Skip to comments.Art Appreciation/Education "class" #5: Cubism
Posted on 06/20/2005 8:36:34 PM PDT by Republicanprofessor
Time to deal with Cubism and its development. For those who are really intense about all this, there is an excellent book from which many of todays ideas come from. Its edited by William Rubin (former curator of the Museum of Modern Art) and is called Cezanne: The Late Work. Its the essay on Cezannism and the beginnings of Cubism that opened my eyes to how it was not Picasso, but his buddy Georges Braque, who really did the first cubist paintings.
Surprised? I think most of the art world was surprised at that and most of them probably still believe that Picasso began cubism. Anyway, lets first look at a pre-cubist painting by Picasso that shocked the world in 1907, much as Joy of Life shocked the world in 1906.
So, which looks more shocking now? And how do Matisse and Picasso differ in their basic form and content? What are they trying to say? Remember, in our previous class, we looked at the joyful color and line of Matisse. Can the same be said for Picasso? And what is going on here anyway?
Several years ago, Leo Steinberg wrote a two-part academic article on the meaning behind Les Demoiselles DAvignon. It was fascinating. This was shortly after Picassos death, and the archives of his work were open to scholars. Many drawings that were studies for this painting were found. Some of them included a sailor and a doctor (who obviously cured the sailor of what he caught at these houses of the night).
So now, as we look at the real painting, what is going on? The sailor, the former client of these ladies of the night is no longer there. So who is the client? Gotcha the viewer is the client. And for you men out there, which one would you select? (Yuck is more like the answer I get in class. Guess they dont resemble Brittany Spears much, or whoever the new teen idol is .I dont keep track.)
So whats new in this painting? First, Picasso is using masks on the women. Three of them are African masks. It was actually the Fauvist Andre Derain (a friend of Matisse) who first discovered African masks in the ethnographic part of a Paris museum. All the Fauves and the Cubists (and others to come) were fascinated by the expressive power of these abstracted masks. The artists got all kinds of ideas of new ways to create paintings and sculpture (much like the influence from Japanese art a half-century earlier).
An African mask, probably not one that Picasso saw, but it has similar qualities.
So the women have African masks. Picasso used them so that he would not be under the spell of women, so that he would not be weak in love, but could use these women as he wished. (And we know he was not the most faithful of men, with wives and mistresses and children from both at the same time .) But I also think the masks are appropriate for the prostitutes, for I doubt any working woman in that line of work lets her true self be known while she works.
Also, note the central women with their elbows raised and legs crossed. Does any woman (in her right mind) stand like that? Of course not. The raised elbow is a sexual invitation, but the legs would only be crossed when lying down. It was Steinbergs suggestion that the women have been pushed upwards to be flat against the picture plane. They are thus lying down and standing at the same time. The woman in the far right could be facing us or facing away from us. It is this multiple use of perspective that is brand new with Picasso (and might reflect the world-changing ideas of Einsteins relativity theories).
I could go on about this one painting, but instead lets just close with one more observation. There is no real cubism here. There is no subtle shading of planes from light to dark. It is all rather flat, including the broken glass effect in the center of the painting in blue and white.
So the world was shocked with this painting was exhibited. Georges Braque tried his own Grand Nu (Large Nude), but it is very clumsy and even uglier than Picasso (IMHO).
But Braque was excited by Cezanne, who died in 1906 and who was granted at least one major posthumous exhibition that year, which was a sensation. So Braque went to LEstaque, in southern France, where Cezanne had painted. What connections can you see between these paintings?
Cezanne Bay of LEstaque 1886
Braque Houses at LEstaque 1908
Note the houses that Cezanne has painted in the foreground. Note how they, too, are flattened in space. (We saw how Cezanne did this with color and broken outline in class 3). But look now even more closely at the space and how both side and front of the house in the lower left could be facing directly toward us, without the 90 degree change of perspective one would expect.
Okay, so Rubin has noted 5 major aspects of Braques painting above and how that is the beginning of Cubism. (In his book, he also has a photograph of the spot Braque painted this, and it is remarkably close to what we see in the painting: the buildings, even the tree going diagonally across the painting.)
The first thing he notes is that the space is now rather shallow, about one cube deep. This is not like the deep Renaissance space of the past (and even the quasi-deep space of Cezannes work). Rubin calls this a bas relief, or low relief (like a sculpture that hasnt been carved fully in the round.) Secondly, note how so many of the flat planes here can be seen as right up against the picture plane. (Okay, time out for definitions. A plane is just like a geometric plane: a flat surface, like a table top or a piece of paper. Secondly, the picture plane is that plane closest to us, the one that is the same as the canvas itself. It is this aggressive play of the picture plane that is quintessentially modern.)
So, the space is shallow; many planes seem to be up against the foremost picture plane. So, if that top left part of the tree is really against the picture plane, then the other planes are visually popping out even more. I call this breaking the picture plane, but Rubin calls it the hithering spill. It is as if the boxes are spilling out towards us. In the aggressive age of the 20th century, space assaults us (instead of receding in true Renaissance harmony.)
Also note how nicely modeled the boxes are. And the perspective can be seen to be ambiguous. That central house, with the upper central corner; that corner could project out towards us, but it could also recede inward. It is this play of angles and planes that is so cubist.
Finally, note how you can slip from one plane to another. Start in the upper right and see if you can visually slide between planes until you arrive in the foreground. (This is always much easier to physically point out in a classroom, but we dont have that luxury on line.)
Okay, so these are the major points of the beginning of cubism. But Braque did not name the movement that. A critic did (naturally). In fact, it was the same critic (Louis Vauxelles) who had named the Fauves the wild beasts because of their wild colors and rough shapes. When he saw Braques work, he dismissed it saying it was nothing but little cubes! And the name stuck (although after this point there are almost no cubes, so I think it should be renamed Planism. But the art world hasnt agreed, yet.)
