Project 2.3: Contemporary approaches to still life – Exploring space

During my previous course units I looked briefly at Cubism as an avant-garde movement within Modern Art. Especially during my UVC course (this post and this post) I came across the quite famous Barr chart, created by the art historian and first director of the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ in New York in 1929. Alfred H. Barr (1902 – 1981) curated  the first Modern Art exhibition ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ in 1936 and this chart with one focus on Cubism was presented on the catalogue cover (Fig. 1). Barr created a kind of genealogy of art movement towards Cubism with a touch of scientific fact appeal. What can be argued to quite some extent nowadays, but also gave some indication on how Modern Art especially in the USA and part of the Western World developed further.

arr Chart 'Cubism and Abstract Art'

Fig. 1: Barr Chart ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) nd George Braque (1882 – 1963) were contemporaries and exploring together issues of reshaping painting and perspective, first in an analytical way (Analytical Cubism, 1909-1912) and later in a constructed and composed way (Synthetic Cubism, 1912-1914).In Analytical Cubism objects were diligently analysed and dissected. Through a reduction of shading, use of limited color palette (ochres, greys) the main focus was on compressing objects in a flattened picture plane by studying lines and creating overlapping layers and edges.  With the later  Synthetic Cubism the focus shifted towards more collage works build from simple geometric shapes and use of a more colorful palette. It was more of an experimental, open approach to multiple perspectives. It was also more about composition and exploring pictorial relationship. 

A major influence was Paul Cézanne influencing both Picasso and Braque. Non-Western African tribal sculptures did shape the especially Picasso’s painting aesthetic. Cubism could be considered as a continuation of Modern Art that by convention started with Manet with respect to flattening and a disruption of the picture plane separated from a mere representational function. The artists tried to refrain from creating sculptural visual depth in the tradition of the Renaissanc’s paradigm of linear perspective and a sense of ‘walking into’ the painting (Trompe d’oeil effect). Neo-Impressionism and especially Pointillism paved the way for a different way of seeing a picture, in a sense that content and form became independent.

The term Cubism was coined by the art critique Louis Vauxcelles in 1908 referring to early landscape paintings with ‘cubic oddities’ (Tate). One could easily compare and see similarities between Cézanne’s painting Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry1897 and Georges Braque, Houses at L’Estaque, 1908 and Pablo Picasso, Brick Factory at Tortosa, 1909: a flattening out through nearly geometric irregular shapes in various tones. Cézanne’s naturalistic sky turns into Picasso’s geometric patches. Nevertheless, one can still make out some linear perspectives concepts in those paintings.

Key aspects of the early Cubism are:

  • Differentiation from traditional manner to build on linear perspectives in depicting objects. Establishing multiple views from different viewpoint in one painting.
  • Breaking down forms into simple geometric shapes (that influenced later Suprematism and Constructivism)
  • Flatting the picture plane. Colors and tones are applied to further flatten the picture plane and to disturb continuity of forms.
  • Avoiding shading to create three dimensional illusion and depth. Actual distance of objects are unrelated to perceived placement, eg. with contradictory overlapping layers and no differentiation between ground and figure.

A later artist of further disrupting picture plane and Western perspective was Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954). He once described his art as a ‘balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.’ (ArtStory)


Example: Henri Matisse  Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947:

“I don’t paint things. I only paint the relation between things.“ – Henri Mattisse 

  • Matisse was equally influenced by non-Western art as artists before him. Islamic ornaments, Japanese flat woodcut prints and African tribal sculptures.
  • Matisse contradicts traditional Western conventions of perspective by disturbing the common understanding of spatial depth and form. Patterns and broad lines, e.g. the broad gestural red flat area is flowing across the picture plane, convey a rather decorative or illustrative impression. What one could consider as a doorway is made partly with the same pattern and color. But Matisse keeps an ambiguous perception  by not filling that ‘doorway’ completely with that pattern but he added some shapes that one could associate with tree leaves, and keeping thos inside that frame.  
  • The use of bright primary colors and avoidance of shading are decorative on the one hand, but also adds a disorienting element towards a more traditional view.
  • The viewer is left with the confusion or whether it is a red carpet or rather a wallpaper, and the doorway a window. However, the viewer has some fix points, as the table and the right view emblem, both painted figuratively and with some form identity.
  • Overall, Matisse’s was less concerned with an accuracy of one viewpoint perspective, having the intention to make paintings that one could find pleasing looking at it from armchair.


