Cubism, the child of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque – with a little DNA from Paul Cezanne – burst into the art world in 1907/1908. The ‘birth’ iitself is often attributed to Picasso’s celebrated painting Demoiselles D’Avignon in 1907.
Cubists abandoned the representation of real space from a fixed viewpoint (how we see and recognise the world in our mind’s eye when looking at an object) that had been the norm since the Renaissance. This used linear perspective and colour perspective to ape reality. In modern day parlance traditional paintings represented photoshopped photographs – enhanced reality (they always added emotion, psychology and often ideology) but passed themselves off as ‘natural’. Even though they were never real or natural and composed with great skill and artifice.
The Cubists said that when we look at an object we construct it’s true form by viewing it from many angles, we move our head and body, swivel our eyes, look underneath it… and that the ‘reality’ of the object is built from these many viewpoints. So in their paintings they reproduce this ‘reality’. The difference being that in real life these viewpoints are processed sequentially (and each one is complete when it is viewed) whereas in Cubism they are all seen at the same time by painting multiple viewpoints on a single picture plane.
In life we combine the view from our two eyes (to make a 3D image in our head) which changes as we move. In cubism all the different viewpoints are combined in one moment on the flat canvas destroying the single viewpoint; fragmenting and shattering the objects so they lose their form and the painting becomes abstract.
This foregrounds the artists rather than the objects.
We are not looking at a sumptuos bunch of flowers but a flat abstract composition – we are looking at the artist not the objects.
Pablo Picasso also noted that African tribal masks are highly stylised, and mix picture plains in one image, but are still recognisably human. That a head is a matter of two eyes, a mouth and a nose… and it doesn’t matter how they are distributed you will still ‘see’ a head.
This is disingenuous as the facial features of an African mask are roughly contained in a recognisable head shape and in the right place… just on another plane (similar to nieve or ancient Egyptian art) in Cubism the (multiple) picture planes are out of place and the objects have lost any recogniseable shape.
Generally, Cubism is said to span six years and is split into Analytical and Synthetic cubism.
(1) Analytical cubism from 1908-1912.
These are a complex interweaving of picture planes in a limited range of mid blacks, greys and ochres. This fragments the objects so the viewer has to work hard to ‘decode’ them.
On first viewing this still life by Braque looks like an abstract… a mathematical and artistic excercise on a flat surface balancing tonally similar colours and multiple shapes into an aesthetic whole. Slowly the objects become clearer but this is not about the bottle and the flute it is a mediatation about the nature of art, the role of the viewer and the artists place in representing the world.
In fact, the obects are almost a dissonance in the aesthetic harmony as they intoroduce a distracting noise by refering back to the still life.
So, even though it is classified as a still life because it ‘depicts’ an arrangement of objects I would say this is a cubist painting and not a still life, as it is not about the arrangement of objects but an artistic theory of seeing.
Picasso: 1911 Still Life with a Bottle of Rum
Here Picasso has an even more muted tonal range than Braque and the viewer struggles to see the bottle of rum at all. Another difference are the painted letters which foreshadow the later cubist collages using real objects like newsprint.
This works as a beautifull harmoneous whole, with the eye constantly moving and yet strangely relaxed.
The visual raw material may have been a still life but this ‘works’ as an abstract not as a still life.
It has nothing to do with the arrangement or essence of the objects and everything to do with an individual artist and his artistic theory of seeing.
(2) Synthetic cubism from 1912-1914.
This uses simpler shapes and brighter colours making the objects more recogniseable so we can see real shapes and enjoy the colour balance. They also introduced real materials into the painting such as newspaper print.
Firstly, it’s interesting to note Braque’s used a tondo format rather than the conventional rectangle… yet set the tondo is set in a rectange… which begs the question of whether the neutral light brown is part of the painting or not. Whatever, it indicates an openess and experimentation to art.
There’s a much bigger colour and tonal range.
And the jug and pipe are immediately recognisable.
On one level this makes it into a still life… a contemplation or observation of arranged objects but on the other hand if you removed these elements (try putting your finger over them) the painting becomes totally abstract.
So it is a hybrid… on looking at later Braque still lifes the cubist element diminished and the colours and still life became dominant (see below).
Maybe Cubism was an experiemnt with seeing that ran it’s course and lost it’s market? Or maybe it was only, ever, for the artists themselves?
Still Life with Violin and Fruit (1912), Pablo Picasso.
The tonal and colour range has grown, and the painted letters have become a collage of newsprint.
We can see the pears and violin but they are not connected and this could have been painted without any reference to a still life.
It refers outwards to the wider world rather than inwards to the intimacy of the objects before him. The viewer isn’t focussed on the objects but projected into a non literal space.
Even though we can see a violin and a pear they are elements in an abstract composition not objects in a still life. The connections are aesthetic (black and white rectangles for structure and orange newsprint complementing the blue violin) and ideological (the nature of art and and the role of the artist) not for example the placement of a blue vase next to an orange bowl.
Though the language of colour is used both in abstract and still life painting.
These Cubist still lifes are beautiful meditations stripped of their association with arranged objects and are therefore a form of abstract painting not still life.