Subverted Canons

In the "Fur Cup" (as this objet d'art is affectionately known) Meret Oppenheim exhibits a version of a cup, saucer, and spoon that, to most viewers, presents an interesting psychological problem. On one hand, the cup and saucer resemble canonic forms, but on the other hand, wrapping these common objects in animal fur seems weird. Furthermore, cups are used to drink from, and the thought of a sip from this cup is most distasteful. Some critics, noting the proclivity of many surrealist artists to embrace Freudian psychoanalysis, have interpreted this work in terms of sexual symbolism, in which the spoon becomes a phallus and the cup a vagina, both covered with pubic hair libidinously linking the two. Such conjectures are left to the reader to judge. What is certain is that this object demands our attention, and one reason is because a canonic form (cup) is given new meaning through the use of conflicting contextual cues (fur).

8.10 Meret Oppenheim, Object:Luncheon in Fur (1936).
8.11 Egyptian style of representing a pond, trees, and people. (From Gombrich 1982.)

Early Canonic Views

An early canonic representation is illustrated in figure 8.11, in which an early Egyptian artist views a pond. Of particular interest in this drawing is the orientation of objects. Trees, for example, are shown as they would look as perpendicular objects viewed straight on. Egyptian artists chose to show each object from its most "natural" position and drew what they knew to be its most prominent and characteristic attribute. Perhaps this is why their paintings of people look so odd to our eyes: an arm might be shown in one perspective, the shoulders in another, and the eyes in a third.

This treatment of objects raises the interesting issue of time and art. While we have all seen the objects represented in these Egyptian drawings, we have not seen them in these orientations at the same time. In one sense, the Egyptian artist was emancipated from time constraints, and thus saw no inconsistency in showing canonic forms of different objects simultaneously. The artist drew TREE, LOTUS,

8.12 A child's canonic drawing: a town square in Connecticut drawn by a 12-year-old boy. (From Lewis 1966.)

and POND, not a tree, a lotus, and a pond—and selected the view of each that carried the central theme.

There is a remarkable parallel between these early examples of art and children's art. In figure 8.12, a 12-year-old gives his version of a town square. Never mind that this is an "unrealistic" picture (the lad had not been indoctrinated with the rules of artistic convention); the objects are shown as representing commonly seen people, buildings, and trees. These views give us insight into the artist's mind, and tell us a great deal about his or her memory for classes of objects. Our memory for common objects is based on the storage of important features of the class of objects. These frequently experienced features are restructured and stored as an abstraction that is the canonic form.

The Picasso Connection: Seeing "Eye to Eye" with the Pharaoh

The use of different viewpoints for various canonic figures in the same painting goes back to Egyptian tomb art, but this technique reached dazzling heights during the brief period of cubism and throughout much of modern art. The uncontested master of cubism was Picasso, who drew partially recognizable features from different views on the same canvas. He experimented with perspective, space, colors, and time in creative ways with splendid artistic skill, while collecting praise from many critics and unparalleled scorn and ridicule from others.

Picasso was influenced by Cézanne, who encouraged artists to look at nature in terms of cones, cylinders, and spheres, as he believed a painting should be organized by those "basic" forms. Picasso took the advice literally, and began to experiment with building a picture from basic forms. Within these forms, elements are added not as visual reproductions of objects, but as we might conceptualize objects. A painting of a violin or a woman should be a reflection of our brain as much as of our eye. When we conceptualize a violin or a woman, we are free to see it (her) from all different angles, to color it (her) oddly, to think of other objects, and to emphasize certain features and deemphasize others. Violins and women have more than one side.

This principle of picture construction bears a close resemblance to what has been discovered about human information processing of visual events. Our memory for a person, say a woman, is not based on a series of "cerebral snapshots" of women we have neatly filed away in memory stores, but on salient and meaningful features of women that are stored, in memory, as an abstract representation of that class. For each person, these storage systems contain some unique elements, but there are remarkable similarities between people. Your cerebralized woman and mine are not identical, but are probably very similar.

Picasso's work abounds with basic, or canonic, forms used in unusual ways. Consider how he drew body parts and faces in Les demoiselles d'Avignon (figure 8.13). Body parts are distorted, profile views and frontal views appear within the same figure, details are forgotten or emphasized, and features are twisted in sometimes grotesque ways. Yet there remains a theme that holds the entire picture together. These representations are similar to the way human memory functions. When we perceive objects—horses, violins, people—the features may be distorted, forgotten, or exaggerated, but our collective memory is of the most representative form, which embodies all of our impressions.

The technique of pluralistic forms of representation has precedents in the art of Africa and Egypt, although the level of refinement—both conceptually and artistically—is expressed differently. Figure 8.14 shows an African mask and the faces of two Egyptian women. Compare the mask with the woman in the upper right-hand part of Les demoiselles d'Avignon. Now, compare the eye of the woman on the left edge of Picasso's painting with the eyes of the Egyptian women. One explanation for the striking similarity is that Picasso was familiar with these older art techniques, especially African art, and imitated the style.2 There is, perhaps, a deeper

8.13 Pablo Picasso, Les demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).

reason. Both Picasso and the African and Egyptian artists chose to represent objects not as they appear to the eye, but as they appear to the mind. And the mind is capable of plural views of things. If such a hypothesis is correct, then these art objects are means to access the minds of their creators. Insofar as we are all able to respond to them, they reveal the minds of all humans.

Art Categories

The same cerebral vehicle is used when we think of a category of art. Rococo art is characterized as highly decorative, nonfunctional, and with too much attention to fussy little details; impressionist art as displaying natural objects that are vibrant and create a mood, or "feeling"; Egyptian art as consisting of clear lines, absence of linear perspective, people drawn in profile; and so on. Even if we have not previously

8.14 Egyptian women and African masks.

seen a particular piece of art, we can easily identify it as belonging to one of these categories or to another category stored in memory. It is unlikely that we would mistake a painting by Renoir as belonging to Egyptian or rococo art. We have formed an impression, or an idealized image, of these art types through numerous experiences with paintings that share common features of the category.

Individual Differences

People differ, and individual personalities also represent a type of idealized form, much like teacups. When you characterize the personality of a close friend or a popular figure, you select the salient and more or less permanent traits of that personality. Thus, you might recall the person's commitment to a beliefor attitude. It is further possible to subdivide these traits into subordinate features, such as religious beliefs that are expressed zealously, or political attitudes that are displayed in support of a particular candidate. Further subdivisions are feasible until a composite structure of the personality is attained. These personality structures are particularly relevant to our discussion of the cognition of art as they influence what we see and remember, much as James's four visitors to Europe see and remember different things.

Different styles of art affect people differently. While some prefer the near-photographic realism of modern illustrators, others choose the misty perspective of impressionist art. Still others enjoy the "unconventional" art of ancient Egypt, or the surrealist qualities of some modern artists, or the "correct" art of the Renaissance. Each style reflects the aesthetics of the artist as he or she attempts to touch the mind and soul of humanity.

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