Regicide and modern art – III

Photo by Carmela Gross


From Analytical Cubism will arise antithetically the collage as an act of force or exception

exception measures

Cubism did not succeed in restoring the credibility of the pictorial representation of the world and, therefore, found no alternative but to resort to exceptional measures. Thus, from analytical cubism will arise antithetically the collage as an act of force or exception, on the eve of World War I.

In summary, what did the resource of introducing non-pictorial objects into the pictorial space correspond to? To a kind of “violent expropriation” or process of primitive accumulation of the things of the world – maneuver parallel to the expropriation just before the so-called “primitive” art. These were all expedients used to restore (at least temporarily), in an emergency situation or a prolonged state of exception, the credibility of the pictorial (and correlatively sculptural) system, whose “liquidity” or solvency had been abruptly extinguished due to the crisis of the media. and fundamentals of mimesis.

Let us not forget that the First World War was at that time. A collage it corresponded to the state of siege and the installed rationing, and temporarily halted the generalized insolvency of credibility.

In other words, and according to the perspective of analytical cubism, the introduction of extra-pictorial elements corresponded to a further effort to objectify or overcome the limits of solipsism and the fundamentally abstract content of bourgeois critical reason. In short, the operation corresponded to a movement to intensify realism, which at that point was without credit and in an acute crisis. Thus, the new objects incorporated in a raw state and suddenly by the collage (newspapers, fabrics, various objects, paper, cardboard, packaging, sand, etc.) brought to the Cubist space, constituted on canvas or on a similar support, the opacity and resistance of the things of the world.

Let us further reconsider the effect of the intervention. What was the new factor that came into play in the collage and that, despite innovative developments, it was not enough in the face of the depth of the crisis? Due to the principle or semantic commitment and the representational or mimetic function of Cubism, insistently remembered by the titles of the works and also underlined by historians such as Pierre Francastel and Giulio Carlo Argan, the collage combined tactile elements and conventional visual references (still lifes). What was it all about anyway?

In its production, the collage implied fragments of different materials within reach of the artist's hand. Crucial for such an understanding of the collage, is that this, unlike Analytical Cubism and Futurism, did not dissolve, neither in the order of intuitions nor in that of the elements of the pictorial surface, the multiple heterogeneity of such elements. This was the great historic step of the collage, although neither it nor the significant and fruitful devices derived from it – such as the construction-sculpture and later the corner counter-reliefs by Tatlin (1885-1953) – were enough to found a new visual regime.

Na collage, however, the surface ceased to be one and specular or to function as a metaphysical support – which was its significant leap – to acquire, “as a plastic entity, the strength to attract and integrate fragments of external reality, for example, pieces of newspaper, cardboard, wood”.[I] The differentiated provenance of its elements – such as that of a crowd in a modern urban artery – evoked an exploded unity.

Let's recapitulate in view of a balance sheet. The perceptive-intellectual process or the mode of cognition, previously unified according to a regulating idea in the Kantian scheme of reason, then passed – with the collage – to be exposed as a manufacturing process or as an exhibition of a mode of production. Therefore, isolated intuitions arose as parts and the demonstration that, in order to assemble them, it was necessary to proceed like an engineer in front of a cogwheel, or, however, like a film editor who – in order to evoke or reconstitute in the montage a set of relations – had to order the disconnected elements produced by cinematographic devices and that did not necessarily compose an organic whole.

Let us dwell on some of the implications of this historic leap. Space, assumed in Kant as a construct beforehand from pure sensibility, it started to be captured little by little and mediated in practice by the actions of the body. A collage he operated with what he found, incorporated what was within reach. That is to say, the horizon of collage it was thus redefined not as infinity and projection of reason, but as a cartographic survey of the sphere of action of a corporeal subject in terms of a set of sensitive and operational information specific to the field of interests and actions of his body. Thus, he found himself in the world of tactile experience, in the sense of Walter Benjamin, that is, an art linked to the same environment of social reproduction and an intervention anchored in everyday practices.

A collage emerged as a virtually tactile and non-contemplative discursive regime, incorporating ordinary materials. It thus seemed intended as a symbolic way to move against the split between the sphere of culture, knowledge and intellectual speculation and those of work, production and the life of the majority.

To what extent, however, did the negation of the contemplative paradigm based on the social division of labor come to be effectively realized through the practices of collage? Let us promptly face this issue, as it is decisive for the proposed challenge regarding the terms of the “death of painting”. perhaps to collage entirely suspend the use of depth suggestion, its supports and operations? Did it bring or express a radical purpose, such as the figure of regicide, to sever all ties with the unitary foundation of the previous pictorial order and its social presuppositions? Or did it rather correspond to a provisional and ambivalent situation, to a legal regime of exception or state of siege?

Ambivalence and Jacobinism

So far, I have tried to highlight the collage as a breaking process. I have just proposed an approximation with the image of the people or a crowd and, thus, I could have compared such a process, for example, with that of the crossing and accelerated multiplication of people storming the Winter Palace, as staged in October, by Serguei Eisenstein (1898-1948)…

I admit that, in order to evoke the genesis of Tatlin's objects, I exaggerated, in order to provoke, the debt to the collage. But now I want to invert this point of view and specify that the emergence of collage rather had to do with the world of stroll, of bohemia or perhaps of spontaneous and dispersed riots; but not exactly with a context of collective, organized and strategically conceived political actions, such as those that led to the October Revolution – rather planned and disciplined than voluntarist and spontaneous.

