Are you one of those who either love or hate Cubism? To be honest, when I was first exposed to Cubism I didn’t understand it at all and had difficultly enjoying it. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the possibilities that it subsequently opened up for Western art. As an artist, thinking about Cubism and other important artistic movements informs my studio practice and helps me generate new ideas for painting. The way that we make and think about art is inevitably informed by art history and the context of meaning and possibility it creates.
Below, I present a fictional dialogue I wrote that brings to life some of the controversy surrounding Cubism during its early years. But before that, I offer a short introduction for those of you who don’t know much about the movement and its place in the history of modern art.
Cubism emerged out of the working relationship between two artists, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. It is said that on seeing ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon‘ during his visit to Picasso’s studio in 1907, Braque exclaimed: ‘C’est comme si tu buvais du pétrole en mangeant de l’étoupe enflammée‘ (‘It’s as if you drank petrol while eating flaming tow’). In other words, the painting was like a Molotov cocktail. This was the spark that kindled an artistic dialogue between the two artists that was to last for years to come. Between 1908 and 1912, their work developed in tandem to such a degree that they described themselves as ‘roped together like mountain climbers’.
As is commonplace in the history of art, Cubism got its name from one of its detractors. Louis Vauxcelles, an art critic, upon viewing Braque’s painting ‘Houses at l’Estaque’ in 1908, commented contemptuously to Matisse that it was ‘composed of cubes’. The remark stuck. And Cubism went on to fearlessly sweep away many of the most dearly-held conventions that had hitherto been unquestioned in Western art. In doing so, it became one of the most influential movements in modern art to date.
The first and most radical phase of Cubism was Analytical Cubism (1908-1912) in which Braque and Picasso systematically broke down form, leaving only hints and clues as to what was being represented in their paintings. They completely parted with the notion that art has to imitate nature or reality. Instead, they painted fragmentary surfaces composed of shifting and overlapping planes, challenging the viewer to identify the ‘subject’ of their pictures. Their works were unlike anything seen until that point: austere, almost monochromatic, in color palette, and strangely geometric. They laid emphasis on the intellectual and conceptual over and above the perceptual, blasting apart the idea of a fixed, single-point perspective by multiplying angles and viewpoints within a single work.
In upsetting the easy relation of signifier to signified, Picasso and Braque seemed to be saying that meaning could be arbitrary in art. This created quite a stir. Indeed, many years later, avant-garde modernist artists would pick up this idea and run with it, eventually developing abstraction.
What seems perhaps banal to us today was radical at the time. Cubism paved the way for future artists to deviate from representing ‘things’ toward painting ideas, concepts, and abstractions.
To the Edge of a Precipice: A Dialogue
Written by Christine Rose Henderson
The year is 1912. We are in a small gallery in Montmartre, Paris, in which the recent Cubist artworks of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque are being shown. Two friends, both young, aspiring painters, are animatedly discussing the works. H— (who brought F— here to see the exhibition) has been expressing his admiration of the movement.
F—: But, my friend, where is the beauty and truth in these works? Art is, above all, the pursuit of an ideal. It must elevate the mind and spirit, cultivate the senses, and educate our morals. At its height, it represents the striving to transcend our limited human condition, if only, as Kant suggested, in the ‘free play of the imagination’. Think of the heroic figures of Rodin, or the innocent children of Bouguereau, do not they put these works to shame? It will take much to convince me otherwise.
H—: Alas, that is very poetic. You are indeed a sensitive soul. I have nothing against beauty, to be sure. But is it truly, as you suggest, the sole raison-d’être of the work of art? What of the role of the avant-garde? Do you really adopt such a conservative position, or is this mere posturing? Cannot you allow that art may also play other roles? That it might serve as voice that challenges the social order, the status quo? Or that it may even exist for its own sake?
F—: Certainly, there is purpose in a Goya or a David. And yet what meaning could these works before me possibly hold? They are cold and ugly. All I see is a hard geometry of forms that repulses the beholder. Instead of being invited in, I am pushed out.
H—: I do believe that you have hit upon something, in your obstinate way. These paintings are anything but a window or a mirror. We are not invited into the picture. I suppose it has to do with the absence of illusionistic space. We are not invited to gaze upon a coherent object, nor offered anything in which to recognize ourselves. They seem to keep the beholder at a distance, demanding that he work to make sense of what his senses are experiencing.
F—: They are an affront to the conventions of Western art, culture, civilization even!
H—: Oh, you are prone to exaggeration mon ami! I suppose I must allow for the romantic in you. Even as a schoolboy you had a flair for the dramatic. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but our poet Apollinaire happens to be working on a paper on ‘Analytical Cubism’. He is, admittedly, one of the bande à Picasso, but his ideas are very interesting. He argues that Cubism offers us a ‘truth’ of sorts. In doing away with a single, coherent perspective and flattening the object, its aim is to provide us with a composite view of it, that is, a view of the object seen from all sides at once. In doing so, Cubism points to the limitations of the act of seeing. It provides a visual knowledge that is not available to mere perception.
F—: I must admit that is rather intriguing. But it is purely a concept, an intellectual idea. Isn’t aesthetics about the senses?
H—: It is an idea, but one that is given a sensual material form in the painting. In drawing our attention to the devices, like perspective, that art has relied upon to signify, it challenges the very act of representation as such. Not as an affront, but in order to problematize how meaning is made. I say, have you heard of that Swiss linguist Saussure and his theory of signs?
F—:Yes, I rather think I’ve seen his name printed in one or other of the popular journals.
H—: Quite likely. You really ought to read his work, particularly his ideas on the relation of the signifier to the signified.
M—: Excuse me, gentlemen. I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. My name is Marguerite. I am a curator here at the gallery. You see that Picasso painting there, the portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler? He is, of course, a well-known art dealer, but he is also a keen critic and observer of art. He is working on a theory of Cubism and has allowed me to read his notes. It is quite fascinating. He holds that Analytical Cubism attempts to reconcile the painted subject with the pictorial surface by bringing the two closer together, to the point where they almost touch. Cubist paintings compress pictorial space, in creating a tension between what he calls ‘literal flatness’ and ‘depicted flatness’ in the works.
H—: Can you explain the two?
M—: The former refers to the actual flat surface of the canvas, while the latter refers to that of the painted objects, whose volume has been reduced to a series of shallow planes that are positioned almost parallel to the picture plane. Please excuse me, there’s a client I must meet. Good-day, gentleman.
H— and F—: Good-day, madame!
F—: This is rather heady stuff!
H—: Yes, a lot to mull over. But, honestly, whatever your personal tastes, cannot you appreciate the revolution that these works represent? Sure the nymphs and idylls of Bouguereau are all very pretty, but what do they signify? It is romanticized nonsense, decadence for the bourgeoisie! This is the twentieth century, a time of innovation and invention! Don’t you see? Painting has been hitherto enchained. With the invention, not only of photography but of modern life, it must question itself, reinvent itself, if it is to continue to be relevant. The recent movements—-Impressionism, Symbolism, and the like—-have already shown us some of the many things that painting can do: address themes of modern life, express inner emotions. Cubism is another step forward. A truly modern art! Cézanne was already headed in that direction: pushing painting to its limits.
F—: To the edge of a precipice!
H—: Perhaps. Only time will tell where this will lead. Everywhere the old order has broken down. Lament it though you might, there can be no turning back.
Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buckloh, eds. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Harrison, Charles, Francis Frascina, and Gillian Perry. Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993.