The Trailblazers: Cézanne and Seurat
Before Picasso and Braque had (seemingly) single-handedly reinvented approaches to pictorial perspective, Paul Cézanne had been the primary influence on the exploration of artistic form and plasticity. During the late 1800's Cézanne began to represent the landscape through spheres, cones and cylinders allowing for the various perspectives of the picture plane to lead the eye towards a dedicated focal point. As Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes wrote in Du Cubisme (1912), Cézanne's work, "proves without doubt that painting is not - or not any longer - the art of imitating an object by lines and colors, but of giving plastic [solid, but alterable] form to our nature".
The work of Georges Seurat, noted primarily for its expansive color palette and flattened depth of field, was influencing, albeit indirectly, the development of Cubism. As art historian Robert Herbert observed, "With the advent of monochromatic Cubism in 1910-1911, questions of form displaced color in the artists' attention, and for these [artists] Seurat was more relevant. Thanks to several exhibitions, his paintings and drawings were easily seen in Paris, and reproductions of his major compositions circulated widely among the Cubists". Viewing color as an independent formal element (as Seurat had) was consistent with Analytic Cubism's emphasis on composition and tone as separate elements. As Braque later confirmed, "we succeeded in dissociating color from form, in putting it on a footing independent of form, for that was the crux of the matter. Color acts simultaneously with form, but has nothing to do with form". Seurat's emphasis on flat linear compositions, created by fracturing the image into small dots of coloring, applied according to the current color theory, did, however, make a more obvious impression on the Salon Cubists; especially in the works of Gris and Delaunay.
Picasso and Braque
In 1907 Picasso painted his radical proto-Cubist work, Las Demoiselles d'Avignon. That same year Braque, who was already experimenting with the multiple-perspective approach of Cézanne, was introduced to Picasso (by Kahnweiler) and their historical collaboration had commenced in earnest. The two men forged a seven year relationship that was based both on a close friendship and a bitter professional rivalry. As Picasso stated, "Almost every evening, either I went to Braque's studio or Braque came to mine. Each of us had to see what the other had done during the day".
The two men came from quite different backgrounds: Braque's father was a painter and decorator who encouraged his son into the family business while Picasso's father was an academic painter who tutored his son in drawing. The two men had very different personalities too, Braque being a fiercely private individual who shunned publicity and remained married to the same woman his entire life; Picasso, who is often considered the first "celebrity" artist, was an egotistical, outspoken and unpredictable man who refused to settle for long on a single woman or a specific painting style. The two artists would, despite their differences, enjoy a period of extraordinarily productive collaboration that was unequalled in modern art, but which was ended, rather abruptly, in the fall of 1914 when Braque enlisted to the French Army as part of the war effort. (After the war the two artists never resumed their friendship and would even exchange barbs in public.)
The Dealer: Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler
Through his promotion of the Cubists, Kahnweiler would come to be recognized as one of the most important art dealers of modern times. By 1907 the German had already acquired paintings by Braque, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Kees van Dongen for his Galerie Kahnweiler (he was also a close personal friend of Matisse but his work commanded prices that were out of Kahnweiler's reach). A second ex-patriot living in Paris, Wilhelm Uhde, told Kahnweiler of a painting that had left him shocked. On his friend's advice, Kahnweiler visited Picasso's studio where he became mesmerized by Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (as it was named later).Though initially reluctant to sell, Picasso was won over by the German's genuine enthusiasm for his work and Kahnweiler would duly became the principle dealer for the Cubists, handling works by Picasso, Braque, Leger and Gris.
