Art of the 20th Century

A Revolution in the Arts


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map







Pablo Picasso

The Image of the Artist  1881-1973
The Making of a Genius  1890-1898
The Art of Youth  1898-1901
The Blue Period  1901- 1904
The Rose Period  1904-1906
In the Laboratory of Art  1906-1907
Analytical Cubism  1907- 1912
Synthetic Cubism  1912-1915
The Camera and the Classicist  1916-1924
A Juggler with Form  1925-1936
War, Art and "Guernica"  1937
The Picasso Style  1937-1943
Politics and Art  1943-1953
The Presence of the Past  1954- 1963
The Case of "Las Meninas"  1957
The Old Savage  1963-1973
The Legend of the Artist



Pablo Picasso - Erotic Drawings 1968-1972
Pablo Picasso and his Women


Synthetic Cubism



The work Picasso did in 1907 on "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" placed him squarely in the contemporary vanguard. But in his radicalness he stood alone. From 1908 to 1911, together with Braque, he developed Cubism, and moved on to the frontiers of abstraction. Only a very few insiders were in a position to follow this progress, though. When the two artists created Synthetic Cubism from 1912 onwards, the situation had changed, and Cubism was no longer the property of the experts, a style hidden away in a handful of galleries, but rather the new sensational talking point among all who had an interest in contemporary art.

Late in 1911, a number of young artists calling themselves Cubists exhibited in the Salon des Independants and at the autumn Salon. But Picasso and Braque were not the stars of these shows; they were not even to be seen. The most important artists of the Cubist group were Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Henri Le Fauconnier, Robert Delaunay, Roger de la Fresnaye and Fernard Leger. In 1912, the now expanded group again exhibited at both Salons. By now, public interest was even greater, and there was a scandal comparable only with that which had accompanied the arrival of the Fauves in 1905. From our point of view, if we compare their work with what Picasso and Braque had just been doing, the fuss is difficult to understand. The Cubism that caught the public eye was by no means a genuinely revolutionary, innovative art. Almost all the pictures on show can be seen as pleasing variants on what the two true revolutionaries had been painting earlier, around 1908-1909. Only Delaunay and Leger had ideas of their own about abstraction from the representational.

Nevertheless, the controversy raged in the press and even at political meetings. This rapid reception was doubtless assisted by the fact that the group offered the public a readily-grasped notion of Cubism. Their work was essentially geometrically abstract, taking its cue from the cube. Without taking Picasso's and Braque's latest work into account, the painters had gone back to Cezanne, and to the older work Braque had exhibited at Kahnweiler's in 1908.

The twin lines of development were plainly not running in synch. Artistic approaches, their significance for progress in art, and their recognition in the public arena, were evolving in dislocated fashion. The reason must be sought in the new conditions of art and its reception in the early 20th century - which will also account for the shift in the evaluation of various Cubist artists that occurred during the debate of 1912.


Bottle of Pernod and Glass



In the 19th century it was the official Salons, and they (very nearly) alone, that decided the recognition of artists. Discussion divided according to whether artists were Salon or anti-Salon artists: we need only recall Courbet, or the Impressionists. But since the turn of the century it had been commercial galleries and the press that steered the reception. Most important shows of avant-garde art were to be seen in the galleries. They acted as middlemen between the studios and the public, ensuring that the latest work was seen and providing journalists and critics with the material for reviews and essays. Of course the motives of the galleries were commercial, at least in part. Certain artists were promoted and marketed. This, after all, was the dawn of middle-class society's commercialization of art.

Till the decisive Cubist breakthrough, Picasso's career too was one that depended on dealers' speculation. His early exhibition at Vollard's in 1901 represented an investment in his future productivity. Everyone who knew what was what realised, after all, that Salon art was being superseded by something new. Thus in early 1907 Vollard bought up everything of Picasso's, including all his sketches, for 2500 francs. Both Picasso and Braque had contracts with the young German dealer Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, who paid a fixed price for their startling new work. An arrangement of this kind gave the artists a degree of security and also enabled them to ignore the processes of official recognition. Picasso, in fact, never exhibited at a Paris Salon; instead, Kahnweiler sold his work to collectors, and introduced it to other galleries and dealers via his contacts. In 1911, both Picasso and Braque had exhibitions abroad - in the Galerie Thannhauser in Munich, for instance. These shows familiarized experts with their work but were largely ignored by the broader public.

