Monday 26 September 2011

No Cubes left in Cubism: Picasso and Braque 1910-1914

 Still life with chair caning, Picasso 1912

 Art is everything and everything is art.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Great War, the relationship between art and artist underwent a fundamental change. The act of creation became increasingly self-conscious; initially playful, later cynical and ironic; as artists questioned their purpose and relation to the emerging modern world. Boundaries between life and art were repeatedly broached, as all objects and situations became potential artistic material, calling the very existence of the artist into question and leading some into an increasing mood of disorientation, disillusion and cynical manipulation. Others were buoyed by this iconoclastic frenzy, fired by the irreverently poetic and fantastic origins of Dada and Surrealism, Abstract, Constructivist and Installation art. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire said the spirit of these years forced artists to “learn to laugh,” but their works contained an increasingly uneasy sense of impending world events and the suspicion that they were  at best misunderstood, at worst, irrelevant.  

The men to watch were Pablo Picasso and George Braque, working so closely together in Montmartre's Bateau Lavoir studios that it was sometimes difficult to tell their creations apart. Since Picasso's 1906 "Demoiselles D'Avignon," they had rapidly been moving away from representational forms and experimenting with Cezanne's legacy of the cylinder, sphere and cone. Cubism’s innovations inevitably attracted followers among the young avant-garde artists of Paris. While Braque’s inclusion of new works in the 1909 Salon des Independants and Picasso’s retrospective late in 1910 confirmed them as the leaders in the field, a group of young “Salon” cubists were keen to appropriate and adapt the advancements they had made. As Cubism developed greater emphasis on the third dimension, artists found new ways of departing from the canvas and applied their cubist principles to the media of collage and sculpture, semiotics and machinistic expressions of modernism.
Published in Paris in 1907, Henri Bergson’s “Creative Evolution” seemed to predict, or perhaps help inspire, the direction of Cubism. His theories of memory and the subjective construction of reality pervaded avant-garde circles, encouraging artists to “look on all matter as if it were carvable at will…regard matter as indifferent to form” and use the artist’s power of “decomposing and recomposing as (they) please….according to any law…into any system.” This implied more than just freedom from physical restraint, it encouraged an active, near god-like ability to manipulate all forms to individual, subjective purpose and encouraged the Cubists and later Futurists to view space as “the plan of our possible action on things.”

                                               Picasso's "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon" 1906

Early works.
In 1909 and 1910, Picasso and Braque’s experiments in Analytic Cubism produced monochromatic images apparently broken into fragments and reassembled to represent multiple viewpoints. They moved away from the Cezannian influences of twisting and contorting bodies that had marked their work from 1907-8 and began treating figures more like landscapes, dissecting the planes or cube forms they were reduced to. Important bridging works between these styles are Picasso’s “Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table,” a proto-Cubist still life of familiar domestic objects and “Bather” of 1909, which retains the clear influence of Cezanne’s series of the same name, whilst introducing the duller Cubist palette and opening up the body so as to be seen from a variety of angles. “Woman with Pears (Fernande)” also retains elements of the Demoiselles style, although other heads produced during a summer trip to Horta de Ebro show further fragmentation of features and planes, heading towards the complete abstraction of Picasso’s Cadaques trip of Summer 1910. This intense focus upon the merging of three dimensional objects, allowing them the freedom to pass through each other, developed Cezanne’s technique of passage in a way sometimes referred to as Facet Cubism.

Other works such as “Mademoiselle Leonie” and “Woman in an Armchair” still include recognisable human forms, however distorted or devoid of features but the body parts of “Nude Woman” are barely recognisable and the geometric lines have lost any three dimensional quality. Recent controversy over whether “Man with a Violin” might actually be “Woman with a Violin,” or even a still life arrangement, illustrates the extent of figurative rejection in these images. Although experiencing a greater degree of success in the market place with these new works, than ever before, Picasso returned to semi-recognisable human forms for the commissioned portraits of 1910. Images of dealers Vollard, Kahnweiler and Wilhelm Uhde are visibly varied in character, with subtle differences in palette and mood, suited to personality: the Kahnweiler work is most abstract, predominantly grey with lighter, more ochre focal points around the head and clasped hands: Vollard’s greys are greener, with strong emphasis on the yellow-pink face, which is full of character: Uhde is brown, almost dull purple, with pinched features and more visible clothing, especially the collar and neck tie.

