A Few Views on Form

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907

Cubism is an influential art movement which emerged in early 20th century France. Multiple groups and individuals worked under the umbrella term, the most famed among them being Pablo Picasso. The Spanish-born superstar worked alongside his inspirational friend Georges Braque, one of the first men to introduce cubist perspectives to his art. In a cut-rent studio called Le Bateau-Lavoir, they toiled away from 1908-13, breaking fresh ground with their new aesthetic sensibilities.

Come 1913, and clear divisions began to emerge within the movement. To Picasso and Braque, their first desideratum was a method through which multiple views of a single object could be contained within one flat image. This technique was heavily inspired by a rejection of realist art, and the notion of the artist as the human intermediary for the replication of a scene. Rather, in the run-up to the First World War, leading-edge artists wanted to recast their project as one of creation. This is what led Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger to write in 1912 that cubism was something unrationalizable. It was not reducible to the use of orthogonal forms, or a rehashed search for authenticity in the representation of the subject, as the public might have wanted it to be. The dissemination of their essay Du “Cubisme” brought the movement into the limelight, its transformation from something almost occult and secretive, into a recognised and recognisable style. In laying out what cubism was not – a commentary on the increasing pace of modern life, which was the task attributed to their Italian cousins the futurists – Gleizes and Metzinger began a contentious debate on how the artistic styles of Parisian circles at the time should be understood. Shortly after its publication, Picasso and Braque departed from their former approaches, whilst creatives not included in the closed circle reconstituted their ideas as cubistic.

La bouteille de Suze, Pablo Picasso, 1912

The division between those who saw cubism as a method, and those who saw it as a description, was described by critics in various terms, but Picasso et Braque is almost always separated. The “Montmartre cubists” exercised such an influence over the cultural narrative that when their approaches turned, the moniker came with it. From 1912-13, they began to incorporate textural elements, like newspaper or printed wood-grain, into their works. Works such as Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper (1913) were a dictum to the death of trompe l’oeil in experimental art, as all illusions of perspective vanished. Over the course of the late 19th century, there had been a slow departure from the space-making approaches developed early in the renaissance. Rather than function as a means of capture, as if the canvas was to replicate the image on the retina, the surface of Picasso’s 1913 work transfigures into its non-illusory self. Elements with form and tone deliberately obstructed from vanishing unlike particles of paint, draw attention to the medium through which the art is expressed. In this sense, synthetic cubism, as this stage is often known, shares qualities with the rough-brush of impressionists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. The canvas is no longer a utopian space, in which the painter plays God, pulling the mind into a cavern of illusory content. It is now planar, unpretentious, self-aware. This development thus suited the anti-bourgeois sensibilities of its bohemian, often fiscally precarious progenitors.

If asked, those artists that participated in the movement would unearth its beginnings in Paul Cézanne. In a letter to friend Emile Bernard, Cézanne described his approach to form-making as composed of “the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone”. Whilst his tendency to adumbrate perspective was as strong as any other artist at the time, in some of his works an almost cartoonish flattening emerges. Paul was not unique in that he failed to earn respect during his lifetime, and was undeservedly debased as a madman. Yet upon his death in 1906, the aesthetic public began to pay attention. In a 1907 retrospective, the qualitative “abstractions that prevented [him] from covering [his] canvas” were noticed by practically all of the culturally attuned in Paris at the time. The influences of this deliberately uncivilised man leaked into every corner.

Georges Braque - House at Estaque

Les demoiselles d’Avignon is generally credited as the first Cubist work. Created by Picasso in 1907, it was described by his art dealer Daniel Kahnweiler as unmistakably derivative of sub-Saharan art. Pablo had just bought a mask used for rituals by the Kru people of today’s Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. French expeditions were bringing back artefacts from the West coast of Africa en masse, during a period of intense colonial expansion. The mystifications of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, and scramble for unconquered territory in non-Western lands, drove intense artistic interest in sub-Saharan cultures. Picasso credits an exhibition of indigenous artefacts, held in the Palais du Trocadéro, for his great turning point in knowing art.

then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires.

Kahnweiler claimed that the inspiration of the masks freed his client from naturalism, and drew aesthetics into the realm of the sign. Rather than represent a dialogue with the natural world, the world as-it-is, “linguistic” works of art communicate with the world as it is posited to be. This is a reality that may be tangential to what we see and may engage more with other works of art or ways of seeing than with what we know from the eye.

It was in this spirit that the board of the 1908 Salon d’Automne viewed the second seminal painting of cubism. Braque’s Houses at Estaque (1908) took Cezanne’s imperative on formalising nature further, choosing as his shape-medium the cube. Although there is some preservation of vanishing-point perspective, embodied in the diminished size of buildings in the distance, we also see the sides and roofs of the houses from upper, lower, and more leftwards angles. These viewpoints sneak into the painting in a substantially less deconstructivist way than later works of the movement. Nonetheless, the judges dismissed all six of the landscapes Georges submitted. The artist blamed Henri Matisse, a board member, but also a broadly modernist artist with a reputation to uphold. Despite Picasso’s dogged admiration of Braque’s work, their creations were not quick to sell, and Kahnweiler financed their experimentation for many years without immediate financial payoffs. It was not until the decades that followed that the movement would become recognised. For now, it was a tacit project held in a dingy studio, by struggling artists that put their vision before themselves.

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