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This essay was written as a project for an Open College of the Arts (OCA) art history course in 2006. It was finished on July 28, 2006, and is unchanged from that date except that I have taken out the images for copyright reasons and replaced them with links. I plan to make a PDF version available soon with the images in place as originally written. I chose the topic of Cubism because it had baffled me for a long time and the explanations I was seeing in the literature were unsatisfactory. The conclusion I came to differs from standard accounts, and I hope readers will find it interesting.  Comments are welcome, to folio12@gmail.com

 

CUBISM: THE BIG PICTURE

By Mary Adam

 

Background

Somewhere between 1900 and 1910 there is a gap in the history of art that I have never seen properly explained. Art goes from delightful Impressionist paintings from around 1850 onwards, such as Dégas’s dancers and Renoir’s portraits of children, through Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, all representational Post-Impressionist painters, each with a distinctive style and logic of his own (Fig. 1). One thing follows another ever so naturally. And then suddenly we are in the twentieth century, and representation drops out of the spotlight. It doesn’t disappear altogether, it simply is no longer the raison d’être of painting.

What happened? As we all know, Cubism happened (Fig. 2). All the other main movements in the early 20th century – Fauvism, Die Brücke, German Expressionism -- were clearly representational, however wild and arbitrary their colour might have been.

Analytical Cubism on the other hand, was not obviously representational. It is acknowledged to be an important turning point in the history of art, and art students need to understand it. “Knowing about Cubism is simply part of visual literacy” says Karen Wilkin.1 However, the standard explanations are not enlightening and sometimes are at odds with what the pictures show. Speaking for myself, Cubism has long both fascinated and baffled me despite previous attempts to understand it.

Cezanne Peppermint Bottle

Fig. 1: Cézanne, The Peppermint Bottle,  1893-95, oil on canvas, 65.7 x 82 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Public domain image from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_201.jpg)

Fig. 2 and 15: Picasso, The Accordionist, 1911. Oil on canvas, 51 ¼  x 35 ¼  inches. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image from http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_md_126_1.html; or from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.11:001

The aim of this project, therefore, is to arrive at an understanding of Cubism – how it came about, and its logic and rationale. I decided to approach it through a study of Picasso’s work in the years leading up to and during Analytical Cubism.

The standard explanations

Explanations of Cubism usually mention three things: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Fig 3), as the picture that started it all;2 Cézanne’s famous advice to Emile Bernard about geometrical forms; and the theory of multiple viewpoints, possibly derived from the first two.

Fig. 3: Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8" (243.9 x 223.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.07:001

Les Demoiselles

To take Les Demoiselles first: this picture of a brothel is certainly a key one in the history of modern art.

Experts point to:

  • the deformation of the figure at the lower right, in which we are seeing the front and back of the figure at the same time (multiple viewpoints);3
  • the shallow space from front to back, and the faceting of the women’s bodies;
  • the faces of the two women on the right, thought to be influenced by African masks and/or Iberian sculpture.

However, comparing Les Demoiselles with a painting from the height of Analytical Cubism (Fig 4), the connection between the two is far from clear.

For instance, in Picasso’s Cubist portrait:

  • There is no obvious deformation;
  • The portrait is faceted but it may or may not involve multiple viewpoints.
  • The space is to me quite deep and resonant.
  • There are no African masks or mask-like elements.

Furthermore, Les Demoiselles is clearly representational, while the portrait is abstract apart from the head.4

Fig. 4: Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1910. Oil on canvas, 92 x 65 cm. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Image from http://arthistory.westvalley.edu/images/P/PICASSO/VOLLARD.JPG (or from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.10:012 )

 

