OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 1, part 3
New Forms For Old Feelings: The First Decade
Is there an emotional content to Cubism? Does its origin and meaning have anything to do with Picasso’s emotional problems, so evident in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Is this the reason that Braque’s early Cubist works, however technically extraordinary, are of less expressive consequence?
There’s no question that they’re a new kind of picture -- a new mode of representation -- but they lack the emotional complexity and intensity of Picasso’s early Cubist works. Braque "expresses a beauty full of tenderness," Apollinaire wrote in 1908, "his compositions have the harmony and plenitude we were waiting for."(16) Beauty, harmony, plenitude -- these are classical ideals, however new the formal terms in which Braque realizes them. Cézanne declared that he wanted "to redo Poussin after nature," and Cubism has been understood as completing the redoing that Cézanne began, and as such classical in spirit, if not in form. This hardly seems true of Picasso’s Cubism, however much it may be indebted to Cézanne. As early as 1905, Apollinaire observed that Picasso "blends the delightful with the horrible, the abject with the refined," and associated his art with Spanish mysticism and fantasy, concluding that he "comes from far away, from the richness of composition and brutal decoration of the Spaniards of the 17th century."(17) Brutal decoration is a long way from tenderness, and from French classical beauty, whether in the manner of Poussin, Cézanne or Braque.
Braque’s early Cubist compositions are more obviously unified, serene and balanced than those of Picasso. Several writers have compared Braque’s Houses at L’Estaque and Picasso’s Cottage and Trees, both painted in August 1908. The Picasso is a much more risky, daring painting than the Braque.
They have a family resemblance, but the tensions in the Picasso are greater than those in the Braque, and less securely resolved. The Picasso has an aura of aggression that the Braque lacks. Its dynamics seem superficial and labored compared to the briskness of the Picasso. Braque is like a tame, well-intentioned, respectable Abel compared to the violent Picasso, who resembles a kind of angry Cain. Braque’s picture suggests that a revolution involves nothing more than a change of esthetic clothing, while Picasso’s picture makes it clear that a revolution overturns everything, leaving no assumption standing. In Braque’s picture the old order of representation is still clearly standing, its noble idealism visible behind the facade of its new realism, which is less stark -- and more quixotic, fanciful -- than it pretends to be, while Picasso’s picture is busy destroying the old order, or at least determined to undermine it, showing how shaky it has become. Braque’s picture looks conservative and ineffectual next to Picasso’s assertive picture, which seems to tear the traditional image to shreds, leaving a tangle of fragmentary perspectives where there was once a crystallized consciousness of reality.
The space in both the Braque and Picasso seems more constructed than observed. The geometry of the buildings is conspicuous, but they are no more than abstract boxes, stripped of all detail. It is the general idea of a building that is pictured, rather than a particular building, although each building is made particular by its covering of chiaroscuro, which adds an ironical nuance of sensation -- for the chiaroscuro is as generalized and abstract as the building -- to its mute planes. The whole scene seems eccentrically symbolic, a kind of Potemkin village -- the buildings are insular, windowless shells, the vegetation has a ragged, tattered look -- rather than materially substantive and carefully scrutinized. There is a thrown together, gratuitous look to both pictures, for all their primitive geometry and natural coloration. In other words, it is not clear whether Braque and Picasso have seen the landscape in a new way or invented it, if not out of whole cloth, then using its elements to reconstruct it on their own theatrical terms. It seems like an artificial rather than a natural landscape, demonstrating the triumph of art over nature, as though to illustrate the decadent belief in the superiority of the artificial over the natural.
What adds to the sense that the image is a deliberate fabrication -- indeed, pure fiction -- is the self-contradictory space. Both pictures have a strong vertical accent, marked by the steep angle of the roof on the highest house and the upward sweep of the tree, but they are horizontally split. Our eye oscillates between the upper and lower sections of the picture, for there is nothing that makes one more striking than the other, drawing us to it. There is no preferred place for the eye to rest, to drop anchor, putting everything else in the picture into its proper place and perspective. Indeed, there is no proper perspective -- no dominant perspective -- no one way of orienting oneself in the picture. The space of the pictures is unsettled and unsettling.
