The Most Important Art in Synthetic Cubism
Still Life with Chair Caning (1912)
This oval canvas, framed by a piece of common rope, posits itself as a table, while a painted and multi-faceted tableau of items - a knife, a pipe, a slice of citrus - are arranged on a piece of oilcloth, printed with a chair caning pattern. As Poggi noted, "The rope, in marking the edge of the collage as a picture of a café table, also makes the oval canvas itself synonymous with that table, thus conflating the literal object with the table that it represents". The image proved iconoclastic in that it confused the viewers' idea of where the line between popular culture and fine art stood.
Not for the first time, Picasso included the painted letters "JOU", here in the guise of the title of a newspaper. He had explored the idea of the pun for its potential to exploit misunderstandings between words that are alike but which have different meanings. "JOU" is a slang abbreviation that could be part of a number of French words - Jouailler (to play a musical instrument badly); Jouasse (the initial rush of taking drugs); Jouer (to act the fool); Joueur (a participant in a game); Joujou (a plaything or toy); Jouissance (reach orgasm) - and Picasso used the pun as a device for making his viewer question the pictorial meaning of the work. Poggi put it thus: "Picasso was able to subvert the notion of realism from within the very genre most frequently concerned with visual description and the actuality of the referent", the letters that make up the pun in this example.
Pioneering the use of collage, this work straddled the phases of Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, and in so doing it pointed towards a new transformation in modern art. Speaking of the move towards mixed media, the art critic Christine Poggi observed that "Picasso's Still Life with Chair-Caning challenged some of the most fundamental assumptions about the nature of painting inherited by Western artists from the time of the Renaissance".
Oil and oilcloth on canvas, rope - Musée Picasso, Paris, France
Compotier et verre (fruit dish and glass) (1912)
As the earliest Cubist papier collé (a collage formed of pasted papers), Braque's work marked a decisive break in the move from the overtly complex (and serious) Analytic Cubism. During the summer of 1912, Picasso and Braque were working together in Sorgues in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of South Eastern France. Braque told the story of how he was strolling through the streets of the nearby city of Avignon when he spotted rolls of faux bois (fake wood-grain) wallpaper on display in the window of a hardware store. Once Picasso had returned to Paris, Braque began experimenting by pasting the faux bois into a series of charcoal drawings with lettering.
On the one hand, Compotier et verre might be considered a Cubist rebus (a puzzle containing pictures and letters). "Hidden" within its horizontal and curvilinear forms, we can clearly make out the drawer of a table (represented through the circular door-knob) and some grapes, while the lettering relates explicitly to a bar serving alcohol. But by bringing scraps from the material world into the artificial world of the drawing, Braque asks the viewer to consider the texture and material of the work just as much as the image's content. There is a clear separation between the shapeless color and the drawing in the work with the former becoming a thing in its own right. Braque commented later that "Colour came into its own with papiers collés [...] with these works we [he and Picasso] succeeded in dissociating colour from form, in putting it on a footing independent of form, for that was the crux of the matter".
Speaking about having created the first truly synthetic work, Braque recalled feeling "a great shock [that] was an even greater shock to Picasso when I showed it to him". The art critic William Rubin, meanwhile, alluded to the idea that the papier collé had effectively deconstructed the idea of pure or divine artistic genius when he wrote "[Synthetic] Cubism had, in itself, the prophetic notion of an artwork as a pure idea, completely separated from the artistic talent and therefore, feasible by anybody".
Charcoal and cut-and-pasted printed wallpaper with gouache on white laid paper; subsequently mounted on paperboard - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Le Lavabo (The Washstand) (1912)
Shortly after arriving in Paris in 1908, the Spaniard Juan Gris met Picasso and Braque and quickly became a disciple of Cubism. Gris, who became known as the "third musketeer" (with Braque and Picasso), was initially grouped with the Salon Cubists, and Le Lavabo was the first collage to be exhibited at the 1912 Section d'Or where it effectively introduced the general public to the new direction of Cubism. Indeed, following the exhibition art critic Maurice Raynal commented on the "curious originality of Juan Gris [that showed] clearly that in his conception of pure painting, there exist objects that are absolutely antipictorial".
Gris's Synthetic collages differed most noticeably from those of Picasso and Braque in that they typically featured complex overlapping patterns made from carefully cut and pasted paper, and in this example, fragments of a mirror too. Positioned in front of an illusionist shuttered windows, one can discern the right angle of a washstand and perhaps fragments of other washroom fixtures and fittings. The illusionist fanned shower curtain, meanwhile, offers some relief from the faceted planes and viewpoints, and Gris pastes a bottle label towards the bottom right of the frame. It is, however, the inclusion of the fragments of mirror at the top right of the frame that provided the most radical feature of this collage. As Gris himself explained, "surfaces can be re-created and volumes interpreted in a picture, but what is one to do about a mirror whose surface is always changing and should reflect even the spectator? There is nothing to do but stick on a real piece [of mirror]".
