Nov 18, 2014

Cubism - why not?

Sanné Mestrom: a reclining figure

A dear and trusted colleague said to me, maybe a fortnight ago, "Hey, what's with Sanné Mestrom's interest in Cubism?"in relation to her recent "Weeping Women" sculpture commission at the Monash University Museum of Art. It's not the kind of question he usually asks. As far as I can remember he's never said anything like, "What's with this or that artist's interest in hyper realism, academic landscape painting, post-post-post minimalism, New York School abstraction, expressionism etc etc," and this has had me thinking ever since.

Out of all the art movements from the last 100 years why single out Cubism as being an odd one for a contemporary artist to become interested in? I personally don't think there is any good reason to banish cubism from the list of very "useful" isms, after all, it was, contrary to current propaganda, the movement that invented the most and had more fruitful spin-offs than any other.

Sanné Mestrom and friend recline and sit on a reclining figure

There was, however, a totally illogical lapse in Cubist thinking when it came to sculpture. In painting they argued that through cubism they could give more information than in "normal 2D realism" by showing aspects of all sides of an object, person or scene simultaneously, something that realist sculpture has always been able to do because, of course, it is, by its very nature, three dimensional!

But unperturbed by this the sculptors of the time simply adopted the Cubist style and tried to make complex 3D versions of it regardless of whether there was a good reason to do so or not. Sanné Mestrom takes quite a different path by thickening up 2D shapes until they become capable of standing on their own, they are, in effect, honest interpretations of the highly innovative collages so favoured by Picasso Braque and others.

Sanné Mestrom: a seated figure

We must not forget that these early Cubist collages were constructed from real ready made items that preceded Marcel Duchamp's interpretation of the idea.

Sanné Mestrom: a standing figure

Sanné Mestrom: a reclining figure with reclining, seated and standing women


  1. I’d consider than Cubism had long fizzled, that the well had been pumped dry.
    Even though it was one of the true movements of the modern epoch, (so many were just tendencies), and even though it brought such extraordinary aesthetic innovation, it just seemed to stand frozen at the summit of its achievement.
    By the time Gleizes, Metzinger and the second wave of cubist painters followed suit, the movement become less about stylistic innovation and more about dry academia.
    Of course there were some interesting forays into sculpture, Boccioni springs to mind and it’s true that Futurism, Vorticism et al took their aesthetic language as an extension of the cubist blueprint.
    But then the subject hit a brick wall and the general tendency was subvert the modernist experiment in the wake of the Duchampian era.
    And so, after his moment of glory, Braque was largely ignored and Picasso, never a one trick pony, went on to cement his reputation through his misogynist monsters, his blinding turn as political hero and then to the universal acclaim of his continued innovation.
    But now, having the hindsight to properly digest the feast of twentieth century art history, we might well reflect again on a chapter too often overlooked, a chapter unpillaged, a chapter ripe for revision.
    To take inspiration from a widely misunderstood phase of modernism and to utilise its aesthetic in new media and scale is a bold experiment.
    It might be that there are still many lessons to be learned from Picasso, Braque, Gris and Leger.

  2. Sanné and I have often talked about "cubist" sculpture, I'd always thought that it was one of the more ridiculous modernist manifestations, since the idea of cubism was to show more of an object/subject than could be seen from one 2D view point - which sculpture could always do because its 3D, that said it did create some intriguing propositions as you mention. Funnily Sanné's figures avoid that by actually being fattened up 2D sections.

    I think the whole demise of cubsim really gets down to the competing histories, the Greenberg mob vs the Duchamp camp, Greenberg et al wrote a history with Picasso's sculpture as the great inventor, followed by Gonzales on to Smith and Caro, Pablo even using ready made before Duchamp, the artists that were called formalist all pretty much signed up to line of thinking. When Greenberg took such a beating, probably unjustifiable that history was simply eclipsed by the more academic Duchamp camp.