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Cubism

4. Meanings and interpretations

Source: Oxford University Press

The Cubism of Picasso, Braque and Gris had more than a purely technical or formal significance, and the often distinct attitudes and intentions of the other Cubists produced not so much a derivative of their work as different kinds of Cubism. It is by no means clear, in any case, to what extent these other Cubists depended on Picasso and Braque for their development of such techniques as faceting, ‘passage’ and multiple perspective; they could well have arrived at such practices with little knowledge of ‘true’ Cubism in its early stages, guided above all by their own understanding of Cézanne. The works shown at the Salons of 1911 and 1912 by these other Cubists extended beyond the conventional Cézanne-like range of subjects favoured by Picasso and Braque to include large-scale modern-life subjects and even allegory. Aimed at a large Salon public, these works made clear use of Cubist techniques of faceting and multiple perspective for expressive effect in order to preserve the eloquence of subjects that were richly endowed with literary and philosophical connotations.

At the Indépendants of 1911, Le Fauconnier’s Abundance (1910–11; The Hague, Gemeentemus.) gave allegorical expression to a theme that concerned not only the ‘Salle 41’ Cubists but also the Abbaye de créteil, a group of writers and artists that included Alexandre Mercereau, Jules Romains, Henri-Martin Barzun, René Arcos, Charles Vildrac and Georges Duhamel (1884–1966). Le Fauconnier here used the allegory of fruitfulness to represent life as a process of incessant birth and rebirth, giving symbolic expression to the key notion of ‘duration’ proposed by the philosopher Henri Bergson according to which life is subjectively experienced as a continuous forward movement in time, with the past flowing into the present and the present merging into the future. The other Salon Cubists were also attuned to this concept—in Du cubisme Gleizes and Metzinger explicitly related this sense of time to multiple perspective—and to Bergson’s insistence on the elasticity of our consciousness of both time and space. They gave physical expression to this blurring of distinctions by means of ‘passage’, using the faceted treatment of solid and space, and effects of planar interpretation to convey a physical and psychological sense of the fluidity of consciousness in Bergson’s terms. These concerns are related to Jules Romains’s theory of Unanimism, which stressed the power of collective feelings to break down the barriers between people. The one major innovation that one can be sure was made independently by the Salon Cubists, that of ‘simultaneity’, came of a conviction also rooted in their understanding of Bergson that the divisions of space and time should be comprehensively challenged.

Delaunay’s City of Paris (1910–12; Paris, Pompidou) and Léger’s The Wedding (c. 1911; Paris, Pompidou), both shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, give form to this concept of simultaneity by presenting different motifs as occurring within a single time frame: Delaunay brings together the quais on the Seine, the three Graces, a view across the roofs and the Eiffel Tower, while Léger unites a wedding group with fragmentary views of a village setting. The subjects themselves again carry strong overtones of ideas derived from Bergson and Unanimism: for Romains the city was a Unanimist entity, a psychological as well as a physical fact, where responses to the past and the present interpenetrate; an event like a wedding was seen as a powerful emotional occasion through which the past is precipitated into the future with collective force. The conjunction of such subject-matter with simultaneity aligns Salon Cubism with early Futurist paintings by Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini and Carlo Carrà; these Italian works, though themselves made in response to early Cubism, led the way in the application of techniques of simultaneity in 1911–12.

The Cubist work produced before 1912 by Picasso, Braque and Gris had little to do with Bergson, but wide cultural, literary, philosophical and even scientific and mathematical connotations have also been attributed to it. The scientific and mathematical connection was something made very generally in relation to Cubism. In the case of Picasso, Braque and Gris it followed from their known involvement with an amateur mathematician, Maurice Princet, around 1910–11. Princet introduced them to new mathematical developments popularized by Jules Henri Poincaré (1854–1912) and to currently fashionable theories of the Fourth dimension and the ‘hypercube’, although they were unaware of the theories of Albert Einstein. Ancient and Renaissance theories of proportion were also considered relevant, especially to the Duchamp brothers and others involved in the Salon de la Section d’Or in late 1912, though of the Montmartre Cubists only Gris was drawn to them.

These quasi-scientific and mathematical interests were linked with the ‘hermetic sciences’, the occult and alchemy. Of the writers sympathetic to Cubism, Mercereau and Gleizes’s brother-in-law Jacques Nayral were actively engaged in Occultism, while Apollinaire and Jacob are known to have dabbled in the cabbala, alchemy and the writings of hermeticists such as Eliphas Lévi. Apollinaire’s concept of Orphism had a clear mystical aspect, which followed from its roots in Greek myth, and alchemical themes seem to have been touched on in Duchamp’s subject-matter from 1912 and in works by Marc Chagall such as Homage to Apollinaire (1913; Eindhoven, Stedel. Van Abbemus.). Picasso is also thought to have shared the enthusiasm of Apollinaire and Jacob for magic and the occult; indeed, it is possible that, like them, he thought of his Cubist works as magical mediators between himself and a hostile world.

Just as the Salon Cubists were linked with the Abbaye de Créteil group, so the early Cubist work of Picasso, Braque and Gris was associated with the post-Symbolist and sometimes proto-Surrealist poetry of Apollinaire and Jacob, and also with 19th-century Symbolist poetry, especially that of Stéphane Mallarmé. Their interest in Mallarmé has often been corroborated, and the obscurity of their ‘hermetic’ Cubism of 1910–12 has been related to Mallarmé’s late poetic practice, by which things are not named but evoked through the images or sensations stimulated by their presence. Apollinaire’s lyrical variant on these methods, arising from his ability to take ordinary things as a starting-point for series of images possessing ‘supernatural’ qualities, clearly relates to the use of banal subjects by Picasso and Braque as the springboard for arcane yet suggestive clusters of lines and planes. Indeed the poet Pierre Reverdy, who was also close to Picasso, Braque and Gris, could claim that the importance of Cubism lay essentially in the fact that it had consolidated changes wrought first in poetry by Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud. It is also clear that the emphasis placed by these painters on the autonomy of the elements of their art (colours, lines, forms) and their belief in the directing role of the subjective imagination were extensions of Symbolist attitudes. This association between Cubism and Symbolism relates closely to the association often made between Cubism and the aesthetic theories of Immanuel Kant, particularly his theory of form as the key to beauty as elaborated in Kritik der Urteilskraft (Berlin, 1790).

