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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Little Cubes

Two Cubist works of art: Left: "Glass, Newspaper and Dice;" 1914, "Glass and Newspaper."
Left: "Glass, Newspaper and Dice;" 1914; wood, tin plate, iron wire, oil paint;6 7/8"h x 5 5/16" w x 1 3/16" d. Right: "Glass and Newspaper;" 1914; wood, pencil, oil paint; 6 1/16" h x 6 7/8" w x 1 3/16' d.

At the turn of the 20th century, the cultural talk was all about primitivism. Europe was expanding its colonies in Africa and the tribal artifacts from these new colonies were making their way back to Paris and other capitals of Europe. Collectors were buying the carvings and masks as curiosities – the European cognoscenti did not consider these objects art. The artists of Europe were enthralled by the crudely simplified geometric and abstract depictions of the faces and bodies that had little to do with Western ideas of figurative beauty; however, they also had no interest in the artifacts for their cultural or their ritual/religious associations either. Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein both had acquired examples that they were proud to show off at their salons to the eager and fascinated artists who attended. The forms of the objects were so radically different from anything Europe had produced since the Renaissance that they intrigued artists and collectors alike causing much talk and revelation.

Iberian sculpture of a seated woman; 300 BC -201 BC; 16" h x 7" w x 8" d; limestone.
Iberian sculpture of a seated woman; 300 BC -201 BC; 16" h x 7" w x 8" d; limestone.

To add to the fervor, in 1904 the Louvre put on a show of ancient Iberian art to display the artifacts that had been newly found in Spain. Pablo Picasso went to see these pre-Roman era antiquities from his homeland and believed that he had found the simplified figurative forms he had been looking for. At the time he had been working on his Rose Period paintings based on circus life and although these works were moderately successful for him and gathering some attention outside his artistic circle, Picasso was feeling the creative need to move on from these naturalistic paintings and create a bigger sensation with something new. He was hoping to transform the direction of western painting and take the attention away from the current Fauve movement and from Matisse who started it. The Fauves painted recognizable subject matter with bright colors in non-traditional ways. These artists were described by the critics as “wild beasts” who had flung a pot of paint in the face of the public. Despite this harsh reception, Fauvism had become the art movement of the young painters and had begun to be bought and approved of by collectors such as Gertrude and Leo Stein. Seeing the Iberian work caused a whole new body of work to foment within Picasso.

Mask of Ngil; Fang culture, Africa, 19th C; 27" h x 11" w x 10" d; wood, kaolin, copper alloy nails.
Mask of Ngil; Fang culture, Africa, 19th C; 27" h x 11" w x 10" d; wood, kaolin, copper alloy nails.

At the same time, Picasso gave in to Andre Derain’s insistence that he visit the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro to view the African artifacts. Picasso hated the museum, complaining that its rooms were badly lit and stank of rot. He wanted to leave as soon as he arrived, but what he saw was so intriguing and fresh that he lingered despite his complaints. He began to augment his Iberian idea to incorporate African forms. He had been struggling with a large painting in which he was trying to incorporate his Iberian figurative concepts but had doubts that he was creating a painting that would shock the art world as Matisse had done with The Joy of Life (1905) and Blue Nude (1907). These paintings had moved Matisse and his movement into the forefront of modern painting. Picasso felt in competition with Matisse and his goal was to usurp him as the leader of the avant garde. After his visit to Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, Picasso was inspired to modify his painting to include the forms of the African masks that had made an impression on him. With the transformation of two of the figures faces into africanesque masks, the fractured and faceted drapery that did not try to imitate the natural folds of cloth, and its abandonment of perspective, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon not only eventually displaced Matisse as the leader of the avant garde in Paris but changed the course of western art forever.

Pablo Picasso; "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon;" 1907; oil on canvas;  8' w x 7' h.
Pablo Picasso; "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon;" 1907; oil on canvas; 8' w x 7' h.

