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Cubism

1. Origins and application of the term

Source: Oxford University Press

The question of when Cubism began and who led the way in its development is inextricably tied up with the question of what distinguishes Cubist art, how it can be defined and who can be called Cubist. The beginnings of Cubism have variously been dated 1907, 1908, 1909 and 1911. In 1907 Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (New York, MOMA), which has often been considered a proto-Cubist work. In 1908 Braque produced Houses at L’Estaque (Berne, Kstmus.) and related landscapes, which prompted the reference by Vauxcelles to ‘cubes’. The landscapes made by Picasso at Horta de Ebro in 1909, such as Reservoir at Horta de Ebro (New York, priv. col., see 1983 exh. cat., p. 245), were regarded by Gertrude Stein as the first Cubist pictures. The first organized group showing by Cubists took place in a separate room, ‘Salle 41’, at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1911; it included work by Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, but nothing by Picasso or Braque.

By 1911 Picasso was accepted as the inventor of Cubism, a view that began to be challenged only with the publication of John Golding’s influential history of Cubism in 1959; here Braque’s importance and possible precedence was recognized for the first time. A later interpretation of Cubism associated especially with William Aubin, the impact of which has been considerable, identifies Braque categorically as the first. According to this view, the major breakthrough represented by Cubism centres on the depiction of space, volume and mass, especially as it occurred in Braque’s L’Estaque landscapes. This view of Cubism is associated with a distinctly restrictive definition of which artists are properly to be called Cubists. Marginalizing the contribution of the artists who exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911, it focuses attention strictly on those who took a leading part in the development of this new mode of depiction, usually identified as Braque, Picasso, Juan Gris (from 1911) and, to a lesser extent, Fernand Léger (especially in 1911–12). douglas Cooper coined the terms ‘true’ Cubism and ‘essential’ Cubism to distinguish the work of these Cubists; the implied value judgement was intentional.

This restricted view of Cubism is linked to a formalist interpretation of its significance in 20th-century art. The assertion that the Cubist depiction of space, mass and volume supports rather than contradicts the actual flatness of the picture surface or the material qualities of the medium was made as early as 1920 by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, but it is also closely attuned to the art criticism of the 1950s and 1960s, especially that of Clement Greenberg. Contemporary views of Cubism were, in fact, complex and heteroclite; they were formed to some degree in response to the more publicized ‘Salle 41’ Cubists, whose methods were too distinct from those of the ‘true’ Cubists to be considered merely secondary to them. Alternative interpretations of Cubism have therefore developed. Such wider views of Cubism take in others who were later associated with the ‘Salle 41’ artists, most conspicuously Francis Picabia; the brothers Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Marcel Duchamp, who from late 1911 formed the core of the Puteaux group; the sculptors Alexander Archipenko, Ossip Zadkine and Joseph Csaky as well as the two regarded as ‘essential’ Cubist sculptors, Jacques Lipchitz and Henri Laurens; and painters such as Louis Marcoussis, Roger de La Fresnaye, František Kupka, Marc Chagall, Diego Rivera, Léopold Survage, Auguste Herbin, André Lhote, Gino Severini (after 1916), María Blanchard (after 1916) and Georges Valmier (after 1918). More fundamentally, the notion of ‘essential’ Cubism was later undermined by interpretations of the work of Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger that stress iconographic and ideological questions rather than methods of representation.

Before 1914 the image of Cubism both in France and internationally was based on an extremely broad definition. A more heterogeneous view of Cubism is certainly encouraged by the earliest promotional writings by its practitioners and associates. Picasso, Braque and Gris made almost no published statements on the subject before 1914. The first major text, Du cubisme, was produced by two ‘Salle 41’ Cubists, Gleizes and Metzinger, in 1912; this was followed in 1913 by a far from systematic collection of reflections and commentaries by the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who had been closely involved with Picasso (from 1905) and Braque (from 1907), but who gave as much attention to artists such as Delaunay, Picabia and Duchamp. Along with Léger he identified these three with a new tendency, which he labelled Orphic Cubism or Orphism and which he considered of special significance for the future. Painters such as Gleizes, Metzinger, Delaunay and Duchamp were powerful influences alongside Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger in the development of art related to Cubism in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Italy, the Netherlands, Britain, Spain and the USA.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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