Looking Both Ways: Modernity as Contradiction and Paradox
Though the writing in the following letter concerns a different work of art than displayed in my exhibition, Duchamp’s reasoning for believing Fountain to be legitimate can be echoed in a defense of L.H.O.O.Q. That work’s critics may argue that the bastardization of Mona Lisa by adding a goatee and mustache is plagiarism—that altering a revered work of art is immoral. Yet Duchamp did not write on the actual Mona Lisa but a mass-produced postcard, turning a wholesale commodity into art by choosing and altering it.
Marcel Duchamp: “The Richard Mutt Case.” Published May 1917 in The Blind Man.
They say that any artist paying six dollars may exhibit,
Mr Richard Mutt sent in a fountain. Without discussion this article disappeared and never was exhibited.
What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt’s fountain: —
1 Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.
2 Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.
Now Mr Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows.
Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object.
As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.
In reading this short essay, we can come to understand Malevich’s intentions behind Black Cross. Though there may be no intentional reference to Christ’s death by crucifixion, as a Suprematist work, it still can be seen as a kind of an all-encompassing experience, as demonstrated by the last few paragraphs wherein Malevich seems to describe a philosophical ascent to the sky.
Kasimir Malevich: “Non-Objective Art and Suprematism.” Written in 1919 for the catalogue to the 10th State Exhibition.
In referring to non-objectivity, I merely wished to make it plain that Suprematism is not concerned with things, objects, etc., and more: non-objectivity in general has nothing to do with it. Suprematism is a definite system in accordance with which colour has developed throughout the long course of its culture.
Painting arose from the mixing of colours and – at moments when aesthetic warmth brought about a flowering – turned colour into a chaotic mix, so that it was objects as such which served as the pictorial framework for the great painters. I found that the closer one came to the culture of painting, the more the frameworks (i.e. objects) lost their systematic nature and broke up, thus establishing a different order governed by painting.
It became clear to me that new frameworks of pure colour must be created, based on what colour demanded and also that colour, in its turn, must pass out of the pictorial mix into an independent unity, a structure in which it would be at once individual in a collective environment and individually independent.
The system is constructed in time and space, independently of any aesthetic considerations of beauty, experience or mood, but rather as a philosophical cold system, the realization of new trends in my thinking – as a matter of knowledge.
At the present moment man’s path lies across space. Suprematism is the semaphore of light in its infinite abyss.
The blue colour of the sky has been overcome by the Suprematist system, it has been broken through and has entered into white, which is the true actual representation infinity and therefore freed from the colour background of the sky.
A hard, cold system, unsmilingly set in motion by philosophical thought. Indeed, real power may already be in motion within this system.
. . .
Everything that we see arose from the colour mass transformed into plane and volume. Every machine, house, person and table, all are pictorial volume systems intended for particular purposes.
The artist too must transform the colour masses and create an artistic system, but he must not paint little picture of fragrant roses since all this would be dead representation pointing back to life.
. . .
I have ripped through the blue lampshade of the constraints of color. I have come into the white. Follow me, comrade aviators. Swim into the abyss. I have set up the semaphores of Suprematism.
I have overcome the lining of the coloured sky, torn it down and into the bag thus formed, put colour, tying it up with a knot. Swim in the white free abyss, infinity is before you.
One can better understand the paintings of Boccioni by reading excerpts from the original Futurist Manifesto. Even a pure landscape, as in Boccioni’s painting, seems to conform to Marinetti’s dynamistic vision of the modern world, though there are no industrial artifacts included.
F.T. Marinetti: “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism.” Published in 1909 in Le Figaro.
1. We intend to glorify the love of danger, the custom of energy, the strength of daring.
2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity, and strength of daring.
3. Literature having up to now glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and slumber, we wish to exalt the aggressive movement, the feverish insomnia, running, the perilous leap, the cuff, and the blow.
4. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed. A race-automobile adorned with great pipes like serpents with explosive breath . . . a race-automobile which seems to rush over exploding powder is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
5. We will sing the praises of man holding the flywheel of which the ideal steering-post traverses the earth impelled itself around the circuit of its own orbit.
. . .
7. There is no more beauty except in struggle. No masterpiece without the stamp of aggressiveness. Poetry should be a violent assault against unknown forces to summon them to lie down at the feet of man.