When Matisse saw the finished painting in 1907, he considered Les Demoiselles d’Avignon somewhat of a bad joke. The sensational talk about Picasso’s new painting quickly travelled around the artists of Paris. Many made their way to Picasso’s studio to view it. Their reactions varied from anger at its audacity to disagreement on its value as art. Many of Picasso’s artist circle considered the painting to be unfinished, the figures for all their radical interpretation of forms, did not relate to each other stylistically. There were comments that given Picasso’s earlier work, his drawing in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was clumsy and crude. The figure drawing the curtain closed on the left was unrealized and, in fact all the figures had issues with proportion and anatomy.

Amid all of the controversy and furor, one artist in particular, Georges Braque came to Picasso’s studio especially to see Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He accused Picasso of “drinking turpentine and spitting fire” at the canvas. Although he initially disliked the painting, he could not deny the incendiary energy it had. He spent a long time studying it and discussing the work with Picasso. These discussions forged a friendship between the two which resulted in a sharing of ideas and a collaboration on a concept that would change the perceived space of a painting with the traditional perspective of a single, naturalistic placement, into something that could depict all sides of an object at once.

Paul Cézanne; "Mont Sainte-Victoire;" 1902-1904;  oil on canvas;  28 3/4" h × 36 3/16" w.
Paul Cézanne; "Mont Sainte-Victoire;" 1902-1904; oil on canvas; 28 3/4" h × 36 3/16" w.

Concurrently in 1907, there was a retrospective exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris of Paul Cezanne who had died the year before. Beginning in 1903, the Salon d’Automne was held yearly in reaction to the conservative policies of what could be shown at the official Paris Salon. It was an additional exhibition venue for avant garde artists along with its older rival the Salon des Indépendants. The Cezanne retrospective became influential to many younger artists, among them Picasso and Braque. However, these artists did not view Cezanne’s work as Cezanne intended. Cezanne was attempting to create volume through the juxtaposition of planes of color in his attempt to create a more classical landscape space in his work. The young artists of the turn of the 20th century perceived Cezanne as representing nature through geometric shapes and breaking down the landscape into small individual planes. For Braque, this misinterpreted idea became the visual inception of those new ideas on depicting space that he had been discussing with Picasso.

Cezanne’s painting caused Georges Braque to abandon the Fauve style he had been practicing and try to realize on canvas the ideas he was formulating with Picasso. In the summer of 1908, Braque decided to travel to L’Estaque in the south of France to paint in the footsteps of Cezanne and see for himself the scenes that inspired the deceased master. His output from that productive summer began to show the influences of his visits with Picasso, and his interpretation of Cezanne’s painting. His Houses at L’Estaque was the first painting where Braque was able to put down in visual form the ideas that had been occupying his mind. The resulting paintings reduced the objects in the landscape (in this case houses and trees) into their basic geometric shapes of squares and triangles, and simplified the color to an essential landscape palette of ochers and greens.

Georges Braque; "Houses at L'Estaque;" 1908; oil on canvas; 15.9 in h × 12.7 w.i
Georges Braque; "Houses at L'Estaque;" 1908; oil on canvas; 15.9 in h × 12.7

The radical nature of these deceptively simple paintings cannot be overstated. This was a major step in the visual evolution for both Braque and the future of art. The artist was no longer expected to be attentive to the depiction of three-dimensional forms and the naturalistic depiction of depth and space in his work. It was now possible to reconstruct forms and the space around them as the artist saw fit. However, Braque’s work from his summer in L’Estaque was not admired nor accepted by the other artists of the avant garde. In the 1908 Salon d’Automne, Braque’s paintings were rejected by the exhibition committee – of which Matisse was one. Matisse coyly dismissed Braque’s paintings by saying, "Braque has just sent in a painting made of little cubes." Most of the committee including Matisse voted to reject Braque’s submission. Two committee members wanted to keep two paintings of Braque’s on reserve in case there was room. In disgust, Braque pulled them all from consideration, and ended his relationship with Matisse and the Fauves.

But Braque had heard of a young art dealer who had opened a small galley on a Paris side street at 28 rue Vignon who was looking for artists. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was 23 years old When he started the Galley Kahnweiler with the notion of representing those artists of the avant garde who had no dealers or collectors and of whom he was convinced had talent. Khanweiler’s galley method was to contract with his artists to buy all their works in order for them to be financially stable enough to be able to work on their art full time. One of the conditions of his representation was that his artists under contract, could not show in the Salon d’Automne or the Salon d’Independants as long as they exhibited in his galleries. He signed on Braque as soon as he saw the work of Braque’s summer in L’Estaque and scheduled his first show when the Salon d’Automne had ended that season. Braque was now free of financial concerns.

