The Constructed Realities of Cubism

Proto-Cubism and the Influence of Cezanne

After Picasso's artistic intervention with Demoiselles, Braque and Picasso began to focus their attention on landscape painting in which they reduce the volume of forms to planes, eliminate the presence of a single light source, and develop an architectonic contour which unites the planar forms in the painting.
 
Braque: Viaduct at L'Estaque, 1907 Braque: Houses at L'Estaque, 1908
Picasso: Reservoir at Horta de Ebro, 1909 Picasso: Bread and Fruit Dish on Table, 1908/9

"Analytic" Cubism

The following examples demonstrate how the evolution of analytic cubism can be traced in the change from legible, albeit distorted, volumes in which light and mass become compositional elements (rather than descriptive qualities) to the eventual elimination of all volume and its replacement by planar fields of color or texture and a network of lines which appear to have an independent existence from the background. That sense of independence would be incorrect, however; more accurate is the realization that both the undefined fields and the architectural scaffolding are interdependent and equally necessary to an informed reading of the painting.
 
Braque: Still Life with Violin and Pitcher, 1909-10 Braque:  Ceret--The Roofs, 1911 Braque: The Portuguese, 1911
Picasso: Portrait of Daniel Kahnweiler (1910) Picasso: Ma Jolie (My Pretty One) (1911-12)  Picasso: The Aficionado (1912)

This stage of cubism is characterized by:

By 1911, Braque and Picasso's paintings were concerned with the structure of lines and planes and less concerned with the "real" content.  This content, whether a portrait or a still life, remained visible although often difficult to identify.  The conflict created between the concern with spatial structure and the presence of descriptive detail generated a conflict between a move toward greater abstraction versus a move toward the presentation of reality.  For example, look at Braque's painting of the Portuguese man or Picasso's painting of the woman with a musical instrument (Ma Jolie).  This conflict was generally resolved in favor of reality but at the same time, a substructure of gridded lines was increasingly incorporated in order to hold the composition together and to integrate the foreground with the background.  Nevertheless, as abstract as the composition seems to become, neither artist ever lost sight of reality (or made the commitment to complete abstraction) and by 1912, a more legible presentation of reality and greater use of color appears to be returning (to be discussed in part two of cubism).  But it is important to take note of the fact that the iconography of cubist paintings remains firmly entrenched in the everyday world--objects of daily life, people of their acquaintance, events in the news.  In short, although their lives provided the subject matter, this is not the subject of the interior psychological self but the self in relation to the external world.  The result is a combination of objective vision and intimate experiences.  This is the relatively traditional explanation of cubism, and the one which I learned as a student.
Your textbook provides a slightly different approach, one which I think is more illuminating than the above.  It begins with a discussion of Kahnweiler's argument, made in his book, The Rise of Cubism.  Kahnweiler argues that the cubist painting is striving to achieve a new type of unity: the unity between the volume of the presumably real object which has been depicted in the painting and the lack of volume which is characteristic of the flat canvas.  The artist, says Kahnweiler, eliminates color and leaves the device of shading–this is an odd proposition in that it seems to say that the shadow of the object has become the painting.  The way in which its volume is indicated is now present in the painting but not the object itself.  This process of opening up the volumes without entirely eliminating the subject leads to a type of pictorial autonomy, which in this case refers to the internal logic of the object in the painting.
Here your book begins to make an especially interesting argument in which it addresses the question of whether Braque and Picasso were actually pursuing the same goals.  Arguing instead that Braque was always consumed by an interest in the transparency of the picture and the conflict between the 2- and 3-dimensional qualities of perception in the painting, but that Picasso was attracted to a conflict between the tactile and the visual realms of painting, the book suggests that the element of Cezanne which interested Picasso was not the quality of “passage” but the quality of divisiveness and of the attempt to simulate the experience of feeling depth.  As the tactile and visual domains begin to assert their demands more insistently, Picasso begins to produce art which demands that the viewer address it as though he is looking down on it, and art which includes objects that are real and almost demand to be touched.

In the first stage of cubism, Picasso and Braque challenged representation and illusion with their focus on the "language" of painting.  One of the most recent interpretations of cubism (T. J. Clark: Farewell to an Idea) begins with an unusual premise.  If Manet’s painting of the Bar at the Folies Begere, as well as Matisse’s window and studio paintings, were ultimately metaphors about the illusion of depth and space, then, he asks, were Picasso’s cubist paintings (Ma Jolie, for example) metaphors about the illusion of painting and imitating?   Illusion in this case does not refer to the painting's creation of the illusion of three-dimensional space but to the illusion that paintings can create a sensible interpretation of the real world.  Clark is asking if Picasso is creating paintings which are deliberately refusing to make sense as a means of representing this impossibility.  If this is the case, then the painting has become an icon of painting (the goal of both Manet and Matisse), but an icon of painting as an impoverished action and an impoverished product, always removed from the world.  Because it is removed from the world, it must find ways to put the world at greater distance than those artists did.

