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Cubism

3. Technical and stylistic innovations

Source: Oxford University Press

Technical and stylistic innovations in Cubist painting and sculpture are easier to grasp than Cubism as a concept or art-historical category, particularly as a clear sequence can be outlined. The fact that almost all of these were introduced by Braque or Picasso reinforces the notion of an ‘essential’ Cubism, but the methods they devised were widely influential precisely because they were so open to different and often contradictory adaptations. The geometric simplifications of form that led to Vauxcelles’s references to ‘cubes’ in 1908 were not in themselves innovative. The two basic methods favoured in early Cubism—the rendering of three dimensions by shifting viewpoints and of volume or mass in terms of flat planes—led to the complication, not the simplification, of the problem of depiction. Early Cubism, with its stress on multiple viewpoints and planar faceting, and its retention of model, landscape or objects as starting-points, has misleadingly been referred to as Analytical Cubism, although the artists themselves did not use this term.

The role assigned to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) as the painting that opened the way to Cubism is based above all on the exaggerated changes of viewpoint applied to the figures, especially the crouching nude on the right, whose head appears almost to have swivelled free from the shoulders so that it can be confronted in three-quarter view. The use of contrasting vantage-points for different features became a central factor in the practice of all Cubists, leading to the assertion that Cubist art was essentially conceptual rather than perceptual. The critic Maurice Raynal, a supporter of Cubism, was most responsible for the emphasis given to this claim from 1912. Raynal argued that the rejection of consistent perspective represented a break with the insistence on instantaneity that characterized Impressionism. The mind now directed the optical exploration of the world as never before. Art was no longer merely a record of the sensations bombarding the retina; it was the result of intelligent, mobile investigation.

Arguments for Braque’s L’Estaque landscapes of 1908 as the first Cubist paintings rest, by contrast, on their depiction of space, mass and volume. In works such as Houses at L’Estaque, a restrained use of shifting viewpoints is combined with a rendering of forms in space in terms of a continuous pattern of flat surfaces, subdued in colour, that tilt in and out across the picture plane. Such methods, which were taken further in pictures such as The Port (spring 1909; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.), clearly provided a stimulus for Picasso’s faceting of buildings and sky in his Horta de Ebro landscapes of summer 1909, for example Factory at Horta de Ebro (St Petersburg, Hermitage). A crucial technique here, later referred to as ‘passage’, involves the breaking of the contours defining both the things depicted and the overall faceting so that surfaces appear to flow together, blurring above all the distinctions between solid form and space, foreground and background. The emphasis later placed on the planar depiction of space, mass and volume arose from its usefulness in asserting the flatness of the support. The painting is seen both to capture the palpable three-dimensionality of the world revealed to the eyes and to draw attention to itself as a two-dimensional thing, so that it is both a depiction and an object in itself. From 1911 this emphasis on the status of the picture as an object was sometimes reinforced by Picasso and Braque by means of the admixture of sand and gesso in their paint to accentuate unevenness and tactility of surface. Picasso was the quickest, if not the first, to realize the implications of the planar depiction of space, volume and mass at their most extreme. In summer 1910, at Cadaquès in Catalonia, he produced pictures that so comprehensively broke down the distinctions between figures and spatial settings that the very identity of the subject was obscured; a major instance is Female Nude (Washington, DC, N.G.A.). From 1910 to 1912 the work produced by both Picasso and Braque was characterized by difficulties in the legibility of images that arose partly from the decision to open form fully out into space. Kahnweiler later referred to this kind of Cubist painting as Hermetic Cubism.

