Cubism:  A New Vision
The Birth of Cubism

           The art movement known as cubism arose out of the need to define and represent the then new modern reality. This new reality was complex and ambiguous, shaped by new inventions, philosophical speculation and cultural diversity. The new technology and scientific discoveries were radically changing the pace of life and the way society perceived the nature of things. Whereas in the past, life had been static, science and technology were now forcing modern man to experience time, motion and space more dynamically. All of a sudden he was thrust in a world of expanding vision and horizons, of accelerated tempo and mobility and of fluctuating perspectives. Furthermore, the ambiguity and sense of uncertainty generated by this new rush of stimuli was interpreted by the theory of relativity that evolved through F. H. Bradley, Whitehead, Einstein, and the new mathematics. What these philosophical theoreticians suggested was that we live in a world of shifting perspectives, where the appearance of objects is in a constant flux depending on the point of view from which it is seen. Finally, the experience of reality was also being altered by the cultural interactions taking place between the East and West, the primitive and the industrialized. In other words, each culture brought along with it a new, idiosyncratic way of looking at things, and the interchange occurring between cultures obscured the perception of truth. Relativity became everything.

The problem facing the modern artist became how to formally depict this new dynamic vision of life. For the painter, specifically, the dilemma became representing the flux of time, motion and space in a medium that lent itself to the mere capture of the fleeting moment. Cubism was born as a response to this predicament, and it is no accident that the movement was a Parisian phenomenon, considering the city's artistic legacy and its magnetic ability to attract the most gifted young artists and writers from all over the world. Paris offered them great art museums, a tradition of moral and artistic freedom, and an artistic bohemia where they could live cheaply on the margin of bourgeois society.

Perhaps we can say that Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon ushered in a revolutionary way of depicting reality. This landmark painting had broken all of the traditional rules that artists at the time followed, especially the one that defined art as imitation rather than creation. Picasso had decided to turn his back on a fixed point of view and harmonious proportion, concepts that had been religiously practiced since the Renaissance. Instead, he replaced these with multiple perspectives and distortion. Furthermore, he incorporated into his painting references to primitive art, a practice that ran counter to the ceremonious adulation of the whole continuum of Western art. For most people, Les Demoiselles was a desecration of everything that had been held as sacred. But fortunately, Picasso's rebelliousness cleared the air for what was to come: a freedom to create rather than imitate and to construct a new pictorial language.

Cubism was born out of the interaction and collaboration that occurred between Picasso and Georges Braque right after they met in 1907. When Braque saw Les Demoiselles for the first time, he went into a state of shock. However, many months after this initial encounter and much reflection, Braque reconsidered his initial reaction and responded with Large Nude (1908), in which he follows Picasso's lead and combines several points of view in one image. Soon afterwards, an artistic partnership developed between the two artists that was to define the nature of painting for years to come. At first, Picasso was concerned with the formal and technical freedoms that African art and masks had inspired while Braque experimented with the revolutionary innovations in Les Demoiselles. Picasso's Dryad (1907) captures the tribal stance as well as the formal distortion and coarse hatching and scoring of primitive art. But Braque would have a sobering voice in this artistic relationship. His function was to neutralize Picasso's artistic savagery by incorporating it into Paul Cezanne's more conservative formal legacy of reducing reality to basic geometrical shapes that are clearly connected with one another. Out of this artistic reconciliation, Analytical Cubism, the first phase in the evolution of Cubism, was born.

Large Nude (1908)

Dryad (1908)

In the beginning of their artistic partnership, Picasso and Braque had become consumed with Cezanne’s feeling for the “architecture” that underlies nature and with his statement that “everything in nature is based on the sphere, cone, and cylinder.”  Cezanne’s work also suggested to Picasso and Braque that art was neither an imitation nor an illusion of reality, but, in effect, a new kind of reality, created through the means of a new “language” of forms. For Cézanne, a picture is important in its own right, and thus, it must remain faithful to itself. Thus the aim of painting is not to pretend that the viewer is looking through a window, but to make the viewer aware of the picture surface itself as well as the subject matter it depicts. 

