Picasso and Braque: Mano a Mano [“Pioneering Cubism” at MoMA]

The World and I, Oct. 1989, pp. 278-83.

Pioneering Cubism

by Jason Edward Kaufman

In his 1913 essay titled “On Point of View in the Arts,”[Footnote 1: Partisan Review, 1949, Vol. 16, No. 8] the Spanish philosopher José Ortega Y Gasset devises a grand unifying theory for the evolution of styles in Western painting. “The guiding law of the great variations in painting is one of disturbing simplicity,” he declares. “First things were painted; then, sensations; finally ideas. This means that in the beginning the artist’s attention was fixed on external reality; then, on the subjective; finally, on the intrasubjective.” According to his theory, Ortega y Gasset posits, “The evolution of Western painting would consist in a retraction from the object toward the subject, the painter.” He illustrates his hypothesis by observing that in the Gothic period, artists painted the various components within their field of vision as if from independent points of view; in the Renaissance, linear perspective unified the depicted field; ultimately, with the Impressionists, retinal sensation itself became the subject of art, or, as Ortega states, “Instead of painting objects as they are seen, one paints the experience of seeing.” To summarize, “The artist, starting from the world about him, ends by withdrawing into himself.” This is the point where Cubism enters.

With Cubism, Ortega y Gasset suggests, the attention of the painter turned from the object of sight to the object of thought — to the “virtual” or “ideal” object. Although the Cubists always claimed to be realists, the reality they depicted corresponded with the world as it looks in their minds’ eye. “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them,” Picasso said. In rendering the subjective process of seeing, Cubism became the first art to extend beyond the visual appearance of a subject. Its complex, abstract language liberated the artist to present not only what he saw, but what he knew about a given thing. In order to present as much information about the object as possible, the Cubist observed the subject from multiple viewpoints, and presented these data in simultaneity. Rather than present the object in its singular and fixed perspectival appearance, Cubism offered a field of overlapping and interpenetrating planes on which were portrayed the painter’s myriad “glimpses” of his subject. The stable object was fractured and reconstituted in a manner which better represented the artist’s psycho-perceptual or conceptual, rather than a merely visual experience of the world.

What distinguishes Cubism from all art that had preceded it, as Ortega y Gasset ingeniously discerned, was its focus on the world as idea.[Footnote 2: The inner working of the mind was also the subject of Symbolism, the fin de siècle movement that flourished in France, Austria, and Belgium. The symbolists explored a somnambulistic realm of allusion and unexpected juxtaposition evoked in more or less conventional pictorial terms. Their art, which would flower with Surrealism, pertained more to Freud’s theories of personality than to the phenomenological mysteries germane to Cubism.] In Cubist art, the world no longer existed apart from human awareness. Implicit was the idea that only by means of our awareness do things come into being. In his essay, Ortega y Gasset situates this postulate within the history of Western thought, explaining that the progression towards subjectivity which culminated in Cubism corresponds with the course of Occidental philosophy. He sketches the sequence from Dante’s world of substances, to Descarte’s all-embracing space, to Mach’s sensations, and finally to Husserl’s “ideal objects” — the latter being the ostensible subjects of Cubist painting. The succession might be continued with Henri Bergson’s concept of the durée, which posits time not as a chain of episodes, but as a continuous dimension of consciousness.

Not only did Cubism parallel contemporary philosophical thought, it also reflected the most current ideas in mathematics and science. As Cubism’s greatest critical supporter, Apollinaire, wrote (1913), “Today, scientists no longer limit themselves to the three dimensions of Euclid. The painters have been led quite naturally, one might say by intuition, to preoccupy themselves with the new possibilities of spatial measurement which, in the language of the modern studios, are designated by the term: the fourth dimension.” More specifically, Einstein’s general theory of relativity found its first artistic expression in Cubist art. The plotting of an object in a field consisting of and defined by the artist’s moving point of view suggests, as Einstein posited, a “time-space continuum” whose makeup is contingent on point of view. Also, the rendering of both solid mass and open space with the same pictorial motif — the plane — gives visual form to Einstein’s theory that energy and matter are different states of a single phenomenon.

