles. Artists exploited the results of research in optics and physics to expand limited human perceptual capacity. Continuing in the traditional of the ready-mades, television sets and computers were elevated into works of art: the intention was to heighten viewers' awareness to the influence of the media and technology on culture by alienating everyday gadgets from their purpose.

In the past 150 years, art has several times been declared `dead' or said not to exist any more. This may relate not least to the fact that technological developments such as photography, film and mechanisation, as well as the scientific study of light, had brought about radical changes in the artistic vocabulary. In the intensive process of coming to terms with the increasing mechanisation of our environment our concept of truth was changed. A new concept of art came into being.

From as early as the time of the Impressionists, artists have been looking for a new approach to reality. As in the model of the atom developed by Niels Bohr in 1913, they have since seen truth as residing in the `atoms' of objects which had to be dissected in Cubist terms. By examining the minutest elements artists came to `pure sensation'. With the propagation of his art Malevich gave `nothingness' an impetus, making it into a new `iconographic idea' which penetrates and deals with the industrial world of objects in metaphysical terms. The heirs of Marcel Duchamp, on the other hand, release everyday objects from their surroundings, alienating them from their purpose and placing them in new surroundings; they thereby give a theme to the altered truth of the object and the individuality of the viewer who puts the object into relationship with himself.

However, it is too one-sided to consider only American and Western European (post-) modernism. Beyond the `Iron Curtain' artists had to assert themselves in much more difficult creative conditions. In the Soviet Union, for example, in the 1980s in particular, a non-conformist art came into being, committed to rejecting repression; for a long time it was banned and confined to small informal circles. This art was typified by a markedly depressive element and a move back towards subjectivity.

Art in the twentieth century, and this no doubt will be the case beyond the millennium, is evolving in an arc of tension. On the one hand it is an `organon', that is -- in the Aristotelian sense -- a logical tool for recognising truth. On the other hand, we have an alternative vision for it -- Paul Klee and his `allegory of creation'.

Dr Andrea Wolter-Abele has specialised in art history, classical archaeology and linguistics, and is on the editorial staff of Damals. Translated by Judith Hayward [c] Damals
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Title Annotation:What Has Made the Year 2000 - Science, Technology, Communications
Author:Wolter-Abele, Andrea
Publication:History Today
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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