In 1914 Kahnweiler, who had till now naively refused to accept that France and Germany could possibly go to war, found himself an "official" enemy of France. His gallery was seized by the French state and the German fled with his family to Switzerland. On returning to Paris after the war he was forced to stand by and watch as the French state auctioned off his inventory as "war booty" with hungry dealers buying up the works at bargain prices (Braque had become so incensed at this travesty he actually attacked one of the unscrupulous dealers in the auction room). Kahnweiler would open a new galley (under a sponsors name), and he took on French citizenship but, being of Jewish ancestry, he had to flee the capital once more with the onset of the Nazi occupation. In the intervening years, however, Kahnweiler had delivered what would be his lasting gift to the Cubist movement: The Rise of Cubism (1920), a book which set the template for the movement's theory and practice. Indeed, The Rise of Cubism became a source book for the development of Modern art history and had a profound impact on the seminal text, Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), by the art historian, and first director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr.
Concepts and Trends
Analytic Cubism obscures, or hides, the subject of the work within the boundaries of a canvas that only reveals its origins by means of fragments or small clues. Picasso called these clues "attributes"; those being (in Picasso's words), "the few points of reference designed to bring one back to virtual reality [and which are] recognizable to anyone". Kahnweiler preferred the term "real details" to describe fragments of pipes, bottles, guitar strings and so on, that allowed the viewer to "construct the finished object in [their own] mind" and from whence he or she might then come to appreciate "an intensity of which no illusionistic art is capable". "Attributes", or "real details", would, from around 1911, even accommodate lettering. As art historian Jack Flam observed, "The appearance or words in Cubist paintings introduced passages of relative clarity into imagery that was [otherwise] often difficult to make out".
Synecdoche and Metonymy
A synecdoche is a literary or visual device in which a letter, a word or a part description represents the bigger whole: "glasses" are spectacles and "wheels" may be used to describe one's whole car, for instance. A metonymy (which will often overlap with symbolism) is similar to Synecdoche but in this case a written or pictorial abbreviation does not belong directly to the thing it stands in for: for example "the Oval Office is busy" (the "Oval Office" standing in for the people who work in it) or "let me lend a hand" (meaning "let me help"). The idea of the synecdoche and metonymy sat well with the goals of Analytic Cubism because it insisted that the viewer must engage with the artwork at a cognitive level if they are to make sense of it as a whole.
Sometimes a synecdoche was employed at a personal, playful, level as, for instance, by Picasso in his Violin, Wineglass, Pipe and Anchor (1912). At the top of the canvas, the artist paints a "W" and "BO" which act as a synecdoche for "WILBROURG", a nickname given to Braque by Picasso (Braque would sometimes even sign his name as "Wilberg"). The nickname "WILBROURG" was in fact a synecdoche in its own right since it referred to the pioneer of aviation, Wilbur Wright. The lettering offered confirmation of the fact that the two painters would often playfully call themselves the Wright Brothers after the famous aviators. Just below the "W" and "BO", meanwhile, Picasso paints "MA JO[LIE]" which, as an indirect reference, functions as a metonym that represents his nickname for his girlfriend "Eva" and also a popular hall room song.
In the same vein as the synecdoche and the metonym, Picasso explored the idea of the pun. A pun is a jest that exploits potential misunderstandings between words that are alike but have different meanings. In The Scallop Shell: (Notre Avenir est dans l'Air) (1912), for instance, Picasso represents a café scene - scallop shells, a wineglass, a pipe tobacco, the corner of an aviation journal - from a visit with Braque to the coastal town of Le Havre (Braque's birthplace). On the right of the image, however, Picasso has painted the letters "JOU" (he had used these letters previously in other image combinations too). "JOU" is a slang abbreviation that could derive from any of the following:
Jou(ailler): to play a musical instrument badly
Jou(asse): the initial rush of taking drugs
Jou(er): to act the fool
Jou(eur): a participant in a game
Jou(jou): a plaything (toy)
Jou(issance): reach orgasm (to come)
Referring to Picasso's use of the pun, art historian Francis Frascina noted "we see evidence of a sign system which undermines existing expectations of stable meaning" suggesting, in other words, that the onus is on the viewer of the work to make their own sense of these puns. Indeed, recognizing a pun, and then trying to guess at the artist's intention, was in effect just one more means of prompting an act of analytic cognition from their viewer.
