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Cubism was a revolutionary movement in painting created by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Cubism was founded with Picasso’s painting ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ of 1907, though this was not a Cubist picture yet in the full sense of the term. The trend was clear at an exhibition of Georges Braque at the Kahnweiler Gallery in Paris in 1908. The term Cubism was used as of 1911.

There were three major phases in Cubism.

The first phase is called Analytic Cubism. This was the learning and experimentation period of Picasso and Braque who analysed objects and figures into their constituent forms and re-arranged them on the canvas.

The second phase could be called Hermetic Cubism. This was the mature form of the investigations and experiments of Picasso. The figurative elements were now barely recognisable and Cubism practically reached abstraction. For Picasso this was the culmination of the Cubist experiments.

The third period is called Synthetic Cubism. In this phase, the objects were assembled again from their constituent parts to become often barely recognisable objects, but recognisable all the same. Synthetic Cubism proceeded from abstraction to return to representation. This period was mostly Juan Gris’ painting.

Analytic Cubism worked mainly before the First World War, from 1907 to around 1911. Hermetic Cubism dates from 1911 and 1912 in Picasso’s pictures. Synthetic Cubism was a later art style and painters worked mainly after the war in this way, from 1912 on. Cubism ended around 1925. Juan Gris died in 1927.

Cubism was not a phenomenon that was limited to Western Europe. Cubist painters also abounded in Middle Europe, such as the group called ‘Skupina’ in Prague, Czechia.

Cubist art was an art of design, of re-thinking of the basic qualities of form and line. Thus it was an art that emphasised much more line and form than colour. Straight lines were mostly preferred instead of curved lines, but curved lines could be used as well to obtain the effects of analysis.

Cubists used dissected objects and they built their compositions from the separated parts. They re-composed the object from its constituting elements. The forms of the objects were simplified in a geometrical way of representation. The artists reduced natural forms to geometrical shapes and they reconstructed their images from these shapes. The geometrical, constituting forms needed not to be set in the right place in order to re-from the object. The individual forms could be scattered over the canvas in a seemingly random fashion. The Cubists exercised this analysis and synthesis not just with forms but also with all the features and properties of the object such as its texture, its thickness and volume, front and rear views. Cubists also used collage techniques to bring immediate reality in their works. Thus they put newspaper clippings on the canvas. These were instances, fragments of reality that were used to draw attention to the real world that was not in the canvas and to the material properties of the work of art. Ernst H. Gombrich said of Cubism, ‘Cubism is the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture – that of a man-made construction, a coloured canvas … Cubism has sometimes been explained as an extreme attempt in compensation for the shortcoming of one-eyed vision.’

Colour was not important for the Cubists. They were concerned with modes of representation. Many pictures were painted just in one colour or with very few combinations of one colour.

Cubists were not concerned with content as a means of communication to the viewer. Cubist paintings presented images of real objects that were analysed in their constituents. They analysed the constituting elements, separated them from the object as a whole and showed them in abnormal relations to each other. The elements of a face for instance were presented as viewed from various directions, from front and sideways. These views were then blended or superimposed in the same image. Cubism was a realistic and figurative art. It still dealt much with the real representation of objects but through its process arrived rapidly at almost abstract pictures.

The Cubists did not want to create an illusion of objects in space, as was the traditional way of representation. They displayed the separate elements very obviously in the flat space of the panels. Thus these artists emphasised the flat space of the canvas. This new view led the artists to new experiments on the relation between form and space and that proved crucial for the development of the visual arts in the twentieth century. Cubists rarely applied chiaroscuro so as to give volume to the objects. Faces of figures for instance were not given volume by chiaroscuro, but side and front views were superimposed to tell viewers that volume existed in the real world but should only be represented in schematic, indicative forms on the canvas. The Cubists were interested in objects such as a piano or a violin or in figures, but they were interested in the intrinsic qualities of that object alone. They were not much interested in the place of the object in space, thus rarely used linear or aerial perspective. Precursors of Cubists art like Paul Cézanne however were still much interrogated themselves on effects of aerial perspective. Later phases of Cubism reached almost abstraction.

Painters of this style were Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, and Auguste Herbin.

Cubism was a formalistic and intellectual art. It was primarily concerned with the re-thinking of the representation of objects. Picasso and Braque tried still to keep balance between representation and abstraction. But in tearing objects to pieces and placing these on other than expected places in the canvas, so that the original object and its constituents were sometimes only barely recognisable, the Cubists opened the road to abstraction.

Cubism was a key experiment in painting and sculpture because it re-considered the interactions between objects, figures and their representation.

