METZ.- The exhibition Simple Shapes brings to the fore our fascination with simple shapes, from prehistoric to contemporary. It also reveals how these shapes were decisive in the emergence of the Modern Age.
The years between the 19th and 20th centuries saw the return of quintessential shapes through major universal expositions which devised a new repertoire of shapes, the simplicity of which would captivate artists and revolutionise the modern philosophy. They introduced, within the evolution of modern art, both an alternative to the eloquence of the human body and the possibility that shapes could be a universal concept.
Nascent debates in physics, mathematics, phenomenology, biology and aesthetic had important consequences on mechanics, industry, architecture and art in general. While visiting the 1912 Salon de la Locomotion Aérienne with Constantin Brancusi and Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp stopped short before an aeroplane propeller and declared, "Painting is dead. Who could better this propeller?"
These pared-down, non-geometric shapes, which occupy space in a constant progression, are no less fascinating today. Minimalist artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra, spiritualist artists such as Anish Kapoor, metaphysical artists such as Tony Smith, or poetic artists such as Ernesto Neto are as attentive to simple shapes as were the inventors of modernity.
The exhibition draws on the senses to explore the appearance of simple shapes in art, nature and tools. This poetic approach is balanced by an analytical view of the twentieth century's history.
It connects scientific events and technical discoveries with the emergence of modern shapes. Subjects pertaining to industry, mechanics, mathematics, physics, biology, phenomenology and archaeology are equated with objects from art and architecture, which are in turn set alongside their ancient predecessors and natural objects.
1. Before Shape
There are no simple forms in this initial group. Instead, it introduces one of their characteristics: the emergence of the latent form within a still disorganised matter. Movements, silhouettes, faces push their way to the surface, caught in the act of transformation; not yet fully formed but already instilled with life. The works in this section display an energy that shapes the world, stirs its fecundity, accentuates its evolutions. Ritual objects, sculptures, photographs or drawings, they neither duplicate reality nor represent the visible, but mimic or question the vital force that pulsates within all things.
2. The Moon
The mechanism of the world follows a mysterious dynamic, made evident to us by the very simple form of the Moon. Since the dawn of time, Man has contemplated the Moon whose constant transformation has produced multiple legends. Celebrated by poets, hinted at in ceramic, painted, observed, photographed and ultimately brought within reach, it is the very first simple form. Whether the poets metaphorical Moon or the scholars algebraic Moon, it suggests an autonomous process of transformation which characterises form as a suspended state, a hiatus in time.
Form, any form, is a transitional state, a temporary stabilising of matter. A diffusional, expansive energy, it is the materialisation of a permanent activity that resonates deep within elements: stone, fire, air, water. It is this discernible vitality which the monk must meditate, or the artist whose gestures, breathing and rhythm will align to express the vibrations of the cosmos as he experiences or imagines them. Many spiritual doctrines take root in the belief that a concordance exists between objects, beings and the world including, in the early modern era, the Gnostic and theosophical movements inspired by Oriental philosophies.
4. Who Could Better This Propeller?
Forms created by the constraints imposed on them; forms adapted to the forces they exert in order to perform their function. The product of technique, they are beautiful because they are the perfect fulfilment of a need. Primitive tools such as a bow or a boomerang already display the perfection which, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would be that of aero-mechanical engineering, and would captivate artists. At the 1912 Salon de la Locomotion Aérienne with Constantin Brancusi and Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp would thus stop short before an aeroplane propeller and declare that "Painting is dead. Who could better this propeller?" Part of the appeal which simple forms held for artists in the twentieth century comes from this fascination with lines that eschew subjectivity; which appear to mould themselves to the forces imposed on them.
The expression of life, breath gives form to glass in its temporary molten state. Because of the symbolic nature of this vulnerable substance, this operation takes on vital meaning as soon as these two fragile elements are combined. To create a three-dimensional form using breath is to inject the content of our own body into the object, so as to give it its final shape. It is, by virtue of its plastic qualities, as though suspended between material and immaterial.
6. To Contain
To contain is to mould the properties of a content with form, or rather to stretch or swell so as to duplicate the precious weight held in check. Form symbolises how emptiness and fullness are mutually engendered; how surface tension is determined by the nature of what is inside and by the effort made to prevent it from spilling outside its contours. The dynamic simplicity of archaic forms provides modern silhouettes with a repertoire suited to industrial processes.
7. To Cut
To cut is a symbolic act whose importance is underscored by the quality of the objects associated with it. They are both tools and emblems that derive their prestige from the finite nature of the act they are designed to perform. Symbolising the original decision, the separation between day and night, life and death, determinate and indeterminate, intimate and cosmic, the blade and the cut it makes is a simple form with a powerful theological and political content which, after the Second World War, enabled art to break free and found a new aesthetic.
