Cubism, Picasso and Michelangelo – What Links Them?

At the dawn of the 20th century, painters in Paris began experimenting with new ideas. Among others, Cezanne was breaking away from the idea of ‘reporting’ the world of nature in paint. He was cutting natural forms into geometrical ‘bits.’ Sisley was taking a scientific approach to colour, devising ‘programs’ to trigger a psychological response in the viewer. Seurat, in his too-short life, developed a method of placing tiny daubs of colour, each placed close beside its complement, so that the viewer’s brain did the work of mixing these ‘pixels’ of colour optically. This became known as Pointillism.

  • ‘Bits, programs, pixels’ – today, in the age of computers, it all sounds oddly familiar to us. Two influential schools of artistic direction arose in the 1890s: Impressionism and Cubism.

Cubism claims Pablo Picasso for its founder.

Picasso‘s stupendous output includes paintings and drawings, sculpture, collages and ceramics. He produced art prints and designed stage sets for ballet. His talent for self-promotion was at least as extraordinary as his energy for making art.

Michelangelo, the peerless sculptor, was also the architect of many of Rome’s most famous buildings. St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican is a draw-card for tourists but it may never have reached completion without the genius of Michelangelo.

After 40 years, construction had stalled because the original plans for its vital component – the enormous, iconic dome – proved unworkable. Michelangelo was called in to re-design the dome and his intervention wrought the engineering solution, combined with awe-inspiring beauty of design.

In his writings, Michelangelo modestly declared himself ‘no painter.’ He clearly identified his ability as a painter to be secondary to his work as a sculptor but he left us the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by which to judge his self-assessment.

Each of these men, so distanced in time, place, artistic style and personality, display two traits in common. They are:

1. Out-of-the-box thinking.

2. Ability to put ideas across by using the simplest language.

Michelangelo once gave this advice to painters: ‘Painting most closely approaches perfection when it most closely resembles sculpture.’

Michelangelo wanted to engage people on their most human levels – emotional, intellectual and spiritual. To achieve this, he knew he must persuade the viewer to ‘suspend disbelief’ in just the same way a novelist does.

The artwork needs to tell a story with enough impact to capture the attention of the audience. It must be ‘larger than life.’ Yet it must be realistic enough to make us forget that it is an artefact – ‘just’ a painting or ‘just’ a sculpture, made by a human being ‘just’ like ourselves.

In painting, this trick depends upon the painter’s skill at creating an illusion of ‘depth’ on a two-dimensional surface.

  • This principle held painting’s Truth for hundreds of years.

Picasso told the world something different: ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.’

Cubism rests on the creation of a single picture plane, devoid of any sense of ‘depth.’ Shown in this shallow space, all objects are reduced to their simplest expression as cylinders, spheres, cones and cubes. Cubist pictures are deliberately detached from human sentiment.

They remind us we are looking at something artificial, not a representation of something we may encounter in life.

  • And of course, this is the truth about Art.

Art historians track Cubism as a radical avant-garde movement from its beginnings in 1906 to its final phase in 1921. From our vantage point today, fifteen years seems a short lifespan for an idea that caused such turmoil in the whole world of Art.

Michelangelo’s art – especially his sculpted figures such as the ‘Pieta’ in the Vatican and his ‘David’ in Florence – has the power to take our hearts and shake our minds, 500 years later.

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