Impressionists and Fauvists had been interested in landscapes and in objects for their colour appearance. Cubists as a reaction to this view looked primarily at the shape of the object and at the lines by which an object was shown on the canvas. Cubism was mostly a revolution in form because it was a return to line and shape. Objects were analysed in lines and basic forms (hence the name of ‘Cubists’), then painted as such but with the separate lines and shapes of the object set in unusual places of the frame. Cubists also looked at objects as the first painters and as African sculptors who used forms as they knew they were in physical reality, instead of as they saw them with their eyes. Hence Cubists could paint various views of a face in one image together.

The dissection of Cubism often left bits and pieces of lines and shapes that could be seen individually without thinking of the original object. This opened the way to abstraction.

Still-Life: Dead Birds

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – Madrid. 1912.

Picasso’s still life shows muted brown colours that make us think of wood. We see chaos of broken black lines and these seem to delineate surfaces, but not on all sides. The surfaces are not adjacent. They seem to cover each other. Here and there is a figurative element. We find a drinking glass, pieces of a newspaper. There are several cut bird legs that seem tragically to claw. This makes us rather feel as if a macabre crime has been going on with live animals. But overall the painting is very confusing and it resembles the vision of a madman looking through broken glasses.

What is the key to this painting? Our first impression is of disorder and since few colours can be perceived and few details, there is also not much really to discover in this picture. What is the key? What was Pablo Picasso proving with these images? How can we understand the picture – if there is something to understand. There may be no key, no logical process of construction of this picture from other images, and no process that makes sense. And yet, maybe there is. What could be the process then?

One could propose that Picasso took pictures of dead birds, plus pictures of other objects of daily life such as newspapers, a drinking glass, a round table and that he cut these pictures up in several pieces. He might then have put these pieces one on top of the other in a random fashion and simply painted the result. We are sure it was pictures that were cut up and not the objects themselves, because volume of the objects is absent. This kind of process could also have worked in the mind of the artist. The pieces could have been imagined and the process of re-assembling at random the virtual pieces has only happened in the imagination. All the parts of the pictures of the dead birds need not be present then. Other parts could have covered up parts. Indeed, we only see certain individual elements of the birds and of the other objects. Thus reality can be shown divided, torn and various picture-spaces are placed one on top of the other. Even the pieces, which in the mind still have dimensions and real borders, can be painted as not covering each other entirely but as being at sides closed and at other sides open-bordered, transitioning into each other. Thus we see fractions of reality juxtaposed and superimposed. The openness of the flat areas that are assembled in a random way indicates that space is not ended, not definite. Space is something mysterious since it can be simulated on the canvas. But the simulation is not always necessary since paintings have a language of their own. So the space remains open, not completely defined. This arrangement of space is not in a natural order as we are used to, but in a totally re-arranged, re-shuffled way. Yet within the breaking up of space, the objects, the birds, still come to the mind of the viewer. Picasso said in 1923, ‘we all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows us his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything’.

We see thus at least three legs of birds, maybe a hint of a head in the middle, and single feathers here and there. In our own mind we can reconstitute the dead birds from these elements, even if most of the elements are missing. Now feelings start to come in too in the viewer. Death is always bewildering and it sometimes shatters the mind of those that remain in total incomprehension at its seeming absurdity. Death is also an ordinary event nevertheless, as are the ordinary utensils of daily life. So Picasso added pieces of a newspaper, with the beginnings of the Spanish word ‘journal’ on it, and also other pieces of magazines in several places to the separate images of the dead birds. We see a horizontally placed drinking glass and two pieces of what could be a round table, probably the table on which lay the original pictures. Here Picasso was quite figurative since in the light brown of the table we think we are able to discover the texture of the wood and thus we think we recognise a table plane. Of course, the divided pieces of the images must have been laid on a table. Was that Picasso’s kitchen table? We must remember that these are all mind-images.

Although the whole picture seems to have been randomised, we discover symmetries and directions in Picasso’s painting. The two pieces of the round table are drawn apart symmetrically from around the vertical middle axis of the frame. Between these two parts are rather vertically oriented pieces of images. The vertical lines dominate here. In placing the images of the dissected objects, the pieces have not been completely scattered at random but placed one on top of the other in the general direction from top to bottom. The central part of the painting contains the strong vertical lines, next to the table pieces. These lines go through all the way from bottom to top and divide the panel exactly in three. So there is a deliberate composition in the apparent chaos as of a traditional triptych.