We may further position Cubism in its historical milieu by observing, as does Robert Rosenblum in his Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art, that Cubist techniques were occurring in the other arts. For example, Igor Stravinsky’s fragmented melodic line and experiments in polytonality parallel the shifting angular planes and multiple images of Cubist painting. In literature, the dissected and recomposed temporal structures of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf share affinities with the Cubist aesthetic. Yet, despite the confluence of Cubist practice and contemporary science, philosophy, and art, Picasso categorically disavowed any such association (1923): “Mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, psychoanalysis, music, and whatnot, have been related to Cubism,” he said. “All this has been pure literature — not to say nonsense — which has only resulted in blinding people with theories.” He and Braque, the originators of the style, held that Cubism developed in relative isolation from extra-artistic influences. In examining the sequence of stylistic innovations which occurred during the period of its formation, it does, indeed, appear to be the case that although it happened to conform with contemporary developments in various disciplines, Cubism was conceived wholly within the painterly tradition. Moreover, its subsequent development adheres not to the strictures of any definitive theory or doctrine, but to the creative predilections of Picasso and Braque.

The genesis of Cubism during the years 1907 to 1914 has become the stuff of legend according to which in the autumn of 1907, Apollinaire brought Braque to Picasso’s studio in Montmartre where he was confronted by the newly-completed canvas, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). According to tradition, this proto-Cubist hybrid of primitive and abstract geometric tendencies was the first Cubist work, and was responsible for swaying Braque toward the new style. The primacy of Picasso in this tale is the result of his having later attained preeminence among twentieth century artists, his greater reputation at the time of their meeting, and his having produced three or four times the number of Cubist pictures that Braque did. It has therefore been expedient to credit Picasso with the invention of Cubism, and to designate the quieter and less prolific Braque a close follower.

However, meticulous research, particularly that by The Museum of Modern Art’s William Rubin, has convincingly demonstrated that Braque developed the pictorial language of Cubism, and he did so prior to his encounter with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles. Picasso, according to Rubin, should be seen “less as a contributor to the formal language of early Cubism than a model of daring whose radical departures probably inspired the basically conservative Braque to take uncharacteristic chances.”

While Picasso was at work on Les Demoiselles, Braque had summered at La Ciotat, and on the way back to Paris had stopped at L’Estaque, where Cézanne had painted. He began a group of landscapes which, though still Fauve, reduce the trees and shrubs to flat, heavily-outlined shapes almost reminiscent of Gauguin’s cloissonisme. Upon his return to Paris in October, Braque probably attended the show of 179 Cézanne watercolors at the Bernheim Jeune Gallery, the retrospective of 56 paintings and drawings by Cézanne at the Salon d’Automne, and read Cézanne’s letters to Émile Bernard, published in Mercure de France. He began to work from memory on various themes he had recorded at L’Estaque, incorporating such Cézannian features as reduced detail, “faceting” of forms, depth-reducing “passage” in which one colored plane bleeds into the next, the inclusion of multiple viewpoints, and a high horizon line. These tendencies resulted in Braque’s Landscape with Houses in which the buildings appear like a screen of triangular and rectangular planes which fuse in a manner that exaggerates the structural methods of Cézanne. The angular forms of the architecture echo in the tree and mountain at right, and in the handling of the sky. As William Rubin states, this picture “demonstrated that Braque arrived at Cubism by a direct extrapolation of the means of Cézanne,” and not from his exposure to Picasso’s large canvas.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the theme of which perhaps owes something to Cézanne’s bathers, may have been Picasso’s response to the groups of nude women which had recently been exhibited by Matisse and Derain, the leading painters of the moment. The masklike faces of the three nudes on the left derive from the ancient Iberian stone sculptures and bronze reliefs which Picasso had been studying and collecting. The angular bodies of the figures, and the colorfully striated distortions of the heads of the two figures on the right reflect Picasso’s visit, in May, to the Palais du Trocadéro where he “discovered” the broadly conceived carvings of primitive African and Oceanic art. Picasso was attracted to the schematic and symbolic aspects of tribal art, which he found “raisonnable,” or, so to speak, conceptual. Though other artists, including Braque, were interested in primitive art, none evinced its influence as Picasso’s would over the next year.