The Tavern



The official Cubist shows of 1911, at which Picasso and Braque were not represented, inevitably changed things. The public debate forced their work into the open and made it imperative to establish their significance in the evolution of Cubism. In 1912 Metzinger and Gleizes published "Du cubisme", a theoretical, popularizing view of Cubism that took Cezanne as the great exemplar.

But numerous writers in Picasso's circle published other views. That same year, Salmon published two books which are seen to this day as vital sources in the history of Modernist art: his "Histoire anecdotique du cubisme", and "La jeune peinture francaise". He was the first to stress Picasso's key position and the seminal importance of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" in the founding of Cubism. Then in 1913 Apollinaire's book "Les peintres cubistes" appeared, and made an attempt to distinguish and characterize groupings within the movement. Braque and Picasso were labelled "scientific" Cubists.

All of this produced a fundamental revaluation of Cubism and the individual painters. Now Picasso stood centre-stage, vilified and acclaimed as the innovator par excellence. Though it does not fit the facts, Braque has been viewed ever since as Picasso's junior partner. This too can be accounted for if we look at the art scene of the time. Before Cubism, Picasso already had a name, while Braque was merely the young man among the Fauves. Though Picasso was the elder by a mere half year, he retained his advantage. From the start it was a financial advantage too: though both artists were under contract to Kahnweiler, the dealer paid Picasso four times what he paid Braque for his Cubist work. This appears to have had no effect on the two artists' personal relations, though, and Picasso certainly seems to have considered Braque his equal. The letters they wrote each other - even if they were partly playing to the gallery, so to speak - record real friendship and mutual respect.
Their exchange entered a new phase in 1912. Braque was continually trying to adapt craft techniques to Cubism, to put it on a new footing. The tactile sense could be appealed to in more ways than paint and a drawing pencil. He tested materials and methods familiar to the house decorator but new to art. Along with templates and other illusionist tricks, he mixed his paint with sand or plaster to create a rough, textured surface like that of a relief. In place of two-dimensional, surface mimesis on canvas or panel, Braque now used material textures of various kinds as an expressive value in itself. The next step, logically (as we can now see), was to redefine the visual function of technique and of the materials) used.



Guitar "I love Eve"



"Ma Jolie" (Marcelle Humbert-Eva)


"Ma Jolie"

In early 1912, following a stay at Sorgues, Braque showed Picasso his new work. It was three-dimensional. He had been cutting sculptural objects together, using paper or cardboard, and then painting or drawing over them. The spatial experiment was designed as a way of assessing illusionist techniques. He then applied the same ideas to two-dimensional work, retaining paper and cardboard as materials; and a new kind of work, the papiers colles, was born.

Subsequently he varied the textural effects and tried out further ways of developing them. In particular, he used pre-formed, printed, coloured and structured pieces of paper.

For Picasso, Braque's latest innovations provided the occasion to extend Cubism's visual system. Paintings such as the 1914 "Ma Jolie", personal in their allusive range, were the result. In these works, Picasso used letters and words as graphic, indeed iconic signs. The conventional meanings remain, since the letters can still be read, but the statement is puzzling. Picasso deploys messages that seem unambiguous but which become inaccessible once they appear in the context of his pictures. Thus in "Ma Jolie" the guitar, the make-believe music, the pipe, glass, playing card, dice, and the word "Bass", implying a drink, all provide ready associations with a cafe interior. The words "Ma Jolie" on the music would be perceived by contemporaries as a quotation from a popular chanson by Fragson; but the phrase also had a private meaning intended only for the artist's closest friends. It referred to Eva Gouel, a young woman who had entered the artistic milieu of Montmartre as painter Louis Marcoussis's girlfriend and then became Picasso's partner. Picasso similarly attached messages to his use of the house painter's "comb" template. In "The Poet" it not only provided texture, as it had for Braque. By using it for the poet's hair and moustache, Picasso introduced a mechanistic component into the representational process, well-nigh destroying all trace of illusionism and thereby redoubling the iconographic effect.