In this sense, Patricia Leighten (1946-), who radically renewed studies on collage,[ii] insisted on linking the young Picasso (1881-1973) with the anarchist circles in Catalonia. That is, the world of elements of collage and in part of the sculpture-construction that follows it is rather the twilight world of stroll and bohemia.

Just a quick look at your preferred materials: bottles, glasses, guitars, tobacco, matches and newspapers, etc. The latter, as Patricia Leighten perceptively points out, come as the apocalyptic bearers of external forces and the heralds of a chaos to which the fragmented order of society collage already anticipates and reacts intuitively: the outbreak of intra-imperialist war on a world scale.

Thus, and in its genesis as a cubist practice, the emergence of collage it is located on a hinge. It corresponds to a form of crisis and transition, perhaps comparable to that which Jacobinism intended to command, not without ambivalences and contradictions at the head of the Committee of Public Safety and the defensive wars of the First Revolutionary Republic. In this way, collage certainly marks an objective inflection in a materialist sense and also involves the use of “pre-molded” (or ready-mades: labels, matchboxes, music sheets, etc.), as well as compositions based on visibly heterogeneous materials, which do not give rise to illusions about the specular unity of the image produced. On the other hand, the census of the disparate origin of the materials points out, as Leighten rightly noted, the clash between the order of private domestic consumption, from which most of the elements used in the collage, and the negation of such an order by the world conflict that reached France through newspaper reports about the battles in the Balkans, etc.

Therefore, it was an ambivalent intuitive discourse permeated by the imminent feeling of an apocalypse – before which the order obtained through the joining of disparate materials proposed a provisional contradictory form, of crisis or transition. So much so that the collage it subsequently served in other historical circumstances – in which the experience of fragmentation had already been assimilated into everyday life and “normalized” – as an expression of setbacks and restorations.

The “Eighteenth Brumaire” of painting

This route immediately reveals the fragility of beliefs in the possibility of an aesthetic revolution disconnected from an effective social and political revolution.

Productive innovations certainly occur or are even, as is known, intrinsically constitutive of the bourgeois mode of domination. Therefore, productive revolutions – without a revolution in social and power relations – just reduplicate existing class relations. Thus, in capitalist Europe, the cubist collage was promptly passed to still lifes and such passage or change of clothes integrated the so-called “return to order” of the interwar period, while the revolutionary developments of the collage would be reactivated only in the Russian revolutionary processes , Germans and Mexicans.

So, then, the collage just as it took place in the hands of Braque (1882-1963) and Picasso equated – in terms of the juridical-political metaphors to which Juan Antonio’s challenge launched us – not to a state proper to revolutionary rupture or to the foundation of a new order , but rather to a chapter of crisis and exception in the field of visuality, in the face of the royal form of domination of the visual order by painting.

In summary, the collage would correspond in this sense to the typology of historical moments that Antonio Gramsci characterized as being of “crisis of hegemony” – a situation that, as we know, usually unfolds in so-called exceptional measures, soon consolidated in a Bonapartist regime, in the Marxist sense of the notion. However, the question-challenge proposed by Juan Antonio, about regicide, pushes us beyond the overthrow of one dynasty by another, to look for structural historical ruptures in the mode of domination and in class relations.

* Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). He is the author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Haymarket/ HMBS).

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Extract from the original version (in Portuguese) of chap. 11, “From a lunch on the grass to the bridges of Petrograd (notes from a seminar in Madrid): regicide and the dialectical history of modern art”, from the book The Conspiracy de l'Art Moderne et Other Essais, edition and introduction by François Albera, translation by Baptiste Grasset, Paris, editions Amsterdam (2024, prim. semester, proc. FAPESP 18/26469-9).


[I] “The technique of collage (...) wants to demonstrate how the work of art lives an existence of its own and no longer reflexive …” Cf. GC Argan, Art and Art Criticism, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1984, p. 91 (ed. in Portuguese: Art and Art Criticism, trans. Helena Gubernatis, Lisbon, Editorial Estampa, 1995, p. 93). Similarly, Argan states in “L'Arte del XX Secolo”: “The great artistic novelty of the first half of the 1910th century is the collage of the Cubists (…). The painting (by the Cubists) is not just a real object that occupies a real space, but it has a force that could be said to be magnetic and that allows it to capture the reality that surrounds it, or rather, to take some fragments hostage. Thus, the collage technique, which tends to transform the artist's work into a kind of montage, developed rapidly and became one of the greatest linguistic foundations of modern art. (…) The proof that collage constituted, from XNUMX onwards, almost a linguistic constant, lies in the fact that this technique and its derivations did not remain exclusive to Cubism and the constructivist movements that were more or less directly linked to it” . Cf. GC ARGAN, “L'Arte del XX Secolo”, in idem, From Hogarth to Picasso, op. cit., pp. 389-90 (ed. braz.: “The art of the twentieth century”, in idem, Modern Art in Europe, op. cit., p. 475).

[ii] Patricia LEIGHTEN, Re-Ordering the Universe/ Picasso and Anarchism, 1897-1914, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989; ditto, “Editor's statement: Revising Cubism”, in Art Journal, guest editor: Patricia Leighten, New York, The College Art Association of America, vol. 47, noo 4, winter 1988, pp. 269-76; ditto, “Picasso's Collages and the Threat of War, 1912-13”, in The Art Bulletin, New York, College Art Association of America, vol. LXVII, number 4, December 1985, pp. 653-72; ditto, “'La Propaganda par le Rire' Satire and Subversion in Apollinaire, Jarry and Picasso's Collages”, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, VI and Période, Tome CXII, 130 année, octobre 1988, pp. 163-72.

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