Painting Is Not Only about Paint
In 1911, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque started to stick scraps of newspapers, pieces of wood or other ready-made elements to their paintings. As opposed to the authors of mosaics or intarsias, they did not use such materials to fashion them into figures. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire described the new approach in the following way: ‘You can paint with whatever you like: pipes, postage stamps, postcards, playing cards, candles, pieces of oilcloth, shirt-collars, wallpaper or newspapers.’ However, it is not enough to glue an object, which has never been used for this purpose, onto the surface of a painting to make a work of art. When we look at Picasso’s or Braque’s paintings, we see more than just newspapers or wooden planks. The elements were cut to the required size and arranged at certain angles in a selected section of the painting. They became part of a complex composition. Together with other elements, they contribute to the rhythm of the painting as intended by the artist. They harmonize with colours. In other words, they are integrated into a large, visually surprising, whole.
Paintings by Picasso and Braque had a strong and varied impact on 20th-century art. The most radical conclusions were drawn from them by Marcel Duchamp. He decided that sticking a ready-made element onto a painting was not really necessary. Instead, it is quite enough to put the element itself in an art gallery, be it a bicycle wheel or a bottle rack. The effect he achieved was totally different from the case of Picasso and Braque: the painting has disappeared. Duchamp knew this but through it decided to pose some important questions. Who decides what is a work of art? Should it not be the artist himself? If so, does he have the right to consider a ready-made object to be a work of art? We may not agree with such a gesture, but should we prohibit it? Most importantly, can creative freedom be restricted by anything? We should remember that Duchamp asked these questions at the time when Europe was embroiled in the First World War. The artist believed that creative freedom is something that cannot be taken away from people. Therefore, he had to ask what this freedom meant. The question was posed throughout the entire 20th century and will be posed in the future. For all that, Duchamp did not abandon painting. He started working on his greatest painting The Large Glass, an ambiguous and innovative work. One of the many materials he used was ... dust. He left the painting in his studio for some time and then fixed the dust that accumulated on it.
Picasso’s and Braque’s work had other consequences too. Artists started to notice that, by employing materials other than paint, they could make the surface of their paintings, that is their texture, more varied to produce attractive visual effects. The Alsatian artist Hans Arp, for example, cut out different rounded shapes from wooden planks. The cut outs were then painted and put one on top of another to make a composition. It had a very subtle spatial form of something between a flat painting and sculpted relief. Kurt Schwitters, who was active in Hannover, created fresh and light compositions out of materials salvaged from rubbish bins. Another German artist, Max Ernst, used the technique of frottage which consisted in rubbing a piece of paper put on an uneven surface. The emerging pattern cannot be achieved by ordinary painting techniques. Ernst’s painting The Grey Forest from 1927 shows how much frottage could contribute to the power and expression of the main theme.
All these trends were continued after the Second World War, albeit with a much wider range of materials and more expressive potential. How different from the gleaming ‘reliefs’ by Arp are the paintings by the Italian painter Alberto Burri! The artist was a military doctor during the Second World War. Arp took a lot of time and care to compose his works which were made of torn and perforated bags or sheets of foil. Burri’s paintings illustrate some aggressive force in action. Their textures are ‘beyond repair.’ They speak of destruction that cannot be undone. Red sheets of foil with black holes suggest a body riddled with bullets. Looking at these works, one cannot but think about Europe tormented by the horrors of war.
Burri’s paintings represent a movement called texture painting whose different, and very varied, forms were popular all over Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. In Central Europe, artists tried to achieve the seriousness and grandeur worthy of old art by means of sand, metal sheets, wires, cement, cotton wool or wood. Transferred onto a painting, these materials were transformed. This may be compared to the erstwhile dreams of alchemists who wanted to obtain gold from commonly available substances. The work of artists had its historical importance. In Central European countries, which were subordinated to the Soviet Union, texture painting was pursued in response to the socialist realist ideology imposed on artists at the end of the 1940s. In Socialist Realism, art was used for propaganda purposes. Praising the economic achievements of the communist system that largely proved to be a fiction, it was one of the methods of distorting reality. Texture painting was the opposite of socialist realist art. First, because it portrayed reality in the form of real textures taken from the surroundings. Second, because these peculiar textures were transformed into new beauty. A good case in point is the work of the Polish artist Jadwiga Maziarska. Beauty is a value that has long been equated with goodness and truth. Texture painting was therefore close to the values that were in contradiction to the criminal and fraudulent system of communism.
1. Alberto Burri, one of the foil paintings, Città di Castello
2. Jadwiga Maziarska, Crystallisation, 1958, artist’s own technique, Museum of Chełmno Land, Chełmno