By 1909, under Braque’s influence, Picasso began painting works that so much resembled Braque's “little cubes” that many viewers could not tell them apart. By 1911, the cubist idea had been taken up by several artists: Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay and Henri Le Fauconnier. This group had their own exhibition in the Salon d’Independants in the Spring of 1911. Because of Braque’s contractual agreement with Kahnweiler, he did not participate. Picasso followed suit. This left Braque and Picasso out of the discourse and controversy that caused an uproar with the public and critics. Because their works were largely out of the public eye at this time, they were spared the negative reactions to this new art movement being dubbed Cubism. This left Braque and Picasso free to experiment and develop their ideas without the stultifying negative input. Still, by 1911, Picasso had become ultimately recognized as the instigator of the new movement – not Braque. This was likely because Picasso was more willing to promote himself as the progenitor of this new art that was poised to overturn Matisse’s hold over the Paris art scene. Braque was more reticent about his place in the movement’s invention and about his career in general.

Despite this revisionist state of affairs, Picasso and Braque maintained their collaboration and spent the months of August and September in Sorgues, in the south of France. Here, Braque began working on cubist sculptures built out of paper. None of Braque’s paper sculptures exist any longer, but they intrigued Picasso so much, that by October, when he was back in Paris, Picasso wrote to Braque (who was still in the south of France) that he was using Braque’s paper procedures and creating a sculpture of a guitar. Mainly comfortable with painting, Picasso had attempted sculpture before his famous guitar. These previous three-dimensional objects were uneven in their execution because Picasso found the process of carving wood clumsy and difficult, while the act of carving stone was nearly impossible for him. He had better results with forming clay, but he simply did not have the aptitude or skills for traditional sculptural media.

Photograph of one of Georges paper Cubist sculptures. No longer extant.
Photograph of one of Georges paper Cubist sculptures. No longer extant.

Paper was more familiar and naturally malleable for Picasso. With Braque showing the way, he leaned into it with depth and intensity. After the paper version of the guitar and his other experiments with papier collé, Picasso wanted to fashion sculptural works out of more permanent materials. Beginning with scraps of found wood, some pieces of which he cut or otherwise modified to fit his vision, he began to build constructions. Adhering to the form of an easel painting, these constructions were intended to hang on the wall, not be experienced in the round. Works like Mandolin and Clarinet incorporated the elements of still life but were not an attempt at exploring naturalistic space. The work referenced the forms of the stated objects in the title but broke them apart to explore a cubist space. Given the limited modification of the found materials and the complicated splitting up of space, the mandolin and to a lesser extent the clarinet are difficult to detect.

In the spring of 1914, Picasso was still deep in exploring cubism and its possibilities as sculpture. He created two small box constructions of tabletop still lifes. These were the ideas that he and Braque were developing in their painting that Picasso also wanted to explore as three-dimensional forms. I saw these for the first time at an exhibition of Picasso’s sculptural works. I was especially drawn to them because my own work involves the creation of box constructions and was surprised to discover that Picasso had briefly used this format. Glass, Newspaper and Dice and Glass and Newspaper both use the box as a containing device to simplify the amount of information in the piece. This contrasted with the developing complexity of the analytical cubistic paintings that both artists were working on at this time.

Pablo Picasso; "Mandolin and Clarinet; 1913; painted wood and pencil.
Pablo Picasso; "Mandolin and Clarinet; 1913; painted wood and pencil.

In Glass Newspaper and Dice, Picasso used a few scraps of wood to fashion the form of a fluted and footed glass. The glass sits on a newspaper fashioned out of cut metal (from a metal can of powdered milk whose manufacturing embossing can be seen). The metal is curled and crumpled to provide more dimension and exploits the materials ability to hold form stiffly and permanently in a way paper cannot. The cube of a die is sitting to the bottom right. It’s top plane and left side are turned to meet the front plane which allows the viewer to see both the top and bottom at the same time in the classic bending of Cubist space. The whole work is painted in shades of grey except for a pattern of red dots in the upper left. These dots add texture, visual liveliness, and a bright relief from the unrelenting somberness of the drab coloration. Cubist painting had been noted for its drab and limited palette as the development of the new space had taken precedence over color.