His approach to Braque's new papiers colles method was similar. The graphic structure of the printed paper produced a quality that was figuratively random in terms of a picture's import. In 1912 Picasso produced a number of masterly works of striking economy of means, one of the finest of them being the "Violin". Two scraps of newspaper, a few lines and charcoal hatchings - and the picture is finished. It is one of the loveliest and most intelligent Cubist pictures. First, Picasso clipped an irregular piece of newspaper and stuck it on cardboard. Then he drew a stylized violin's neck with the characteristic curled head. Following the precept of Analytical Cubism, he added formally deconstructed lines to suggest the parts of a violin. The newspaper text is still decipherable, but its original function and meaning have vanished. Though identifiably from a paper, it is seen purely as a graphic design, an image. The yellowing adds an extra interest, echoing the brownish colour of the violin. But Picasso did not merely defamiliarize his found material: the part of the newspaper from which he had clipped the first was reversed and placed at top right, where it acts as a background, this function being at odds with its identity as a newspaper fragment. We are offered an object and spatial dimensions - but, even as Picasso establishes them, he destroys them once again.

The newspaper scraps are placed to mark an irregular vertical diagonal, a visual instability which the artist has echoed in the charcoal hatching. The tonal polarity creates a balance of the white card, the printed and yellowed paper, and the economical lines of the drawing. The form and content of the picture are at variance, but they are necessarily combined; and thus a subtle tension of great aesthetic and intellectual presence is created.

Picasso varied this stylistic approach in a number of papiers colles done in 1912. In one work he explored presence and vacancy by cutting an irregular rectangular shape out of a sheet of newspaper and then sticking the sheet upside-down on a sheet of cardboard. The art consists primarily in an intellectual rather than a technical process. Once again, Picasso deploys the first principles of representational art in absurd fashion. The table and bottle in the still life are presented with a few charcoal lines using the vacant space in the paper. Bottles are three-dimensional, and in terms of solid geometry cylinders.




Bottle on a Table


Geometrical Composition: The Guitar


In transferring his bottle to the two dimensions of a picture, Picasso dispensed with any attempt at illusionist spatiality and rendered the bottle in two flat dimensions. Seen two-dimensionally, though, bottles are long rectangles; so that was the shape the artist cut out of the paper. The bottom of a bottle is circular, so Picasso's peculiar logic renders a circle in the two-dimensional projection. This circle is in fact a surviving area of newspaper in the cut-out section, displaced sideways. A few days later, in December 1912, Picasso made an exact counterpart of this picture, the bottle now represented - conversely - by the newspaper.

During that period, Picasso also used other patterned materials such as wallpaper, advertisements, cloth and packaging, to good visual effect. Though unfamiliar materials were being introduced into the pictures, the iconic quality of presentation remained. The materials were integrated perfectly into the style and logic of Picasso's compositions, and were there primarily to add texture or patterning. These papiers colles can thus be read as systems of signs producing a new level of effect. The best example is perhaps a painting done in Ceret in 1913. According to its title, it shows a guitar.

The picture consists of a few irregular, angular areas of khaki, white and black. It is a copy of a papier colle that Picasso had recently done - that is to say, it imitates an imitation. This defamiliarization is intensified by the use of angular shapes, since they are plainly at variance with the rounded shapes of what is supposedly the picture's subject, a guitar. And, further, the fundamentals of illusionism - light and shadow, perspective foreshortening -are not meaningfully deployed but are absurdly juxtaposed. The overlapping which at other times conveys spatial dimensions completes the defamiliarization in this picture so effectively that we would have no idea what it represented were it not for the title. The picture seems wholly abstract.

This defamiliarization still works entirely within the parameters of mimetic iconography. Picasso went about his work quite differently in the collage technique he devised at the time. In collage -unlike papier colle - an object is introduced into a context in such a way as to alter not only the medium but also the style and meaning of the motif. "Still Life with Chair Caning", done in May 1912, is the cornerstone work of this new method. A composition in the manner of Analytical Cubism has been joined to a slant rectangular area showing the weave of a cane chair. This naturalistic component is at odds with the style of the rest. In fact it is not a representational piece of work by the artist, but a printed scrap of oilcloth. The semblance of reality is deployed as an illusion, identified as such, and exploited iconographically.