. . .
11. We will sing the great masses agitated by work, pleasure or revolt; we will sing the multicolored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals; the nocturnal vibration of arsenals and docks beneath their glaring electric moons; greedy stations devouring smoking serpents; factories hanging from the clouds by the threads of their smoke; bridges like giant gymnasts steeping over sunny rivers sparkling like diabolical cutlery; adventurous steamers scenting the horizon; large-breasted locomotives bridled locomotives bridled with long tubes, and the slippery flight of airplanes whose propellers have flaglike flutterings and applauses of enthusiastic crowds.
In various critical works and lectures of American and European modernism of the 20th century, much has been made of Ezra Pound’s cry to “Make it new,” meaning that artists of all media should refrain from merely mimicking past artistic movements in favor of avant-garde innovation. Reducing the aesthetic intentions of all modernist works to this one slogan may help to simplify the mindset prevalent at the beginning of that century (and, in some cases, fin de siècle works) for newcomers to art history, but such a generalization drowns out the sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic variations of style from nation to nation, city to city, and even artist to artist. In addition, while many artists did focus on generating original work distinguishable from theretofore revered “classics,” this art exhibition has been arranged in order to prove that modernist artists contradicted their emphasis on the future via the use of allusions. Perhaps paradoxically, they carved out a vision of modernity by redefining iconography from previous artistic eras. In short, their formal innovations did not come from the blue; they looked both ways. The pieces selected to prove this thesis include Umberto Boccioni’s Landscape (1916), Vinent van Gogh’s Portrait of Doctor Felix Rey (1889), Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1912), and Kasimir Malevich’s Black Cross (1923).
The said exhibit’s layout will be anything but typical. As illustrated on the above floor plan, the exhibit will begin in a basement at the front desk and ticketing area. Once every half hour, a new tour will begin, in which a group of up to twenty people will enter an elevator that gradually ascends three floors, each floor displaying another artwork on the other side of the glass. At first, the metal doors will open to reveal the elevator car, which is made up of entirely of plexiglass walls. A two-headed robotic tour guide will greet the visitors. As the doors shut behind tour group, the left head will introduce himself as Allusion, whose specialty is to explain how each of the forthcoming painted works looks to the past. The right head will then butt in, announcing that his name is Innovation and that he will detail how the artists attempted to redefine the past as expressed by Allusion. Together their name is ArtBot2109 (the number suffix being the year of its creation). The purpose of this highly functioning android, capable of learning guests’ names and programmed to answer the top 250,000 most commonly asked questions, is to literalize the sense of “looking both ways” with its two heads, as well as to engender the futuristic technologies imagined but unable of being created in the modernist period.
With the guests introduced to Allusion and Innovation, the car will ascend one storey and stop at the first floor, where Umberto Boccioni’s Landscape (the painted original) will be on display through the wall directly behind ArtBot2109. A holographic projection slideshow of other Boccioni works will display on the other three sides of the elevator car to give a greater sense of context as Allusion and Innovation discuss the featured painting. The same scenario will occur on the second floor van Gogh exhibit and the third floor Duchamp exhibit. After L.H.O.O.Q., however, the elevator car will open once again to the final exhibit. ArtBot will usher the guests outside on the exhibit rooftop to view Malevich’s Black Cross, which will sit on an easel enclosed in plexiglass. The concept is for the elevator to ascend in order of departure from tradition—to physically demonstrate the increasing level of experimentation—until, at last, the guests can view Black Cross and the be able to look up into the sky and see the infinity set forth in Suprematist works. The lack of holographic projections of other Malevich paintings will lend Black Cross a stronger sense of climax and finality.
In all, the owner of this unique exhibit intends to defamiliarize the act of viewing art—to keep the visitors guessing until the end and absorbing and retaining more information as a result of this experience’s uniqueness—all while mimicking the two-way-looking subject matter. That is to say, the form of the exhibit will match the content (the paradoxical nature of modern art that combines allusions and innovations) by mixing traditional art tour elements (e.g. the original artworks themselves and the presence of a guide to explain and contextualize) with avant-garde changes (e.g. the vertical rather than horizontal trajectory of the exhibit, as well as the guide being a machine rather than a human).
