Describe and Compare the Two Forms of Cubism

Published: 2021-08-20 16:40:08
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According to the Tate Gallery’s exposition (1979) Cubism has remained the most important and influential movement of the 20th century, notwithstanding the movement’s short duration. According to Read (1994) the major period for Cubism was from 1907 to 1914, with Picasso and Braque as the main originators of the movement. The rationale for the Tate’s statement is given as “the artists associated with [Cubism] took some of the most decisive steps towards abstraction”, and this extreme development “has become the archetype of later revolutionary movements” (p. 84).
The movement, according to Read, was the first abstract style of the 20th century, and named by the art critic Louis Vauxcelles, who took up a remark by Matisse about “Braque’s little cubes” (p. 100). One source (artlex. com) cites Vauxcelles as saying: “M. Braque scorns form and reduces everything, sites, figures and houses, to geometric schemas and cubes. ” One of the most innovative developments is that the creators of Cubism sought to replace a single viewpoint and light source, normal within the western art world since the Renaissance, with a much more complete representation of any object, combining many ‘aspects’.
Initially colours were temporarily abandoned and shapes were simplified and flattened. Space was furthermore rendered by means of oblique lines and overlapping forms (The Tate Gallery, 1979). According to Belton (2002, p. 109) Picasso and Braque both struggled with the problem of representing three dimensional objects and figures in the two dimensional medium of painting; “their solution was to create an abstract form that could display two or more sides of an object simultaneously”.