Vertical dominating directions and symmetries plus a hint of composition always induce feelings of tranquillity and of balance. Indeed, despite the dynamism of the scattered separate picture views, a general feeling of equilibrium is in the ‘Dead Birds’. Overall also the colours quietly change in tone but keep in almost the same hues. Moreover the individual pieces are not torn up to pieces of jagged corners. All have straight contours as if broadly cut out with scissors. Thus reality is not torn but represented in separate planes of reality that are superimposed in their multitude. The fact that the pieces are not torn also points to a deliberate organising agent of the process instead of random tearing. There are few slanting lines, which could promote a nervous ambience and feelings of tension. This technique adds to the quietness of the painting of Picasso. The round forms of the table on both sides are balanced and pronounced. They keep the central scattered parts firmly together and also indicate some deliberate design. Nothing is falling apart after all; the pieces are set together in some ordered way. The various planes of vision of the objects are well fixed on the one-dimensional canvas.

Pablo Picasso’s painting ‘Naturaleza muerta (los pájaros muertos)’ is definitely a ‘phase three’ painting. We might experience some direct emotion at first glance, but then it could only be an emotion of empuzzlement. We do discover a few scattered figurative, natural details here and there and we can remark that the variations of the same brown hues are at least harmonious. But without the explanations by art historians of the reasons of Pablo Picasso’s experiments in vision we would never be able to find such a picture interesting.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque invented cubism. Picasso painted a picture at the end of 1906 called ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ in which he started to show reality simultaneously from various sides on the same canvas. His figures were reduced to almost geometric and simple forms, to their assembly of essential volumes. Picasso planted the noses of the figures as seen sideways whereas the faces of the figures were parallel to the viewer. This representation of reality was a view that was new in Western art and that Picasso might have learned from African masks and statues. Perspective as we know since Gothic and Renaissance periods did not exist anymore and also volume and depth shown in chiaroscuro was absent. Soon Picasso and Braque recalled how Paul Cézanne had already emphasised that he had primarily sought in his later pictures to find the cones, cylinders and spheres of nature. Picasso and Braque broke up images of objects, at first only glided the pieces apart, one somewhat skewed as relative to the other or higher than the other. Then they superimposed the pieces. They displaced the separate views, and let out deliberately parts of the object. They puzzled the surprised viewer by letting him or her discover the separate, original figurative elements.

The two painters theorised on their experiments and each picture was a new experiment. Picasso opened the contours of the planes of vision as in his ‘Dead Birds’ so that a viewer is even more puzzled as he or she cannot really make out the individual planes anymore, as all flow into one picture and yet remain separate. Yet Picasso as in ‘Dead Birds’ always emphasised in dark, strong lines two or three sides of the individual planes just enough to let the viewer think that yes, these are indeed individual pieces of one reality. By 1912 Picasso’s and Braque’s representations had become very personal, very free combinations, very theoretic and very cerebral. The original subjects remained more and more elusive. This phase of Cubism is hence called ‘hermetic Cubism’ and Picasso’s ‘dead Birds’ is a good example of this style.

How can we enjoy such a painting? We have to recognise that the most of the joy lies not in aesthetics but in a pleasure of intellectual interest and recognition of the aims and inspiration of the artists. Once a painting such as ‘Dead Birds’ is understood as an evolution in art history and understood as an experiment in spatial vision of reality, we can admire the picture. It will not arouse strong emotions in us. It is not an energetic picture despite the breaking up of planes. It is a quiet, intellectual exercise. Paintings like this are admired because they are among the first experiments of painters to surpass traditional views on objects. Picasso and Braque proved that if we only chose the medium of painting to show coloured areas on a canvas, we can also change their reality in strange ways. Finding this needed an extraordinary feat of imagination. The complexity of ‘Dead Birds’ was only arrived at gradually, starting with ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’.

The Cubism of Pablo Picasso and of Georges Braque remained an experiment. As an experiment this art was limited to a duration of a few years since when the experiment was proven, the point was made and the search exhausted. After the ending of the hermetic period of Cubism in Picasso, he looked once more to other representations and he abandoned the jagged superimposed division of planes of vision. A younger artist, Juan Gris, continued to experiment in the Cubist way however. He took abstract forms and combined these. He thus reconstituted figurative forms to represent a kind a metaphysical reality. Pablo Picasso however found now stranger ways of looking at reality, by deforming objects and forms. He did revert to a more figurative representation. He still broke his images into separate parts but only placed one of these on the canvas so that the objects were more easily recognised. He would not however revert to traditional perspective and natural volumes.

When we look at Pablo Picasso’s ‘Dead Birds’ we are very close to abstract art. Withdraw the very few figurative elements of the birds’ legs, the newspaper and the drinking glass and you will have a totally abstract picture. That would be the next evolution in the art of painting.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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