Picasso and Braque took both of these notions one step further.  Whereas Cezanne believed that the study of an object was the real solution to all of the painter's problems, Picasso and Braque had become totally absorbed by the problem of representing the complexity of reality in art. Because they lived in an age which was very distinct from Cezanne's, their perception of reality was different. They believed that our knowledge of things was composed of its multiple relations to each other and change their appearance according to the point of view from which we see them. Furthermore, they perceived the cubist object as the point at which thought about the object intersects our sense impressions and feelings about it.


Analytical Cubism:  Mapping Reality

As its name implies, the paintings associated with the Analytical Cubism phase show evidence of a methodology through which Picasso and Braque used to "break down" the surface of the objects being represented into basic, geometrical shapes. Picasso's Woman with a Fan (1908) is a volumetric study of a woman whose features are simplified into spheres and triangles and suggests a sculptor at work, as indeed Picasso was. It is Cézanne taken to the extreme. Another painting that shows the difference in pictorial technique between the cubists and Cézanne is Houses at l'Estaque (1908). Here, Braque borrows the same colors and geometric shapes that Cézanne uses in his Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings. But here the similarity ends, for a panoramic, fixed view of the landscape is not enough for Braque. What Braque does is subordinate color in order to attain a geometric structure of overlapping, shifting, tilted cubes that seem to project out of and into the picture plane, as though we were watching a 3-D movie. The effect that is created is not that of a single-point linear perspective, rather, that of a scene changing as it is observed from various positions. In other words, Braque was trying to record the process of seeing, and, in order to do so, he has constructed a composite of several different simultaneous views of the objects to be viewed in one synthetic moment. By doing this, Braque transformed the canvas from being the static record of a fleeting moment to a more dynamic vision akin to moving pictures. The canvas, then, became like a screen onto which images are projected.

Woman with a Fan (1908)

Houses at l'Estaque (1908)

         By 1909, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque both felt that cubism was becoming stagnant because the two of them had already pushed their original analytical investigations to their logical conclusions and that, consequently, it was their duty to regenerate cubism if it was not to degenerate into just another banal picture formula. Their next step was to focus on the structure of objects by depicting them through a grid-like scaffolding system on which the objects' many aspects, including those hidden from sight, are displayed in a facet-like, fragmented manner. In Braque's still life Violin and Palette (1909), the objects are still recognizable, but they are presented in a radical new manner. It's almost as if Braque has taken the violin, shattered it into bits and pieces, and then holds it so that we can see all of the violin's fragments as they move around still part of its main structure. Through what appears to be a still intact, shattered violin twisting in the wind so that all aspects can be experienced concurrently, Braque is able to convey metamorphosis, simultaneity and consecutive vision. Furthermore, Braque portrays this new dynamic world through a pictorial composition that suggests a cascading waterfall of tilted, transparent planes hovering on the flat surface of the painting. In order to represent the ambiguity of objects as seen by the spectator whose perception of reality has been altered by the pace of modernity, Braque now break ups forms in an almost explosive manner, splintering them into a multiplicity of tiny planes and then reassembling them. The resulting shapes are crystalline and jewel-like in appearance, creating a complex kaleidoscope of forms.


Violin and Palette (1909).


          Picasso's Woman with Mandolin (1910) further illustrates the groundwork that was being laid by these two artists. Picasso, always the sculptor, fragments the girl's body into facets that are modeled to simulate their projection out of the flat picture plane toward the viewer and that portray her in movement as she strums her mandolin. What Picasso is trying to depict here is the fourth dimension, the space/time continuum. In his Introduction to Metaphysics of 1903, Henri Bergson argues that human consciousness experiences space and time as ever-changing and heterogeneous. With the passage of time, an observer accumulates in his memory a store of perceptual information about a given object in the external visible world, and this accumulated experience becomes the basis for the observer’s conceptual knowledge of that object. By contrast, the intellect or reasoning faculty always represents time and space as homogenous. Bergson argued that intellectual perception led to a fundamentally false representation of the nature of things, that in nature nothing is ever absolutely still. Instead the universe is in a constant state of change or flux. An observer views an object and its surrounding environment as a continuum, fusing into one another. The task of metaphysics, according to Bergson, is to find ways to capture this flux, especially as it is expressed in consciousness. To represent this flux of reality, Picasso began to make references to the fourth dimension by "sticking together" several three-dimensional spaces in a row.