Each of the four selections warrants further description, beginning with Landscape. The curator has placed this work first in the exhibition for a reason: its traditional subject is a far cry from true abstraction. The objects portrayed are easily recognizable as trees, shrubs, grass, mountains, and sky. One need not make an imaginative leap to understand the representations, unlike the paintings of Braque and Picasso made in the same time period, wherein reading the title might be required to understand what the work depicts. Indeed, the same pastoral scene could have been painted hundreds of years before Boccioni did so in 1916. Yet the scene arguably could not have been painted in the same fashion.
To understand the piece, one must look closely and note that the long brushstrokes create a blurry effect similar to that of photographic snapshots taken of objects in motion. Though the subject matter is traditional and contains no people or modern artifacts, Boccioni’s treatment of nature exhibits the dynamistic qualities of Futurist works that “exalt the aggressive movement” of forms and show how “the splendor of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed,” as per F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto (286). In the age of mechanization, nature begins to take on qualities of nearby industry.
Landscape also demonstrates the leading Futurist painter’s thoughts on the fourth dimension. Though Picasso and other Cubists explored the fourth dimension by showing multiple perspectives via the “repetition of legs, arms, and faces,” Boccioni argued for creating “the unique form which gives continuity in space,” i.e. “a continuous projection of forces and forms intuited in their infinite unfolding” (Henderson 320-21). Therefore, instead of showing dynamism with one body repeated several times in various poses (as in Duchamp’s Nude Scending a Staircase, made in 1912), Boccioni prefers to show form in such a way that its movement is apparent without repetition. Case in point, take Boccioni’s Landscape, which reinvents the old genre of the landscape painting by using a blur effect in all directions to show how trees and other plant life might move over time.
Next is Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Doctor Felix Rey, which seems more abstract than Landscape due to its fantastic imagery. Like much of his work at Arles, the painting is a character study portrait inspired by early 19th century woodblock prints from Japan. In essence, van Gogh updates the old Western concept of the simple portrait and reinvents it with the injection of Japanese stylization elements such as narrowed eyes and repeated patterns in the background (in this case, red dots and yellow-and-orange “S” curves set against a dark green backdrop). In a paradox, van Gogh uses the inspiration of decades-old Japanese prints—already been outdated in their country of origin—to show “a synonym for his utopian ideal” to be enacted in the future (Kodera 189).
Kodera writes that although van Gogh’s initial interest in Japanese art begins as “nothing but an exoticism,” his naïve perception of Japanese culture as mysterious and primitive blossoms into a romantic and idealistic worldview. His desire to establish his own miniature version of Japan in Arles produces works like the Portrait of Doctor Felix Rey. This painting shows his efforts to replicate Japanese art, which supposedly had “the queerest surroundings, everything fantastic, and at all moments interesting contrasts present themselves” (191). The larger-than-life, unrealistic backdrop, as well as the contrast of straight lines in the man’s coat and goatee with the curls of his mustache and the surrounding S-figures, demonstrates his Arles efforts to attain a utopian future by engaging the primitive past.
A confrontational mockery of Western fine art, Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. takes even more creative liberties than Felix Rey, hence its location on the third floor of the exhibit. The whole piece consists only of a mass-produced postcard bearing a picture of the Mona Lisa with a scribbled-on goatee and mustache and a title inscribed on the bottom, which, sounded out in French, creates a verbal pun translating to “She has a hot ass.” Unlike other ready-mades by Duchamp, this particular piece includes a commonly recognized artwork—a look at the past—instead of just “a plain piece of plumbing” a la Fountain (Duchamp 252). Yet the use of a cheap commodity and “ordinary article of life, [placed] so that its useful significance disappeared” (in this case, a postcard) as a “canvas,” combined with the pre-Dadaist technique of altering others’ work and using low-brow jokes, makes L.H.O.O.Q. clearly modern and forward-looking.
Henry Sayre compares Duchamp with William Carlos Williams, author of stark Imagist poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The poem uses banal objects to “[define] a radical split between the world of art and the world of barnyards, between a world which crystallizes the imagination and a world which is a mere exposition of the facts” (12). Duchamp explores that same split by using an everyday object—a postcard in the case of L.H.O.O.Q.—to “revitalize our aesthetic sense” and force viewers to mark the distance between consumer goods and traditional art. In presenting the old in a mocking fashion, Duchamp “[asserts] the authority that artistic vision holds,” daring us to adopt a broader view of what defines art. As stated in his letter entitled “The Richard Mutt Case,” Duchamp maintains that choosing an object and deeming it “art” is enough—a revolutionary idea, especially considering the arbitrary and often crude aspect of his selected items.