The clash between the perspectives, which remain unreconciled -- only their simultaneity brings them together, as though to suggest that their reconciliation can never be more than nominal, for it is always time-bound -- implies that perception is unstable. The conventional idea that whatever we see is seen clearly from one perspective is challenged. There is no one correct, universal, consistent perspective, to which all perception must adapt or seem inadequate. Thus, the appearance of reality is destabilized in both paintings, bringing reality itself into question, and giving them an air of uncanniness, nonconformity and uncertainty. They rebel against the accepted norms of representation, however much they seem to inaugurate a new pictorial discipline. With a peculiarly ascetic, even astringent zeal, they clean the Augean stables of traditional representation, purging its visual excesses. Only the barest residue of essentials -- a kind of minimum marker of reality -- remains, thus undermining the traditional belief that a representation is an exact mirror image of a reality that can be readily known in comprehensive and clear detail. Braque and Picasso threaten the age-old ideal of mimesis, which assumes that immediate perception, informed by memory, can afford a sense of the immortal givenness of the thing represented. They do not entirely dispense with it, but they are not convinced by it. They are representational agnostics, perhaps even atheists -- skeptics, perhaps disbelievers in the literal truth of reality -- even if they use its trappings.
But for all the epistemological similarity between the two paintings, their expressive effect is totally different. In the Braque, the tumble of lower houses is separated from the higher houses -- both are as brown as the earth on which they are built -- by a thin barrier of green trees and foliage. In the Picasso, the garden wall is seen from above while the house is seen from below. There is a wide gap between them -- one writer compares it to an open jaw (its opposed halves seem about to clamp down on the tangle of tongue-like trees in the garden) -- that threatens to break the picture in two. While the sweep of the tree in the Braque brings the two groups of houses together, suggesting their continuity -- its lines echo those of the houses and the general movement up the hill (and from near to far) -- it does nothing to unite the house and wall in the Picasso. Instead, Picasso’s tree, which is quite different from Braque’s -- even its placement is different, so that it does not so much stand in relief against the space behind it, serving as its measure, as become part of the space -- complicates their angularity with its own angle, formed by the gnarled finger-like branches hanging over the garden space. Without the frame formed by the tree and the building on the right, the tension between the house and the wall would be unbearable and uncontainable.
(One hesitates to describe the wall as closer to the viewer than the house. The angle at which it projects toward the viewer forms a vertical line that exists on the same plane of perception as the line formed by the nearest angle of the wall. Thus, the lines seem to be the same distance from the viewer, however much the structures of which they are a part are not. This perceptual illusion endures, even though it is contradicted by the disjunctive displacement of the lines. The upward and leftward placement of the house angle and the downward and rightward placement of the wall angle clearly differentiate and separate them. But both have the same luminous edge, a highlight that links them subliminally.)
Braque’s picture is nowhere near as dramatic as Picasso’s. It is emotionally neutral compared to Picasso’s picture, and more conventionally descriptive. Braque’s brown and green belong to nature, while Picasso’s dark picture seems eerie and unnatural, its colors all but lost in a kind of twilight. It resonates with interior life, while Braque’s picture reflects the exterior world. Apollinaire celebrated Picasso as "a new man," adding that, for this new man, "the world is as he newly represents it. He has enumerated its elements, its details, with a brutality that knows, on occasion, how to be gracious."(18) Picasso’s landscape seems at once brutal, ironically gracious and weirdly figural. With its pincer-like "jaws" and melancholy, dreamlike atmosphere, it seems to allude to a skull. That is, Picasso’s landscape has an anamorphic dimension, however inexact the anamorphosis (in contrast, for example, to the floating skull in Holbein’s The French Ambassadors, 1533). In contrast, Braque’s landscape remains unequivocally what it is, however equivocal its space. But even spatially Picasso’s picture is more equivocating, adding to its nightmarish quality, its general morbid tenor and pallor. Can we read the foliage as cartilage and the buildings as gray bone, bleached by darkness? Both have a ghostly, "supernatural," enigmatic presence.