This understanding of painting as an impoverished art (impoverished because the illusion of the real is no longer there) is, oddly enough, a rejection of the earlier cubist experiments made by Picasso and Braque–experiments which were leading to a rigorous and austere painting of the armature of a subject, leading to what Mondrian eventually arrives at but not where Picasso, the anarchist who never eliminated politics from his message, wanted to go.  Although Picasso's cubist paintings had already affirmed the objecthood of the painting, he now took this affirmation to the next step by returning the world of everyday objects to his painting.

Stage 2: From the de-construction of the image to the constructed painting

Picasso: Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912 Picasso: Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass, 1912
Picasso: Glass and Bottle of Suze, 1913 Picasso: Guitar (El Diluvio), 1913

In Still-Life with Chair Caning, the rope serves as a frame but it is a frame which is actually an element of the work.  A  frame usually separates what is "real" from what is imagined, but in this case, because the frame is a collaged element, it becomes part of the world of the imaginary. Just as Matisse did in The Red Studio, Picasso has confused the boundaries between the real and the imaginary.   As Picasso and Braque continue in this format, they begin to add pieces of newspaper, matches, and other items and fragments which could be found on any table in the cafe.  These real materials have several implications: first, the use of newspaper or other "detritus" was a challenge to the "belle peinture" tradition or the cult of fine materials and "beautiful painting," characteristic of the tradition of high art; second, the collage became an ironic commentary on traditional means of representation, especially the creation of illusion.  The collage is a new type of realism as well as a new expression of the idea that pictorial reality consists of different layers of material reality.  This leads to the idea and the method of starting not with the object itself and then dissecting it (generally what we think we see when we look at works of analytic cubism), but starting instead with the pictorial elements and letting the composition give them objective significance (what we see when we look at the later works of synthetic cubism--usually the papiers colles, Picasso's cubism of the later teens, and the cubism of another Spaniard: Juan Gris).  Whereas the first period of cubism is of lasting significance for its complete rejection of illusionistic space, and is undeniably critical to the work of the abstract expressionists, the second period was probably of more direct importance to artists such as Matisse, some of the Russian constructivists (Rodchenko, Tatlin, Popova), and the surrealists.

To return to the collages:  it is possible to note, even at this reduced scale, that we can read many of the words in the newspapers and that we should assume that an artist of Picasso's political and social leanings chose his clippings carefully.  I don't think it's reading too much into the art work to believe that the artist read the clippings he used and that he combined his attack on traditional painting with an attack on the state of the world in 1913.
 

Picasso: Violin, 1913/14 (cardboard, pasted papers, gouache, charcoal and chalk) Picasso: Violin, 1913 (oil/canvas)
Picasso: Still Life with Compotier, 1914-15 (oil on canvas)

Reconstructing the object

In his early constructions, the goal appears to be a process which reverses the process of the cubist painting.  In the painting, Picasso deconstructs or decomposes the object.  In the construction, he reassembles it.  We see him begin this process of reassembling in the paintings and papiers colles; it is in the true constructions, that he arrives at his constructed object.  In the construction of a guitar from late 1912, the sounding hole of the guitar extends as a cylinder into space, suggesting that volume, interior space, and exterior space all exist simultaneously.  Whether guitar, still life or absinthe glass, Picasso has made a three-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object, but in the end, it is not a traditional sculptural representation.  No guitar looks like Picasso's guitar, just as no absinthe glass looks like any of the six glasses he made.  What he has made is similar to the invention of a new word.  The guitar, for example, is both a guitar and not-guitar.
 
Picasso: Guitar (sheet metal and wire, 1912) Picasso: Guitar (painted sheet metal, 1924)
Picasso: Still Life (painted wood and fringe), 1914 Picasso: Glasses of Absinthe, 1914  (two pieces from the series; all are painted bronze and a real spoon)

The orchestra of musical instruments, which Picasso seems to be creating in his constructions of violins, guitars, and clarinets, and the non-representational constructions of real, non-real objects reach their apogee in his work for the theater--in particular, the sets and costumes for the Cocteau, Diaghilev, Satie, and Picasso collaboration on Parade.