Girl with Mandolin (1910)


The Fourth Dimension

          These new ideas about a reality that is in a constant state of constant flux injected the element of doubt in Picasso and Braque’s ongoing debate about the nature of the artistic process. How does one, they asked themselves, capture the ethereal, shifting quality of reality, where object and environment become inseparable? How does one reconcile the intellectual and intuitive faculties when they appear so antithetical? What then is the relationship between the coherent artifice of traditional “realistic” art and the incoherent processes by which we experience our environment, between Renaissance perspective and multiple points of view as a result of the acceleration of the pace of modern life? Where does the spectator stand? and the object? The result of these rhetorical questions, the paintings of 1910-11 probe further and further into the nature of realistic illusions and gradually refine the balance in which the spectator was poised, between the internal world of the painting’s structure and the external world of its references to reality. Now Picasso and Braque’s concern shifted to creating a new artistic language that would express the multiplicity and complexity of these relationships and, at the same time, suggest stability. What they jointly developed was a new kind of painting, one that emphasized pictorial configuration rather than motif, thus moving in the direction of abstraction. To achieve this new pictorial structure, Picasso and Braque replaced the traditional perspective by a shallow space in which there is little distance between figure, foreground and background. Consequently, the eye is not led back into an imaginary distance but is held on the painting’s surface, and yet, at the same time, is invited to experience three-dimensionality in a new way. The artist is now free to break apart the object into small facets or pieces and distribute them about the canvas as the composition requires. The painter can show the back, front or side of an object simultaneously. Art historians refer to this phase of cubism as “facet cubism,” “high analytic cubism” and

            By the end of 1910, Picasso further explores this new phase of analytical cubism in Portrait of Ambrose Vollard although he is still committed to the rendering of the particulars of his subject matter.  Picasso’s great power as a caricaturist is demonstrated in this painting, in which a powerful floating bald head, the defining characteristic, emerges as the product of several combined viewpoints from the muted monochromes of an angular maze.  In this painting the figure of Picasso's famous art dealer has dissolved into the cubist grid, with only his facial structure, protruding jawbones, pug nose, the color and texture of ruddy flesh and light-brown hair, beard and mustache.  Vollard is seated facing us; behind him is a table, on which are a bottle, on his right, and a book, perhaps a ledger, on his left.  Picasso has even included the handkerchief in Vollard’s pocket.  The famous dealer is portrayed as being very cerebral as he gazes downward at a rectangular shape, which judging from his expression of shrewd critical discernment may be a work of art.  The whole surface of the painting is a series of small, intersecting planes, any one of which can be interpreted as being both behind and in front of other, adjoining planes.


Portrait of Ambrose Vollard (1910)     The Accordionist (1911)

          This reductive, fragmenting process is taken even further in The Accordionist (1911), where the figure has been so fragmented that it is no longer apparent what is being represented, and so the title purveys the clue as to the nature of its subject matter.  The triangular scaffolding grid provides the structure on which to suspend the almost unrecognizable fragments of this musician.  The only recognizable vestiges of the accordionist’s instrument are the keys and bellows shown fragmented from multiple viewpoints, located center left of the painting.  More than an analysis, this painting is an assembling of parts. The consequence of Braque and Picasso's experimentation was true liberation from the Renaissance' concept of conceiving the world from the static point of view of geometrical perspective and of portraying painting as an act of imitation. This break with the past entitled artists to all kinds of new possibilities.

