By: Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.
Cubism, the First Stage: The Problem of Form · Picasso and Braque
At the outset, a few prefatory words concerning the name of this school are necessary to avoid considering it as a program, and thus arrive at false conclusions. As the name “Impressionism” had been before, “Cubism” was a derogatory term applied by its enemies. Its inventor was Louis Vauxcelles, at that time art critic of the Gil Bias; sometime before, in the years 1904-05, he had coined another meaningless name for the avant garde of the Independants of that time — “Les Fauves,” the wild beasts — a term which has since fortunately disappeared.
In September 1908 he met Matisse who was a member of the Salon d’Autorrme jury for that year, and who told him that Braque had sent to the Fall Salon paintings “avec des petits cubes.” To describe them he drew on a piece of paper two ascending lines meeting in a peak, and between them some cubes.
He was referring to Braque’s landscapes of I’Estaque painted that spring. With the sensitivity characteristic of such bodies, the jury rejected two of the six paintings submitted. One was “fished out again,” as someone put it, by Marquet, and another by Guerin, both of whom were members of the jury, but Braque nevertheless withdrew all six.
From Matisse’s word “cube” Vauxcelles then invented the meaningless “Cubism” which he used for the first time in an article on the 1909 Salon des Independants, in connection with two other paintings by Braque, a still life and a landscape. Strangely enough he later added to this term the adjective “peruvien” and spoke of “Peruvian Cubism” and “Peruvian Cubists” which made the designation even more meaningless. This adjective soon disappeared, but the name “Cubism” endured and entered colloquial language, since Braque and Picasso, the painters originally so designated, cared very little whether they were called that or something else.
These two artists are the great founders of Cubism. In the evolution of the new art, the contributions of both are intimately related, often hardly distinguishable. Friendly conversations between the two afforded the new method of painting many advances which one or the other first put into practice. Both deserve credit; both are great and admirable artists, each in his own way. Braque’s art is quieter, Picasso’s is nervous and turbulent. The lucid Frenchman Braque and the fanatically searching Spaniard Picasso stand together.
In the year 1906, Braque, Derain, Matisse and many others were still striving for expression through color, using only pleasant arabesques, and completely dissolving the form of the object! Cezanne’s great example was still not understood. Painting threatened to debase itself to the level of ornamentation ; it sought to be “decorative,” to “adorn” the wall.
Picasso had remained indifferent to the temptation of color. He had pursued another path, never abandoning his concern for the object. The literary “expression” which had existed in his earlier work now vanished. A lyricism of form retaining fidelity to nature began to take shape. He created large nudes roundly modeled in chiaroscuro. They appeared “classic” and his friends referred to a “Pompeiian Period.” But Picasso’s intention remained unfulfilled.
Here it should be made clear that I do not mean an established program when I speak of Picasso’s or Braque’s intentions, endeavors and thoughts. I am attempting to describe in words the inner urge of these artists, the ideas no doubt clearly in their minds, yet rarely mentioned in their conversations, and then only casually. Toward the end of 1906, then, the soft round contours in Picasso’s paintings ” gave way to hard angular forms; instead of delicate rose, pale yellow and light green, the massive forms were weighted with leaden white, gray and black.
Early in 1907 Picasso began a strange large painting depicting women, fruit and drapery, which he left unfinished. It cannot be called other than unfinished, even though it represents a long period of work. Begun in the spirit of the works of 1906, it contains in one section the endeavors of 1907 and thus never constitutes a unified whole. The nudes, with large, quiet eyes, stand rigid, like mannequins. Their stiff, round bodies are flesh-colored, black and white. That is the style of 1906.In the foreground, however, alien to the style of the rest of the painting, appear a crouching figure and a bowl of fruit. These forms are drawn angularly, not roundly modeled in chiaroscuro. The colors are luscious blue, strident yellow, next to pure black and white. This is the beginning of Cubism, the first upsurge, a desperate titanic clash with all of the problems at once.