Les Demoiselles effectively confounded virtually all of the pictorial rules of the academic tradition. The figures were made ugly rather than beautiful, schematized rather than detailed, and their surrounding space was elided rather than defined. Devoid of redeeming sentiment, the picture was a deliberately gross, aesthetically unappealing experiment that nearly destroyed Picasso’s rising reputation. Matisse thought it was a barb directed at the “modern movement” of which he was the leader. Derain predicted, “One day we will find Picasso has hanged himself behind his great canvas.” The Russian collector Shchukin declared, “What a loss for French art!”

Braque is reported to have responded, “It is as though we are supposed to exchange our usual diet for tow and paraffin.” And he later recalled, “It made [me] feel as if someone were drinking gasoline and spitting fire.” Despite his reaction, and though he was not to associate much with Picasso for almost a year, immediately after his visit to the studio, Braque temporarily interrupted his Cézannian landscapes in order to paint a Large Nude (1907-08). The peculiar pose is explained by the fact that, although the canvas is displayed vertically, Braque’s model was probably prone in the manner of Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907). Rubin calls the piece “a kind of battlefield on which is recorded Braque’s struggle to assimilate the opposed influences of Cézanne and Picasso.” In this battle between Cézanne and Picasso, it is the former that still dominates. The dark outlines, compact structure, and cursory modeling of the figure are only distantly related to Picasso’s canvas. And while the background consists of the jagged, angular forms of which Les Demoiselles is composed, the colors are those used in Braque’s landscapes from earlier in the year.

Both Picasso and Braque returned from their summer excursions of 1908 having commenced a geometric aspect in their work. As we have noted, the source of this tendency in Picasso was primitive art, while in Braque it was Cézanne. Next, Braque’s Cézannisme was to influence Picasso. Braque spent the summer at L’Estaque, where he executed a series of landscapes that heed in a literal way Cézanne’s advice to Émile Bernard, to “treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.” In Road Near L’Estaque and Houses at L’Estaque, natural and man-made forms were reduced to interpenetrating, mostly rectilinear, hard-edged fields. Aerial perspective was eliminated, as was the central vanishing point, which in combination with the passage of one plane into the next tends to yield an extremely shallow space. In his Cubism, A History and an Analysis 1907-1914, John Golding, calls this series “the first group of truly Cubist paintings.”

When Braque submitted six landscapes to the 1908 Salon d’Automne, four were rejected, and he withdrew the remaining two. Matisse was on the jury and is supposed to have commented to the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who four years earlier had coined the name “Fauves,” that Braque’s pictures were composed of “petits cubes.” In November, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler gave Braque his first show, in the catalog for which Apollinaire wrote, “Braque is evolving within himself a universal pictorial renaissance.” In his review, Vauxcelles remarked that Braque “reduces everything, places and figures and houses, to geometric schemes, to cubes,” and, in his article on the 1909 Salon des Indépendants, in which Braque had some pictures, Vauxcelles reported them as “cubic oddities.” Though it was hardly appropriate to the appearance or theory of the works, these references prompted the use of the term “Cubism.”

In the autumn, Picasso returned from La Rue des Bois, about sixty kilometers north of Paris, with some landscapes in a reductive style influenced by the broad forms of African sculpture and the flattened naive art of Le Douannier Rousseau, whose naiveté he had come to admire. While there is no account of Picasso’s reaction to Braque’s L’Estaque pictures, according to the recollection of Matisse, one of Braque’s Cubist landscapes from L’Estaque was in Picasso’s studio in 1908. The impact of this work on Picasso’s art can be inferred from the fact that Picasso’s Three Women, initially done in a striated “African” style, was overpainted in a broad Cubistic manner, apparently in an effort to “catch up” with Braque’s advances.

