Image: Columbus Museum of Art via Wikipedia
In the 1920s, a wave of radical painters in the United States explored the theme of industrialization in their works, leading to the emergence of various art movements. We have remarkable examples like Art Deco, an eclectic art and decoration school that originated in Paris and spread globally in the 1930s. Another influential movement was Mexican Muralism, born in Mexico in the 1920s with a socio-political objective of post-war unification. Apart from these European-influenced art schools, the US also enjoyed its indigenous movement inspired by the industrialization process, known as Precisionism.
Though heavily influenced by European painting, Cubist Realism stands out as the first indigenous modern art movement in America, marking a significant contribution to the development of Modernism.
Image: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
While Cubist Realism was the first American indigenous modernist painting movement, it was shaped by two European counterparts: Cubism and Futurism. Cubism, initiated by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1907, deconstructed, analyzed, and recombined subjects in an abstract manner. Instead of observing from a fixed angle, the artists explored multiple perspectives, with intersecting surfaces and planes that challenged traditional perspective rules. This approach created intricate and abstract forms that often perplexed viewers.
Futurism, on the other hand, was a 20th-century painting movement that celebrated the modern world, urban civilization, machinery, and speed. Similar to Stereoscopic Realism, Futurism rejected tradition. Originating in Italy in 1909 with the Futurist Manifesto written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and published in Le Figaro, this movement incorporated elements from Impressionism and Cubism to express dynamic feelings and the complexity of the world. However, Futurism was also known for its controversial nature, with conflicting ideas about love, machinery, women, and war.
Different Approaches to Cubism
By the 1920s, both Cubism and Futurism had established strong positions worldwide. Seizing the momentum, American historian and the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Alfred H. Barr Jr., swiftly launched the first vernacular modernist movement in America: Cubist Realism.
Though not an officially recognized movement, Cubist Realism united artists interested in urban civilization and industrial processes, such as skyscrapers, factories, and modern machinery. Their paintings often leaned towards abstraction, blending multiple objects to create new forms.
One prominent example is the artwork titled “I saw the figure 5 in gold” by Charles Demuth. This painting depicts a fire truck speeding along the street using red cubes and parallel lines topped with five bright yellow ones. Other artists, like Charles Sheeler, took a more explicit and less abstract approach. Sheeler’s masterpiece, “Conversation—Heaven and Earth”, portrays the Hoover Dam, showcasing his attention to detail and ability to transform seemingly ordinary subjects into remarkable works of art.
According to Sheeler, “Painting is a mirror of the times. In this era, religion no longer holds supremacy. Modern society revolves around urban breathing and industrialization, with the birth of factories, skyscrapers, and more. Therefore, painting must also reflect the changing times.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons
This approach heavily drew inspiration from contemporary photography by innovators like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, who elevated photography to an art form. Cubist Realists learned from Stieglitz’s expertly framed photos and Strand’s subject choices. They understood that an artist’s world is boundless and can appear anywhere, whether far away or right before our eyes.
The Cubist Realism movement continued to thrive in the United States until the 1940s when World War II forced Americans to reevaluate the shortcomings of industrialization. While some artists, like Demuth and Sheeler, remained loyal to the movement, others, including Georgia O’Keeffe, shifted their focus to different themes.
Though not as popular as other painting movements, Cubist Realism had a significant influence on various successful art movements. For instance, it inspired everyday life-centered genres and abstract schools that adopted minimalist approaches rooted in the principles of Cubism. Even the industrial-themed Minimalist style, featuring concrete and steel reinforcement, can be traced back to Cubist Realism.
Despite being overshadowed, the continued existence of Cubism is testament to its enduring importance and legacy.
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