The second box construction, Glass and Newspaper is conceived more sparingly and in a brighter palette of mainly green, which already signals a change in direction for Picasso. Here again is a simple still life of a stemmed glass sitting on a table with a newspaper. The only three-dimensional element is the glass, fashioned out of a rather flat piece of wood, and the box surround. All of the other elements of this cubist still life are painted. This makes the piece more of a painting with a collage element and less a sculptural work. The newspaper is represented on either side of the glass as painted white and black shapes. The black shape retains the “AL” of the word “JOURNAL” that serves to identify it as a newspaper. The top of the glass is represented as a circle with painted dots turned parallel to the front plane which seems a clumsy attempt at formulating this cubist element. Similar dots in the same color palette surround the glass on both sides. This texture of yellow and black not only work as the back and sides of the of the glass, but also embody the movement of the effervescent liquid inside of it offering a visually kinetic dimension to the piece. Again, the yellow and black colors brighten the tonality of the entire piece.

Neither of these works were considered important by Picasso. They were experimental dead end attempts to find a three-dimensional cubist language. These small works were placed in storage in his studio and forgotten. Neither were shown until his 1966 exhibition Homage to Pablo Picasso. Even then Picasso had to repair them for them to be ready for exhibition. These box constructions are a curiosity in Picasso’s oeuvre. These seem to be the only works of the artist to have used the box as a constraining and unifying element. They are not big, nor do they have much presence. While they use the language of the cubist still life that Braque and he contrived, they are far simpler in concept than any of the bolder and larger still life paintings that are now considered masterpieces of the genre.

Both the path to Cubism and Picasso’s sculptural style are convoluted. For Cubism, the thread is tangled up with the African tribal art and Iberian sculpture of antiquity. Still the greatest contributor to the Cubist inception was the landscape work of Paul Cezanne. Braque’s inventive reading of Cezanne’s painting sparked the idea for a modern way of conceptualizing form in space; a way to depict on the flat surface of the picture plane, all sides of an object at once. Braque found in Picasso a mind hungry for and open to new ideas in art, the two artists began a dialog and collaboration that would culminate in ending the tyranny that the realistic depiction of perspective space had had on Western art nearly since its inception. Cubism more than Impressionism and the Fauves, freed Western artists from the expectation of the picture as a window. Picasso and Braque accepted and promoted that the flat surface of the canvas was a valid space to exploit the possibilities of visual expression.

Picasso’s impulse to create sculpture was also a wending way, not always punctuated with successes. Trained as a painter, he found the traditional media of stone, and wood resistant to his limited modeling skills. He grew frustrated with each material as they resisted forming his ideas under his hand. Partnering with Braque, he found his way with the cutting and forming of paper into sculptural forms. Soon he was able to augment paper to include found wood, cut sheet metal and other collage materials into his art as suggested by Braque’s training as a decorator. Cubist painting gave him a more solid foundation for his cubist sculptural concepts. It lent itself readily to three dimensional forms. Even so, Picasso’s early compositions in three dimensions clung to the format of the relief. For a while, he had a difficult time divorcing himself from the hold of the painting on a wall. This would become a limitation for Picasso. His artistic vision was tied to art as painting and to art based in nature. As he found it difficult to divorce himself from art displayed frontally, which over time he would be able to overcome, so he found it impossible to sever his ties to art based in nature. For all his abstraction and manipulation of objects in a still life or in the human form, Picasso could never make the leap into pure abstraction. This would ultimately date his work and leave him behind as a pioneer in the ever-expanding world of contemporary art. Still, his cubist inspired works show his daring. His and Braque’s cubism forged the way for Western art to move forward and away from the holdfast of naturalism. Cubism idealized the concept that art could be a place that would only be limited by the mind of the artist.

Arthur Bruso © 2022

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