At this halfway point in my ‘The 100’ series I travel backwards in time to honour Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Georges Braque (French, 1882-1963) and Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887–1927). These artists were the first to incorporate text into painting and collage in the modern era – a huge leap forward in their time in how materials were used in art – and for the viewing public and critics a shocking juxtaposition of text mixed with painting. The text didn’t yet contain a message, it was simply incorporated as part of the materials of the painting, (Ma Jolie was reputedly Picasso’s nickname for his lover at the time, Marcelle Humbert).
The Cubists began to use text in the years 1911/12/13. In their visual explorations, Picasso, Braque and Gris began to insert collage elements into their paintings. Their introduction of collage included found objects, drawings and stenciled lettering.
In my explorations of text and art, either Ma Jolie or Still Life with Chair Caning, also by Picasso, could be claimed to be the first western painting using text. Although Ma Jolie is an earlier work the incorporated words might be considered simply the title of the painting, (although even writing the title on the painting was iconoclastic at the time).
Still Life with Chair Caning incorporates the word “Jou” which refers to the French newspaper of the time, Le Journal. I consider this text as an intricate part of the painting rather than a possible title so am inclined to choose ‘Chair Caning’ as the first western painting that incorporates text.
Georges Braque worked closely with Picasso and at times their paintings were so alike it was hard to distinguish between them. The two were so close that Picasso took to calling Braque, “ma femme” or “my wife,” and described their relationship as being “Like mountain climbers roped together.”
In 1911, Braque and Picasso started to introduce letters and words into their compositions, first as stencils, then rendered freehand. Cubist works began to fill up with texts derived from newspaper mastheads, bottle labels and the typography of musical scores.
A few months after the appearance of these painted verbal signs came the collages, in which actual pieces of newsprint, real labels, and advertisements, calling cards, tickets and various other extraneous elements, such as wallpaper, sandpaper and cigarette butts, were glued to the surface of the canvas or paper.
Rather than seeing these texts as things to be read, Braque said he intended them to serve a purely formal purpose, as compositional devices or spatial figures that draw attention to textuality as flat graphic marks.
Juan Gris also used text. His Breakfast, like Picasso, used a partial ‘La Journal’ along with a clever incorporation of his name. Also the tobacco packet is painted and drawn in photographically realistic trompe l’oeil, but its label is real. Thus, while aspects of domestic comfort are captured in this image, Gris also raises many subjective and objective questions about how reality is perceived.
A distinctive feature of visual art in the twentieth century is its use of language. Words had appeared in paintings and sculptures since classical times, but their use was generally restricted to a few specific functions. From an early date inscriptions served religious purposes, identifying the protagonists in a biblical scene or referring to a relevant biblical text. Artists’ signatures identified the person responsible for a work, and dates were included to specify when a work was completed.
In the early twentieth century, however, some artists began using language in their works for very different reasons. Over time this practice spread, as words and even sentences became more conspicuous in a number of artists’ work. In some cases, in mid to late twentieth century art, language became more important than images, and for some artists words replaced images altogether.
In Tom Wolfe’s critique of art criticism and modern art, The Painted Word (published 1975), Wolfe concludes his thesis by writing about conceptual art, “…there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representation objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes. …Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until… it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory!… Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision… late twentieth-century Modern Art was about to fulfill its destiny, which was: to become nothing less than Literature pure and simple”.
The introduction of language into art for new purposes is a symptom of the increasingly conceptual nature of visual art during the twentieth century. The increasing acceptance of the use of language became an independent factor fueling the conceptual orientation of art, for the possibility of using language appealed to many young artists with conceptual goals:
In La Bouteille de Suze, Picasso used cut fragments of newsprint, wallpaper, and construction paper, as well as gouache and charcoal, to suggest a liquor bottle with a label and, on the left, a glass and an ashtray with cigarette and smoke. These abstract, fragmented elements all appear to rest on a blue table in front of a wall with diamond-patterned wallpaper and newsprint. Serving as a formal element, the newsprint also suggests the popular Parisian café activity of reading the paper while smoking and drinking. The texts add a political and social dimension to the image: they juxtapose newspaper articles referring to horrific events from the First Balkan war with stories of Parisian frivolity.
If we acknowledge that these various texts are in some way voices, then who exactly can be said to be speaking? Do the often multiple fragments of newsprint, the headlines, denser areas of type and advertisements add up, perhaps to a cacophony of voices, to raucous arguments, heated debates, or intimate conversations taking place in a café or studio?
Credits: Language in Visual Art by David W. Galenson
Wikipedia and Google Images.
‘The 100′ series was initiated by my 100th Post in April 2012. As text and images are the essence of my blog my intention is to present 100 pieces of textual art from historical and contemporary artists and from my own hand. To view the series to date click on ‘The 100’ in my Category Menu