Saturday Art: ‘Tea Time’ by Jean Metzinger – Beginnings of Cubism
Cannot find a picture of just the right side painting, sorry.
(Picture courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art at wikipedia commons.)
The beginning of the movement in art called Cubism is sometimes ascribed to the display of the painting above right, by theorist and artist Jean Metzinger. Building on Cezanne’s later paintings, it left behind the style of perspective that made a two dimensional canvas give the illusion of another dimension, and presented many surfaces at once.
The original concept startled and inspired Picasso, Braques, Gris and several other esteemed artists of the day, and discernibly influenced their painting of that time.
Tea Time is an oil painting on cardboard with dimensions 75.9 x 70.2 cm (29.9 x 27.6 in), signed Metzinger and dated 1911 lower right. The painting represents a barely draped (nude) woman holding a spoon, seated at a table with a cup of tea. In the ‘background’, the upper left quadrant, stands a vase on a commode, table or shelf. A square or cubic shape, a chair or painting behind the model, espouses the shape of the stretcher. The painting is practically square, like the side of a cube. The woman’s head is highly stylized, divided into geometrized facets, planes and curves (the forehead, nose, cheeks, hair). The source of light appears to be off to her right, with some reflected light on the left side of her face. Reflected light, consistently, can be seen on other parts of her body (breast, shoulder, arm). Her breast is composed of a triangle and a sphere. The faceting of the rest of her body, to some extent, coincides with actual muscular and skeletal features (collar bone, ribcage, pectorals, deltoids, neck tissue). Both of here shoulders are coupled with elements of the background, superimposed, gradational and transparent to varying degrees. Unidentified elements are composed of alternating angular structures, The colors employed by Metzinger are subdued, mixed (either on a palette of directly on the surface), with an overall natural allure. The brushwork is reminiscent of Metzinger’sDivisionist period (ca. 1903–1907), described by the critic (Louis Vauxcelles) in 1907 as large, mosaic-like ‘cubes’, used to construct small but highly symbolic compositions.
The figure, centrally positioned, is shown both staring at the viewer and gazing off to the right (to her left), i.e., she is seen both straight on and in profile position. The tea cup is visible both from the top and side simultaneously, as if the artist physically moved around the subject to capture it simultaneously from several angles and at successive moments in time.
“This interplay of visual, tactile, and motor spaces is fully operative in Metzinger’s Le Gouter of 1911″, write Antliff and Leighten, “an image of an artist’s model, semi-nude, with a cloth draped over her right arm as she takes a break between sessions […] her right hand delicately suspends the spoon between cup and mouth.” The combination of frames captured at successive time intervals is given play, pictorially, in simultaneous conflation of moments in time throughout the work. The Cézannian volumes and planes (cones, cubes and spheres) extend ubiquitously across the manifold, merging the sitter and surroundings. The painting becomes a product of experience, memory and imagination, evoking a complex series of mind-associations between past present and future, between tactile and olfactory sensations (taste and touch), between the physical and metaphysical.
Though less radical than Metzinger’s 1910 Nude—which is closely related to the work of Picasso and Braque of the same year—from the viewpoint of faceting of the represented subject matter, Le goûter is much more carefully constructed in relation to the overall shape of the picture frame. “Not only was this painting more unequivocally classical in its pedigree (and recognized as such by critics who instantly dubbed it ‘La Joconde cubiste’) than any of its now relatively distant sources in Picasso’s oeuvre,” writes David Cottington, “but in its clear if tacit juxtaposition, remarked on by Green and others, of sensation and idea—taste and geometry—it exemplified the interpretation of innovations from both wings of the cubist movement that Metzinger was offering in his essays of the time, as well as the paradigm shift from a perceptual to a conceptual painting that he recognized as now common to them.”
The quite atmosphere of Tea Time “seduces by means of the bridge it creates between two periods”, according to Eimert and Podksik, “although Metzinger’s style had already passed through an analytical phase, it now concentrated more on the idea of reconciling modernity with classical subjects”.
A preparatory drawing for Tea Time (Etude pour ‘Le Goûter’), 19 x 15 cm, is conserved in Paris at the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou.
Pictorial space has been transformed by the artist into the temporal flow of consciousness. Quantity has morphed into quality, creating a ‘qualitative space’, “the pictorial analogue”, write Antliff and Leighten, “to both time and space: temporal heterogeneity and the new geometries.” In accord with this view of pictorial space, Metzinger and Gleizes encouraged artists to discard classical perspective and replace it with creative intuition. “Creative intuition is manifest in an artist’s faculty of discernment, or ‘taste’, which coordinates all other sensations.” Antliff and Leighten continue, “As we have seen Metzinger celebrated this faculty in Le Gouter, and Apollinaire advised artists to rely on their ‘intuition’ in The Cubist Painters (1913).”
Metzinger’s interests in proportion, mathematical order, and his emphasis on geometry, are well documented. But it was his personal taste (gout in French) that sets Metzinger’s work apart from both the Salon Cubists and those of Montmartre. While taste inTea Time was denoted by one of the five senses, it was also connoted (for those who could read it) as a quality of discernment and subjective judgement. Le gouter translates to ‘afternoon snack’ but also alludes to ‘taste’ in an abstract sense. This painting, writes Christopher Green, “can seem the outcome of a meditation on intelligence and the senses, conception and sensation. The word in French for tea-time is “le goûter”; as a verb. “goûter” refers to the experience of tasting.
While many works branched out after the appearance of ‘Le Gouter’, the painting itself provided a debarkation seldom so directly related to one work and one effect. Cubism might have been arrived at eventually, but dates to the appearance of its most remarkably new work.
(Picture courtesy of whistlepunch at flickr.com.)