Cézanne

Another common theory, and the main one offered by Gombrich,5 is that Cézanne’s advice to the young painter Emile Bernard to “treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere and the cone” (but note, not the cube) was the rationale for Cubism. It has been interpreted as an instruction to reduce the world to geometric forms, which is what Cubist paintings often looked like at first. Rubin however argues against the theory because Cézanne did not paint that way himself.6 In a footnote he cites a suggestion that Cézanne was fed up with Bernard’s theorizing and was advising him to stick to basics until he had more experience. Also, Golding, a leading authority, says, “Any influence of Cézanne that there may be in the Demoiselles […] is of the most general kind.”7 However, Golding does say that Braque was influenced by Cézanne to a far greater extent than was Picasso.8

Multiple viewpoints

The notion of multiple viewpoints has been around since the early days of Cubism, but it too is dubious. It is routinely mentioned,9 often in the form of assertions rather than presentation of facts. The trouble is, it is easy to say but not so easy to prove. Looking at the pictures, I have seen no convincing evidence so far that it is the main rationale for Cubism, although instances of more than one viewpoint do occur.

In short, none of the usual explanations actually explain Cubism in a concrete way.

Picasso’s intentions

If Les Demoiselles and Cézanne do not shed light on Cubism, what next? I decided to try to figure out Picasso’s intentions by studying earlier works leading up to Cubism; and by reading a sampling of the literature.

The Blue period, 1901—1904

I didn’t stay long on the Blue period because it is not directly relevant. However, this was when Picasso showed his amazing artistic gifts, exemplified in his drawing of hands and feet (Fig. 5). If later he distorted and abstracted figures, it was not because of lack of skill.

Fig. 5: Picasso, Acrobat’s Family with a Monkey, early 1905. Gouache, watercolour, pastel and ink on cardboard, 104 x 75 cm. Göteborgs Konstmuseum. [Added later: an image is available on the Online Picasso Project website, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.05:003 ]

The Rose period, 1904--1906

It was while studying this period that I began to recognize what might be happening. In essence, the Rose period shows that Picasso did not think in a linear way, one thing at a time, but often had two or more separate themes going on together.10

During this time, instead of elongated skinny figures in monochrome blue, he began to paint short heavy figures in monochrome reddish-pink, as in Fig. 6, Two Nudes. In several areas of the figures, most notably the breasts, the dark and light tones are kept separate, showing his interest in the sculptural quality that could be achieved on a flat surface through the separation of planes.

Fig. 6: Picasso, Two Nudes, 1906. Oil on canvas, 151.3 x 93 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.06:024.

He may also have been investigating the differences between males and females, or the possibility of turning a male into a female or vice versa. And at this time he began to explore ways to deform the figure for expressive purposes, a theme which continued to occupy him to the end of his life.

For example, in the 1906 drawing in Fig. 7, called Woman with Red Head, something very odd is happening. The collar bones slant up towards the midline instead of down,11 and there’s no hollow at the base of the shortened neck. The figure’s head looks like a woman’s but it has a masculine-looking torso. And the nose might have been carved out of wood. Picasso’s own self-portrait of 1906 (Fig. 8) has some of these features.

Fig. 7: Woman with Red Head, 1906. Gouache on paper, 63 x 47 cm, Musée National d”Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Image from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.06:083

Fig. 8: Self Portrait with Palette, 1906. Oil on canvas, 91.9 x 73.3 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.06:026

So, I believe, Picasso was following at least two lines of inquiry at this time:

  1. deformation, and
  2. separation of planes.

I believe that these led to different strands in his art. Separation of planes, later to become faceting, fed into Cubism; whereas deformation, so important in Les Demoiselles, was not a feature of Cubism at all, in my view, but became a core feature of his later art, sometimes known as “the Picasso style”12 – as in the Weeping Woman (1937) or Cat Eating a Bird (1939).

The Pre-Cubist phase, 1907--1908

After painting Les Demoiselles in 1907, Picasso made a number of drawings and paintings of figures which continued the theme and style of the two women on the right of Les Demoiselles, with strongly mask-like faces (Fig. 9), some of them heavily hatched in paint. So many works exist in this style13 that it could justify a category of its own. They are sometimes seen as studies for Les Demoiselles.

