Cubism predates postmodernism by at least thirty years, and probably by fifty or sixty, depending on when one says postmodernism began. So the only way it could be, as bunkey writes, "the epitome of (...) what is wrong with postmodernism" is for what is wrong with postmodernism to be that it just happens it isn't as old as cubism. But enough about that.

A cubist piece of art to me seems to be an abstract explosion of the subject, so that every single line of the original is visible. I'm not sure if I'd be willing to equate this sort of decomposition and recomposition with deconstruction.

Two artists influenced in different ways by cubism were Piet Mondrian and Gertrude Stein.

A short article on cubism is available online at .

"The art of painting original arrangements composed of elements taken from conceived rather than perceived reality."

Apollinaire, The Beginnings of Cubism, 1912.

The first thing one must understand about cubism, before one draws a conclusion about it "generally", is that it is no more a means of obfuscation than it is a means of articulation. When a human being, or any being, perceives something with its eyes, it only captures a two-dimensional glimpse into the entirety of the thing. The mind knows, certainly, that this thing is (let us assume) three-dimensional; thus, the picture the eyes communicate may be said to be incomplete, and even "false". The information provided by the eyes is, taken alone, inaccurate. Enter Pablo Picasso, enter Georges Braque; enter cubism.

Bunkey's (deleted) malarkey about Picasso inventing cubism because he was "afraid of syphilis, and felt it comforting reducing attractive women into shapes and non-contexual impressions" is not only immaterial, it is the perfect example of how to ruin any art of any medium of any era, ever. Picasso is not in his paintings. Picasso is not to be considered in the consideration of the art. Let us not obscure a manifestation of genius by examining it through the filter of trivia or gossip; it only serves to leave us further away from that which we would engage.

Cubism was going to exist with or without Picasso, because it was a natural step in the history of art. It sought to go beyond the photographic image, and beyond perception as perception had been perceived. It wanted to improve the eyes.

Though cubism "developed" into existence, rather than having a simple "date of birth", its tenets have been said to have first manifested in the work of Picasso with his "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", 1906-7. At least one source reports that cubism first became "well-established" around the year 1910.

I can remember looking at a Picasso of a naked woman laying on a blue sofa. Her back was turned, but the effect of cubistic manipulation made her breasts visible. Now there is no way that I could ever see a woman naked on a couch, without it occurring to me on some level that her breasts were borne, nor is there any way I could see a woman laying on a couch with her back turned without wondering if her eyes are open or closed. This is why cubism exists--to improve the eyes, to capture the thing more accurately than it can be captured without fragmentation. (This is easy to miss, if one becomes preoccupied with the immaterial nonsense one hears about Picasso's fear of syphilis.)

There are two quasi-myths about Cubism which need to be qualified here:

  1. Cubism is the brainchild of Pablo Picasso
  2. Cubism is an attempt to create an "abstraction" of life
To address the first, cubist techniques were devloped by both Picasso and Braque, sometimes working independently. The debate regarding "the creator" of the art form is at best inconclusive, and at worst a moot point. As Jackson Mayhem mentions above, Cubism seems to have been a natural progression of art history.

In addition, Jackson's point about the goal of Cubism is also correct. According to Picasso and many of his contemporaries, the intent of Cubism is to capture an aspect of reality even more concrete than that of, say, a still life. This idea is further developed in the essay below.

The Principles of Cubism as Conceived by Contemporaries of Picasso

Cubism, like the majority of so-called “modern art,” is often regarded as exceedingly difficult to analyze, and harder still to understand. Many viewers of cubist works begun by Pablo Picasso and his contemporary Georges Braque in the early part of the Twentieth Century “misunderstood and derided” the pieces, as writer Huntly Carter disgustedly reported in a London Publication in 1911 (McCully 81). This misunderstanding is probably due to the purposeful distortion of form employed by Picasso and other cubist painters. Picasso himself was concerned about the initial confusion caused by this distortion of standard form; his intent was not to obfuscate meaning, but to more fully capture it. Examining the opinions expressed by many of Picasso’s contemporaries, and looking at Picasso’s works in light of these opinions, will help reveal his intent and achievements in the use of this artistic method.