Synthetic Cubism:  Vision of Modern Urban Life


     Picasso and Braque's experimentation with the very concept of constructing a work of art lead them into the final phase of cubism--synthetic cubism. As its name implies, synthetic cubism worked on the premise of assembling out of separate parts new forms. What they were trying to recreate in this phase of cubism is how modern urban street life appears to the onlooker.  Whereas in the analytical phase Picasso and Braque were deconstructing and then reassembling bits and pieces to suggest objects as seen from multiple angles, in this latter phase they were interested in superimposing  fragments one on top of another to simulate walls plastered with posters as well as stacked newspaper displays at kiosks. Furthermore, they no longer concerned themselves with the representation of space because now the emphasis was on digesting multiple layers of information and shapes. The end results were compositions that were simpler, brighter, and bolder accomplished through the following techniques:

  • bringing together familiar scraps and unfamiliar forms in order to give shape to a particular sense of urban life
  • exploring the individual experiences associated with public spaces and urban recreation
  • using the language of publicity and commerce in an ambiguous manner to suggest a multiplicity of contradictory meanings, especially through puns
  • capturing the new sense of simultaneity of diverse experiences-the fusion of objects, people, machines, noises, light, smells, etc.

          How was it that Picasso and Braque decided to change the way that they were depicting reality? While Picasso preferred the more traditional subject matter of nudes and portraits, Braque oscillated to still lifes and landscapes.   Nevertheless, it is around this time that Picasso and Braque began to paint like twins, their work becoming undistinguishable from one another. Color, texture, and linear structure are almost the same.  But Braque, ever the pragmatist, nudged Picasso by reminding him that their work was becoming so abstract that subject matter was no longer recognizable.   In order to bring painting back to reality, Braque introduced a new element to their work--visually realistic objects taken from popular culture.   Even before this point in the evolution of cubism, Picasso had already pasted a small piece of paper on the center of a drawing to make what was the first papier collé or collage in 1908.  As early as 1910, both artists had been incorporating words, letters and numbers into their paintings, and Braque, in particular, had used trompe-l'oeil wood-grain effects.  This technique came naturally to Braque since he had been a house painter before becoming an artist.   

          By re-instating recognizable elements from everyday life into their paintings, Picasso and Braque were asking a very important rhetorical question about the very nature of art:  What is more real, art or reality?  Through their further exploration of this question, Picasso and Braque seemed to be implying that they are both just as real for they can co-exist on the same plane, the same canvas.  All of a sudden both of these artists introduced bits of observed nature onto the canvas, as well as products of modern industry: sheet music, newspaper, playing cards and restaurant menus.  As in music, Picasso and Braque were employing scraps of reality as counterpoints to the abstract structures created through paint.  Again, Picasso and Braque had revolutionized the world of art.  This new phase in the evolution of cubism became known as collage

          Picasso's first collage is Still Life with Chair Caning (1911-12), on which he embeds a piece of oilcloth that simulates chair caning.  What Picasso seems to be suggesting here is that there are many different levels of reality, for the oilcloth itself is a manufactured representation of another craft--caning.  Looking closely at this collage, it appears that the painted parts of the work depict a glass in the center, behind which lies a copy of the newspaper Le Journal (hence the letters JOU) and a white clay pipe.  To the right are two lemon slices and a knife, and below them what might be an oyster shellThe shadows or refractions from the glass lie across the oilcloth, and towards the bottom edge of the canvas a brown strip seems to represent the front edge of the table. Finally, the oval shape of the painting is “framed” by a piece of real rope.  What Picasso has managed to do here besides reminding us that manufactured materials, words, and even art are all similar in that they are means of representing reality and that, furthermore, by including them all together he has challenged the traditional demand that artists should strive for artistic unity.  Thus their juxtaposition in the same picture makes the point about the nature of language but also blurs the distinction between them.   Even the oval shape of the canvas signifies something else: the seat of a chair or the surface of the café table on which the objects sit.    Since the French word for an easel picture is tableau, Picasso delights in the joke that his picture is a vertical tableau which is also a horizontal table.  


