Vicente Manansala's Transparent Cubism
Published June 05, 2021
Created by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) and Georges Braque (French, 1882–1963) in Paris between 1907 and 1914, Cubism is noted to be one of the most influential visual art styles and pictorial languages of the modern era. Picasso and Braque had rejected centuries of tradition, namely the single point perspective, modeling, and depth of naturalistic painting and created paintings that looked like fractured spaces -- coffee cups, wine bottles, faces, torsos, guitars, and tables that were transformed into so many tiny, slightly tilted planes.
What were certainly strange-looking paintings for that time, experiments on canvas that looked like broken glass, led directly into a wave of experiments by other artists into non-representation. In other words, cubism gave birth to the epitome and zenith of modern art, its many abstract movements and styles. These include Constructivism, Futurism, and Neo-plasticism. It set the trajectory of a modern art concerned with pure abstraction.
John Golding in his book Cubism: A History and an Analysis 1907–1914 called it, “Perhaps the most important and certainly the most complete and radical artistic revolution since the Renaissance.” What started essentially as a two-man movement became a watershed moment for modernism and modern art.
Long after its innovators would move on to other things, Cubism would be among the decisive catalysts for modern art in countries outside Europe. In the Philippines for instance, the surge in modern art that came after World War II and would be propelled in part by the Cubist paintings of Vicente Manansala.
His paintings came to be known as Transparent Cubism. This article traces the path from Cubism to Manansala and considers the latter’s unique contribution to modern art in the Philippines.
What is Cezanne’s Passage?
Before Picasso and Braque would become ’’roped together like mountaineers’’ developing the yet unnamed pictorial language that would be called Cubism by their supporters, there were two major influences that gave birth to their experiments -- the painter Paul Cezanne and the painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
In 1907, the Salon d’Automne held a posthumous retrospective of Paul Cezanne’s work. And it was Cezanne’s use of generic forms to simplify nature or his emphasis on the underlying architecture of forms that led the way for Cubism’s geometry. Cezzane also pioneered and used the technique called Passage or the visual slippage between adjacent elements. This slippage is characterized by small intersecting planes of patchlike brushwork that blend together to create an image.
Cezanne's Passage is considered a direct precursor to Cubism’s piercing or breaking up the volumes or outlines of objects into pieces that suggest simultaneous multiple perspectives. Using Passage, his brush flattens three-dimensional space, thereby emphasizing the flatness of a painting’s surface or painting’s two-dimensional, material nature. It is this recognition of a painting's flatness that Cubism's further innovated.
Why is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon important to Cubism?
Picasso’s shocking 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, on the other hand, was the proto-cubist painting. By many accounts, this painting also contains many fundamental Cubist elements. There is the radical distortion of bodies through fragmented planes instead of the depiction of volume. There is the use of simplified forms in the maidens’ faces, forms inspired by the distortion in Iberian and African masks. These distorted bodies and faces would eventually lead to Cubism's own analysis and fragmentation.
What is the origin of the name?
With the influence of the Cezanne retrospective and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon firmly entrenched in his mind, Braque made his first paintings and Picasso followed a little later. It’s often reported that the term ‘Cubism’ was based on a comment made by journalist and critic, Louis Vauxcelles. Braque exhibited his first cubist paintings, landscapes, in 1908 to which Vauxcelles gave a published account, saying that the painter had reduced everything to geometric schemas or cubes. In truth however, it was Henri Matisse who had told Vauxcelles, “Braque has just sent in a painting made of little cubes.”
The First Phase: What is Analytic Cubism? (1908-1912)
The Cubist paintings of this period are said to be the definitive rubric to understanding what Cubism had achieved.
Depicted objects or figures were made to fracture, shatter, or break down into multiple vantage points. The resulting geometric forms and planes were painted in such a way that they amalgamated into the space around them, aligning into a very shallow space like overlapping bits of low relief sculpture. These planes correspond to the lowest possible relief and become synonymous with the flatness of the picture surface, a unity between the depicted flatness of painted planes and the actual flatness of the painting's surface.
It is as if all the contours of these objects and figures had burst open and all the volume forced out to become an extreme flattening of the visual space. This was deemed as an analysis of the depicted object or figure, one that delivered more knowledge than a single point perspective, hence the name, Analytic Cubism.
The Second Phase: What is Synthetic Cubism? (1912-1914)
The prefix ''synthetic'' referred to the idea that the artist created a synthesis from juxtaposing fragments of the real world with the painterly surface. It started when Picasso and Braque started pasting newspapers and printed or patterned paper to their paintings. This introduced and evelated collage and papiers colle to the realm of art. These collaged fragments are understood as pieces from the material world, non-art materials, that effectively ended all illusionism in Cubism.
The inclusion of the scraps also helped to de-intellectualize fine art by being objects and signs appropriated from popular and commodity culture. Sandpaper, printed wallpaper, and similar materials made reference to the world of industrialization. Newspapers not only added texture but politicized the painting’s surface with information from current events.
These scraps gave Synthetic Cubist works of art a playfulness of simultaneous inclusion of references. This is also evident in the allusion to particular objects through the cutting of scraps into desired shapes or the addition of graphic elements. For instance, certain curves can refer to guitars and at the same time to ears (Student with a Pipe ), a piece of wicker could refer to a chair, a table, or the frame of the painting.
What is Salon Cubism? (1911 - 1922)
In its early years, Cubism was known to a small circle of supporters and admirers. In 1911, artists Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Henri Le Fauconnier, Robert de La Fresnaye, and Jean Metzinger showed that they were paying attention. They exhibited their own Cubist paintings at the Salon de Independants, a major Parisian event and exhibition open to public participation.
