As an art historian and a self-proclaimed lover/groupie/fan to the core of Modern art, I am a bit embarrassed to say that I just realized just how important my least favorite art movement was in the grand History of art. I´m talking about Cubism. Are you rolling your eyes too? For the record, it’s still and will always be my least favorite “ism” in all of the “isms” (Impressionism, Futurism, Constructivism, Expressionism, etc.) but damn did it change the course of art.
To start, let’s reiterate for the 999 trillionth time that Picasso was a genius. Yes he was an arrogant, selfish, egocentric, ladies man but thankfully we’re not any of the girls whose hearts he broke. And let’s be honest, all those affairs just make him so much more fun to read about. Picasso, or as I like to call him, Pablito, painted Les Demoiselle D’Avignon in 1907. For those of you who have a huge question mark on your face, this is one of the most important works of art ever to be produced. That’s right, I said EVER. In a nutshell it’s because Picasso was ahead of his time. He eliminated spatial depth, and reduced the prostitutes on his canvas wearing African masks to mere geometric figures who flirted with the viewer. Oh the shock! He showed it to a couple of friends who were at a loss for words and in disbelief of what they were seeing, and so Picasso rolled up his ladies and stashed them under his bed. No one understood what he was getting at and his friends and fellow painters – among them another cool dude you might know called Georges Braque – came to give him some “guidance”.
Little could they have imagined, Picasso and Braque’s extreme admiration for Cezanne (who had recently passed away) and his simplification of detail and grid-like structures was the starting point of Cubism. But get this: during the first year of their unknown discovery of Cubism in 1908, Braque submitted one of his works to the Salon d’Automne in Paris for consideration. It was – no surprise there – unanimously rejected. And Matisse, who happened to be in the selection committee said, with a judgmental mean-girl smirk on his face, “Braque just sent a painting made out of cubes”. The name stuck and that’s how the term “Cubism” was born. The funny thing is that if you analyze cubist works there are actually no cubes in them at all as it’s all about the 2D and not about the illusion of space – as a cube would allude. So HA! The joke is on you, Henri Matisse!
Les Demoiselle D’Avignon was the beginnings of Cubism, which in turn gave way to things beyond your wildest imagination that I believe we may be taking for granted now a days. It gave way to abstraction, the inclusion of text in art, collage, conceptual art and what is attributed to Duchamp as his famous ‘ready-mades’. How? Here we go…
Abstraction: As Will Gompertz so graciously puts it, “Total abstraction was to be the inevitable legacy of Cubism”. It was only natural that the deconstruction and flattening of objects would evolve to basic geometric forms that would eventually not make the slightest attempt at depicting the ‘real’ world. As a result, welcome Abstraction to the realm of modern art. Hello Kandinsky, Richter, Clyfford Still, Rothko, Gorky… and the list never ends!
Introduction of Text in Art: Up until this point in history, art had always been about images rather than letters. It was a very daring move to borrow elements from another form of art and Picasso did it through Ma Jolie, a portrait he did of Marcelle Humbert, one of his lovers. Of course her face is a cluster of forms but the words ‘MA JOLIE’ (my pretty girl), his lovey dovey nickname for her, float on the bottom of the canvas. BOOM! Hello Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince, Stefan Bruggemann, etc…
Conceptual Art: I have to warn you, this one is a little trickier to understand so no one will judge you if you need to read it a couple of times.
I bet you didn’t know that conceptual art began with Braque and Picasso in 1912. No, it didn’t begin with Duchamp and his urinal in 1917 or with the performance artists of the 1960s. It all began one (possibly rainy) afternoon when Picasso decided to paste a cheap piece of oilcloth on his work.
The oilcloth had a pre-printed pattern of a crossed-hatched caned chair. This was the first time EVER that an artist appropriated real elements of everyday life and incorporated them to their artwork. Braque then took it even further with his work Fruit Dish and Glass, which is essentially a collage. He pasted wallpaper with a wooden print on his canvas and sketched a bowl of fruit on it. This is where the mind games begin: he placed a ‘fake’ image of wood on to his own picture which makes it a fabrication and so now, the wallpaper is the only “real” thing on the picture. It’s tricky, I warned you. Just realize that for the first time these two artists weren’t copying real life – they were APPROPRIATING IT.
Collage: By pasting wallpaper on their works, Braque and Picasso turned Analytical Cubism into SYNTHETIC cubism. And voilà: collage is invented. Nothing else needs to be said. Hello Tom Wesselmann, Peter Blake, Matisse, etc.
Cubism, together with La Belle Époque of Paris, came to an unfortunate and abrupt halt when the First World War began. Braque was called to fight, so was Guillaume Apollinaire, the art critic and poet who was at the forefront of Modern art. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the German art dealer who supported the artists’ Cubist vision was forced to leave Paris as he was now considered an enemy of France. Cubism was finished but in only ten years its legacy was solid enough. Picasso and Braque had paved the way to the future.