I. Painting, sculpture and collage

Source: Oxford University Press

1. Origins and application of the term

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.

2. Cubist milieux: Kahnweiler’s Cubists and the Salon Cubists

Picasso, Braque and Gris (and to a lesser extent Léger) were nevertheless distinct in important ways from the other Cubists. Braque and Gris were based in Montmartre until after World War I, while Picasso remained there until 1912. Most of the others, including Léger, were based on the Left Bank, in Montparnasse and in the Parisian suburbs of Puteaux and Courbevoie, and they moved in different, if overlapping, milieux. Before 1914 Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger further distinguished themselves from the other Cubists by gaining the backing of a single committed dealer in Paris, the German Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who paid each of them a guaranteed annual income for the exclusive right to buy their work and who sold only to a small circle of well-informed clients. Kahnweiler’s support gave his artists the freedom to experiment in relative privacy.

The other Cubists, by contrast, concentrated before World War I on building their reputations by showing regularly at the major non-academic Salons in Paris, the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, and for this reason they are sometimes referred to as ‘Salon’ Cubists. Inevitably they were more aware of public response and the need to communicate. The first public controversies generated by Cubism resulted from Salon showings, not only at the Indépendants of 1911 but also at the Salon d’Automne of 1912; the latter occasion led to Cubism being debated in the Chambre des Députés, since the Salon d’Automne was held in the State’s Grand Palais and the State could, therefore, be said to have subsidized the scandal. It was against this background of public anger that Gleizes and Metzinger wrote Du cubisme (1912), not necessarily to explain Cubism but to persuade a general audience that their intentions were serious.

3. Technical and stylistic innovations

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.

4. Meanings and interpretations

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.

5. Late Cubism

The most eventful and innovative period of Cubism was before 1914, but after 1918 Cubism returned as a central issue for artists in France. It continued as such until the mid-1920s, when its avant-garde status was rendered questionable by the advent of geometric abstraction and by the rebarbative presence of the Surrealists in Paris. Many Cubists, including Picasso, Braque, Gris, Léger, Gleizes and Metzinger, while developing other styles, continued on occasion to produce work that was clearly Cubist and that was attacked and defended as such. It is impossible, indeed, to date the end of Cubism, since such artists as Braque, Picasso and Gleizes returned to Cubist modes long after 1925, and since forms of avant-garde art directly responsive to Cubism emerged as late as the end of the 1920s and the 1930s in, for instance, the work of the American Stuart Davis and the Englishman Ben Nicholson. In France, however, a sharp decline in its significance is clear from about 1925.

Cubism was changed, moreover, by World War I. In 1914–15 the Cubists were dispersed either to the Front or abroad; those that continued with their art, including Picasso, Gris, Lipchitz, Laurens and a recent convert to Cubism, the Mexican Diego Rivera, were left relatively isolated. Cubism re-emerged as a significant force in 1917 with the première in Paris of the ballet Parade, produced by the Ballets Russes with a scenario by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie and sets and costumes by Picasso , and especially with the support given by the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, who took up not only the artists stranded by Kahnweiler’s exile in Switzerland but also many others, including Laurens, Lipchitz, Metzinger, Herbin and Severini. Soon after the Armistice on 11 November 1918 Rosenberg mounted a series of Cubist exhibitions at his Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in Paris, culminating in an exhibition by Picasso, all showing wartime work. Cubism was featured in exhibitions devised by organizations such as Lyre et Palette and in new periodicals such as S.I.C. (from 1915), L’Elan (1915–16) and Nord-Sud (from 1917). There were attempts, led by Louis Vauxcelles, to claim that Cubism was finished, but these exhibitions, along with a well-organized Cubist showing at the Salon des Indépendants in 1920 and a revival of the Salon de la Section d’Or in the same year, demonstrated its survival.

By 1920 Cubism had become almost exclusively associated with the question of the autonomy of art. The changes that had occurred in Cubism were remarked by a number of commentators, including the artist and critic André Lhote, who himself was often called a Cubist. By this time Picasso was working in a variety of styles, but he continued occasionally to produce expressive Cubist work, while Léger, after his recovery from war wounds in 1917–18, produced Cubist pictures with references to modern life that were even more explicit than before, as in The Typographer (1919; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.). Most of those associated with Rosenberg’s gallery, however—including Gris, Metzinger, Lipchitz, Laurens, Herbin and Severini—made direct reference to observed reality but were at pains to stress the self-sufficiency of their pictures and sculptures as objects in their own right. Lipchitz, for example, came close to complete abstraction in carvings such as Standing Personage (1916; New York, Guggenheim; for illustration see Lipchitz, Jacques). There was also a tendency to give priority to the orderly qualities of Cubist composition, so that Cubism became part of a widely noted phenomenon in French culture at the end of the war, a return to classical traditions referred to by Jean Cocteau as a ‘rappel à l’ordre’. Gris played a leading role in these developments; the clarity and sense of order of the work he produced between 1917 and 1920 led to its being referred to by the critic Maurice Raynal as ‘crystal’ Cubism. This narrowing of the frame of reference to a more purely formal one that excluded reference to the types of concerns manifested in Cubism before 1914—for example to Bergson’s concept of duration, psychological interpenetration, the occult, the fourth dimension and the dynamism of modern life—coincided with the appearance from 1917 to 1924 of a coherent body of theoretical writing about Cubism; influential texts were published by Pierre Reverdy, Maurice Raynal and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and, among the artists, by Gris and Léger. Their theories, supported in the writings of Reverdy and Raynal by reference to Kant and Plato, strengthened the insistence on the autonomous purity of art. The distillation of Cubism and its part in the ‘rappel à l’ordre’ have been linked to the tendency, shown by many of those left on the home front, to evade the realities of the war and also to the cultural dominance of a classical or Latin image of France during and immediately after the war. Cubism after 1914 can be seen as part of a far wider ideological shift towards a more conservative stance in French society and culture alike.

In the early 1920s confusion was caused by the decision of several Cubists to produce overtly classical figurative work either exclusively or alongside Cubist work; Picasso was the model, having developed parallel classicizing styles from 1914. There was, however, a consistency in the common Cubist and figurative themes of Classicism and order, and in the common accent on formal priorities. The Cubists considered classical styles above all to be structured formal idioms under the control of the artist. Cubist art itself remained extremely varied and changeable both within the oeuvre of a single artist such as Gris and across the work of artists as different from each other as Braque and Léger. Yet, Cubism as a publicly debated concept or movement became relatively unified and open to definition. Its apparent theoretical purity made it a gauge against which not only traditional academic art but such contrasting tendencies as Naturalism, Dada, Surrealism and various forms of abstraction could be measured, even though many of the more radical artists who attacked Cubism were specifically indebted to it. While late Cubism produced no major innovations, its self-imposed limitations and its greater coherence, both as a public phenomenon and in terms of theory and practice, prepared the way for a more general acceptance of Cubism as a whole and particularly of the ‘essential’ Cubism of the years prior to 1914.

Christopher Green

From Grove Art Online

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