During the summer of 1909, at La Roche Guyon, Braque continued to develop his Cézannian Cubism. In Castle at La Roche Guyon, the individual geometric planes have multiplied and the high incidence of passage renders the scene an abstract tapestry of polygonal shapes. Concurrently, at Horta de San Juan, Picasso was exploring the potentials of Braque’s geometry in a series of prismatic, buff-colored landscapes that order the buildings of the Spanish hill town in crystallized structures that are among the most beautiful of early Cubism. He was also applying the new geometry to a series of portrait busts of his girlfriend, Fernande Olivier, in which her head is rendered as a mass of tilting planes that seem chiseled from sharp-cleaving stone. When he returned to Paris, Picasso sculpted versions of these busts and cast them in bronze.

After the summer, the painters’ interaction intensified. Braque recalls they “were guided by a common idea…. We saw each other every day and talked a lot, and things were said between us that will never be repeated … that no one would understand now…. We were like two mountain climbers roped together.” At this point, it is worthwhile to note that throughout their respective developments, it is possible to distinguish divergent tendencies, even as Picasso and Braque’s styles converged. For example, Picasso was always more sculptural than Braque. He addressed the form of objects themselves, creating an art of substance, whereas Braque focused on the visual space that separates objects from each other. Also, Picasso tended to generate greater visual dynamics, whereas Braque’s designs were characteristically more low keyed. Picasso applied Cubism to portraiture, giving many of his works a psychic resonance that is entirely absent in Braque’s. Nevertheless, much more unites Picasso and Braque’s output during their collaboration than differentiates it.

The process of dissecting, or “analyzing,” the object into individual planes gradually accelerated. Picasso’s unfinished portrait of Fanny Tellier, Woman with a Mandolin (1910), shows the analysis in progress, while his 1910 portraits of Ambroise Vollard, Wilhelm Uhde, and D.-H. Kahnweiler, show the sitters’ features dissolved into a muted, earth-toned tapestry. In still lifes, the artists often included an encyclopedic array of an object’s attributes, showing partial views from above, below, front and back, and often penetrating its surface to reveal the inner structure. However, as the individual facets multiplied and became transparent and almost monochrome, their pictures were inevitably becoming less and less readable.

Many works from this phase are absolutely illegible, and hence are dubbed “Hermetic Cubism.” The style that had begun as a heightened mode of realism now veered toward total abstraction. As if to avoid loosing the interest of their audience, the painters introduced clues as to the identity of their subject matter: the curve of a guitar’s body, a chair tassel, a playing card, some musical notations, a moustache. Yet, it was still so difficult to make sense of the works that even the artists had difficulty telling them apart. Braque’s The Portuguese and Picasso’s Accordionist, both painted at Céret in late summer 1911, demonstrate the degree to which their pictures were alike in their eccentricity.

The year 1912 marked the transition to what is called “Synthetic Cubism.” If the earlier, “Analytical” phase had involved dissecting the world, the “Synthetic” would involve constructing it. The techniques of collage and papier collé were instrumental in this development. The first collage is said to have been Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning dated May 1912, in which a patch of oil cloth with a chair cane pattern functioned illusionistically in the composition. That September, Braque’s Fruit Dish initiated the pasted paper, or papier collé technique. In the early examples, pieces of woodgrained or patterned wall paper, newsprint, or colored bits of wrappers were combined with areas of “Analytical” drawing or painting. This is the case, for example, in the goblet on the left side of Picasso’s Glass and a Bottle of Suze (Autumn 1912). Like the trompe-l’oeil nail that Braque had painted as if sticking through the canvasses of several of his still lifes (1909-10), and like the stenciled letters and numerals he had introduced among the layers of The Portuguese, the pasted materials employed in the collage and papier collé techniques were devices for restoring a semblance of reality to what had become essentially abstract compositions. To the same end, Braque’s early training as an interior decorator led him to paint faux marble and to use the decorator’s wood graining comb in his paintings. In some instances he mixed sand, sawdust, gesso, or iron filings into his pigments, in order to give their textures greater physical immediacy.

