Cubism was based on the idea--or at least subsequent interpretations and explanations of its meaning and purpose claimed that it was--of the simultaneity of multiple viewpoints of a single scene or object, that the inherent failure of traditional representation (or painting) was that it only captured one static view of three-dimensionality of reality, or of the thing or perspective being portrayed. By breaking a pictorial space up into fragmented, separate planes, it would be possible (so the interpretation goes) to see a thing from multiple viewpoints at the same time. What this of course resulted in was a visually chaotic two-dimensional jumble of intersecting lines and planes, containing recognizable parts of objects and colors arranged in a kind of interlocking puzzle, at once dizzyingly unbalanced and internally conflicted. Out of this abstraction of fragmented visual pieces, a satisfying picture could nevertheless be constructed, using the same principles of balance and tension that were applied to visually normal pictorial representations.
Ironically, just as photography was becoming a viable tool in the array of possible media for two dimensional capturing of "real" space, painting was breaking down along the traditional lines of "true" perspective and representation. Could painting "compete" with photography in its reproduction of the visual facts of the world? And with the development of moving pictures (cinematographs), the superiority of sensitized surface exposures was raised to a new level.
If it were possible to reproduce the world (in images)--with great efficiency and rapidity--in all its particularity and flux--did this not make painting (and sculpture) somehow obsolete and antiquated?
Was photographic seeing a superior kind of seeing to painterly interpretations? For decades it was more or less assumed that photography did indeed possess a superior approach to the representation of reality as it is perceived. But the issue about verisimilitude and authenticity is not a simple one, by any means. When we look out of our binocular eyes, what we see is governed by the apparatus of our vision, as well as by how our brain interprets and reconstructs the data which it receives via the nerve pathways. Other land animals, and insects, and fish, to take three other instances, see things differently than we do. A horse, a dragonfly, and an octopus, all have a different "view" of the world than we do, because their visual systems are constructed differently.
When humans with normal vision (20-20) look at a scene, they focus on only one part of it, at one degree of depth. The rest of the surrounding "peripheral" part of the image is present, but is not perceived in the same way by the brain. Brain research tells us that our brains "fill in" or interpolate perspective and "logical" relationships based on training and experience. Our need to know how objects fit into the whole visual field determines how the brain learns to see (constructing predictable and assumed spacial relationships from memory and logic). The relationship between the actual physical world (phenonema) and the model of it which the brain constructs, is impressively congruent. But deducing scientific meanings, or presumptions about the external world, from these relationships, can be problematic (which was one of Wittgenstein's major preoccupations as a philosophical thinker).
When our eyes move about a space, our mind "adjusts" perspective to fit what it assumes is actually being reported. Since we don't possess compound eyes--like a dragonfly does--we are incapable of keeping track of objects outside the parameter of our center of focus. Therefore, our peripheral vision provides a secondary, less reliable stream of verification to the brain about what is going on outside the central radius of focused attention.
Meditating about the failure of both painting, and photography, to report the dynamic interactivity and motion and flickering adjustments of focus and movement which characterize human sight, the British-American painter David Hockney began to tinker with multiple frame photographic images, constructing collages of cut-up photos of the same scene taken from slightly different angles, at slight increments of moment (time), rearranging these rather in the manner that the original Cubists had made their paintings--with multiple views of the same object side-by-side, and skewed angles of perspective. This had the effect of creating a kind of mimicked movement and multiple fractionalization of a single scene. Both time and position were broken up into respective frames. Using rectangular "pieces"--as a metaphor perhaps for multiple brush strokes--he was able to "paint" a scene using pre-imaged fragments, which had the effect of creating an image with duration and multiple viewpoints.
But, rather than being restricted to a recreation (or drawing) of the scene, the photographic fragments (or cut-ups) were derived from real events, real people, real spaces. The manipulation of photographic fragments was the really revolutionary aspect of Hockney's approach, and though it may be seen as the elaboration of a single idea (or trick), he explored several variations of the method.
It often seems to me, when I look at one of these Hockney photographic collages, that what I am seeing is what the brain sees, or saves from a particular view. If the reality of spacial relationships is actually a distortion of how we think perspective is supposed to appear, it's probably true that our mental apprehension of the world is quite bizarre and irrational, emphasizing certain elements out of proportion to their assumed place, and distorted by emotional influences or incomplete lapsed versions from memory.
The collage-photo above is made out of dozens of photographic rectangles, pushed together in an approximation of the actual structure of the scene. We recognize it for what it is (barely), but the image rests right at the edge of painterly looseness or softness, as if the edges of the rectangular pieces were just subtly off to permit us to "see" it as a work of art, rather than a bland, empty desert scene along a deserted highway.
Is this just a screwed-up collage of a plain photograph, or an interesting rearrangement of reality, which tells us something new and interesting about an otherwise blank vision? Is the photographic collage at the top of this blog--of a gathering of friends in the novelist Christopher Isherwood's place in Santa Monica in 1982--a distortion of a scene which could on no account be captured with a normal photographic lens (it would have to have been taken with an extreme wide angle lens which would impose a weird exaggerated depth to the scene), and therefore would have, to preserve our simultaneous view of the whole scene, be made out of just this kind of pieced-together arrangement--an adequate representation of what the seer (Hockney himself, sitting or standing behind the scene with his camera) perceived? As each guest talks, eats, smiles, moves about in his/her seat, listens, or just looks blankly into space, there is a stream of activity which no simple, static, one-size-fits-all approach could ever accurately report.
In this classic cubist painting by Juan Gris, done in a style which must by now look so predictably abstract and satisfyingly decorative that it hardly elicits a modicum of resistance in the typical viewer, we're given the usual glass-pipe-newspaper-chessboard-settee arrangement, tilted up and made visually "transparent" by the false outlines of superimposed objects. In other words, we've come to "accept" this kind of structural misinterpretation of mass and space and perspective as an aesthetic cliche, just another method of thinking about the relationship between what is perceived, and how we might imagine it is perceived in an artistic way. Its method has entered our backlog of expected, predictable visual styles.
The same might be said of Hockney's photographic collages. As our eyes move over the mosaic of photographic rectangles, constructing a "sequence" of relationships within a given space, we can sense the duration as the time of our visual building of a whole image. The defined measure of this process is built into Hockney's collages, and sets out the limits and parameters of the act of creative human apprehension. We may seldom be aware of how we see spaces, or of how they are saved by the mind, even as we are experiencing them. Hockney's original approach to this problem is a reminder of the unexpectedly complex, and routinely camouflaged, challenge that the act of seeing is.
There is another level of seeing which incorporates both our sense of the time of a place (or scene) and accurately records it in a static present. Joan Miro's masterpiece The Farm [1921-1922]--famously owned by Ernest Hemingway early in his career--is one example of a painting that manages, without much provocative distortion or disjunction, to furnish a sense of memory within objective space. Though highly stylized in its representation of shape and relation, it creates a stage-set of highly abstract power. I've never looked at this painting without being mysteriously moved. The flatness of the stucco wall on the left, the eerie shading of the blue sky, the black hole from which the the tree grows--everything suggests a dream-like recreation of something once known intimately, though not without irony, perhaps even a kind of dread. It is better than straight representation, better than surrealism, better than abstraction per se.