Early Cubism has been related to very different kinds of model or source. Picasso’s work, for instance, has been linked above all to primitivism, that is to say to non-Western sources (see Primitivism, §2); the stylizations and distortions of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon seem to have come about in response to African sculpture, examples of which he knew in the collections of friends such as André Derain and in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, and to ‘primitive’ Iberian stone-carvings. The relation to African art has also been associated with the conceptual view of Cubism, since such sculptures were held to represent the figure emblematically rather than naturalistically, in terms of simple signs for facial features, limbs and other parts of the body. By contrast, Picasso’s use of distortion from 1910 has also been related to the liberties taken by Ingres in idealizing human form. Yet, by general consent the major source for both the distortions created by the use of multiple perspective and for the depiction of forms in terms of planes is the late work of Paul Cézanne, who was the subject of a major retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1907. There is little doubt that the concentration by Braque and Picasso between 1909 and 1912 on Cézanne’s range of subjects—the posed model, still-life and landscape—was intended as a deliberate homage. Yet the extreme to which they exaggerated these formal strategies led to a fundamental change in the relationship between artist and subject not anticipated by Cézanne. They used these techniques not merely in response to things seen but positively to manipulate and even reconstruct their subjects, hence their temporary willingness to dispense with representational clarity in their Hermetic Cubist phase.

Later inventions in Cubism arose from a desire to emphasize further the material identity of the art object and to convey the subject-matter more lucidly. Probably in spring 1912 Picasso glued a factory-made piece of oilcloth printed with a realistic chair-caning pattern on to a small still-life, Still-life with Chair-caning (Paris, Mus. Picasso). This is generally regarded as the first Cubist Collage. Later in 1912 Braque stuck a piece of cut-out wallpaper printed with wood-grain patterns on to a still-life drawing, Fruit-dish with Glass (Sept 1912; priv. col., see 1983 exh. cat., p. 85). This was the first Cubist papier collé. Papier collé differed from collage in that there was a more arbitrary relationship between the cut-out and stuck-on shapes and the things depicted: newspaper could stand for itself, but it could also depict anything from a glass to a soda-syphon; wood-grained wallpaper could depict the surface of a guitar or violin without being cut to the shape of either. Moreover, the broad areas of cut-out paper used in papier collé led to simpler compositions in which the flatness of the constituent planes was taken for granted, leading to more schematic signs for the representation of things. Linear configurations could denote figures and still-life objects in easily legible ways, as in Picasso’s Man with a Hat (autumn–winter 1912; New York, MOMA), while remaining both obviously two-dimensional and capable of combining different viewpoints. At the same time, the use of cut-out shapes led to a novel development in the Cubist depiction of space: effects of depth could be achieved by contrived overlappings of one flat shape by another, and indeed it became possible to suggest the illusion of space in front of the picture surface by, as it were, piling planes up one over another, apparently outwards, as in Braque’s The Clarinet (1913; New York, MOMA. Complications of another kind were created by the insertion of words, a development that preceded collage and papier collé but that was fully elaborated only with their invention.

Between 1912 and 1914 Picasso, Braque and Gris were stimulated by the possibilities opened up by these new techniques to produce a kind of Cubism different in many ways from that of the preceding four years. The subject-matter and the question of representation are not obscured, but the range of spatial effects made possible and the range of reference allowed by the insertion of words and of fragments from the ‘real world’ led to paradoxical, highly subtle and complex results. Later these developments stimulated other artists to investigate very different, even contradictory, directions. The simple compositions and overlapping planes of Cubist papiers collés were important for the geometric abstraction of both De Stijl and the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich in Russia. The Cubist use of schematic signs and word play was equally significant for the Dada and early Surrealist work of artists such as Picabia, Max Ernst and Joan Miró.

The changes effected in 1912 in the Cubism of Picasso, Braque and Gris have tempted historians to make a clear distinction between Cubism executed before and after that date. Because of the technical basis of the change in collage and papier collé, the tendency has been to make the distinction in terms of procedural differences. It has been suggested that up to 1912 Cubist method was ‘analytical’, entailing the part-by-part, viewpoint-by-viewpoint dissection of the subject, while after 1912 it was ‘synthetic’, based on the construction or invention of representational signs using elementary and sometimes geometric shapes. Explained in these terms, the earlier work was based empirically on the study of things, while the later work was more purely inventive and free of such primary study. This distinction, from which the terms Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism originated, was first developed by Gris and Kahnweiler from 1915 to 1921, and broadly speaking Picasso, Braque and Gris did tend more to ‘synthetic’ procedures after 1912. Their work prior to 1912, however, was not exclusively ‘analytical’, and synthesis or invention was a key factor in their Cubism from the beginning.