8. Beyond Geometry
Geometry studies, ex nihilo , the properties of space by expressing in numerical form the relationships between point, line, plane and volume. A mathematical and symbolic instrument, geometry serves to depict, calculate and understand how the world is organised and the properties of things. Since the Neolithic age, Man has invented complex forms to express combinations and figures that would become the basis for creation, the best-known example being the five Platonic solids. While artists in the twentieth century believed that geometry, because of its apparent objectivity, could be the path towards a new and universal art, Euclidian geometry is here referred to from a different perspective. Simple forms appear to belong not to the mental permanence of concepts but to the dynamic of life. Their presence is influenced by evolutions in geology and advances in non-Euclidean geometry. They invite us to venture beyond traditional geometry.
Forces mastered by new material physics and the subsequent possibilities thrown open by the ingenuity of engineers were of critical importance to art. Whereas proportion had always been central to architecture, construction now revolved around analytical reasoning, the Eiffel Tower being an iconic example. New materials such as iron, steel and reinforced concrete, the feat these constructions represent, as well as economies in materials and means produce effects of constraint, tension and balance, and the new emotions they convey became an inspiration for artists.
10. Mathematical Shapes
By giving form to functions that reveal the invisible movements and physical consequences of their calculations using mathematical objects first described in the 1870s, scientists invented an unexpected repertoire of forms that prompted a sudden shift in artistic references, an abstraction prior to abstraction. Artists' interest in mathematics goes far back, to the invention of perspective. In the twentieth century, mathematicians' new hypotheses gave credence to the ideas of the cubists, constructivists and surrealists. As this desire to represent imperceptible dynamics grew, new simple forms emerged.
11. Nature, Biomorphism
Since Aristotle, and more specifically over the last two centuries, living things, the life cycle of plants, their morphogenesis, cellular development, diversity, reproduction and decline have given rise to biological studies, illustrations and photographic representations which identify and develop models for their essential stages. The physiological mechanisms of plants' cellular and molecular functioning were described in the early twentieth century. Artists took inspiration from this new repertoire of forms, seizing upon the leaf's contours, pliancy, decorative or symbolic value, or the maturation of a piece of fruit. These are analogies, not representations, which give a newly poetic form to the principles that presided over their creation.
12. Generating Shapes
The forces of fertility are often symbolised by forms that are associated with generation and the sacred. The cosmic egg, lingam and standing stones express causal principles that are worshipped in numerous religions. The forms which represent them are pure, perfect - like the ovoid form of the egg - and transitory, because they contain life in evolution. Artists of every period have seized upon these forms and made them the subject of symbolic reflection, even though the fundamental principles of fertilisation and embyrogenesis were not understood until the nineteenth century.
13. Human Silhouettes
Ancient civilisations offer many examples of how the human body can be depicted with extraordinarily simplicity, whether Cycladic heads or the silhouettes of predynastic Egypt. These pure forms immediately captivated western artists when they were rediscovered at the very end of the nineteenth century. Sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti reproduced Cycladic idols whose stylised, dynamic contours are a condensation of the human form. By representing the body in its most essential aspect, the artist forgoes the notion of identity in favour of a synoptic expression of human vitality. Silhouettes and faces no longer represent a single individuality but humanity as a whole.
14. Animal Silhouettes
These animal silhouettes contain and condense the impression of speed associated with their representational form. Certain oceanic stones, in their natural or barely transformed state, embody power and sacred energy in their pure, zoomorphic line, the repository of an ancestor or a divinity. This energy, which defies the image and takes over space, enables the artist to capture its principle through elision, conserving only the alert and powerful efficiency of life. The simple or simplified form suggests the animal as it leaps or flees. It relates movement in exactly the opposite way to chronophotography which, in the late nineteenth century, multiplied the number of views to capture the many details of the animal in motion.
15. Objects with Poetic Reaction
There is an imperceptible stage at which the mind spontaneously completes the as yet still absent form. This is the fragile moment when a stone is still completely a stone, yet already something else; the moment when it is both matter and form. The stones which Charlotte Perriand collected are symptomatic of those objects which from ordinary become "objects of poetic reaction", to borrow Le Corbusier's phrase, because they contain analogical and metaphorical propositions. Whereas found objects are eroded by nature, used objects are eroded by the forces that pitilessly fashion them. New forms appear, intended as the perfect tool, shaped through repeated gestures, carved through matter rubbed against matter. Through the very weakening inflicted by time, the form grows stronger. It relates the persistence of time on matter that elicits emotion, and the ghosts of those who used them appear in the ultimately rarefied material.
16. Weight of Things
Certain forms appear to result exclusively from the destiny of the substance from which they are made and which, allowed to move freely in space and time, is frozen where it falls. This section shows forms which, like a dress whose elegant drape we admire, through the effect of gravity, create new figures. In doing so they show how the materials that compose them resist or accommodate the laws of physics.
The form offers itself fully, in all its simplicity. Nothing is withheld, yet whoever contemplates it cannot help but see in it a symbol, a carefully composed mystery, an enigma. There is an order, it seems, to its facets yet these mute figures continue to greet us with haughty silence, refusing to deliver the solution. Astonished by such enduring fascination, we read a primordial complexity into this simplicity, as though the very necessity which seems to have presided over their creation had instilled in them an essential revelation which could never be put into words, and which is the ultimate explanation of their power of attraction.