Once upon a time, in 2011, my greenhorn days on WP, I wrote a post asking, definitively, who was the first 20th century artist to use text in their painting and which painting was it?
I rarely ask such detailed and mundane questions anymore but five years ago I was much closer to my academic past and my art historian’s hair splitting curiosity. Now, the only questions I ask are related to the quality of tequila, missing socks, mermaids and mortality.
I was reminded of the mentioned 2011 post as I stood in front of Picasso’s Still Life with Bottle and Glass at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s spring exhibition MASHUP. I was also entranced as I always am when I manage to place myself before the work of a master.
Although photos were allowed the light was so weak around Picasso and Braque that I have replaced my dark photos with quality images of the same works, from Google Images. Seems like cheating somehow, to use images not my own, and you miss the mood and the gorgeous ancient frame around the Picasso, but you will need to imagine.
This is the VAG write-up for the Picasso piece:
In my 2011 post I settled on Still Life with Chair Caning, a Picasso painting from 1912 as the first painting with text. I understand now that Braque was probably the first of the two to use text, but more in the medium of printing.
Art dealer and print enthusiast Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler commissioned Georges Braque to execute the large intaglio print Fox in 1911, at the same time that he asked Pablo Picasso to make a print using the same size plate. Cubism was a radical new style being created by these two artists as a collaborative effort, and this style is evident in Fox, a café still life in which Braque used the drypoint technique to fragment the forms by means of short, spontaneous, staccato lines and cross-hatchings. Textual components such as the word “FOX” make reference to an English-style bar frequented by the Cubist poets and painters, while “Old Tom Gin” refers to the central motif of the still life, a bottle of gin. (moma.com)
To stay in context I continue to choose Still Life with Chair Caning, but this time because it is entirely a true 1912 MASHUP!
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?
‘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
This is Part 2. Please be sure to read Part 1 for a full introductory explanation.
A Great Reader is: one who prefers the company of books to TV – “I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book. Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx
My order of nominations is random and no priority is suggested in terms of numbering. Today I am posting my second five nominees:
Terry is a digital artist extraordinaire and and his writing beautifully emphasizes this passion and his creative view of life. His painterly digital transformations and photographs are often interwoven with music – always an artistic treat.
Mari is a poet par excellence. Her writings are surreal, emotional, heart moving and burningly honest. Traveling through her work and unraveling her words is always a trans-formative experience. She writes: “The role of an artist is not to find solutions but to compel us to love life in all its countless inexhaustible manifestations”.
Chrissy’s blog contains her own art and beautiful writings about books that have inspired her, especially children’s literature of magic and wisdom. She also explores and shares authors who write about life’s spiritual and philosophical questions.
The roots of my blog, although not all of its branches, are embedded in my long time interest in the 20th century art practice of combining text with drawing and painting. I have explored this in my own work and in that of others through my studies and teaching of the history of art.
These paths must inevitably meet in my question today: Which artist was the first to use text and in which painting?
Art Historians tend to disagree on the fine points, however, they do agree that Picasso and Braque both began to use text in their paintings around 1911 / 12. These two artists worked together so closely during this period that it is difficult to separate their explorations, (and probably unnecessary unless one has an art historian’s hair splitting curiosity).
I won’t bore you with details of my research but I finally arrived at two paintings I consider neck and neck contenders.
The first is Ma Jolie by Picasso. 1911/12. Oil on canvas. 39 3/8 x 25 3/4 in. (100 x 65.4 cm.)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Ma Jolie was Picasso’s intimate name for Marcelle Humbert, his lover at this time.
The second is Still Life with Chair Caning by Picasso. 1912. oil, oilcloth, stenciled letters. Picasso Museum, Paris.
Still Life with Chair Caning incorporates the word “Jou” which refers to the French newspaper of the time, Le Journal
As the painted words ‘Ma Jolie’ could be considered simply the title of the work I’m inclined to go for ‘…Chair Caning’ as the first western painting of the 20th century that incorporates text as an intricate part of the artwork. Jou being less descriptive than Ma Jolie.