My hazy recollection is that I first heard cubism explained as a style that showed multiple points of view in a single painting. That may be fairly typical of the popular conception of what cubism is. But since one often has difficulty even telling what the subject is, it’s pretty clear that maximizing information conveyed was not the main motivation for Picasso, Braque, and company. I’ve long felt that I didn’t really have much grasp of what cubism really was, of what the artists cared about and thought about. Following are some snippets I’ve encountered, in no particular order.
Recently artist and blogger Laurie Fendrich, on residency in France, claims to have found a source for cubism in the jumbled roof planes of hill-clinging villages. This visually appealing view is supported by the Braques of L’Estaque and Picassos of Horta:
Along these lines, there’s a cute analysis posted on YouTube on Picasso’s La Grenade, reproduced below:
Of a more analytical bent, the art critic Walter Darby Bannard, writing in a 1968 essay, says that the essence of cubism is that a painting be composed of small elements whose positions and relations reconstitute the subject. The classic elements for Picasso and Braque were the facets that broke up the surfaces they depicted. Bannard credits Cezanne with having taken the color spots of the Impressionists and “flattened out the ‘pieces’ and organized them spatially.” He goes on to apply his definition to the sculptor David Smith.
Pierre Daix, writer and friend of Picasso, brings science into the mix:
Cubism was not only a revolution in pictorial space, but a revolution in our understanding of pictorial space. This was in all probability linked to the fact that physics was simultaneously destroying our three-dimensional space-time perception.
As a scientist myself, I’m skeptical of any substantive relevance, but that’s not the point. Ideas of revolution were in the air, and took on cultural significance independent of their original meaning.
David Hockney, as reported by Lawrence Weschler in True to Life (where I also found the Daix quote in a note), considers that cubism is not so much about the structure of the object, but about the process of perception.
If there are three noses, this is not because the face has three noses, or the nose has three aspects, but rather because it has been seen three times, and that is what seeing is like.
Of course, that’s much what Hockney himself was attempting to do with his photocollages. Insofar as that was the goal, I think Hockney did it in a more convincing way.
And then there’s the aesthetic-historical Pepe Karmel, whose book Picasso and the Invention of Cubism was made known to us by Jay (I picked it up used on Amazon).
To understand Cubism, it is necessary to examine three key ideas associated with earlier avant-garde movements. One is the “empiricist” theory of perception… Another is the Symbolist idea that the work of art should not imitate reality but should offer an “equivalent” for experience… The third is the idea of “decorative” design, whose influence on modernism…
Hopefully that will make more sense as I get further into the book.
These bits of study are beginning to coalesce into what, inevitably, can only be called a cubist picture of cubism. But I’m not sure how far I can get without attempting a cubist painting a la June (results here)—rather problematic as I don’t paint.
Please add your own facet to the picture. What comes to your mind when I say, “Cubism?” Do you still believe the creation myth, the story of its origin, that you were first told? Did the cubists have a goal, and if so was the endeavor a success or a failure?