Lets look at what happens next, in blessedly less detail. Picasso is intriqued by Braques work and they work together, chained like mountain climbers as Picasso would say. They would make daily visits to each others studio. Lets look at the progressive abstraction of cubism.
Picasso Manuel Pallares 1909 Girl with Mandolin 1910 Nude Woman 1912
Notice how much more abstract each of these works has become. Pallares portrait still has distinct planes, but they are modeled (or shaded). In the Girl with Mandolin, her left side (our right as we look at it) has become more merged with the background, so much so that we cant see the line of her shoulder. And if you can see the nude woman in that work, you are better than I.
At this point, Picasso and Braque came back from the edge of non-objective art and added letters and synthetic objects, such as the fake chair caning below.
Picasso Still Life with Chair Caning 1912
This became a new kind of cubism, called Synthetic Cubism. How does it look different from the other, Analytical, Cubism? What has happened to color and planes and depth?
Picasso Three Musicians 1921.
Like many of his works, this works on many levels: that of music, that of WWI, and that of sex. Can you tell what kind of music they are playing? Can you see the wolf underneath?
I hope you are noting that the planes are bigger, flatter and unmodeled, the colors are brighter and it is as if the planes are just bits of paper pasted over each other. The space is even shallower than the earlier cubist works.
Braque is doing much the same kind of work, but there are subtle differences between them. But Ive probably ranted long enough here. However, I think its necessary to mention these visual ideas to understand whats going on inside the head of these artists.
Do you get these paintings now? What do you see that Ive missed? What are your favorite cubist works?
Let the discussion begin.
Art Appreciation/Education ping list. Let me know if you want on or off this list.
Please add me to the list. Also is there a backlist of links, since I am adding the course late and need to catch up.
The previous posts are:
class 4: Expressionism
class 3: Cezanne and van Gogh
class 2: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
class 1: Realism: Manet and Homer
Feel free to make continuing comments on the "old" classes, or bring the comments into the most current thread.
The next "class" will probably be later this week, on Surrealism. Next week: Abstract Expressionism (that's Pollock).
Nothing about these paintings makes me feel good (or perhaps I should say "feel appreciative"). The sensory overload is too much for my tastes. I understand Piccaso and Cubism a little better, thanks to your lesson, but I don't like the style today any more than I did yesterday.
Comparable musicians at the time include Igor Stravinsky. His Rite of Spring from 1912-13, is emtional and much like Matisse and his Dance. But his later works are also cerebral and sometimes can be seen as patchworks, much like the planes of Cubism. His work after Rite is much less emotional and I can't get into it beyond an intellectual exercise.
In case any one wants to get into the music of the time too:
For Soldier's Story: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00005M9HW/qid=1119353935/sr=8-13/ref=pd_ka_6/104-1607871-9664746?v=glance&s=music&n=507846
I've done this art thread, but since I added something about "classical" music of the time (i.e. Stravinsky), I thought I'd expand the pings to music in case you guys want to chime in.
Bump for later appreciation!
Please add me to the list, prof.
Somewhat teasing of course. All of these would fail the sofa test resoundingly.
I've never understood what people see in picasso. The guy had to be stoned to paint so poorly. The pictures aren't even interesting. (You want perspective, see Escher (Hope I got his name right))
Firebird is remarkable too. Maybe that marks Stravinsky's homage to Rimsky-Korsakoff and the looming end of the Czarist Russia. Thanks for this wonderful series.
Thanks for another interesting class Republican Professor. While cubism is not one of my fav's I'd like to thank you for posting Picasso's Three Musicians. It's quite amazing. As far as the classical music series I would like to learn about more than Vivaldi's 4 Seasons :o) I played violin for 4 years in public school but switched to drums so I could make money on the weekends in my younger rock and roll days. Thanks again.
You are absolutely right. I forgot that angle (pun intended) as it is the usual way that Cubism is taught. The piece I like that shows this is a portrait of Picasso's dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Note how the bald head is emphasized. It shows intelligence, for Vollard could sell these early Picassos. Nowadays, with all the anti-balding products on the market nowadays, one might wonder that Vollard was not more self-conscious of his baldness.
Picasso Ambroise Vollard 1911
Note also that Vollard is a big man (I think), and yet his lower body dissolves into the background. Otherwise, this has all the smaller, modeled planes and dull color of early Analytical Cubism.
I have to listen to Firebird more. I get into Stravinsky when I teach an interdisciplinary humanities course, and then I don't listen to him for a while.
Chimps and 4 year olds may make pretty decorations, but for me they are not profound art nor are they worth $32,000. But gullible fools can be found everywhere. And we all have different tastes, and I may be proven wrong.
Interesting point. I'll have to listen again to more later pieces. He definitely plays with broken, changing rhythms and the repetition of small parts of melodies (aka ostinati) in all his works. But they just don't have that raw, emotional impact from the Rite that I love so much.
The Teaching Company has comprehensive sales every few months, and this series of 48 CDs, I think, is about $100 on sale and definitely worth it. Greenberg has a great senes of humor and will get you to HEAR. He's wonderful. (And so are the many other products of this company.)
This is where we start to part company. Much of the celebrated Modern art, while allegedly having something to "say", does an entirely inadequate job of saying it. The more abstracted paintings become, the more impossible it becomes for a viewer to extract any content beyond sheer emotionalism, and Congo's paintings contain that. I find Kandinsky devolving toward Mondrian's mere divisions of space, and Pollack as inarticulate as that chimp. At the current end of that trail, you have rotting cows in museum showcases.
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