Such strange associations are not impossible nor arbitrary, but stimulated by the work itself; Picasso’s early Cubist works are haunted by Symbolism, a hangover from his Blue and Rose periods. Some interpreters think that they owe a debt to Mallarmé, in their playful, elusive character: things are suggested, but not exactly stated. Certainly Cottage and Trees is a sum of perceptual approximations that add up to a powerful emotional whole. The threshold of perception has become flexible, allowing for the influence of subliminal perception. Speculative intuitions of another reality arise -- the interior dimension of real things, such as the insane Square in Flatland imagined. Strange as it may seem to say so, there is a bizarre poetry in Picasso’s Cubist planes, however prosaic and matter of fact they seem at first glance.
Referring to one of Picasso’s Analytic Cubist portraits, Apollinaire wrote: "Picasso conceived the project of dying when he looked at the face of his best friend and saw his circumflex eyebrows galloping in anxiety. . . . And besides, anatomy, for example, really no longer existed in art; it had to be reinvented, and everyone had to perform his own assassination with the methodical skill of a great surgeon." Picasso has performed an assassination on the landscape, a surgical dissection of its anatomy, which reinvents the anatomy of the picture. He dissects the still living landscape, in effect murdering it to paint it. Cottage and Trees shows, if in different terms than Les Demoiselles, Picasso’s very Spanish awareness of death, and his death instinct, as it were -- his feeling that he must annihilate or be annihilated, a feeling he acknowledged in his remark about his discovery of African masks in the Trocadero.
Otto Fenichel writes that "the idea of death may be fear of punishment for death wishes against other persons" or "may represent a fear of one’s own excitement." Where there is "hope for sexual excitement, death may be feared." Sometimes awareness of death oscillates with rage, defending against it. Fenichel also writes that "The fear of being infected is, first of all, a rationalized fear of castration. Venereal infection as a real danger connected to sexual activity may serve as a rationalization of unreal dangers unconsciously believed in. And on a still deeper level, the fear of infection represents a defense against feminine wishes, infection standing for impregnation."(19) All these ideas are relevant to the morbid Les Demoiselles, which shows Picasso and his vulgar muses, who in effect impregnate -- inspire -- him, so that he can paint his wonderfully original picture of them, his first creation of an artistic child that is all his own. The landscape in Cottage and Trees shows that morbid originality has become second nature to him.
For Picasso, Cubism was a new way of expressing aggression, indeed, destructiveness. He said as much when he declared that "in my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture, then I destroy it." Nothing may be lost in the end, as he said, but the transformation is brutal and irreversible -- the uncompromising brutality that Apollinaire admired.
The effect on the object rendered is disastrous. Gedo associates the catastrophic air of Picasso’s early pictures -- and many later ones -- with his childhood experience of an earthquake, all the more disturbing because it occurred at the moment his mother was giving birth to his sister. Thus the moment of creation -- the birth of new life (artistic as well as human) -- became associated with the threat to life or the possibility of death. Picasso responded with distrust and hostility, which mobilized his ego in the face of the enemy: the sense of helplessness in the face of forces greater than himself. In fact, Picasso seemed to need negative emotions to produce something artistically positive. He needed to externalize his negative emotions in art in order to avoid being overwhelmed by them. He tended to become overstimulated by life as well as by the threat of death, as Roland Penrose suggests in his account of Picasso’s manic response to "la belle Chelito," a Barcelona beauty whom Picasso relentlessly portrayed in drawings the first time he saw her perform in a cabaret, in effect consuming her with his art.(20)
Picasso’s belief in the inner connection of life and death was reinforced by Spanish culture. The bullfight became an exemplary demonstration of it for Picasso. Life and death are opposed but inseparable: It is their paradoxical relationship that informs Picasso’s representation of reality. His figures, still lifes and landscapes always seem simultaneously dead and alive, and, as such, fraught with suffering, which does violence to life and heralds death, thus embodying the paradox.