He was also becoming deeply absorbed in his other strand, planes and facets. Fig. 10 shows a drawing of a faceted torso from 1908, and Fig 11 is a magnificent early Cubist landscape, also from 1908. The forms are simplified and faceted, one could fairly say abstracted. The exaggeration of the planes by faceting deepens the sense of space, in my view, contrary to the idea that Cubism involved flattening (Steinberg has called Picasso “the great flattener of 20th century painting”14).

Fig. 9Buste de femme,  Paris, Spring 1907. Oil on canvas, 64 x 50 cm.Národni Galerie, Prague. Image from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.07:134

Fig. 10, Bateau, 1908, Pencil on paper, 64,5 x 49,5 cm. The Picasso Estate. Image from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.08:041

Fig. 11: Landscape with Two Figures, 1908. Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. Musée Picasso, Paris. Image from http://philo.ucdavis.edu/home/cmc/SPA141/PICASSO/landscap.html or from the Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/WorksInfo?CatID=OPP.08:117

 

Cubism and abstraction

At this point I began to realize that the essence of Cubism is in fact abstraction, and from there on everything fell into place.

Picasso The Guitar Player Cubism

Why did it take so long? Looking now at The Guitar Player (Fig. 12, right), one wonders how it could ever have been seen as anything other than abstract. And yet the notion that Cubism is not abstraction is deeply rooted in the literature, though at times the arguments are self-contradictory. For instance, Golding says at page 84, “although Cubist paintings were becoming more abstract in appearance …”, at page 86 he states, “Cubism ... was never at any stage an abstract art”.15 Abstraction is often mentioned, but in a secondary role or qualified in some way, as in Wilkin’s “virtually abstract”,16 or Barr’s “semi-abstract”17). Ironically though, Cubism is included under abstract art in Honour and Fleming’s Glossary.18

 

 

 

Fig. 12 (info below)

I think the argument against abstraction in Cubism may be invalid, or at least misleading, and it certainly has been a mental block for me for a number of years. The block was finally blown away by a quote from Picasso himself:

“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all trace of reality. There’s no danger then . . . because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.”19

 

The indelible mark

Seeing Cubism primarily as abstraction changes how one approaches the pictures. It’s a question of knowing what to look for. Existing theories tend to make one look at the pictures piecemeal, whereas with Analytical Cubism the thing to look for, in my newly-acquired view, is the indelible mark of the big picture. I immediately tried this out on The Guitar Player (below left), a picture that has puzzled me for years, with the result shown in Fig. 13 at right.

Picasso The Guitar Player Cubism Picasso scribble analysis cubism

Above left: Fig. 12, Picasso, The Guitar Player, 1910. Oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Image from http://www.artchive.com/artchive/P/picasso/cadaques.jpg.html

Above right: Fig. 13, My scribbled analysis of The Guitar Player.

 

Testing, testing

Steinberg has cautioned that no one explanation of anything Picasso did has ever held up.20  Therefore, what is presented here is merely a hypothesis. I tested it again, on The Accordionist (Figs. 2 and 15), which the Guggenheim has called baffling,21 using a photo of an accordion player as a guide (Fig. 14); and was taken aback when the “big picture” method appeared to fail. However, Richardson says that according to Picasso himself it was not a musician at all, but a woman, and the title was a sexual double entendre, the clue being “the genital positioning” of the accordion keys (arrow in Fig. 15).22 Thus the picture is one of Picasso’s little jokes. Fig. 16 shows a possible interpretation.

Fig. 14: An accordion player. Image from the Instrument Encyclopedia section of the CHICO website -- http://www.si.umich.edu/chico/instrument/pages/accordion_gnrl.html

Fig. 2 and 15: Picasso, The Accordionist, 1911. Oil on canvas, 51 ¼  x 35 ¼  inches. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image from http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_md_126_1.html

scribble analysis accordionist cubism

Fig. 16: A possible interpretation of The Accordionist (my scribble analysis)

 

Epilogue

Picasso and Braque arrived at fully-developed Analytical Cubism in the summer of 1909, through extending the process of abstraction while retaining the essence or idea of the subject, a tricky sort of balancing act. The characteristics of the style include geometrical overlapping facets, an underlying grid to organize the picture plane,23 tonal gradations of great beauty, and fragments of the subject identifiable in places.