These problems were the basic tasks of painting: to represent three dimensions and color on a flat surface, and to comprehend them in the unity of that surface. “Representation,” however, and “comprehension” in the strictest and highest sense. Not the simulation of form by chiaroscuro, but the depiction of the three dimensional through drawing on a flat surface. No pleasant “composition” but uncompromising, organically articulated structure. In addition, there was the problem of color, and finally, the most difficult of all, that of the amalgamation, the reconciliation of the whole.
Rashly, Picasso attacked all the problems at once. He placed sharp-edged images on the canvas, heads and nudes mostly, in the brightest colors : yellow, red, blue and black. He applied the colors in thread-like fashion to serve as lines of direction, and to build up, in conjunction with the drawing, the plastic effect. But, after months of the most laborious searching, Picasso realized that complete solution of the problem did not lie in this direction.
At this point I must make it clear that these paintings are no less “beautiful” for not having attained their goal. An artist who is possessed of the divine gift, genius, always produces aesthetic creations, whatever their aspect, whatever their “appearance” may be. His innermost being creates the beauty; the external appearance of the work of art, however, is the product of the time in which it is created.
A short period of exhaustion followed; the artist’s battered spirit turned to problems of pure structure. A series of pictures appeared in which he seems to have been occupied only with the articulation of the color planes. This withdrawal from the diversity of the physical world to the undisturbed peace of the work of art was of short duration. Soon Picasso perceived the danger of lowering his art to the level of ornament.
In the spring of 1908 he resumed his quest, this time solving one by one the problems that arose. He had to begin with the most important thing, and that seemed to be the explanation of form, the representation of the three-dimensional and its position in space on a two dimensional surface. As Picasso himself once said, “In a Raphael painting it is not possible to establish the distance from the tip of the nose to the mouth. I should like to paint pictures in which that would be possible.” At the same time of course, the problem of comprehension — of structure — was always in the foreground. The question of color, on the other hand, was completely by-passed.
Thus Picasso painted figures resembling Congo sculptures, and still lifes of the simplest form. His perspective in these works is similar to that of Cezanne. Light is never more than a means to create form — through chiaroscuro, since he did not at this time repeat the unsuccessful attempt of 1907 to create form through drawing. Of these paintings one can no longer say, “The light comes from this or that side,” because light has become completely a means. The pictures are almost monochromatic; brick red and red brown, often with a gray or gray green ground, since the color is meant only to be chiaroscuro.
While Picasso was painting in Paris, and in the summer, at La Rue-des-Bois (near Creil, Oise), Braque, at the other end of France, in I’Estaque (near Marseilles) was painting the series of landscapes we have already mentioned. No connection existed between the two artists. This venture was a completely new one, totally different from Picasso’s work of 1907; by an entirely different route Braque arrived at the same point as Picasso. If, in the whole history of art, there were not already sufficient proof that the appearance of the aesthetic product is conditioned in its particularity by the spirit of the time, that even the most powerful artists unconsciously execute its will, then this would be proof. Separated by
distance, and working independently, the two artists devoted their most intense effort to paintings which share an extraordinary resemblance. This relationship between their paintings continued but ceased to be astonishing because the friendship between the two artists, begun in the winter of that year, brought about a constant exchange of ideas.
Picasso and Braque had to begin with objects of the simplest sort: in landscape, with cylindrical tree trunks and rectangular houses; in still life, with plates, symmetrical vessels, round fruits and one or two nude figures. They sought to make these objects as plastic as possible, and to define their position in space. Here we touch upon the indirect advantage of lyric painting. It has made us aware of the beauty of form in the simplest objects, where we had carelessly overlooked it before. These objects have now become eternally vivid in the reflected splendor of the beauty which the artist has abstracted from them.
Derain, too, had abandoned decorative light painting in 1907, preceding Braque by a few months. But from the outset, their roads were diverse. Derain’s endeavor to retain fidelity to nature in his painting separates him forever from Cubism, no matter how closely his ideas may otherwise parallel those of Braque.