His most famous painting, Guernica (1937), makes the point explicitly. "I want nothing but emotion to be given off by [a picture]," Picasso stated, and the emotion that his pictures give off is saturated with suffering, subliminally or explicitly. It is a corrosive death wish against the reality depicted: to represent reality is to extract the life from it, leaving an artistic corpse in its place. "There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark. It is what started the artist off, excited his ideas, and stirred up his emotions. Ideas and emotions will in the end be prisoners in his work." But the point is that their reality exists at the expense of the reality of the object that catalyzed them. The object itself has been completely negated -- dissolved into a suggestion, its expressive residue alone evident in the picture -- so that the artist’s ideas and emotions can be represented. What Michael Balint calls the dissolution of object representation that occurs in modern art, largely in favor of radically subjective expression, makes a decisive beginning in Picasso’s Cubist works.
It is the power of negation in Picasso’s art that Apollinaire admired, and that Picasso’s ruthless brutality signals -- the sadism, and more broadly emotional primitivism, made overt in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. It was an expressive release from conventional decorum -- an act of daring that was criminal and inhumane in civilized life, but that could be carried out in the safety of art, where it seemed innovative and creative. (Less than a decade later, in Dadaism, the boundaries between life and art blur, to the extent that Breton could regard shooting a pistol in a crowd, which the boxer-poet Arthur Cravan did in lieu of giving a lecture, as an artistic act -- indeed, the supreme "surrealist" act, rather than a pathological acting out -- thus opening the way to what much later would be called happenings and performance art, already anticipated in Dadaism’s anti-social "happenings," which became its trademark.) Where Matisse’s art is erotic, Picasso’s art is thanatotic. Braque, who began as a Fauve and became a Cubist, understood neither the instinctively affirmative force of Fauvism nor the instinctively negative force of Cubism very well. For all the technical sophistication and ingenuity of his work, it lacks the intensity and determination of both Matisse’s and Picasso’s paintings. Les Demoiselles shocked and inspired him -- he modeled his art on Picasso’s after seeing it -- but its violence was not innate to him. From the beginning, Braque was too balanced to be passionately positive or negative, which is why his Cubist works have been regarded as classical in spirit, however modern in appearance.
Cubism in fact began in emotional reaction to Fauvism -- Braque deliberately moved away from its "paroxysm" (a code word for "orgasm"; Fauvism’s color orgasms were as socially inappropriate and "barbaric" as Picasso’s later orgies of destruction) while Picasso reacted to the sentimentalism and humanism of his own earlier Symbolism, exemplified by La Vie (1903) and Les Saltimbanques (1905), the masterpieces of his Blue and Rose periods, respectively. However suppressed, the Symbolism lingers on in the haunting quality of his first Cubist works, as has been suggested. They can be understood as an ironic response to his own development, hitherto dependent on traditional representation -- a brutal irony intended to negate it and assert his independence. In the prehistory of Cubism, objects and figures are solid, durable and conventionally intelligible; in Cubism, their solidity, permanence and intelligibility are trivialized and mocked.
Disillusionment with reality is already evident in Picasso’s Symbolist works; in his Cubist works, disillusionment becomes sadistically skeptical, and finally ironically malevolent. These feelings are directly reflected in the destructive license he takes with the representation of reality.
The fact that no consensus of perception is possible on the basis of his Cubist representations indicates their anti-sociality and insecurity.
Indeed, their skepticism and irony mask their insecurity, even as they express it. They result is a kind of caricature of reality. The critic Felix Fénéon had noted Picasso’s tendency toward caricature. He in effect began his career as a caricaturist. "Friends and enemies were pilloried with equal vigour" in the "pitiless sketches" he made in Barcelona, Roland Penrose writes, stating -- in what became the standard rationalization of Picasso’s destructive contempt -- that their "obvious cynicism" hid "a deeper research into the meaning beneath the external expression of the human face." In other words, Picasso was presumably interested in physiognomy, Johann Kaspar Lavater’s idea that inner life revealed itself in human features -- ironically confirmed by the bumpy features of the Head of Fernande (1909), a sculpture of the woman with whom Picasso was living at the time. Picasso once said that "all good portraits are in some degree caricatures," an idea that can be extended to his Cubist representations in general. They have been said to involve a dialectic of appearance and reality, but to reduce reality to constantly shifting appearance is to equivocate about its existence. Cubism shrouds reality in a hallucinatory haze that threatens our conviction in its givenness, which is an act of ironical aggression against it.