The most extreme directions suggested by Cubism were not those followed by Picasso and Braque, who resisted the invitation to abstraction inherent in their most obscure Hermetic work. For them, the assertion of the autonomy of the work as an object was no more important than the task of representing things as informatively, suggestively and from as many different aspects as possible. Collage and papier collé resulted in part from a desire to shift the balance back towards ‘real’ things. The other Cubists, by contrast, especially Jacques Villon’s Czech neighbour, František Kupka, and those grouped together as Orphists by Apollinaire (Delaunay, Léger, Picabia and Duchamp), accepted the invitation to abstraction with some enthusiasm.

Kupka’s painting from 1912, rooted in his formative years in Prague and Vienna, was metaphysical in orientation. Duchamp in 1912 and Picabia from 1912 to 1914 developed an expressive and allusive abstraction dedicated to complex emotional and sexual themes, and in Duchamp’s case to theories of the fourth dimension. From 1912 Delaunay painted a series of paintings entitled Simultaneous Windows (e.g. 1912; Hamburg, Ksthalle, in which he combined planar structures derived from Hermetic Cubism with bright prismatic hues based on Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s theories of simultaneous colour contrasts; the colour in early Cubist paintings had been distinctly subdued. In 1913–14 Léger produced a series entitled Contrasts of Forms (e.g. 1913; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), which were also based on a theory of contrasts but which gave equal stress to colour, line and form. His Cubism, even in this abstract guise, was explicitly associated with themes of mechanization and the celebration of modern life. Apollinaire supported all these developments in Les Peintres cubistes (1913), writing of a new ‘pure’ painting in which the subject no longer counted, but in spite of his use of the term Orphism these kinds of abstract Cubism were so varied that they defy attempts to treat them as a single category.

Although the importance of the subject was played down in the ‘pure’ painting practised in 1912–14, such art in its several forms was considered to carry meanings beyond the simply aesthetic. Picabia and Duchamp were dedicated to an expressive project with psychological and arcane overtones. Léger declared that he wanted to convey the dissonant energy of the modern by means of pictorial contrasts, and in his essay ‘La Lumière’ (first published in German translation in Der Sturm in 1913) Delaunay wrote in terms reminiscent of Bergson of his simultaneous contrasts as conveying ‘the movement of the world’. It is understandable, therefore, that Delaunay’s Orphism accompanied the ambitious further development of simultaneity in its broader Cubist and Futurist sense, and that it did so as the pictorial complement to developments in the poetry of Apollinaire and the Swiss adventurer-poet, Blaise Cendrars. In 1912–14 Delaunay produced a series of pictures that combined simultaneous contrasts of colour with fragmentary clusters of images of modern life such as aeroplanes, posters, rugby players and the Eiffel Tower, for example in the Cardiff Team (1912–13; Eindhoven, Stedel. Van Abbemus) and Homage to Blériot (c. 1914; Basle, Kstmus.; for illustration see Delaunay (ii), (1)). Bergson’s attack on the divisions of space and time was all-important here still; the Eiffel Tower owed its central role to its function as the radio-mast of Paris, the point at which global distances were nullified. It was the prime symbol of simultaneity.

Duchamp, also labelled an Orphist by Apollinaire, was responsible for a further extreme development based on Cubism: the Ready-made. The ready-made arose from a consideration of the linked notions of the painting as object and of ‘pure’ painting alongside the implications of collage and Cubist construction. On the one hand, the work is considered an object in its own right, pure and self-contained; on the other, it takes into itself the material detritus of the world. It was a short step to the decision that an ordinary object could be presented, with irony, as a self-sufficient work of art representing nothing but itself, as Duchamp did in 1913 by attaching a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and in 1914 by selecting a bottle-drying rack as a sculpture in its own right.

While stopping short of such extreme conclusions, the works made after 1912 by Picasso, Braque and Gris were wide-ranging in their form and meaning. Braque pursued musical analogies by his use of words, for example in collages such as Glass, Newspaper, Packet of Tobacco and Sheet Music (spring 1914; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.) and in his concentration on subjects such as The Musician (1917–18; Basle, Kstmus.). Gris produced subtle word plays and introduced references to such disparate interests as Apollinaire’s poetry and the popular Fantomas novels. Picasso, however, most effectively widened the range of meaning in Cubism, playing on the ambiguous metamorphic relationships between inanimate objects and figures, using bulbous organic shapes and extreme distortion to create comic and even grotesque sexual suggestions, and also using words in a witty manner, sometimes injecting a sexual or scatological humour reminiscent of the Ubu plays by Alfred Jarry, as in the highly suggestive placing of the words ‘trou ici’ (hole here) in relation to department-store lingerie advertisements in the collage Au Bon Marché (winter 1912–13; Aachen, Neue Gal.). Early in 1913 Picasso used press-cuttings concerning the Balkan War as a way of alluding to the climate of rising nationalism and international tension that would culminate in World War I. The very heterogeneity of Cubist art by Picasso, Braque and Gris after the invention of collage and papier collé can be thought of as a representation of the disparateness and intensity of early 20th-century urban experience.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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