Unlike Picasso and Braque, their Cubist paintings were large scale and in full color. And though they broke down objects and figures into geometric forms, they did not challenge or break away from Renaissance ideas of space. Like Impressionism, Neo-impressionism, Fauvism, or other concurrent movements in modern art, this new cubism did away with naturalistic modeling of figures but adhered to a space defined by a single point perspective.
And so Cubism was finally introduced to the public-at-large. The exhibition, at first, caused a stir. Painting with “cubes” was mocked in popular journals and in song. Likewise, the legendary 1913 Armory Show received a similar reception. The Armory Show was the first large exhibition of Modern Art in America. It featured 1,300 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by over 300 avant-garde European and American artists, including Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist works.
The Cubism of Picasso and Braque may be accused of being chaotic and radical in comparison to the Cubism exhibited at the Salon in 1911, more so because of Europe’s political climate at the time. It was at the cusp of World War I. Once the war was well on its way in 1915, French artists started to pull back from radical experimentation in response. With the Great Depression in America following shortly after, the prevailing mood in Europe was one of a ‘Return to Order’ or Classicism.
Even with modern art being en vogue, the war and after it brought on a revival for classical techniques and subject matter. The fragmentation in Cubism gave way to idealized bodies, calm, and balanced composition. Leger's Three Women for instance may have been hard edged but they were not shattered. Geometric forms in this painting was idealized and orderly.
Cubism’s geometry and its open forms, where space flowed in and out of figures and background and foreground blended into one another, became a style. Cubism had finally become modern in the fashionable sense.
“Being the first form of fashion art, Cubism itself was soon abandoned by all its able practitioners, who moved on to new styles. By 1930 there was no artist so out-of-date as a Cubist. It had, however, a curious persistence in the works of countless artists of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, who wished to paint in a figurative manner but who also wished to identify themselves as modern.” (Paul Johnson)
Who is Vicente Manansala?
Born in 1910, Vincente Manansala or Mang Enteng as he is fondly called, was growing up in the Philippines as Cubism in Europe went from radical to fashionable modern art. Poverty-stricken, Enteng the rough-and-tumble street kid worked his way into becoming an art student at the University of the Philippines in 1926, where he learned from classically-trained artists of the time like Fernando Amorsolo . And in 1950 after years of making art, he flew to fine art’s capital, Paris, to Ecole de Beaux-Arts. Fernand Leger of the Salon Cubists became one of his mentors.
He returned to the Philippines in the midst of revolution in the arts. It was after World War II and the intelligentsia and high society (the illustrados) were warming up to the persuasions of modern art, even as the wider sections of Philippine society reacted with shock and resistance. The times were ready for art that accepted grim realities and trauma and one that didn't always offer escapist fantasies like the idlyllic Philippine countryside.
Victorio Edades was seen as the leader with Manansala among the avant-garde or what history has deemed the “13 Moderns.” Arguably, the one most associated with pushing the Cubist view of reality was Mang Eteng.
If his stay at Paris had produced one thing, it was that Manansala had adopted the passage technique of Cubism, its overlapping planes, soft contours, and open forms. Mang Enteng had learned well in that sense, introducing to the Philippines, the shallow-almost-flat space of the Cubist picture.
Manansala learned to apply this to his own composition of objects and figures drawn from his own social milieu, developing a Cubist-based pictorial language sensitive to the pastoral and provincial life of the Philippine countryside and the urbanity and squalor of cities like Manila.
He was absorbed under the banner of Neo-realism with its “distortion,” a characteristic of much Philppine modern art that rebelled against the traditional themes and methods in painting in the Philippines. They included Cesar Legaspi, Galo Ocampo, and Ang Kiukok. Artists like Malang, Angelito Antoino, Norma Belleza, and Manuel Baldemor influenced by Manansala’s art were also among them. Each of these artists was known for a unique or idiosyncratic style of painting. However, what united all of them was a strong tether to figuration, which was at times experimental and emotional, but always somewhat abstract.
Before them, genre paintings were decidedly academic, falling in line with the tradition set by the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura and exemplified by painters like Lorenzo Guerrero, Justiniano Asuncion, Paz Paterno, and Simon Flores. These were followed by the next generation of celebrated painters Fabian de la Rosa and Fernando Amorsolo. But who could forget Juan Luna, that glorious bright flash in the Philippine sky? What they all had in common was an adherence to a classical and Renaissance-based view of painting, inherited from the academies of Europe by way of Spanish colonial rule.
Manansala and those included under the banner “Neo-realist“ revolutionized genre paintings in the Philippines, paintings which include landscape, still life, portraiture, and depictions of everyday people. They became known for certain genres infused with social realism, a departure from the classical, idyllic, and sentimental themes accepted in Philippine art.
Manansala in particular was known for the sabunggero (cockfighter) or the woman street vendor or his magnificent Stations of the Cross. His carabaos, jeepneys, laborers, religious women, marketplaces, and pastoral still lifes were all draped in his passage technique’s “throbbing, crystalline effect.” Manansala's mastery of these subjects filtered through his own personal Cubist revolution and became known as Transparent Cubism.
Manansala was among the modern art pioneers in the Philippines, opening up the country into newer visions of art, far from the academic painting celebrated even after World War II. He was declared the Philippines’ National Artist in 1981. Not bad for a kid who was once a newsboy, golf caddy, shoeshine boy, and the son of a barber from Macabebe, Pampanga.
Sources: Art Since 1900 and Reuben Canete