Cubism, the Second Stage: The Piercing of the Closed Form · The Problem of Color · Categories of Vision · Picasso and Braque Working Together
In the winter of 1908, the two friends began to work along common and parallel paths. The subjects of their still life painting became more complex, the representation of nudes more detailed. The relation of objects to one another underwent further differentiation, and structure, heretofore relatively uncomplicated —as, for example, in a still life of the spring of 1907 whose structure forms a simple spiral— took on more intricacy and variety. Color, as the expression of light, or chiaroscuro, continued to be used as a means of shaping form. Distortion of form, the usual consequence of the conflict between representation and structure, was strongly evident.
Among the new subjects introduced at this time were musical instruments, which Braque was the first to paint, and which continued to play such an important role in cubist still life painting. Other new motifs were fruit bowls, bottles and glasses.
During the summer of 1909 which Picasso spent at Horta (near Tolosa, Spain) and Braque at La Roche Guyon (on the Seine, near Mantes) the new language of form was further augmented and enriched, but left essentially unchanged.
Several times during the spring of 1910 Picasso attempted to endow the forms of his pictures with color. That is, he tried to use color not only as an expression of light, or chiaroscuro, for the creation of form, but rather as an equally important end in itself. Each time he was obliged to paint over the color he had thus introduced; the single exception is a small nude of the period (about 18 x 23 centimeters in size) in which a piece of fabric is colored in brilliant red.
At the same time Braque made an important discovery. In one of his pictures he painted a completely naturalistic nail casting its shadow on a wall. The usefulness of this innovation will be discussed later. The difficulty lay in the incorporation of this “real” object into the unity of the painting. From then on, both artists consistently limited the space in the background of the picture. In a landscape, for instance, instead of painting an illusionistic distant horizon in which the eye lost itself, the artists closed the three dimensional space with a mountain. In still life or nude painting, the wall of a room served the same purpose. This method of limiting space had already been used frequently by Cezanne.
During the summer, again spent in I’Estaque, Braque took a further step in the introduction of “real objects,” that is, of realistically painted things introduced, undistorted in form and color, into the picture. We find lettering for the first time in a Guitar Player of the period. Here again, lyrical painting uncovered a new world of beauty —this time in posters, display windows and commercial signs which play so important a role in our visual impressions.
Much more important, however, was the decisive advance which set Cubism free from the language previously used by painting. This occurred in Cadaques (in Spain, on the Mediterranean near the French border) where Picasso spent his summer. Little satisfied, even after weeks of arduous labor, he returned to Paris in the fall with his unfinished works. But he had taken the great step; he had pierced the closed form. A new tool had been forged for the achievement of the new purpose.
Years of research had proved that closed form did not permit an expression sufficient for the two artists’ aims. Closed form accepts objects as contained by their own surfaces, viz., the skin; it then endeavors to represent this closed body, and, since no object is visible without light, to paint this “skin” as the con- tact point between the body and light where both merge into color. This chiaroscuro can provide only an illusion of the form of objects. In the actual three-dimensional world the object is there to be touched even after light is eliminated. Memory images of tactile perceptions can also be verified on visible bodies. The different accommodations of the retina of the eye enable us, as it were, to “touch” three dimensional objects from a distance. Two dimensional painting is not concerned with all this. Thus the painters of the Renaissance, using the closed form method, endeavored to give the illusion of form by painting light as color on the surface of objects. It was never more than “illusion.”
Since it was the mission of color to create the form as chiaroscuro, or light that had become perceivable, there was no possibility of rendering local color or color itself. It could only be painted as objectivated light.