The most immediately noticeable aspect of the Cubist style is probably the severe deconstruction of form into separate angular planes. At first glance, this practice imparts works like The Guitar Player (1910) with a disconcerting tone. Angular and irregularly shaded lines block out what could be the profile of the figure. Two curved lines and a series of parallel scratches seem to indicate the presence of a guitar. Other lines seem to be part of nothing at all. The form isn’t easily recognizable, and the monochromatic color scene this makes interpretation confusing. A sculptor friend of Picasso’s by the name of Manolo once remarked on a cubist figure painting by saying, ‘What would you say if your parents were to call for you at the Barcelona station with such faces” (McCully 70). Despite the ridiculousness of this statement, its theme reoccurs in the opinion of many critics of Picasso’s early attempts. However, Picasso was not attempting to confuse or disturb. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler claims that Picasso intended to “pierce the closed form” in order to expand his painting into something more than a mere imitation of nature (McCully 70). By this he meant that Picasso was dissatisfied with rational realist techniques of modeling and depth, and wanted to break down the form of his subject in order to get closer to its meaning.

The first evidence of this attempt to pierce closed form is present in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). In his commentary on this work Kahnweiler elaborates on the “basic problems of painting” Picasso was attempting to solve in this process. Kahnweiler describes these problems as representing three-dimensional space and color on a two-dimensional surface, and the unification of this space with the images the painter depicts. Les Demoiselles is a “desperate titanic clash with all of the problems at once” (McCully 60). The bold color choices and blocked out figures are reminiscent of this sort of dramatic clash: bright yellow, red, blues and black block out the angular female forms in the painting, creating what Kahnweiler calls a “plastic effect” (60). Kahnweiler also calls Les Demoiselles “unfinished,” in that Picasso was not able to solve all of these problems in the composition, realized this, and gave up after a long period of work.

What Picasso was trying to do, essentially, was “represent rather than imitate” nature through the procedures of Cubism. This meant using fragmented forms to create “memory images” to provoke the sense of the subject of the painting in the viewer’s mind (McCully 70). Gertrude Stein called Picasso’s first three Cubist landscapes (House on the Hill, Horta de Ebro, The Reservoir Horta de Ebro, and Factory at Horta de Ebro) all “extraordinarily realistic.” She describes showing the villagers first the paintings, the fantasy of which they protested at first, and then the actual photographs. She "made them see that the paintings were almost exactly like the photographs” (McCully 65). The interesting contrast inherent in these images is indicative of the Cubist method as a whole. Although the reduced forms and fantastic colors seem utterly unrealistic, they communicate a higher reality of the essence of the objects through forcing the viewer to make the connection between the emotion of the painting and the subject in his own mind. Andres Salmon called this process “concretizing the abstract,” and also “reducing the concrete to its essentials” (McCully 57). Picasso avoided the irrelevant details of the object that add to its realism but detract from its emotional truth.

As Cubism developed, Picasso began adding scraps of ‘found object’ elements to his paintings to create collage: scraps of cloth, rope, and similar ‘real’ objects. Paradoxically, these objects simultaneously completed the memory effect of the representational forms and fully suppressed any illusory or realistic elements remaining. The pattern on the printed cloth in Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), Picasso both suggests the idea of a real chair, and forces the viewer to see the painting as a two-dimensional image. Apollinaire described this effect in this way: “The object is the inner frame of the picture and marks the limits of its profundity just as the actual frame marks its external limits” (McCully 74). Collage completed the separation of cubist principles from the imitational techniques previously relied upon and captured something beyond illusion (McCully 81).

The observations made by Picasso’s contemporaries, many of whom were also close personal acquaintances, make his intentions clear. In his reduction of forms, abstraction of lighting and space Picasso was attempting to destroy the illusory aspect of painting and preserve the more important emotional qualities of his subjects. Cubism was not an accident or arbitrary development of Picasso’s art; he consciously implemented these techniques in an effort to “concretize the abstract,” as his friend Andres Salmon put it (McCully57). The development of collage completed this effect, producing a remarkably complex and yet moving effect. Recorded opinions of Picasso’s contemporaries acquainted with his history and work show recognition of the importance of this effort. Erroneous detail is stripped away, removing distraction and presenting the viewer with only the essential elements, and capturing an essence that previous artists simply had not been able to express.

Works Cited:
McCully, Marilyn. A Picasso Anthology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Cu"bism (kU"biz'm), n. (Painting)

A movement or phase in post-impressionism (see post-impressionism). -- Cu"bist (#), n.


© Webster 1913

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