Phases of Cubism: Synthetic Cubism


Synthetic Cubism eliminated mimetic representation in favor of using direct materials directly. The parts of a Cubist collage are large and visible, distinct and separate. The design is stressed nakedly and subject matter is eliminated and the use of manufactured mass produced material is substituted. According to the photographer, Paul Strand, the human being had consummated a new creative act, “a new Trinity: God, the Machine, Materialism-Empiricism, the Son, Science the Holy Ghost.” The photographer understood America to be the supreme altar of the new God. The Trinity, said Strand, “must be humanized unless it in turn dehumanizes us.” This thought was echoed by the poet, Alfred Jarry, in 1902 when he said, “In this age when metal and mechanics are all-powerful man in order to survive, must become stronger than the machine, just as he (sic) has to become stronger than the beasts.” It is significant that Synthetic Cubism “constructed” works of art that were built of parts, like machines.

Synthetic Cubism: 1912-August, 1914

It is now known that it was a series of “constructions” that bridged the gap between Analytic and Synthetic Cubism. Originally, the sequence was thought to be 1. Braque’s trompe l’oeil nail of 1910 that cast a shadow as it supported the palette, and 2. Picasso’s lettering on Ma Jolie, of 1911, which lead to collaging real objects onto the canvas. But the dates of these constructions now better known and it is now understand that Picasso and Braque made many relief-type “sculptures” of objects which appeared in their paintings. Many of these constructions are no longer in existence, but a few, such as Picasso’s cardboard guitar, have been preserved. They seem to have been made for the purpose of working out pictorial problems: what does an object look like when it is opened up? How much can an object be dismembered or examined and still be legible? What are the perceptual and conceptual means by which the viewer visually recognizes and intellectually knows an object?

From these built and constructed objects there seems to have been a transition to collage, form the term “to paste” or coller. Collage was invented by Picasso, and papier collé, was invented by Braque. Papier collé is simply paper pasted onto a flat ground. The term “collage” refers to mixed media—everything and anything that can conceivably be adhered to, attached to, or pasted onto a canvas, piece of paper, or any kind of flat ground. Collage is from its three dimensional cousin, assemblage which is an ensemble of, usually wood, pieces that combine into an object, such as a Mandolin (1912).

The constructions that led to collage and assemblage were conceptual dissections of single objects. One of Picasso’s early constructions was Guitar, 1912. The “opening” or revealing of the object’s interior spaces—usually limited to a guitar or mandolin—and was intended to demonstrate the hollowness of the instrument. Picasso was attempting to show what the viewer knows, but cannot see, about the guitar: that it can make sounds, music, because it is hollow and, when the strings are plucked, the sound resonates against the empty interior. The construction (or deconstruction) of the guitar showed how it functioned, in other words, revealed what we know, not just what we see.

Synthetic Cubism introduced an entirely new concept—mixed media—to artists. From time to time, sculptors, such as Jean-Léon Gérome, would add jewelry to their carvings of women, and Degas added a hair ribbon and a tutu to his Little Dancer. But the Cubist use of collage and assemblage went far beyond any minor additives to a large work. Collage allowed Picasso and Braque to reintroduce color to their art by pasting large pieces of colored paper to the surface. But the two artists approached mixed media in their individual ways.

Picasso did not break the picture plane in his collages. The objects he stuck onto the surface did not protrude beyond the primary plane—that breakthrough would be left to others. Braque never did collages; he produced only papier collé works. Papier collé may in fact pre-date Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, for there are indications that Braque delayed showing his innovation to his vociferous colleague until he had worked out all the implications of taking a step as revolutionary as pasting a foreign object onto a ground traditionally preserved for mark making—pencil marks or brush strokes. Who did what first seems unimportant—art historian’s trivia—compared to the revolutionary importance of collage and papier collé (usually referred to collectively as “collage”).

The traditional means of achieving pictorial and visual unity was through unity of means. It would have been inconceivable for an artist of the nineteenth century to put anything on the canvas other than paint. Degas’s sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years caused audience horror and critical consternation because of the inclusion of the real tutu and the long hair ribbon worn by the dancer. But Braque and Picasso found a different unity with this revolutionary use of mixed media. Instead of the complexities of visual clues amidst a complicated system of “passage” of light and plane-counter plane, moving and shifting somehow and somewhere in some kind of space, collage used cut-out pieces of paper—wall paper, colored paper, newspaper, etc. these pieces of paper are planes in their own right. There is no need to paint a color, one simply pastes colored plane onto another colored plane and onto patterned papers.