Gris's "understanding of pictorial illusion," as art historian Christine Poggi noted, "presents, in some ways, an alternative to that of Braque [...] who felt that the depiction of depth on a flat surfaces necessarily involved undesirable optical distortion from the true form of an object [...] Gris apparently believed that there was no point to copying already flat images. In his view, such copying reduced the artist to a merely skilful artisan, a maker of trompe l'oeil effects."
Oil on canvas with paper and mirror collage - Private Collection Vicomtesse de Noailles, Paris, France
Still Life on a Table, (Duo pour Flute) (1913-1914)
In order to orientate his viewer, Braque would often feature a table drawer with a rounded knob at the base of his still lifes. He does so here with the aim of drawing attention to the flat surface of the pictorial plane which has been topped with fragments of vessels, sheet music and lettering. The transparent and overlapping planes are stippled with pigment that creates an effect that might suggest that the still-life has been observed through the filter of a translucent window or glass cover. On the viewer's side of the stippled pigment/glass Braque positions a matte-effect triangle painted in relief to resemble a glued piece of paper. The wood-grained triangle acts as a trompe l'oeil and its presence directs our attention to the flat picture two-dimensional picture plane (beneath the "glass").
Using metal combs to make the triangle resemble wood grain, Braque's technique of painting elements that appeared to be "real" readymades can also be read as autobiographical inasmuch as it alludes to his early training as a designer of imitation marble and wood. Similarly, the sheet music, titled "duo" suggests sheet music for a "Duet for a Flute" but the term "duo" may allude to the artistic collaboration of Braque and Picasso or to Braque's recent marriage to Marcelle Lapre. The fact that the painting featured such ambiguities was, it seems, an act of creative intention on the part of the artist. As art historian Jennifer Mundy wrote, such works suggest, "that the overlapping and interpenetrating planes may represent to some degree visual memories of different views onto the objects. Such a painting [...] was conceptual in the sense that it was to be understood fully only through the use of the spectator's imagination".
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Wineglass, Bottle of Bass, Ace of Clubs and Visiting Cards (1914)
Synthetic Cubism was all about bridging the gap between reality and art which it achieved by transporting pieces of the real world into the composition. As Picasso saw it, his raw collage's amounted to a self-conscious attempt to "deintellectualize" fine art and to draw on - and to play on - objects and signs from the realms of mass culture and consumerism. Picasso was in fact part of a left-wing group that art critic Francis Frascina called an "introverted elite" who were resistant to the commodification - or "selling-out" - of fine art and who sought rather to produce dissenting works that could not (in theory at least) pass as fine art. As Frascina put it, "Picasso's sub-group [...] use the signs of mass or popular culture as root-stock for a group language. They have to use this resource because the existing sign system of 'high art' is part of a dominant ideology which cannot be used to represent the group's experience of social crisis or revolutionary change".
Here, one can see, in the dice and playing card, that the theme of Picasso's painting is one of chance; a topical subject amongst pre-World War One artists, writers and poets. Picasso also revisits something a motif in his Synthetic work, namely the calling card. In this example the card, with its corner turned over (tradespeople would turn the corner over if no one was home when the called), carries the artist's name. It is a playful, or ironic gesture, in that what would normally be printed, the label on the bottle at the center of the frame, is hand-drawn, while what is traditionally handwritten, the artist's signature, is stencilled. The element of play is also evident in the diagonal ray of light that severs the "B" from the "AS" in the word "BAS" (Bass being an imported British ale that featured in other Cubist works). The "B" is depicted as if it were the liquid itself filling the ale jug. Meanwhile the letters "AS" spell the French word for "ace" which is the value of the playing card represented just below the letters.
Le Petit Déjeuner (Breakfast) (1914)
The papier collé technique was devised by Braque in 1912. It was an innovation that thrilled Gris who duly embarked on a long period of experimentation with the new medium. Of the three men, it is Gris who retained strongest ties to the lyricism of fine art.
As Gris wrote later, "I try to concretise that which is abstract [...] My art is an art of synthesis [...] I consider that the architectural side of painting is mathematical, the abstract side, I want to humanise it". Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler said of the artist, meanwhile, that he "started with the ensemble, whose rhythm he allowed to develop freely [and from] this rhythm sprang, in their turn, the objects. A few simple "stimulants" sufficed to make the spectator "see" the desired object".
This papier collé depicts a breakfast table - on which rests such breakfast items as a coffeepot, cups and saucers, an eggcup and a spoon - as a vertiginous play on interlocking perspectives. The artist incorporates two types of wood-grain paper which he uses to represent the table's surface and legs. Gris uses real wallpaper, meanwhile, to represent the far wall. These pre-printed sheets combined with the more luminous turquoise and white painted sections of the canvas. The breakfast items possess an illusionist quality that conflicts sharply with flatness of the pasted paper collage. We also see here in the detail of journal clipping the inclusion of the word "GRIS" which, while lacking the irony of the earlier "tradesman" example of Picasso, it too serves to "authenticate" the originality of the work by means of a signature.
Gouache, oil, and crayon on cut-and-pasted printed paper on canvas with oil and crayon - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York