Finally one arrives at Kasimir Malevich’s Black Cross, a work so bold and abstract it must be displayed at the very top of the exhibit’s vertical trajectory—a work which incidentally brings familiar old iconography to mind but rejects it at the same time. For the uninitiated, the painting appears to be nothing more than a nondescript rendering of the Christian symbol of the crucifix. One can hardly help but imagine the possibility of symbolism, be it earnest or ironic. Yet at the same time as he paints a form familiar to all, that reading paradoxically runs against the non-objective intentions of Malevich’s movement of Suprematism. As he writes, “ . . . I [wish] to make it plain that Suprematism is not concerned with things, objects, etc.,” and that artists “must not paint little pictures of fragrant roses since all this would be dead representation pointing back to life” (282, 283). In reducing floral still lifes to “little pictures of fragrant roses” (italics mine), the key term being “little,” Malevich insinuates that he views traditional painting as quaint and pointless—Suprematism standing as a superior reaction against such diminutive dabbling.
As a result, Black Cross cannot stand for the cross by default because that would refer to a classical symbol, and Malevich wishes to reach beyond representation into the metaphysical. In yet another paradox, however, Black Cross may carry some kind of spiritual weight in its very act of “[swimming] in the white free abyss” with “infinity . . . before you” (183). As Susan Compton writes, Suprematist artworks may refer “to a very old tradition of Russian painting – the icon,” used traditionally to celebrate saints (581). After all, one critic asserts that Russian Futurism, unlike the Italian brand, “is a creation of new things, grown on the magnificent traditions of Russian antiquity.”
One might argue that such a simplistic theory—Italian Futurism rejects tradition while Russian Futurism affirms it—contradicts Malevich’s direct statement that his work is non-objective. Even if one clings tightly to his painterly intentions and rejects the aforementioned critic, there is still possibility for spirituality in Suprematist infinity. Compton quotes Apollinaire from a 1912 essay in which he argued that “Young painters . . . are getting further and further from” traditional art “to explore the greatness of metaphysical forms . . . [Current] art, if it isn’t the direct emanation of particular religious beliefs, presents nonetheless, several characteristics of . . . religious art” (579). Thus, in attempting to “make it new” by passing beyond culture and explaining something closer to a metaphysical truth, Malevich’s oeuvre becomes its own kind of religion. In a double-paradox, the cross in the Black Cross does not intentionally stand for Christ’s cross (though viewers are undoubtedly reminded of it), but it still carries a suggestion of spirituality that raises the initial question of What does it all mean? for which Christ was to be part of an answer.
Malevich’s success in forcing viewers to “look both ways” and contemplate his paintings’ simultaneous simplicity and complexity makes him an excellent example of a modernist—as well as a fitting pick for final artist of the “Looking Both Ways” exhibition. All four examples in the exhibit use past/future paradoxes as artistic tools, but Black Cross forces critics to consider whether Malevich did indeed conceive of the double-paradox without admitting to it, or if that element of interpretive confusion exists only in the eye of the beholder.
Compton, Susan P. “Malevich’s Suprematism — The Higher Intuition.” The Burlington Magazine. 118.881 (Aug. 1976): 577-85.
Duchamp, Marcel. “The Richard Mutt Case.” Dadas on Art. Ed. Lucy Lippard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1971. 143.
Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. “Italian Futurism and ‘The Fourth Dimension.’” Art Journal. 41.4, Futurism (Winter 1981): 317-23.
Kodera, Tsukasa. “Japan as Primitive Utopia: Van Gogh’s Japonisme Portraits.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. 14.3 (1984): 189-208.
Malevich, Kasimir. “Non-Objective art and Suprematism.” Malevich: Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art 1910-1920. Ed. Larissa Zhadova. London: Thames & Hudson, 1982. 282-3.
Marinetti, F.T. “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism.” Theories of Modern Art. Eds. Herschel B. Chipp and Peter Selz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 284-93.
Sayre, Henry M. “Ready-Mades and Other Measures: The Poetics of Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams.” Journal of Modern Literature. 8.1 (1980): 3-22.