Picasso, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910

Hidden codes in Cubism ?
 Through 1911 and 1912, fragmentation became so complete as to render original images almost illegible, infused with a new sense of space and openness; Picasso’s “Arlesienne” and “Dancers on July 14” have a lighter feel, although this many be in part due to the lack of heavy colour, as they are executed in ink on paper. Certainly the density of activity has lessened and the canvases of Braque’s “Woman Reading,” “Still Life with Violin” and “Pedestal Table” appear to be only loosely containing their subject matter, dispersed and diffuse as that was. By 1912, that there were no longer any cubes left in Cubism; the third dimension had been analysed, reconstructed and dissected beyond recognition. The paintings of this period, from Picasso’s dealers series, to 1912, are often referred to as Hermetic Cubism, when the shattering of solid forms was taken as far as is possible in oil on a two-dimensional canvas.

 Braque had introduced another innovation early in 1909, when he began to play with the idea of dimensions, signs and signifiers, acknowledging the artificiality of his work, a quality Matisse earlier admired in Cezanne. At the tops of “Violin and Palette,” 1909 and “Violin and Pitcher,” 1910, he painted a large nail, in trompe l’oeil style, pinning the canvas against a wall and undermining three dimensional interpretation. The irony of this was Cubism’s hitherto deliberate reluctance to yield meaning, breaking the usual planes and dimensions of objects and reconstituting them in short, often disconnected lines, broken circles and curves, with the use of shading or monochromatic tonality.

 A specific Cubist language and iconography developed, partly from the use of violins and musical scores; the instruments’ holes became an “f,” then an “s” and the inclusion of newspapers in compositions led Braque to include recognisable words, the first being a section “GIL B” of the “Gil Blas” paper, perhaps as an ironic nod to its critic Louis Vauxelles.  This points to a playful relationship between the real, or recognisable, aspects of a work and those which are almost impossible to decipher, indicative of a widening gap between the public and private aspects of Cubist work and the “truth” artists were prepared to yield. Letters and recognisable objects, such as faces, hands, violin strings or flutes, could be clues and concessions to the viewer or further exaggeration of the point that these canvases should not be interpreted in terms of representation but as comments upon the nature of art and depiction of reality. This meant artists could more overtly deny their role as conveyers of truths, using visual tricks to mislead rather than explain, true of other non-figurative art but interpreted by Picasso and Braque as a mark of exclusivity, perhaps even mockery.

                                                               Braque, Still Life 1913 
Much of the Cubists’ subject matter involved a return to the Impressionists’ personal and domestic realm; sheet music, fruit bowls, pipes, cards, papers, glasses and drinks were familiar depictions of the pleasures of café life. Braque later termed this phase “the triumph of painting as deception” and implied the symbols did indeed act as signifiers, visual signs for what was imagined, not seen, with the bunches of grapes appearing in several works representative of this theme of illusion. The letters and words featured did have contextual meaning across several canvases but the vocabulary of signs developed by Picasso and Braque were more playful and self-parodic, than a deliberate attempt to enter the realm of semiotics. Critic Jacques Rivière was taken in by this in 1912, writing that the inclusions of symbols had been taken to the “point of absurdity, (thus) depriving them of meaning,” hitting upon the very point that the symbols partly served the same purpose as the trompe l’oeil nails. However, the use of longer, recognisable words undeniably had significant inclusive and exclusive effects, exciting play between artist and viewer, who is fooled into seeing the canvas as a code to be cracked.

Picasso's guitar, 1913

Initially, this play of words was generated by subject matter but later began to provide clues in the deciphering of more abstract representation. Lettering, as used in “Lighter and Newspaper” highlighted the artificiality of canvas images that had no more connection with the real three dimensional object than its name did, reminiscent of Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” a decade later. Following the theme, Braque produced “Pedestal Table,” “Still Life with Banderillas” and “Le Portugais” in 1911, with words as fragments, as devoid of apparent relevance as the broken lines are to their subject matter. However, the sketched “Fox” and “Still Life with Bottle of Marc” still included words as clues to identity; in these cases, extensions of the titles. Braque’s “Homage to J S Bach” and Picasso’s “Scallop Shell” and “Souvenir du Havre” press the point further; Picasso included names and labels from posters and used words of personal significance in the 1911-12 “Ma Jolie,” as a reference to his new lover. The inclusion of symbols and words makes clear a key technique of Analytical Cubism: the artificiality of representation on canvas was explored to comment on the limitations of painting as an art form.