Color and the Salon Cubists
The Salon Cubists - Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Henri Le Fauconnier, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris - earned their name due to their numerous exhibitions at Paris Salons. However, following Kahnweiler's Rise of Cubism, which identified Picasso and Braque as the rightful fathers of Cubism, the works of the Salon Cubists were relegated to a secondary position by critics (though their output has been reassessed with art historians such as Christopher Green suggesting that the demotion the group to a "satellite role" has proven to be a "profound mistake").
In 1911 the group exhibition in Salle 41 at the Salon des Indépendants (in what became known as the "Cubist room") proved a roaring success and launched Cubism on the international stage. In the following year, Metzinger and Gleizes published Du Cubisme, the first theoretical paper and aesthetic defence of Cubism through which they advocated the analytic method of "moving around the object" in order to create a "total image" in the mind of the viewer. However, while Picasso, Braque and the Salon Cubists were united in their preference for multiple picture planes and facets, the Salon Cubists chafed at the restrictive palette (the "muddy colors" as they called them) and duly employed a more expansive range of colors.
By 1912, Braque and Picasso had instigated the new phase of Synthetic Cubism as they lessened, or rather "de-emphasized", the fragmentation of the image while incorporating real materials, such as oilcloth or rope into their artworks. Yet, at different points in their careers, both men would continue painting works informed by the principles of Analytic Cubism. The Salon Cubists also evolved: Delaunay launched Orphism emphasizing bright, fractured shapes; Leger created his distinctive cylindrical forms dubbed Tubism; while Metzinger, Gleizes, and others created pure abstract works that emphasized the flat pictorial plane.
For its part, the fractured forms and planes of Analytic Cubism put in place many of the foundations of twentieth-century modernism. It directly influenced the development of Italian Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism and, later, Purism and de Stijl, and informed innovations in sculpture and the architecture of Le Corbusier. Clement Greenberg's Decline of Cubism (1948) emerged a key text in acknowledged the historical importance of the whole history of the Cubist movement. As he said, "Cubism is still the only vital style of our time, the one best able to convey contemporary feeling, and the only one capable of supporting a tradition which will survive into the future and form new artists". The fractured, multi-dimensional, feature of Cubism - which reached its apex in the near abstract Analytic phase - also informed on other arts, notably in the films of Sergei M. Eisenstein and Jean Cocteau and the writings of Gertrude Stein, Blaise Cendars, and William Faulkner.
- Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
- Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
- Juan Gris was a Spanish painter and sculptor, and one of the few pioneers of Cubism. Along with Matisse, Léger, Braque and Picasso, Gris was among the elite visual artists working in early-twentieth-century France.
- Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the French painter Fernand Léger developed a unique style of Cubism using cylindrical and other geometric forms with mechanically smooth edges. Often colorful and punctuated by patterns, his paintings range from still lifes and figures to abstract compositions.
- Robert Delaunay was a French avant-garde painter. Early in his career he was associated with the Expressionist group The Blue Rider along with Kandinsky and Klee. Delaunay's singular style is referred to as Orphism; an approach that combines visual elements of Cubism, Expressionism and figurative abstraction.
- Albert Gleizes was a French artist, philosopher, and mind behind several different art movements, Gleizes, along with Jean Metzinger, wrote a treatise on Cubism.
Do Not Miss
- Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
- Collage was first employed in fine art in the context of Cubism, and involved the introduction of pre-existing materials into new designs, often to produce a playful ambiguity between art and reality. It has since been enormously influential, impacting not only drawing and painting but also attitudes to sculpture.
- The Salon Cubists built upon the early Cubist experiments of Pablo Picasso and George Braque and painted large scale, vibrant paintings.
- The Synthetic phase of the Cubism movement embraced a broader palette, simpler geometric planes, and less abstracted subjects while experimenting with collage and other techniques.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
First published on 26 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly