One could ask the question, when did “Cubism” begin? Some art historians consider a single painting of 1907, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as the beginning. But that would be assuming that Picasso was the most important Cubist artist. The problem with that assumption is that the artist never considered Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to be finished and kept the work rolled up under his bed until he sold it in the 1920s to the collector, fashion designer, Jacques Doucet. The painting was exhibited publicly only once in 1916 (during the Great War) until the 1920s and was purchased in 1929 for the new Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The idea that “Cubism” began with a painting that was unfinished and private was an anachronistic concept. Historically, “Cubism” as a word referring to an artistic movement did not appear in print until around 1910 and was used in reference of the Salon Cubists. But if one agrees with the position of art historians that Picasso and Barque were the instigators and innovators of Cubism, then the year 1907 is a good year to begin. If nothing else, 1907 is a good year because it is by this year that Fauvism is definitively over and a brief period of movement towards the next avant-garde idea begins.
This early formative period, from 1907 to 1910 includes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Braque’s reaction to the painting, Grand Nu. During this period, Braque broke with Fauvism and veered towards Paul Cézanne. Picasso assimilated the twin influences of African tribal art (sculpture) and the legacy of Cézanne. In 1907 Picasso produced the culmination of his interest in tribal art, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a key work during this period. The painting was shown to a few close friends, including his new friend, Georges Braque, who responded with a work of his own, the Grand Nu, which was heavily indebted to Matisse, indicating his Fauvist roots. Nevertheless Braque abruptly dropped out of the waning Fauve movement and cast his lot with Picasso. Picasso and Braque were in painterly sync by 1908.
Having completed their experiments with other styles and influences, they settled into their final project: extending the logic of Cézanne. Both Braque and Picasso produced very Cézannesque landscapes, Picasso at Horta del Ebro in Spain and Braque at Cézanne’s only painting grounds of L’Estaque. Picasso’s paintings still reflect the colors he favored in 1906, the ochres and siennas seen in Two Women and the Portrait of Gertrude Stein. Braque, however, had assimilated not just Cézanne’s advice to the younger painter, Emile Bernard, to reduce forms to basic geometric shapes but also his dark colors, subdued blues and greens. It was these latter paintings, shown at Berthe Weil’s gallery in 1908, that prompted the quick-witted critic, Louis Vauxcelles, to remark on Braque’s “little cubes.” Like Impression and Fauvism, the beginning of “Cubism” was a derogatory one.
Analytic Cubism: 1910-1912
The paintings of 1908 and 1909 were transitional works, many of which were landscapes crowded with buildings that seem to climb up tall hills. These works were reminiscent of the paintings Paul Cézanne did with Camille Pissarro in the 1860s and allowed the young artists to use the geometric forms of the built environment to experiment with fragmenting forms. By 1910, the artists had moved indoors to work in a more controlled studio environment. A few figures and a few portraits come out of the next phase but the painters seemed to find the still life best suited for their experiments. By this time, the artists had discarded color in order to explore the logic of form in space. If human vision is mobile and if the viewer’s position in space changes over time, then the problem is how the artist can convey multiple perspectives on a flat two dimensional surface. The task Picasso and Braque assigned to themselves was nothing less than creating a new visual language in the visual arts.
In a period is called “heroic” and “hermetic,” by art historians, the new language was fully formed. Analytic Cubism can be unreadable, hence “hermetic,” because this language is so unfamiliar. Accustomed to the language of the Renaissance, one has to learn how to “read” Cubism. The characteristics of Analytic Cubism include a monochromatic reduced palette, restricted to Cézannian colors: ochres for the planes, black for the contours and white for the stippling on the surface. From time to time, green will be used, but more and more sparingly. Close examination of canvases reveals underpainting of a variety of colors, suggesting a decision to eliminate a variety of colors in favor of developing a complex variation of shades within a very narrow range of choice.
Why reduce the palette? On one level, we see many artists at this period moving towards “Cézannian” ochres and greens, such as, Raoul Dufy, another former Fauve. On the other hand, the Salon Cubists, on the whole were far more willing to use bright colors than Picasso and Braque. The Salon Cubists always used color and during the transition period between Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, Picasso and Braque were able to return to the use of color, but only after then had reintroduced it through the auspices of the advertising appropriated for collage.
Analytic Cubism was more than an homage to Cézanne, compared to the more direct relationship enjoyed by the Salon Cubists with the old master. By reducing the palette, Picasso and Braque were able to paint in colors or tones, which were neutral in their associations. Red and blue, for example, are colors with “moods,” yellow might be associated with an object, such as a lemon or the sun. The suggestion of mood or object through colors could lead to ideas of theme or narrative or of symbolism—something Picasso and Braque avoided in order to concentrate to the formal experimentation of their paintings.
Picasso did portraits, of art dealers, such as Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and Wilhelm Uhde; and paintings of unspecified people, such as the reappearing moustached Poet. Braque painted a range of “types” both male and female but, for the most part, stayed away from portraiture. Males are identified in terms of nationality or occupation; women are simply women. However, Picasso and Braque did include a kind of “iconography” in their works—studio paraphernalia, which included anything from palettes to traditional still life studies—café mementos, which included cards, glasses, bottles, and the newspapers customers read while eating and drinking.
This studio based and personal range of subject matter was in contrast to the Salon Cubists who were looking at the objects of the modern world—airplanes and cars and even the Eiffel Tower. The interior subjects show a narrow range of objects depicted—from hollow containers to odd bits and pieces of Victorian ornamentation, such as woodworking and tassels. The exterior subjects, the landscapes, selected were characterized by the natural site’s propensity to “pile up”—that is views which were inherently high, blocking off distant vistas: factory buildings and the smokestacks, mountains and trees. In their own way, the works of Picasso and Braque contain a mini record of the life of a French artist: small journeys from studio to café and a vacation exodus to southern landscapes that were quite restricted and very traditional, still very Cézanne.
During the “hermetic” period of Analytic Cubism, Picasso and Braque restricted the space of their works as rigorously as they restricted the subject matter and color. More and more, they marked the limits of the shallow shell of space they have constructed for their objects, In Violin and Palette (1910), Braque painted a trompe l’oeil nail and hung a palette on the wall. The nail that cast a shadow indicated: “here, this is the limit of the space, the end of depth.” In Ma Jolie (1911), Picasso painted letters “Ma Jolie,” on the surface of the canvas. When he detached the subject from object, the lettering marked the limit of the projection of the picture plane. Working as a team, the artists borrowed Cézanne’s approach of uniting the surface. The passage, wherein the colors “slip” from point to point across the canvas, escaping from their traditional confinement in any one object, now became overall, drifting into an unmeasured space. Picasso and Braque also broke the contours of their objects, forcing space to weave in and out among objects and between planes.
The Renaissance restriction of one point perspective, interrogated discretely by Cézanne, was ruptured completely by Picasso and Braque. Objects were displayed not in one place, in one time, in one space, within one light source, but from many vantage points. If an object was seen from many points of view, then it was also seen in many different spaces; and as one moved from space to space, from place to place, one also moved in time; as one moved in space and time, the light source also varies. None of this movement was painted or illustrated literally, but suggested conceptually by the broken contours of the objects and the highlights of white paint, which do not respond to any one source.
The type of object depicted is “signed” to the viewer through a system of “clues,” such as the poet’s “moustache” and the violin’s strings, all floating in the monochromatic void flickering with shifting light sources. But there were problems in Analytic Cubism. Color was avoided, and could not be solved until the next phase. Edges also became a concern as the objects clustered around in an ovoid shape. How should the space surrounding the objects be treated if the objects were in multiple spaces and places and times? How does one denote multiple spaces, without objects? Should this space be filled with fragments of the objects it contained, or should space remain empty and ambiguous and un-measurable?
As Picasso and Braque’s analytic painting approached the edges the questions became acute and the density of the work remains traditionally centered and thins out at the edges. Oval shapes were somehow easier to deal with than rectangles and Cubism was noteworthy for the number of works in this unusual shape. It is obvious that the questions, which Cézanne asked: what kind of “space” does one construct when Renaissance space becomes too limited? would lead to the answer of pure abstraction.
Picasso and Braque did not want to travel this road, in contrast to, for example, the Orphists, the Delaunays and Kupka, who plunged into “pure painting” and into abstraction. The objects depicted in Analytic Cubism came to be more and more fragmented, splintering over the surface of the painting, more and more difficult to read. Their grip on reality had become too tenuous and Picasso and Braque stumbled, apparently somewhat independently of one another, upon a solution to the inevitable move into abstraction—a solution called Synthetic Cubism.
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