The subversive irony of Picasso’s Cubism is especially evident in his brutal dismissal of woman’s reality, which seems paranoid in import. The development from the Head of Fernande and Woman with Pears (Fernande) (1909) to Young Woman and Nude Woman (both 1910), traces the erosion of woman’s appearance. She becomes completely unrecognizable, indeed, barely a figure -- nothing but an agglomeration of abstract forms. It is not clear that they signify her; their significance seems to lie entirely in themselves. Her curves have become straight lines in Nude Woman -- a token few are left over, untransformed but isolated in space. Her body has been deconstructed, as it were -- "de-represented," I would prefer to say -- and its parts disposed of.
She has, in fact, become disembodied, not to say disemboweled. Indeed, her eros has been erased. There is no longer woman’s libidinous presence, but her ironical absence. She has in effect been liquidated -- burned at an artistic stake. Where there was once woman there are now esthetic ashes, esthetic relics -- a residue of abstract forms. She has been completely undone, although her being survives nominally -- that is, in the title of the painting. And perhaps as a "metaphysical" principle, having lost all her voluptuous physicality. The traditional nude has been dismantled into an anonymous modern ghost. Having worked his violence on woman, Picasso takes on his friends and supporters -- the dealers Daniel Henry-Kahnweiler, Wilhelm Uhde, and Ambroise Vollard -- in other Analytic Cubist portraits painted the same year, 1910. These works complete the destructive process begun with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Nude Woman has been associated with the first x-ray of the whole body -- of a living woman, as it happens -- made in 1907 by William Morton, as though Picasso also had "scientific insight" into the body, but the association only confirms his ambivalence about it, if not his destructive desire for it. (Or does the association unwittingly acknowledge his predatory sexual curiosity, eager to devour her -- his wish to see inside woman, to understand the mystery of her sexuality and allure?) It has also been said that Cubism shows things in temporal becoming rather than as finished beings. In practice this means that Nude Woman can never be regarded as a being in her own right.
She is quite different from the women -- and the figures in general -- from the Blue and Rose periods. What these are about is perhaps most clearly expressed by Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Fifth Duino Elegy was inspired by Les Saltimbanques. It opens with the words: "But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little more fleeting than we ourselves." What becomes "acrobats" in English is "Fahrenden" in German, that is, "travellers." Picasso’s "saltimbanques" are en route and rootless: a metaphor for existence.
Indeed, Rilke supposedly saw the letter "D" in their arrangement, signaling the German word "Dasein" -- existence or "being-there." The existential dimension of both the Blue and Rose period paintings is transparent. The figures are invariably lonely, isolated and melancholy, the space they inhabit invariably desolate and grim. Most of the Blue period paintings were made in Barcelona, before Picasso finally left it for permanent "exile" in Paris. They tend to be filled with "Gothic" mannerisms, and show the influence of El Greco in the elongated figures, who often have elongated fingers. While the Rose period works were made in Paris, and supposedly more "classical" and serene in character, reflecting Picasso’s happiness with his mistress Fernande -- their relationship lasted for six years (1904-10) -- the figures remain isolated and insular, even when they form family clusters, as in Les Saltimbanques and Acrobat’s Family with Ape, also from 1905.
A baby is the focus of attention in the latter, and two children (and one adolescent) appear in the former, suggesting Picasso’s wish for a child (although, as Penrose notes, he was always interested in children, and engaged them readily). However, the adults are alienated -- subtly at odds with one another. In Harlequin's Family With an Ape (1905) they relate to each through the child, and the ape steals the show, suggesting the fundamentally "animal" -- largely sexual -- character of their relationship. In Les Saltimbanques, each figure exists in a space of its own, and the woman exists in a space apart. (She wears a Majorcan hat and resembles a Tangara statuette, suggesting yet another influence on Picasso, who was as predatory and dependent on past art -- the more offbeat the better, in line with his iconoclasm -- as he was on woman.) Even in the group formed by Picasso, the figure dressed as a harlequin, the obese jester and the little girl look past or away from each other.