Instead of sprinkling visual clues here and there for “reality,” as was seen in Analytic Cubism, the artist simply appropriated the real object, such as a newspaper, and fixes it to the surface. Objects can be drawn onto the primary surface as well as over and on the “secondary planes,” the papers. Now clearly definable, these objects appear to overlap but colored shapes are actually fitted together like puzzle pieces. Photographs of the preparatory stages of Picasso’s collages show that they wer planned out as a puzzle, avoiding any suggestion of recession—except conceptually.

The collage solution to the tug-of-war between the formal dislocations of shattered planes and known reality is elegant and simple and produces elegant and spare works. Fragile and often small, these collages are also blunt and straightforward with their large shapes and strong colors. They are legible and easy to read, but must be thought of as semiotic concepts that are presented as codes. Planes and shapes and ground have equal relationships, eliminating the figure-ground-edge problem of Analytic Cubism.

Instead of baffling the eye, Synthetic Cubism teases and plays with the mind of the interested spectator. The strip of newsprint is equally newspaper and equally the bottle whose shape it imitates. The newspaper is real—as newspaper—but is also unreal because it also acts as a bottle, due to its shape, but it is not “bottle” but “newspaper,” but only in the real world. In the world of collage, the cut out shape is newspaper, bottle, shape, plane, and ground, all at the same time. The viewer “reads” the shape as “reading the newspaper while drinking wine” (at the café).

Visual elements now have multiple functions. This potential was suggested by “line” in Fauve painting, an economical line that was both color and mark and shape and movement, fulfilling several roles. But Synthetic Cubism is more radical in its use of real materials and its consequent refusal to imitate or reproduce real objects. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque produced a kind of art, which did not attempt to imitate or copy the real world, which borrowed and incorporated elements from that world. This borrowing and the use of these objects obeyed laws, which were formal laws, “art laws.” These formal laws or rules were not those of the reproduction of reality, but the laws of picture making itself. Thus the painting became a tableau-oject, a universe in its own right.

Throughout all these stages, the difference between Picasso and Braque is apparent: Picasso is innovative, swift and full of adventure, concerned with inventing a new concept of form, which is inherently sculptural. Braque was essentially concerned with space and with the task of making space, as he put it, “tactile.” “Form and color do not just merge into each other. It is a question of their simultaneous interaction,” he commented years later. Painterly and poetic, Braque worked beneath the shadow of Picasso’s genius until the First World War broke out, splitting up the dynamic duo forever. Braque, a French citizen, went to fight for his country, while Picasso, a Spanish neutral, was able to stay in Paris and continue his career without disruption.

The beginning of the Great War was the end of Cubism. The young French nationals either went to war or went to exile, leaving Paris to the artists left behind. The result of the dissolution of the world of the avant-garde art world was that Picasso, who was not French and Matisse, who was too old to fight, were able to develop Cubism and Fauvism and evolve into their own signature styles as they matured as artists. The younger artists of the pre-War avant-garde had to stop their careers for four years. Some, like Raymond Duchamp-Villion never returned. The Salon Cubists, Marcel Duchamp and Albert Gleizes, spent the war in New York City. Duchamp became a French-American artist, and Gleizes returned home to Paris to find Picasso in ascendance and his own status as “hero” eclipsed by the “true Cubist,” Picasso.

Before and after the Great War, Cubism, as a formal language or as a style which suggested other visual and pictorial forms, spread quickly across the face of Europe. The expatriate, Picasso, moved down the hill from the bohemian obscurity of Montmartre to the more prosperous environs of Montparnasse. During the war, he produced decorative canvases called “rococo” Cubism, and then, in the 1920s, he summed up Cubism in a pair of large paintings, two versions of a group of musicians. These paintings of the early 20’s are essentially collages, which are now painted for the growing market of collectors who wanted “a Picasso” or a “Cubist painting,” as long as the work was tame or tamed. The glory days of innovation and invention were over. After the Great War, Cubism became a historical style and its formal experimentation evolved into an international lingua franca. The Renaissance had ended and the Twentieth Century had begun.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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