Whilst Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon is generally viewed as the first Cubist painting, Read (1994) argues that the painting might be more usefully viewed as ‘pre-Cubist’, or ‘proto-Cubist’, as it was so heavily influenced by Iberian or African art. Cezanne’s later work is often viewed as the catalyst for the development of Cubism, and Read cites Cezanne’s advice to Bernard “to deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone” (p. 100). Cezanne, by trusting his eyes and attempting to express natural, binocular vision, allowed for the ‘truth’ of the shifted viewpoint (Moszynska, 1990).
Cubism gives the artist a way of depicting the world in a way that goes beyond what can be seen, and attempts to deal with the energies of objects. According to Read (1994) Cubism could be categorized into various divisions, including ‘analytic’, ‘hermetic’ and ‘synthetic’. This essay will mainly concentrate in the analytic and synthetic forms of Cubism. The term ‘hermetic’ refers to the largely or wholly indecipherable way of representing an object in the flatter type of abstraction, as typical of both Braque’s and Picasso’s later way of working.
In this phase the allover pattern became more important. Other sources (including artlex. com) refer to ‘analytic’ cubism as ‘facet’ cubism. Analytical and Synthetic Cubism acquired their names through the comments by art historian Einstein, and in effect are retrospective labels. Einstein wrote that the “simplistic distortions” employed by Picasso, as typified by his portrait of Gertrude Stein, led to “a period of analysis and fragmentation and finally to a period of synthesis” (as cited in Foster, Krauss, Bois and Buchloh, 2004, p. 106).
The analytical phase of Cubism, as developed by Braque and Picasso, was characterised by a number of different features, starting with the contraction of the painters’ palettes, away from the full colour spectrum to rather monochrome selections, which Foster et al. term ‘abstemious’. The second characteristic is the extreme flattening of the visual space, “as though a roller had pressed all the volume out of the bodies” (ibid. , p. 106). The third characteristic identified by Foster et al. is the visual vocabulary used to describe “the physical remains of this explosive process” (p. 06).
Foster et al. illustrate these features with Picasso’s portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910) and Bracque’s painting The Portuguese (The Emigrant, 1911-12). The grey or tonal scale, the traditional tool of representing volume, is used very differently by the Cubists. Kahnweiler, the art dealer who exhibited both Braque and Picasso’s work, identified the “bringing about the unity of the pictorial object” as the exclusive concern of Cubism (Foster et al. , 2004, p. 107).
Kahnweiler’s view as upheld by Greenberg, who saw Analytical Cubism as the fusion between two types of flatness: the “depicted flatness”, shoving the fragmented objects closer to the surface, and the “literal flatness” of that surface (ibid. , p. 109). Foster and his colleagues however question this: they note a number of differences between the evident intentions of Braque and Picasso in relation to the flat plane, with Picasso, being more ‘tactile’, more focused on exploring the possibilities of using Cubism for sculpture, and Braque more concerned with transparency.
Steinberg too, urged against the blurring of Picasso and Braque’s pictures. The two exponents of Cubism saw themselves as being ‘roped together’ like mountaineers in their exploration of this new way of working, with the ebullient Spaniard referring to Braque as his ‘wife’. However, Braque was loyal to ‘passage’, the practice of visual slippage between adjacent elements, whereas Picasso, according to Foster et al. , had an “overwhelming concern with a vestigial kind of depth” (ibid, p. 109).
Picasso seemed more focused on making depth tactile, as Foster et al. demonstrate with showing Picasso’s central plunging depth in Houses on the hill: Horta de Ebro (1909). They go on to argue that Braque is more concerned with the ‘diaphanous’ quality of Cubism, with the loss of traditional notions of figure and ground The Tate Gallery (1979, p. 85) presents Braque’s Clarinet and a Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece (1911) as a crucial point in Cubism, “when the breaking down of objects had been carried to a point very close to complete abstraction”.
After this point Braque and Picasso started to introduce areas of wood-graining, the use of collage, and a re-introduction of colour, thereby representing objects in a more recognisable, but also more symbolic way. According to Gersh-Nesic (n. d. ) Synthetic Cubism integrates "high" and "low" art (art made by an artist combined with art made for commercial purposes, such as packaging), and according to some can be considered the first Pop Art. Even before 1912 Braque and Picasso had introduced stenciled lettering into their paintings. These stencils were not fine art, they were used for packaging and pub signs.
The stencils draw attention to the surface of the canvas, since the uniform letters appear independent of what's painted underneath them. Two technical innovations exemplify new development in Cubism: papier colle and collage. Papier colle involves sticking coloured paper onto the canvas and was invented by Braque. Collage was developed by Picasso, and involved sticking all sorts of materials, such as leather, newspaper, material and rope, onto the surface. Sticking different materials, such as woodgrain, onto the surface of the painting playfully confused what was real and what was an illusion (Tate, n. d. ).
New, provocative questions are raised with the use of collage, namely: what is more realistic, to perfectly simulate the look of a newspaper in oil paint, or to stick actual newspaper onto the canvas? (Tate, n. d. ). Wadley (1970, p. 13) holds that “technically and conceptually” Synthetic Cubism was “a denial of the European tradition”, in that the surface was now the furthest point from the spectator, not the nearest. Artists working in a synthetic way started with the terms of painting, and from them composed an image which they could justly claim was more real, “since it in no sense distorted or imitated something else” (ibid. p. 14).
Gris, who was the clearest formulator of cubist theory, stated: I work with the elements of the intellect, with the imagination. I try to make concrete that which is abstract. I proceed from the general to the particular, by which I mean that I start with an abstraction in order to arrive at a true fact. Mine is an art of synthesis, of deduction. (ibid. , p. 129) Gris was called a ‘demon of logic’ by Apollinaire. Indeed, his way of working and thinking was different from his Cubist colleagues.
According to Wadley the integration in Gris’ work is tighter than in comparable Picassos or Braques. Gris used collage only in his paintings, and its effect is always to strengthen the rigid division of the surface. [ ]There is no hint of Picasso’s ragged edges and random encounters, nor of Braque’s simple elements floating in a spacious arena. The total effect is of tight concentration. (Wadley, 1970, p. 82)
Gris’ meticulous style is evident in how he has painstakingly arranged the letters in ‘Le Matin’ in Man in the Cafe, to correspond with the diagonal columns and echo the horizontal line elow (ibid). Foster et al. (2004) make a ‘semiotic’ reading of Picasso’s use of material in his Violin (1912): the ‘twin’ pieces of newsprint paper represent on the one hand the frontal, opaque (wood of the violin), as well as the transparent, amorphous ‘ground’ (background colour). They go on to claim that a similar visual play of meaning is evident in Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass and Newspaper (1913), where a piece of wallpaper is used to represent the liquid in the glass, the rim of the glass, and the ground of the table-cloth.
The cut out piece used for the liquid (looking like a chef’s top hat) represents transparency, whilst the ‘negative shape’ left by the incision represents the solid stem of the glass. The viewer might be left with the question whether the ever playful Picasso was just enjoying a visual pun, or whether he intended any of this to be read as ‘signs’. The artist himself stated: “Mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, psycho-analysis, music and whatnot, have been related to cubism to give it an easier interpretation.
All this has been pure literature, not to say nonsense, which brought bad results, blinding people with theories. (Wadley, 1970, p. 128) During its lifetime both Analytical and Synthetic Cubism encompassed and influenced many artists - the most notable of these being Leger, the three Duchamp/Villon brothers, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Gleizes and Metzinger (who published a book on Cubism). For some of these artists Cubism functioned as a transition, although Picasso would hold that “Cubism is neither a seed, nor a foetus, but an art dealing primarily with forms, and when a form is realized it is there to live its own life” (Wadley, p. 28).
It led artists like Piet Mondrian to what he saw as its logical end, complete abstraction. Cubism may have been short-lived as a movement, but it continues to influence contemporary art to this day. Collage, for instance, has become a widely practiced form of art. And in terms of form, the practice of reducing everything to the ‘cylinder, the sphere and the cone’ was brought to mind on viewing some of Manolo Valdes’ work, in an exhibition in The Hague this summer.

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