The two boys try to bridge the distance between themselves and the woman -- a mother and fertility symbol, as the flowers in her hat and vase at her side suggest (fertility is the subliminal issue of the work, as the little girl’s basket of flowers, with its feminine shape -- it evokes a vagina -- suggests), but she looks away from them.
Thus the "tenderness" of the handling is undermined by the alienation of the figures -- by the general air of solitude, suffering and indifference. Les Saltimbanques integrates the issue of the Blue period -- the feeling of being an outcast -- and of the Rose period -- the struggle for intimacy, and with it tenderness. If Les Saltimbanques is evidence, Picasso seemed to have failed at the latter, or been clumsy at it -- if he completely succeeded, he would have been letting down his guard, and giving his all to love rather than art (he seems a classic example of what Freud called the inability to integrate lust and care) -- which confirmed his feeling of being an outcast, that is, alienated and an alien.
It may be that their air of alienation saves the Rose period paintings from sentimentality, but it is part of their sentimentality, for it is not ironical enough. They embellish the cliché of the unhappy family rather than convey the conflicts that make it unhappy. They start with a conventional assumption, and do not question it -- examine the intricate dynamics of the family in intimate depth the way, for example, Edgar Degas’s Bellelli Family (1858-67) does -- the way Cubism later questioned the assumption that conventional representation was adequate to reality, exposing the fissures that revealed its inner dynamics. Certainly The Soler Family (1903) is psychologically inadequate. The point of the saltimbanques is not their unhappiness -- they perform and stay together to survive economically, but they are otherwise rather detached from each other, suggesting that they are only a family in name, "technically" -- but its embodiment in the desert that surrounds them and is between them, the emptiness of which they are a part. The members of the family have their differences -- they seem largely to do with gender, age and power as Acrobat on a Ball (1905) suggests (along with Meditation (1904), it introduces what became the recurrent theme of a man reflecting on a woman, more particularly a conscious and self-conscious male figure, "experienced" in life, and an unself-conscious and often unconscious [sleeping] female figure, who remains innocent whatever her experience) -- but they never erupt into open conflict, as the different planes and spaces do in Cubism.
The Blue period paintings are more conspicuously sentimental and forced in their mysteriousness, and sometimes in their subject matter, as the strange gesture of the young man in La Vie indicates -- it seems out of character -- unexpectedly assertive -- for such an otherwise listless figure. The meaning of his pointing figure is unclear, although it seems derived from the upward pointing finger of one of the apostles in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495-97) and, more probably, from the bizarre St. John the Baptist (finished ca. 1516), suggesting that the mother and child to whom the young man points are sacred. The image is probably a depiction of sacred and profane love, with the sexually intimate young couple symbolizing the latter. The same contrast is represented by The Two Sisters (1902), which Picasso himself described as "a picture...of a whore of St. Lazare and a nun," the latter consoling the former.
The pictures of both the Blue and Rose periods are allegorical, however much Picasso found his pathetic subject matter -- especially for the Blue period -- in the streets. The Old Jew and The Old Guitarist (both 1903) were beggars hoping for a handout, and the scenes pictured in The Blind Man’s Meal, (also 1903) (the old Jew was also blind) and the Frugal Repast (1904), Picasso probably saw every day in the cheap restaurants in which he ate. The one-eyed madam Celestine (1903) probably also ate in them. (Picasso’s preoccupation with blindness suggests anxiety about his perceptiveness, as though he is saying "there but for the grace of God go I." A similar ambivalent identification with the hungry suggests his fear that he will go hungry, at a time when he was not successful enough to eat well, and sometimes went hungry.)
But the point is that the blue atmosphere that surrounds and informs these figures turns them into symbols of an instantly readable emotion. The social context falls away -- it is barely suggested -- leaving an emblem behind, one not as enigmatic as it might seem at first glance, although Picasso may be calling attention to the enigma of emotion. But exaggerated sentimentalism is not the same as the sense of uncanniness accompanying unconscious emotion.