These various “Synthetic” formulas are generally discussed in terms of the interplay of a painting’s physical “reality,” and the “reality” of that which a painting represents. But, puzzling over the various levels of “reality” and illusion contained in these works will never be a particularly rewarding activity. I prefer to regard them as evidence that Cubism’s course had veered from psycho-perceptual realism toward an inane form of intellectual brinksmanship. From this point on, Cubism evolved not toward any more lucid graphic language, but toward a more easily manufactured kind of decorative object — with an intellectual twist.

After the summer of 1912, Picasso moved across Paris to Montparnasse making his meetings with Braque less frequent. During 1913, they remained close, though less so than in the preceding years, and their individual proclivities began to show through their shared style. In August 1914, Picasso, Braque, and Derain were at Avignon when war was declared. Picasso, a Spanish national, continued to work, but Braque joined his regiment and was gravely injured in 1916. Though the War effectively ended the collaboration, and destroyed the unity of the French movement it had spawned, Cubism had a profound effect on twentieth-century art. Léger’s reduction of formes to their essential shapes, Delauney’s Orphic color planes, Boccioni’s Futurism, Mondrian’s planar De Stijl, Chagall’s fantasyscapes, Malevich’s Suprematism, Duchamp’s Dadaism, and Breton’s Surreal objects trouves, not to mention the late work of both Picasso and Braque all utilize and proceed from the principles of Cubism.

Since Cubism dealt the coup de grâce to the elitist nineteenth-century Academy, it is hailed as the fulfillment of the democratic revolution which began with Courbet and was carried on by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. In place of an Academic hierarchy of imposed values, Cubism affirmed the validity of individual sensibility. Not only in its method, but in its subject matter, Cubism was extremely private, consisting mainly of still life arrangements of the painters’ personal effects.

But, even as Cubism freed the artist from the constraints of tradition, it sequestered him in a garret of his own making. From its beginning as a disinterested experiment in formal pictorial discourse, Cubist analysis rapidly devolved into privy hermeticism. When the accessibility of its subject matter was fully revived in Synthetic Cubism, the style’s progress toward the definition of a psycho-perceptual graphic order was abandoned in favor of a kind of arbitrary, abstract decoration. Despite the mysterious sense of gravity that has been conferred upon them, the value of the epigrammatic visual puns and puzzles of papier collé and collage is ambiguous at best.
These techniques constitute the first of a series of twentieth-century artforms (e.g., De Stijl, Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, Color Field Painting, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Neo Geo) which have relied on abstruse, intellectual paraphernalia to conceal a paucity of intrinsic aesthetic quality, and to supply content where meaningful ideas are otherwise absent or obscure. Paradoxically, Cubism became the progenitor of that peculiarly modernist domain known as the avant-garde, whose iconoclasm, exclusionary politics, and moral aloofness have done so much to distance art from the needs of society. It is a shame that the spatio-temporal, pictorial syntax Braque and Picasso fashioned — which seemed almost capable of rendering one consciousness accessible to another — unwittingly served to usher in our current age of narcissism.

“Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism,” an exhibition examining the unique collaboration (1907-1914) of the main exponents of early Cubism, will be presented by The Museum of Modern Art in New York from September 24, 1989 to January 16, 1990. The exhibition will be sponsored by Philip Morris Companies, Inc. For further information call (212) 708-9400.

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

This article “Picasso and Braque: Mano a Mano” appeared in The World & I, Oct. 1989, pp. 278-83.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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