In addition, Braque and Picasso were disturbed by the unavoidable distortion of form which worried many spectators initially. Picasso himself often repeated the ludicrous remark made by his friend, the sculptor Manolo, before one of his figure paintings : “What would you say if your parents were to call for you at the Barcelona station with such faces?” This is a drastic example of the relation between memory images and the figures represented in the painting. Comparison between the real object as articulated by the rhythm of forms in the painting and the same object as it exists in the spectator’s memory inevitably results in “distortions” as long as even the slightest verisimilitude in the work of art creates this conflict in the spectator. Through the combined discoveries of Braque and Picasso during the summer of 1910 it became possible to avoid these difficulties by a new way of painting.
On the one hand, Picasso’s new method made it possible to “represent” the form of objects and their position in space instead of attempting to imitate them through illusionistic means. With the representation of solid objects this could be effected by a process of representation that has a certain resemblance to geometrical drawing. This is a matter of course since the aim of both is to render the three dimensional object on a two dimensional plane. In addition, the painter no longer has to limit himself to depicting the object as it would appear from one given viewpoint, but wherever necessary for fuller comprehension, can show it from several sides, and from above and below.
Representation of the position of objects in space is done as follows : instead of beginning from a supposed foreground and going on from there to give an illusion of depth by means of perspective, the painter begins from a definite and clearly defined background. Starting from this background the painter now works toward the front by a sort of scheme of forms in which each object’s position is clearly indicated, both in relation to the definite background and to other objects. Such an arrangement thus gives a clear and plastic view. But, if only this scheme of forms were to exist it would be impossible to see in the painting the “representation” of things from the outer world. One would only see an arrangement of planes, cylinders, quadrangles, etc.
At this point Braque’s introduction of undistorted real objects into the painting takes on its full significance. When “real details” are thus introduced the result is a stimulus which carries with it memory images. Combining the “real” stimulus and the scheme of forms, these images construct the finished object in the mind. Thus the desired physical representation comes into being in the spectator’s mind.
Now the rhythmisation necessary for the coordination of the individual parts into the unity of the work of art can take place without producing disturbing distortions, since the object in effect is no longer “present” in the painting, that is, since it does not yet have the least resemblance to actuality. Therefore, the stimulus cannot come into conflict with the product of the assimilation. In other words, there exist in the painting the scheme of forms and small real details as stimuli integrated into the unity of the work of art; there exists, as well, but only in the mind of the spectator, the finished product of the assimilation, the human head, for instance. There is no possibihty of a conflict here, and yet the object once “recognized” in the painting is now “seen” with a perspicacity of which no illusionistic art is capable.
As to color, its utilization as chiaroscuro had been abolished. Thus, it could be freely employed, as color, within the unity of the work of art. For the representation of local color, its application on a small scale is sufficient to effect its incorporation into the finished representation in the mind of the spectator.
In the words of Locke, these painters distinguish between primary and secondary qualities. They endeavor to represent the primary, or most important qualities, as exactly as posible. In painting these ar : the object ‘s form, and its position in space. They merely suggest the secondary characteristics such as color and tactile quality, leaving their incorporation into the object to the mind of the spectator.
This new language has given painting an unprecedented freedom. It is no longer bound to the more or less verisimilar optic image which describes the object from a single viewpoint. It can, in order to give a thorough representation of the object’s primary characteristics, depict them as stereometric drawing on the plane, or, through several representations of the same object, can provide an analytical study of that object which the spectator then fuses into one again in his mind. The representation does not necessarily have to be in the closed manner of the stereometric drawing ; colored planes, through their direction and relative position, can bring together the formal scheme without uniting in closed forms. This was the great advance made at Cadaques. Instead of an analytical description, the painter can, if he prefers, also create in this way a synthesis of the object, or in the words of Kant, “put together the various conceptions and comprehend their variety in one perception.”