The physiology of virtually all the figures in the Blue and Rose periods works is distorted to physiognomic effect. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in The Actor (1904-5), the most dramatically elongated of all of Picasso’s figures from either period. It is not simply that El Greco influenced Picasso, or that his work has a Gothic flavor, as the drapery of the female figures and the angularity of the male figures suggests, but that Picasso is heavily dependent on tradition for his expressive tropes. The conservative character of the Blue and Rose periods is confirmed not only by their reliance on conventional perspective, however residual and tenuous, but on their conventional iconography. Their meaning is straightforward -- indeed, all too obvious -- which is why they are easy to read. Picasso still has a long way to go to arrive at the much more complex narrative of Minotaurmachie (1935) or, for that matter Three Musicians (1921).
Their scrambled meanings -- meaning overload -- and compositional intricacy gives them an expressive density that the one-dimensional Blue and Rose period works never approach, however moving they may be. The figure resting its head on a hand in Portrait of Jaime Sabartès (1901) and Meditation is a long-standing, somewhat familiar sign of melancholy. The 1905 Nude with her hands over her genital is a traditionally modest Venus. (Even Les Demoiselles modestly covers their genital area, with drapery if not hands.) Influences and appropriations abound -- Toulouse-Lautrec in The Courtesan with a Jeweled Necklace and Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas in The Blue Room, (both 1901) -- suggesting how derivative the Blue and Rose period works are, beneath their monochromatic veneer. Their uniformity of color imposes a dramatic unity on the works, making them more noticeable than they would otherwise be.
Nonetheless, there is an uncommunicativeness and muteness about Picasso’s figures that makes them uncanny. Perhaps it involves resignation to their fates, perhaps it comes from knowing their place, perhaps it is meant to please and propitiate the public on whose mercy they depend -- but it gives them interiority and true selfhood. Blue and rose are mantles confirming the authenticity of their existence. This uncommunicativeness -- a certain silent presence, at once stolid and stoic -- achieves a new presence in Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906). Her mask-like face -- the very embodiment of muteness, now become aggressive, assertive, confrontational (as though in preparation for Les Demoiselles) -- marks Picasso’s break with the sentimentalism of his Blue and Rose works. Blue and rose are abandoned for a more sober, symbolically neutral brown -- but then it is the color of earth, and Stein was one of Picasso’s first serious collectors, thus making her a kind of supportive mother -- which adds to the sense of the bulkiness and silence of the figure.
Picasso’s portrait introduces the sculptural element that became to important in Cubism. The objects in Braque’s first Cubist paintings reminded the critic Charles Morice of statues, and Picasso was able to finalize the head of Gertrude Stein -- he apparently had great difficulty "getting it right" -- when he "modeled" it on pre-Roman Iberian sculpture, which had been exhibited in Paris, as well as bronze works found at a site near Malaga, which is where he was born in 1881. The flared nose, the incisive eyes, with their dark pupils intensely focused on something unseen by the viewer, and the general severity of the head, convey the same elemental emotion as the Blue and Rose period works. But the lithic impenetrability of the head is new, along with the robust body. Gertrude Stein clearly took up space; she was not an emaciated phantom, like many of the figures in the Blue and Rose period paintings. She was not a mirage that would evaporate but a substance that one could touch.
Her substantialness is a prelude to what Braque called the "manual space" of Cubism -- space that appealed to touch rather than vision alone. The point was to bring the objects in a picture "within...reach," created the illusion of taking "full possession" of them, thus conveying "a full experience of space." This was the revolutionary hands-on alternative to the "eye-fooling illusionism" of "scientific perspective," which "forces the objects in a picture to disappear away from the beholder." Braque’s repudiation of Renaissance perspective has been thought to involve a return to the medieval idea of flattened space, which nonetheless creates the illusion of being in relief. Braque’s early Cubist objects have been associated with such objects as the tables in Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece (ca. 1425-28), which tilt upward toward the viewer, so that they seem to be glimpsed from above, while their bases are seen in profile. From one perspective the table seems precariously constructed, but the side view shows it to be firmly placed on the ground.
