For many years now, the vocabulary employed in the explanation and criticism of works of art has been hurled with almost crushing force at the innocent and unsuspecting layman. Such words as "Impressionism", "Cubism", and "Futurism", have been bandied about with such utter freedom and carelessness, that the intelligent individual, having a normal interest in modern art, has often been forced to throw up his hands in despair and mutter something about "artificial catchwords". Well, it is true enough that any categorizing term used in the sphere of the aesthetic is nothing more than a valiant attempt to oversimplify; it is also true, though, that certain descriptive terms do have precise meanings; and without a knowledge of these meanings, however slight, an understanding of modern and contemporary art becomes extremely difficult.
It is, in one sense, misleading to attach a term like "Impressionism" to a definite chronological period; for despite the fact that many outstanding painters who lived during the middle of the last century were Impressionists, the term itself is primarily indicative of a method rather than a time in the history of painting. An Impressionistic painting is simply one in which bright, practically unfused colors are placed on the canvas in such a manner that the eye of the onlooker, rather than the brush of the artist, mixes the tones and gives them coherence. Perhaps an example would serve to illustrate my point: a barber pole contains stripes of solid, unmixed color; this is the palette. When the pole begins to turn, these colors are fused and mingled for your eye, not by your eye; this is the traditional method of applying paint to a canvas, the method used by all of the Old Masters. When you are standing perhaps fifty yards away from this colored pole which is no longer revolving, your eye mixes the tones for you, and it is rather difficult to distinguish between the red, the blue, and the white: this is Impressionism as far as its technique is concerned. The Impressionistic painter usually represents a momentary glimpse, one aspect of any chosen subject in this manner.
"Cubism", for which the great Post-Impressionist Cezanne is largely responsible, is the organization of solid and full-bodied plastic cubes within a limited space. A Cubist would paint a landscape by directing the various trees and buildings into a series of lines and solids. It is almost as if he had built his painting with blocks and spheres. Each element in such a creation is placed with direct regard to its relation with the other elements. It is an intellectual method of presenting the essence of matter in its artistic form.
The main tenet of "Futurism" is that all connotations of an idea or object must be presented with that object in a work of art. Spatial and temporal continuity is entirely neglected by the Futurist. If, for example, he wishes to portray a sick person, he will place in his painting the images and distorted ideas which pass through the mind of an individual who is ill; Fear will be hovering above the person's head and the bed upon which he is resting might be transformed into the automobile he was driving when an accident occurred. All elements of natural law and human reason are distorted. In many respects, Futurism is quite similar to Sur-realism.