Naturally, with this, as with any new mode of expression in painting, the assimilation which leads to seeing the represented things objectively does not immediately take place when the spectator is unfamiliar with the new language. But for lyric painting to fulfill its purpose completely, it must be more than just a pleasure to the eye of the spectator. To be sure, assimilation always takes place finally, but in order to facilitate it, and impress its urgency upon the spectator, cubist pictures should always be provided with descriptive titles, such as Bottle and Glass, Playing Cards and Dice and so on. In this way, the condition will arise which H. G. Lewes referred to as “preperception” and memory images connected with the title will then focus much more easily on the stimuli in the painting.
Titling will also prevent sensory illusions of the kind which gave Cubism its name, and brought about its designation, so popular, particularly in France, as a geometric style. Here we must make a sharp distinction between the impression made upon the spectator and the lines of the painting itself. The name “Cubism” and the designation “Geometric Art” grew out of the impression of early spectators who “saw” geometric forms in the paintings. This impression is unjustified, since the visual conception desired by the painter by no means resides in the geometric forms, but rather in the representation of the reproduced objects.
How does such a sensory illusion come about? It occurs only with observers whom lack of habit has prevented from making the associations which lead to objective perception. Man is possessed by an urge to objectivate; he wants to “see something” in the work of art which should — and he is sure of this — represent something. His imagination forcefully calls up memory images, but the only ones which present themselves, the only ones which seem to fit the straight lines and uniform curves are geometric images. Experience has shown that this “geometric impression” disappears completely as soon as the spectator familiarizes himself with the new method of expression and gains in perception.
If we disregard representation, however, and limit ourselves to the “actual” individual lines in the painting, there is no disputing the fact that they are very often straight lines and uniform curves. Furthermore, the forms which they serve to delineate are often similar to the circle and rectangle, or even to stereometric representations of cubes, spheres and cylinders. But, such straight lines and uniform curves are present in all styles of the plastic arts which do not have as their goal the illusionistic imitation of nature! Architecture, which is a plastic art, but at the same time non-representational, uses these lines extensively. The
same is true of applied art. Man creates no building, no product which does not have regular lines. In architecture and applied art, cubes, spheres and cylinders are the permanent basic forms. They do not exist in the natural world, nor do straight lines. But they are deeply rooted in man ; they are the necessary condition for all objective perception.
Our remarks until now about visual perception have concerned its content alone, the two dimensional “seen” and the three dimensional “known” visual images. Now we are concerned with the form of these images, the form of our perception of the physical world. The geometric forms we have just mentioned provide us with the solid structure; on this structure we build the products of our imagination which are composed of stimuli on the retina and memory images. They are our categories of vision. When we direct our view on the outer world, we always demand those forms but they are never given to us in all their purity. The flat picture which we “see” bases itself mainly on the straight horizontal and vertical, and secondly on the circle. We test the “seen” lines of the physical world for their greater or lesser relationship to these basic lines. Where no actual line exists, we supply the “basic” line ourselves. For example, a water horizon which is limited on both sides appears horizontal to us; one which is unlimited on both sides appears curved. Furthermore, only our knowledge of simple stereometric forms enables us to add the third dimension to the flat picture which our eye perceives. Without the cube, we would have no feeling of the three dimensionality of objects, and without the sphere and cylinder, no feeling of the varieties of this three dimensionality. Our a priori knowledge of these forms is the necessary condition, without which there would be no seeing, no world of objects. Architecture and applied art realize in space these basic forms which we always demand in vain of the natural world ; the sculpture of periods which have turned away from nature approaches these forms insofar as its representational goal permits, and the two-dimensional painting of such periods gives expression to the same longing in its use of “basic lines.” Humanity is possessed not only by the longing for these lines and forms, but also by the ability to create them. This ability shows itself clearly in those civilizations in which no “representational” plastic art has produced other lines and forms.
In its works Cubism, in accordance with its role as both constructive and representational art, brings the forms of the physical world as close as possible to their underlying basic forms. Through connection with these basic forms, upon which all visual and tactile perception is based, Cubism provides the clearest elucidation and foundation of all forms. The unconscious effort which we have to make with each object of the physical world before we can perceive its form is lessened by cubist painting through its demonstration of the relation between these objects and basic forms. Like a skeletal frame these basic forms underlie the impression of the represented object in the final visual result of the painting; they are no longer “seen” but are the basis of the “seen” form.