Invention and a conceptual rather than perceptual view of art are related preoccupations in Cubism. Moreover, since Cubist art consistently stressed the directing role of the artist’s will, the assertion of the independent status of the work was accompanied by a corresponding emphasis on the degree of control exerted by the person making it. The practice of metamorphosis, introduced and developed above all by Picasso between 1912 and 1914, further underlined the importance of this subjectivity. The simpler the signs used in the process of depiction, the more similar and therefore the more interchangeable they became. As early as 1909 Picasso developed a major still-life from sketches for a figure composition. Table with Loaves and Bowl of Fruit (early 1901; Basle, Kstmus.) has its origins in a series of studies for a painting, Carnival at the Bistro, which Picasso never executed. The inanimate items laid here upon the table are transformations of the commedia dell’arte figures ranged behind the table. After 1912 Picasso consistently exploited and made clear the interchangeability of figures and objects in his work. The determining role of the artist’s imagination was made still more explicit. The use of metamorphosis by Picasso and to some extent by Gris was to influence the Surrealists in the 1920s, especially Joan Miró and André Masson.

In sculpture, two Cubist pictorial innovations were of particular significance: first, the fusion of solid and space, and second, collage and papier collé. From the first followed the positive treatment of space in sculpture and the development of positive/negative reversals (positive features depicted by negative spaces and vice versa). Picasso anticipated this with a Head of a Woman (Fernande) (bronze, autumn 1909; Paris, Mus. Picasso), but the earliest to exploit it ambitiously in sculpture was Alexander Archipenko in 1910–11 and especially in 1912–13, for example in Medrano II (1913; New York, Guggenheim; for illustration see Archipenko, Alexander). From collage and papier collé came Cubist construction and Assemblage. Archipenko was again important in this respect, but Picasso’s role was more central and influential. His first substantial construction was a metal Guitar (1912; New York, MOMA), but for the most part his early Cubist constructions, starting late in 1912, were made from varied materials and came directly out of collage and papier collé. The additive nature of collage, coupled with the suggestion of space in front of the picture surface achieved by overlapping planes in papier collé, led to the actual building of elements out from the support to form reliefs such as Mandolin and Clarinet (painted wood and pencil, 1913; Paris, Mus. Picasso).

The additive and improvisational insouciance of these three-dimensional compositions, which were often left deliberately untidy in appearance, contrasts strikingly with sculpture produced by traditional modelling and carving techniques that entailed either moulding or cutting away from a homogeneous, usually dense material such as clay, plaster, stone or wood. By contrast with such traditional methods, which required an elaborate craft training and often the collaboration of others for carving or casting, these Cubist constructions could be easily assembled using basic non-specialized skills. They were, moreover, characteristically flimsy and open, as in the case of two Guitars made of paper and string in late 1912 (Paris, Mus. Picasso), not heavy, durable and monolithic. Of the Cubist sculptors working in France it was Laurens who responded most inventively to Picasso’s constructions, especially between 1915 and 1919 with works such as Bottle and Glass (1918; Paris, Pompidou) and Guitar (1917–18; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig; for illustration see Laurens, Henri); but as they could be seen by visitors in the studio or as illustrations in the periodical Soirées de Paris in 1914, their impact was also felt outside France. Indeed, Cubist construction was as influential as any pictorial Cubist innovation. It was the stimulus behind the proto-Constructivist work of both Naum Gabo and Vladimir Tatlin and thus the starting-point for the entire constructive tendency in 20th-century modernist sculpture.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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