By these means, Cubism shifted the emphasis of picture-making away from representation and towards a totally new formal freedom, explaining the gap mentioned in the opening paragraph. Richardson says that Analytical and Synthetic Cubism between them engendered every major modern movement – Abstraction (Fig. 17), de Stijl (Fig. 18), Constructivism, Minimalism (Fig. 19), Dada, Surrealism and Pop Art.24

Abstraction

Fig. 17: Wassily Kandinsky, Black Lines, December 1913. Oil on canvas, 51 x 51 5/8 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum,  http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_md_71_3.html  (click on  "previous work").

De Stijl

Fig. 18: Theo van Doesburg, Aritmetička kompozicija (Arithmetic Composition), 1930. Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Theo_van_Doesburg_Arithmetic_Composition_%281930%29.jpg

Minimalism

Fig. 19: Agnes Martin, Water Flower, 1964. Pen and white and red ink? with gray wash, 30.1 x 30.3 cm (11 7/8 x 11 15/16 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image from http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pinfo?Object=55750+0+none

Following on from Cubism, abstraction in all its forms caught on with critics, painters and public alike and before long a revolution in art was underway that is still playing out.

 

References

1 Wilkin, Karen, 1989: O Pioneers! Picasso and Braque 1907-1914. The New Criterion, Vol 8, No. 4, December 1989; http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/08/dec89/pioneers.htm

2 Art of the Western World video series, Episode 15,  T.V.S. Television Ltd., 1989. Produced and directed by Ian Potts.

3 Warncke, Carsten-Peter, ed. Ingo F. Walther, 1997, Pablo Picasso 1881-1973, Taschen, Cologne, p.158

4 Wilkin 1989, op cit.

5 Gombrich E. H., 1989, The Story of Art, 15th edition, Phaidon Press Ltd., Ann Arbor, Michigan, p.456-458.

6 Rubin, William, 1972. Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, p. 48.

7 Golding, John, 1988. Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907—1914, 3rd edition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p. 39

8 Ibid, p. 58 and p. 63

9 Acton, Mary, 1997, Learning to Look at Paintings. Routledge, London, p. 47

10 Warncke 1997, op cit, p.148

11 Richardson, John, 1991. A Life of Picasso: Volume 1, The Early Years, 1881--1906. Random House, New York, p. 438.

12 Warncke 1997, op cit. p.403

13 The Online Picasso Project, http://picasso.tamu.edu

14 Steinberg, Leo, 1972. Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art. Oxford University Press, New York, p 191.

15 Golding 1988, op cit, p. 86. See also p. 89.

16 Wilkin 1989, op. cit

17 Barr, Alfred, quoted in Rubin 1972, p. 42

18 Honour, Hugh and Fleming, John, 2002. A World History of Art, 6th edition, Laurence King Publishing, London, p. 920.

19 Richardson, John, 1996. A Life of Picasso: Volume 2, The Painter of Modern Life, 1907—1917. Random House, New York. p. 175.

20 Steinberg 1972, op cit, p. 190

21 The Guggenheim Museum website, http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_md_126_1.html

22 Richardson 1996, op. cit, p. 187

23 Ibid, p. 157

24 Ibid, p 106

____________________

Mary Adam

8 Braemar Road, Cascade, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

July 28, 2006

folio12@gmail.com

 

 

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Modified May 4, 2007 -- Text unchanged, images replaced with links for copyright reasons

Modified July 14, 2007: Some broken links to images replaced; a public domain image of Cézanne's Peppermint Bottle added.

Modified Sept 12 and 14, 2007: Reformatted to simplify html for better access. Text unchanged, related links added.

Modified Feb 12, 2011: deleted obsolete email address, replaced with valid email

 

 

 

 
     
 

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