CUBISM

1907 - 1922

INTRODUCTION TO CUBISM

When Braque returned to L’Estaque from the Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1907, he was still working as a fauvist. However, the encounter had marked him profoundly and would lead him to undiscovered territory. “I had the impression, with Cézanne, with his paintings that I saw at Vollard, I felt that there was something very secret in these paintings,” he said to Dora Vallier. Braque was the first painter to understand and follow the route outlined by Cézanne; he understood that Cézanne had been working on the deconstruction of the object which had until this point only been subject to classical rules of representation. The object was thus transposed into geometric facets and planes.

Secondly, Braque tried to expand the initiative and daring of the master and tried to recompose the same object but under conditions that even Cézanne himself had probably not envisaged. This would lead to cubism. Braque would go beyond simply theory and go further than his master.

Braque took to heart Cézanne’s idea that patterns structure our perception. This thought would flourish with cubism, where the focus shifts from the object to the space. The major interest of this movement is to open painting to the fourth dimension, the intellectual dimension. In deepening Cézanne’s theory of the object, Braque constructed a different vision and order, transformed by reflection and free from classical pictorial rules. He says,

“Scientific perspective is nothing other than an illusionist’s trick. It is simply artifice, bad artifice, and it makes it impossible for an artist to communicate the complete experience of space.”

Braque would become the initiator of this intellectual dimension, bringing to forth Leonardo da Vinci’s famous theory of painting being la cosa mentale, a thing of the mind.

Braque would meet Picasso in November 1907 and their encounter would change their painting. At that moment, Braque was working on new pictorial space while Picasso was developing his primitivist syntax. Their paintings were different and Braque’s construction of space and his ideas on the object were well in advance of Picasso’s leanings towards primitivism.

Cubism would completely upset Renaissance ideas on painting: pictorial syntax would give birth to a new vision of forms and a purely intellectual space. In the New York exhibition of 1989 entitled Braque-Picasso, the invention of cubism was clearly shown. According to Rubin, “not since Rembrandt has painting captured the elusive nuances of human consciousness, the complexities of thought and the paradoxical nature of knowledge…from which would come nothing less than the visual dialectic for art in the 20th century.

1907

BRAQUE AND PICASSO,

THE ORIGINS OF CUBISM

In November, Apollinaire organized a meeting between Braque and Picasso at Picasso’s studio at the Bateau-Lavoir. The last brushstroke had been painted on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon three months before. Braque was shocked. Picasso’s partner testified that Braque exclaimed, “Your painting, it’s as if you wanted us to eat rope and drink petrol.” At that time, Picasso did not exhibit at the Salons and very few were aware of his work. The meeting at the Bateau-Lavoir certainly inspired Braque’s Grand Nu (Large Nude).

Shortly after this first meeting, Braque received Picasso at his studio on rue d’Orsel in Montmartre. The pre-Cubist works painted at the Midi strongly impressed Picasso; he was surprised by Braque’s revolutionary pictorial ideas. He admired the two first versions of Viaduc à L’Estaque (Viaduc at l’Estaque) as well as La Terrasse de l’Hôtel Mistral (The Terrace of the Mistral Hotel). Picasso immediately understood the major importance of these works.

Undoubtedly, seeing Braque’s Femme inspired Picasso’s Trois Femmes where the same person is rendered in three different positions: back, face and profile. The artistic dialogue between Braque and Picasso had commenced.

analytic cubism

The first cubist work is le Grand Nu (Large Nude) from Braque. Commenced just after his first visit to Picasso’s studio at Bateau-Lavoir, Braque finished the painting in June 1908 during his fourth stay at L’Estaque, still in the footsteps of Cézanne. The painting further expands the primitivist research of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. The woman, with her mask-like face, is seen simultaneously from above and below, as if the two perspectives co-existed.

When he returned from Midi, Braque proposed to exhibit his works at the Salon d’Automne; almost all were refused. The art dealer Kahnweiler decided to reunite the paintings and mount a personal exhibition of Braque’s work. Apollinaire himself wrote the catalogue’s preface. Louis Vauxcelles, normally allergic to new trends, was the first to use the work cubism in the Gil Blas: “[Braque] despises form, reducing everything, places and figures and houses, to geometric schemas, to cubes.”

From this moment, Braque and Picasso’s relationship becomes closer; the two become intimates. “At that time, I was very close with Picasso. Despite our different temperaments, we were guided by a common idea… We lived in Montmartre, we saw each other every day, we talked. The things we talked about during that time, the things that people didn’t know how to say, things that nobody would understand… things which would be incomprehensible and which gave us such joy… and it would end with us… it was like climbing up a mountain tied to each other.” The two friends’ styles inexorably converged.

towards abstraction

In their deepening exploration of Cézanne’s idea of space, Braque and Picasso oriented themselves less and less towards a viewer who asks, “what is the artist painting?” The planes are fragmented and each figure is deconstructed into a multitude of facets. The Château de la Roche-Guyon series (June-August 1909) bears interesting testimony to the natural progression of this abstraction: the first canvas represents the Château de la Roche-Guyon in its setting and each succeeding painting sees further simplification of forms. A year later Les Usines du Rio Tinto (The Rio Tinto factories) at L’Estaque and Picasso’s work at Cadaquès marked the eruption of this focus towards the abstraction of representation. Several months later, in a veritable summit, the two painters used their holidays together at Céret (summer 1911) to paint together, side by side.

It was a rivalry during which the two protagonists produced a number of Cubist masterpieces: from Picasso’s L’Accordéoniste (Accordionist) that responds to Braque’s L’Homme à la guitare (Man with a Guitar), from Le Bougeoir (The Candlestick – Braque) to L’Eventail (The Fan – Picasso). But these emblematic works were leading the two painters towards an impasse: how could they reconcile their unwavering loyalty to realism while continuing to pursue a new pictorial language?

synthetic cubism

Picasso was forced to leave Céret abruptly; he was implicated in the theft of the Mona Lisa, along with his friend Apollinaire. Left alone, Braque started to implement inclusions (elements integrated into the work, such as stenciled letters) and supports (exterior elements brought to the painting). This would give birth to his paper sculptures. These innovations were characteristic of synthetic cubism.

Picasso followed suit and the dialogue with this new syntax between the two artists only strengthened their relationship. In the summer of 1912, Braque and Picasso met up at Midi. At the beginning of September, Braque bought a roll of imitation wood wallpaper at a shop. He waited till Picasso departed for Paris, to follow up some business, before incorporating the wallpaper into a work. It would become the first collage in history: Compotier et verre (Fruit Dish and Glass).

The principle was to integrate into a composition, in this case a charcoal drawing on paper, a piece of cut out paper with its own characteristics: texture, color, pattern. Later, the collages would use parts of objects: tobacco packs, matchstick boxes… Braque and Picasso started to have many followers among them. The second Salon de la Section D’Or was entirely dedicated to the Cubists: Jacques Villon, Gleizes, Metzinger, and Marcoussis… However, neither Braque nor Picasso participated; they did recognize any affinity with their followers.

The dialogue between Picasso and Braque, which was so fruitful for Synthetic Cubism, was violently interrupted in the summer of 1914 with the declaration of WWI. Braque was mobilized quickly to the Front. In May 1915, an explosion lodged a piece of shrapnel in his head. He was operated on and only recovered in 1917. After the war, Braque was celebrated as one of France’s great painters, issued from a grand national tradition, even as his Cubist paintings in the hands of Kahnweiler and Uhde were auctioned off as goods from the enemy.