A S Byatt, an English novelist and poet and author of ‘The Matisse Stories‘, talks with Mark Lawson about Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio , 1911 in the BBC broadcast ‘Cultural Exchange’ and compares the painting with how her mind works, a reflection or a representation?  She relates it to how she drew from memory after capturing visual information from a scene and how the whole structure and composition of the room reminds her on the way she arranges and prepares her novels. Objects, to be moved around, to put into relation with each other, and to arranged against a background, a space. For Byatt, the red color has a unique meaning and she refers to Matisse process of making the painting through a process of green, blue, and eventually turning to red.

“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know,” Matisse once remarked. “I find that all these things . . . only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.” – Henri Matisse (MoMA)

She reflects on how the painting is organised and structures and believes that the whole structure depends on where objects are placed and relate to each other. The choice of color, and relationship to each other is what makes it intriguing  She relates the room to a room of order and creating.

A very structural work that reminds me strongly of my own work in structural systemic constellation work in coaching. Objects, could be people or just paper with a word written on it, placed and arranged in an available room, space. After an initial placement, a reaction, a response, and a re-arrangement, a balance, a solution.


Other art forms:

Disruption planes and establishing multiple viewpoints can be also seen in non-visual art, e.g. poetry. Gertrude Stein Tender Buttons(1914) creates multiple text layers, at times quite hard to understand meaning. There are parts and pieces, kind of tapestry and patchwork, addressing the experience of mundane objects. Her poetry resembles a brainstorming of free associations at the moment of capturing the object and creating ideas of what it could be. A collage of mental images, using ‘painterly’ words Further, her descriptions of objects follow a certain path of deduction, kind of forensic dissection of pieces of a whole. And above all, her poetry resemble a dialogue between herself and the objects, establishing nearly a social relationship. 

Stein’s words are similar to cubism as it enables multiple viewpoints, with neither the one or the other more truth or objective. Her words a describing sensations, not facts. They are expressing an emotional response, at times short or longer, kind of giving it a title in multiple words, and adding a new layer of meaning.

During my assessment preparation  for UVC (2017) I concluded that the ‘innocent eye’ as described once by Ruskin on how we perceive things and how we make meaning out of it is biased by ‘our conceptions and beliefs. We as artist could try to ‘un-learn’ patterns of seeing, e.g. through life drawing routines as a technical exercise. But beyond, the viewer as spectator would see things in a ‘meaningful’ way through learned patterns, cultural conventions, and belief systems. This is one way we as human beings organise the visible world and how through our conceptions we make sense and provide meaning to what we see.’ (Schaffeld, 2018). In this respect, Cubism alongside the tendency in Modern Art (Picasso, Braque, Matisse) to appropriate non-Western visual imagery by disrupting a common way of seeing and creating something visual opened the door for a critical position towards how we represent subjects.

Alternative views on perspective:

In contrast to non-western depictions of space, traditional Chinese paintings have a different focus and set of priorities as described by Sullivan:.

“What the Chinese artist records is not a single visual confrontation but an accumulation of experience…………..The Chinese artist may paint a view of Mount Lu, but the actual shape of Mount Lu is of little interest to him in itself; the mountain is significant only if, in contemplating it, wandering through it, painting it, he is made aware of those things that make for him Mount Lu, for the moment, the very embodiment of mountainness.” – Sullivan, 2008

I highlighted some words that very much resonate with how I feel when walking in a space, a landscape, it is this captivating moment through all my senses and feeling that unique sense of place that is so unique to various locations. And that often on tries to capture with a camera, only to be disappointed and frustrated when showing it to other people and eventually realising that the picture doesn’t ‘keep its promise’ to convey the experienced sense. The eye, naked or instrumental with a lens, will be just that: a one view optical representation on a flat surface.

Traditionally Chinese painting is based on Daoism, and the philosophy or the void, the empty space as a solid space (The Ashmolean, 2005). An emptiness that is not empty, relating to qi that could be considered as formless , and through the absence of depicted elements, it still has a meaning, at times being it clouds, smoke or water. The void, in Western terms often called negative space, is creating space.

Chinese landscape paintings could be split into three planes: the foreground as the ‘earthly’ plane (people, buildings), the middle ground as the plane of clouds or water, and the background as the ‘heavenly’ plane (hills and sky). Example for this can be seen in the early 20th century paintings of Qi Baishi, e.g. A Lone Sail, 1910 or Fly a Kite, 1932: gestural brush strokes and establish a tension through empty spaces.  Fly a Kite also shows how long vertical paintings are presented: rolled and partly opened, unfolded to the extent of the arm reach of the viewer. By that the physical engagement  of the viewer supported a more interactive and participatory exploration of space. Not the one view gaze, but the multiple views and unfolding of an experience in a rather meditative way conveys a spirit of traditional Chinese painting.

