Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cubism. A Synthesis of Robert Hughes & E.H. Gombrich.


The first book on Art History that I ever read was Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New. In one’s life, there are books that will leave one speechless with the sense of discovery they offer. This book was one such touchstone in my life. It led to a deeper appreciation of art, so that I wanted to see more and read more. Art evolved into a passion, and it is a debt I owe largely to Robert Hughes. For those interested in learning the history of Modern Art, I can recommend no better resource than The Shock of the New.

Recently, I came to an uncomfortable perspective concerning Hughes’s views on Cubism. Uncomfortable because it is difficult to accept that one’s heroes are fallible. Here is an encapsulation from The Shock of the New, in Hughes’s own words:

“No painting of a conventional sort could deal with the new public experience of the late 19th Century, fast travel in a machine on wheels…the succession and superimposition of views, the unfolding of landscape in flickering surfaces…The cultural conditions of seeing were starting to change… seeing the ground from the [Eiffel] Tower…a new landscape began to seep into popular awareness. It was based on frontality and pattern rather than on perspective recession and depth…the speed at which culture reinvented itself through technology…the changes in capitalist man’s view of himself…how could you make paintings that might reflect the immense shifts in consciousness that this altering technological landscape implied? … The first artists to sketch an answer to this question were the Cubists.” (Hughes, pp. 12-16).

I fully accept this reasonable conclusion. There is no question that a radically changing culture will produce art that departs radically from its past. But my later readings of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art produced a question in my mind. Why didn’t Hughes consult what the Cubists themselves said about their work? If one is an historian, doesn’t one have a responsibility to explore as much primary material on the subject as is available? Perhaps Hughes read the voluminous, first-hand accounts by Cubist artists and found the information irrelevant to his thesis.

But Gombrich read Picasso’s own accounts of his motivations for Cubism and reached a differing conclusion. Quoting Picasso, The Story of Art proceeds:

“If we think of an object, let us say a violin, it does not appear before the eye of our mind as we would see it with our bodily eyes. We can, and in fact do, think of its various aspects at the same time. Some of them stand out so clearly that we feel that we can touch and handle them; others are somehow blurred. And yet this strange medley of images represents more of the “real “ violin than any single snapshot or meticulous painting could ever contain.” (Gombrich, p. 574).

In Picasso’s opinion, he and Braque invented Cubism for internal reasons; because when one sees an object with one’s mind, the Cubist perspective represents what one sees. In Hughes’s opinion, Picasso and Braque invented Cubism because of external pressures and changes in their culture. Both views sound plausible and each represents part of the impetus for this movement.

Perhaps the differing perspectives on Cubism represent the approaches of differing disciplines. Robert Hughes, while a writer of histories, was primarily an art critic. E.H. Gombrich was an art historian. Therefore, Hughes was more likely to come-up with his own interpretations, whereas Gombrich was more likely to draw conclusions based upon the information of primary sources. So, in order to fully understand the origins of Cubism, one would need to consult both historians and critics for a full explanation. Perhaps there is an art historian or critic out there who combines the talents of both fields and can save us the trouble.

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.


Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1980.

For a book review of The Story of Art, see:
http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-story-of-art-by-eh-gombrich.html