Rising off the canvas.
This sense of reconstructive adventure and the rejection of figurative limitations led inevitably into collage and the third dimension, enabling Picasso and Braque to liberate themselves from the flat planes of the canvas and blur the lines between hitherto separate media. Echoing Foucault’s concept of significant “texts”, and theories of semiotics, dealer Kahnweiler wrote of Cubism in the 1940s that the “true character of painting and sculpture is that of a script. The product of these arts are signs, emblems for the external world, not mirrors… once this was recognised, the plastic arts were freed from the slavery inherent in illusionistic styles.” For the Analytical Cubists, the qualities of objects existed independently of those objects; properties and ideas were more real in abstract form than they were when found in three dimensions, linking them with Platonic conceptions of the ideal.
Picasso's 1912 "Still Life with Chair Caning" was one of the most significant of the Cubist's experiments with dimension. Onto a half-completed painting of cafe-based objects: newspaper, clay pipe, glass, lemon slices and knife, is pasted a piece of oilcloth printed in imitation of a woven cane pattern, over which painted lines extend. Displaying little correlation between these two distinct areas, the image rejects classical unity and juxtaposes different planes which challenge the eye's attempts to decode perspective. The shape and framing of this work was also unusual; cut into an oval, encompassed by a single, thick piece of rope, it gives the effect of a cafe table top or the seat of a chair, an exciting move in the direction of sculpture. The "real" objects are allowed to possess their own dimensions, while the others are painted flat. Significantly visible, the "JOU" of the newspaper "Le Journal," puns on the visual game or joke of double dimensions and the further play on the concept of a "tableau," the French word for an easel picture, reminds us the picture is simultaneously a work of art and a useful table.
In further mimetic play, Picasso’s “Still Life” construction employed plaited fibres and scraps of wood, painted to look like a plate and wine glass, with sliced bread and sausage, creating a fictional space at the same time that the objects’ outward projection calls this into question. Differing conventions of reality are expressed; the sausage and bread are clearly not so, yet the plaited fibres are present as literally themselves; it also proves difficult to ascertain a single viewpoint, as the angles of table top and glass suggest the multi-faceted approach of Analytic Cubism. The line between reality and artifice is called into question; the work reassures on one hand, whilst disturbing our senses on the other.

From this, further contrasting dimensional techniques developed in Cubist works, marking the start of the Synthetic period from 1912-1914. Texture and pattern, along with chiaroscuro paint effects made the composed forms more like pictorial objects in themselves than recognisable figurations. Braque had already been using a faux-bois technique achieved by scraping a steel comb across wet paint to create a wood grain effect; now scraps of wall paper, adverts, cloth and sheets of music began to appear and instead of painting newspapers, the artists stuck real sheets of printed matter directly onto the canvases. This technique of using “found” objects as literal representations of themselves, later involved more complex, sculptural arrangement of pasted papers, interpreted by drawn or painted lines, known as papiers collés. Every plane in view, real or imagined, was parallel to the work’s surface. Braque’s “Still life with Guitar” shows the importation of paper for texture, colour and grain but Picasso’s “Guitar and Sheet Music” and “Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass” use ochre patterned wall paper as a background for a more complicated collection of coloured, representative shapes. Initially, extra papers were being stuck onto the canvas but by late 1912, Picasso’s found objects were substituted for the canvas itself and drawn elements appeared on smaller pieces of paper, as if the relationship between the central “real” and representational objects had been reversed. The flat collages pushed further into the third dimension, as with Picasso’s “Guitar and Bottle of Bass” and “Violin” of 1913, which incorporates a box pasted into the design.

                                                          Picasso's absinthe glass 1913
 Braque’s use of faux-bois showed that almost any material could be used to represent another, as a sort of visual short-hand for the qualities of texture but the tactility of Picasso’s “Still Life with Chair Caning” went further in rejecting signifiers in favour of the real. Picasso had crossed over into sculpture before: a plaster version of a head of Fernande in 1909, later cast in bronze, has the Medusa-style hair and distorted figure which place it in the early cubist period, the Cezannian, or Facet era; other similar early works were also made of bronze, wood or plaster. What was different about the Synthetic sculptures was the new idea that the use of any material or object was acceptable; every day objects could potentially become works of art with little alteration. It was a matter of perception; they simply needed to be seen in that context; the ultimate stage to artistic autonomy. This was revolutionary, leading directly to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic ready-made porcelain urinal of 1917. After that, Art would never be the same again: Duchamp was to give up painting althogether a few years later, claiming there was nowhere left to go with it; yet sixty years of colourful canvases still lay ahead of Pablo Picasso.


  1. I am mad about Impressionism — but Cubism has rapidly become my favourite Art style. Today I saw a bus with some … product or other advertised in the corner around the window. It looked rather Cubist!

    Great article, for which many thanks. By the way, I have to boast everywhere about this. I had this book come through and it is exquisite:

  2. where i search essay on this painting , (Wine Glass)2911 by picasso