It is not our intention to outline a complete history of Cubism here. We would exceed the limits of this work if we were to follow the development of the two artists any further, now that the definitive language of the new art has been created. Our mission was to fix the position of Cubism in the history of painting, and to demonstrate the motives which guided its founders.
This new style has taken ever greater possession of the appearance of painting; an ever growing number of painters has begun to paint “cubistically.” This lyric painting is the expression of the intellectual spirit of our time. The necessary result of this will be that all true artists of the coming generation will espouse Cubism — in the wider sense.
Those who have already adopted Cubism include talented as well as untalented artists; in Cubism, too, they remain what they were. Those with talent create aesthetic products; those without it do not. For Cubism is only an “appearance,” only the result of the purpose which the intellectual spirit of the time has imposed upon painting. Whether the picture with the cubist appearance will be an aesthetic achievement, whether the aesthetically inclined spectator will be compelled to designate it as beautiful depends, as always, only on the painter’s genius. Yet every talented young artist will have to come to an understanding with Cubism. He will have little chance of getting along without it, just as a contemporary of Titian in Italy could never have reverted to the style of Giotto. The artist, as the executor of the unconscious plastic will of mankind, identifies himself with the style of the period, which is the expression of this will.
Just as the illusionistic art of the Renaissance created a tool for itself in oil painting, which alone could satisfy its striving for verisimilar representation of the smallest details, so Cubism had to invent new means for an entirely opposite purpose. For the planes of cubist painting oil color is often unsuitable, ugly, and sometimes sticky. Cubism created for itself new media in the most varied materials: colored strips of paper, lacquer, newspaper, and in addition, for the real details, oilcloth, glass, sawdust, etc.
In the years 1913 and 1914 Braque and Picasso attempted to eliminate the use of color as chiaroscuro, which had still persisted to some extent in their painting, by amalgamating painting and sculpture. Instead of having to demonstrate through shadows how one plane stands above, or in front of a second plane, they could now superimpose the planes one on the other and illustrate the relationship directly. The first attempts to do this go far back. Picasso had already begun such an enterprise in 1909, but since he did it within the limits of closed form, it was destined to fail. It resulted in a kind of colored bas-relief. Only in open planal form could this union of painting and sculpture be realized. Despite current prejudice, this endeavor to increase plastic expression through the collaboration of the two arts must be warmly approved; an enrichment of the plastic arts is certain to result from it. A number of sculptors like Lipchitz, Laurens and Archipenko has since taken up and developed this sculpto-painting.
Nor is this form entirely new in the history of the plastic arts. The negroes of the Ivory Coast have made use of a very similar method of expression in their dance masks. These are constructed as follows: a completely flat plane forms the lower part of the face; to this is joined the high forehead, which is sometimes equally flat, sometimes bent slightly backward. While the nose is added as a simple strip of wood, two cylinders protrude about eight centimeters to form the eyes, and one slightly shorter hexahedron forms the mouth. The frontal surfaces of the cylinder and hexahedron are painted, and the hair is represented by raffia. It is true that the form is still closed here; however, it is not the “real” form, but rather a tight formal scheme of plastic primeval force. Here, too, we find a scheme of forms and “real details” (the painted eyes, mouth and hair) as stimuli. The result in the mind of the spectator, the desired effect, is a human face.
Chapters III & IV from The Rise of Cubism by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiller. Translated by Henry Aronson.
Complete source available in: https://archive.org/stream/riseofcubism00kahn#page/n5/mode/2up
Capítulos III y IV de The Rise of Cubism por Daniel-Henry Kahnweiller. Traducido por Henry Aronson.
Fuente completa disponible en: https://archive.org/stream/riseofcubism00kahn#page/n5/mode/2up