Instead of linear perspective with vanishing points, Chinese paintings, especially with a closer view on buildings (example ) are based often on isometric perspective. Distances are the same so that one can ‘wander’ around the space without noticing those distorted lines as in the Renaissance paradigm. Isometric perspective is also applied in computer and online games.

Perspective does relate to spatial perception, the sense of space, as Sasaki describes it (2013). And this sense is very much dependent on cultural prevailing understanding of knowledge and way of how we interact with the world. Sasaki explores the Japanese sense of space and spatial sensibility as difference to Chinese painting sansui he compares with a map and Western perspective paintings based on three planes. In Japanese sense of space , with a focus on a close range and the distance without a middle plane, as he explains with Japanese poetry waka and  the genre Ukiyo-e, e.g  Hiroshige.

Visual Imagery in a atemporal world

Yi Fu-Tuan (2014) describes in his book how space is experienced, independent of time, and how a space can become a place. He illustrates how a shift from a frontal view towards a top down view does provide understanding related to a child’s development (pp. 19-33).  A child’s understanding of spatial concepts, as relating to size and distance, is based on the body’s reach of the space around. Concepts as time are not know at an early stage, the same as concepts of near and far away. Also the way objects are depicted do relate to the sense of spatial knowledge: the chimney is at right angle on a sloping roof, not with an upwards direction at an oblique angle (p.26). Adults do have learned patterns and concept they apply to known and unknown situations. An aspect that made cubist paintings so challenging for viewers.

An interesting aspect of children’s capabilities is their easy grasp of visual information of a landscape from a top view perspective without ever been airborne to look at that landscape (p.27). Fu-Tuan explains this with the child’s experience of playing with toys, as a giant among objects and being above and in-between them. However, a view from an oblique angle stays challenging for a child.

It is this aerial view that most certainly became a dominant view in our culture. Jana Johanna Haeckel  describes in her essay ‘Masks, Drones, and Facelessness’ (Cohen, Streitberger, 2016:281-296)  the shift in visual culture and our reception of a visual world through new technologies e.g. drones and satellite imagery with top-down and multiple fragmented perspectives.Haeckel sees a ‘changing sense of spatial and temporal orientation towards multiple perspectives’ (p.281). As the use of isometric perspective in computer games, those new ‘perspectives’ do have an impact on our reception of a visual world. This is shown in a dystopian way by Martha Rosler & Hito Steyerl in the exhibition ‘War Games‘. 

“One stable point of view has been replaced by a disembodied and remote-controlled gaze outsourced to machines..” (Haeckel, 2016)

My still life Pinterest board on Contemporary Still-life :

from flattening cubism towards sculptural table scenes


Remark: the site had been temporarily blocked for IP addresses related to Germany. The NPO organization followed a lawsuit of a German court to forbid distribution of copyright materials, in that case 18 different ebooks from teh S.Fischer publication company (see link here). Fortunately, I can access the book through . What opens up questions of copyright, public domain, free distribution, rights of publication etc.

  • Cohen, B. and Streitberger, A. (2016) The Photofilmic : Entangled Images in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture,Lieven Gevaert series. Vol. 21. Leuven: Leuven University Press
  • Lawson, M. (2013) ‘A.S. Byatt’s Cultural Exchange’, A.S. Byatt chooses The Red Studio (1911) by the French artist Henri Matisse. Presented by Mark Lawson., At:  (Accessed 12 Feb 2018)
  • Sasaki, K.-i. (2013) ‘Perspectives East and West’, in: Contemporary Aesthetics. [online]. 11, At: (Accessed on 18 June 2018).
  • Schaffeld, S. (2017-18) Assignment 1 – OCA HE4 Understanding Visual Culture [Blog] At:  (Accessed on 08 July 2018)
  • Stein, G. (1914) Tender Buttons.[online] At:  (Accessed on 12 Feb 2018) and [online] At:  (Accessed on 18 May 2018)
  • Sullivan, Michael (2008) ‘The Five Dynasties and the Sung Dynasty, The aims Of The Landscape Painter’ from The Arts of China, 5th ed., rev. and expanded. ed. Berkeley, Calif. ; London: University of California Press.
  • Tuan, Y.-F. (2014) Space and place : the perspective of experience. Minneapolis [etc.]: University of Minnesota Press.
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