More generally, painted Cubist objects resemble the grisaille illusions of sculpture in the works of the Flemish primitives (as they were called at the time), for example, the two saints on the outer panels of the closed Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The Cubist paintings are brown and green rather than gray, but they have the same muted tone, and gray comes to play a larger and larger part in them, virtually taking them over in Picasso’s two paintings of Woman with a Mandolin, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier) and Nude, as well as Braque’s Violin and Candlestick (all 1910). The planes in these works overlap and interlock, creating a sculptural effect: the figures seem to be free-standing abstract constructions in three-dimensional space. The vigorously painted chiaroscuro adds to their density -- their ironical solidity. But they have the pallor of death, and the shakiness of their construction makes them seem like skeletons in a dance of death. Indeed, the dramatizing of the emptiness -- negative space -- that surrounds them, and which they sometimes merge with, confirms their negative aura -- their strange hollowness.
Negative color, negative space, negated figures -- all this extends the aura of vulnerability, suffering and bleakness evident in the Blue and Rose periods to a morbidly grand climax. Death is personified in these weirdly monumental female figures.
The blocky buildings in Picasso’s Reservoir at Horta (1909) -- many of the planes are gray, to the extent that grayness seems to be creeping over the picture like some sort of incurable infection -- have a sculptural quality, but Three Women (1907-8) and Dryad (1908) are more aggressively sculptural.
This derives directly from a number of deliberately crude, "savage" sculptures -- all of female nudes -- that Picasso executed in 1907. Picasso’s primitivism is clearly sculptural in origin and import, that is, it is an attempt to make the figure more forcefully present, and as such more urgent with instinct. But I think it is in the still life ("nature morte") that Picasso and Braque make the meaning of their use of sculptural form transparently clear: not just to add the resonance of reality that things in three-dimensional space have to the representation of them on the flat space of the canvas, but rather to turn them into stone. The objects in Picasso’s Still Life with Hat (Cézanne’s Hat) and Bread and Fruit Disk on a Table, and Braque’s Fruit Dish (all 1908-9), are like petrified wood: nature is, indeed, completely dead. It has been silenced. Picasso’s use of sculpture confirms his destructive tendency -- his death wish toward things, his wish to annihilate in a show of power over them -- however much Braque may rationalize that destructiveness in formal terms, because he neither shares nor understands it. (I will later argue that they try to resurrect things -- just as Christ resurrected Lazarus from the dead -- in their Synthetic Cubist works.)
At the same time, the anti-naturalism of the still lifes confirms the decadence of Cubism. That is, it shares the decadent belief in the superiority of art to nature and, more crucially, the wish to replace nature with art. A sculpture is a direct replacement, whatever its symbolic fidelity to the nature displaced. It is also silent and static as nature never is.
Landscapes increasingly tend to look like still lifes, as in Braque’s Harbor (1908-9) and his four paintings of the Castle at La Roche-Guyon (all 1909). The building is for all pictorial purposes a still life, as it is in Picasso’s Houses on the Hill, Horta del Ebro (1909). Braque’s Violin and Palette (1909) is famous for the introduction of the illusion of a realistic nail (it casts a shadow) into an otherwise unrealistic picture. But the nail is a foil for the violin at the bottom of the picture. They are contrasting kinds of space: the nail and its shadow create the illusion of depth, while the fragmented violin, with its planes jutting into space, is more literally three-dimensional -- truly "sculptural." Even when the musical instrument seems to diffuse into space, as in Braque’s Mandola (1909-10), it has a sculptural presence that suggests that the space in which it rests is three-dimensional, however ironically (as its crystallization into planar fragments suggests.) Sometimes the object seems to disperse in space, as in Braque’s Piano and Mandola and Le Sacré-Coeur (both 1909-10), and sometimes it seems more concentrated in itself, as in Braque’s Violin and Pitcher and Woman with a Mandolin (both 1910).
In either case it remains peculiarly three-dimensional by reason of the density of its planes, giving them a relief-like character (as in primitive medieval art). In general, the interplay of planes throughout the pictures make them seem like relief sculptures, creating the illusion that they are autonomous objects that project into actual space, thus adding an aura of tangibility to their silent presence.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
(16)Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews 1902-1918 by Guillaume Apollinaire, ed. LeRoy C. Breunig (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 51
(17)Ibid., pp. 13, 16
(18)Ibid., p. 280
(19)Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York: Norton, 1945), p. 209
(20)Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work (New York: Schocken, 1962), p. 84