Still Life with Chair Caning (1912)

          Just as Picasso and Braque’s art had explored the philosophical ideas of Bradley, Whitehead, and Bergson, they now began to flirt with the inclusion of verbal and musical language in their works.  At the turn of the century, linguists in Europe and the United States had begun to wonder what language really was and how to describe it, leading to a new appreciation of the importance of structures and codes to linguistic meaning and the arbitrary accidental nature of the way language describes reality.  These ideas became the basis of the study of signs known as semiotics.  Although Picasso and Braque couldn’t have been more removed from these academic studies, their work of this period, nevertheless, is a testament to their questioning the relationship between art, language and representation.  


          Although it was Braque who invented the idea of collage, it was Picasso who first executed it.  However, Braque invented and executed the first papier collé, a kind of collage consisting of papers that are glued onto the canvas. Braque’s inclusion of paper seems to be analogous to the addition of the oilcloth.  But Braque’s use of wallpaper does this and more.  What Braque has discovered here is that there are ready-made materials that simulate “woodness,” that do not have to be drawn or painted and that can be cut up and manipulated, that are always the same no matter what the “light” in the picture, and that can appear independently of the shape of the object of which they are meant to be a part. Braque has added the element of materialism into painting.  So instead of painting something onto the canvas, he just glued it on--whether it be newspaper scraps, wallpaper, paper printed to resemble something else, advertisements, etc.  Furthermore, Braque used all kinds of decorative painting techniques learned from his days as a house painter.  He incorporated combing, faux graining, and adding sawdust and sand for texture. Braque also added shadows with graphite and charcoal thereby mixing drawing and painting techniques. A case in point is Braque's Woman with a Guitar (1913) in which the artist assembles a woman playing a guitar from different layers of shapes, colors, and ready-made materials stacked to create her essence.

Woman with a Guitar (1913)

           So why were Picasso and Braque incorporating mundane materials such as oil cloth and wallpaper?  One suggestion comes from a purported conversation between Picasso and his mistress Francois Gilot that took place many years later:

We tried to get rid of trompe l’oeil to find a trompe l’esprit (deception of the mind/spirit).  We didn’t any longer want to fool the eye; we wanted to fool the mind.  The sheet of newspaper was never used in order to make a newspaper.  It was used to become a bottle or something like that.  It was never used literally but always as an element displaced from its habitual definition at the point of departure and its new definition at the point of arrival.  If a piece of newspaper can become a bottle, that gives us something to think about in connection with both newspapers and bottles, too.  The displaced object has its strangeness.  And this strangeness was what we wanted to make people think about because we were quite aware that our world was becoming very strange and not exactly reassuring.

Collage and papier collé gave Picasso and Braque the opportunity to pursue the estrangement as well as the diversity of modern life.  Furthermore, introducing real objects into their paintings allowed them to remove the distinctions between what is real and what is created by the artist, between art and mass-produced objects, and between painting, drawing, and commercial art.  As Picasso himself said, “Art is a lie that helps us understand the truth.” 

          While Picasso and Braque were experimenting, a coterie of artists were scrutinizing what these two leaders were doing, came under their influence, exhibited together and ultimately were labeled as being cubists also. Next to Picasso and Braque, Juan Gris was perhaps the most famous of this group. As a matter of fact, his work, which was from the beginning synthetic in nature, probably inspiring Picasso and Braque to bring back light and color into their canvases. His style can best be described as having intensely colored geometric planes which combine with familiar collage components to create a tightly interlocked pictorial harmony. 


Still Life with Open Window (1915)

          Another important cubist was Fernand Leger, whose contribution to the art movement was the celebration of the new machine age. Leger created his images of machine forms and robots from cylinders and cones, the basic building blocks of his work. The ultimate effect of his work is a harmonious mechanical world where man happily participates.

Three Women (1921)

         Robert Delaunay was a cubist who steered away from the still life and the figure, embracing the architectural image of the Eiffel Tower and the plane as the images of modernity. In his paintings, Delaunay was interested in capturing the whole dynamics of the new cult of the machine. In his Eiffel Tower paintings, Delaunay portrayed the tower as it loomed over the city during construction, arising out of it like the new phoenix. In Homage to Bleriot, the artist celebrates the new dynamism of the new industrial age by painting vibrating discs of color that simulate plane propellers in motion. 


Homage to Bleriot (1913)