Still Life with Chair Caning




During this phase of Cubism, using new materials and techniques, Picasso was exploring the problem of spatial values in the illusion established by pictures. Many of his works therefore started from three-dimensional work. Alongside the papiers colles he began to make guitars out of cardboard. The instrument is crudely but recognisably made: the brown colours of the cardboard, reminiscent of the wood of guitars, doubtless help us in the recognition. But inappropriate materials are used too, and spatial values subverted. The lid, bottom and side walls of the cardboard boxes are flattened to equal status. The basic Cubist rule of combining the representational and the random applies to these works too. But in contrast to Analytical Cubism, which dissected objects, here they are re-assembled. And for this reason a different term is used: Synthetic Cubism.


Cardboard, paper, canvas, string and pencil

Cardboard, paper, canvas, string and pencil



Following this line, Picasso devised another new form, the assemblage. Basically it transposes the methods and effects of collage into three dimensions. Two still-life works from 1913 are good examples: "Guitar and Bottle of Bass" and "Mandolin and Clarinet". The vehicle, structurally and visually, is wood. Picasso uses its tactile and visual properties, such as the graining and colour. By adding extra colour and drawing, he intensifies the effect, levels out spatial qualities, covers textures - but also contrasts his materials and techniques. It is a style that is nicely visible in the tondo "Glass, Pipe, Ace of Clubs and Dice". As well as wood, Picasso uses metal here; but it is painted over, and its original textural properties are no longer recognisable. The ace of clubs is sheet metal, the club symbol punched out. The dice is a slant, cut-off section of a cylinder; only the painted motifs convey what it is meant to be.


Guitar and Bottle of Bass

Mandolin and Clarinet


Glass, Pipe, Ace of Clubs and Dice



Picasso also combined multi-level semantic defamiliarizations with tandem aesthetic and intellectual appeals in his only regular sculpture from this period, a famous serial work of which six copies were made: "The Glass of Absinthe". He made a wax and plasticine mould and variously painted the bronze casts. Absinthe (a vermouth brandy now banned because it is a health risk) was drunk from a glass goblet of the kind the sculpture shows. Picasso dissolved its transparent volume, with various highlights occasioned by the light, into isolated zones which he then juxtaposed, adding a genuine little spoon with a wax model of a sugar lump.

A great many things that are demonstrably wrong have been written about this yoking of different materials and methods of presentation. It is true that three formal levels meet in a mould: the reality of a genuine spoon, simple representation in the form of a wax copy of a sugar lump, and defamiliarization of the appearance of the glass. But this is of no relevance in artistic terms, and is merely of practical significance. In the casting process of all six copies, the distinction between reality and simple representation inevitably vanished, because the spoon too now became only a representation of itself. The wax model of the genuine sugar lump was technically necessary because sugar, being porous, was unsuitable for bronze casting. All that really matters, in terms of the principles of Synthetic Cubism, is the contrast between conventionally faithful representation (the spoon and sugar) and Cubist methods. In all six copies this contrast is observed. The various painting merely served purposes of accentuation.


The Glass of Absinthe



Thus the processes of deception underlying the art of illusion are excellently displayed in the assemblages and sculptures of Synthetic Cubism. Picasso arguably took this line of thinking to the logical extreme in his metal "Violin", done in 1915 and a full metre high. It is made of cut sheet metal, but the parts are wired in and colourfully overpainted so that the nature of the material is once again not immediately apparent. The volume of the metal components and the spatial values implied by the painting are at variance. The impact is further blurred because Picasso, partly harking back to the 1912 "Guitar", has interchanged spatial values. Parts that should occupy a foreground position in the object supposedly represented, and others that would be further from us in a conventional three-dimensional treatment, have exchanged places. The two holes in the soundboard are not depressions or holes in the metal but added components. Reversing their state in the real world, they have here become small rectangular boxes lying on the board. Then there are the colours, white, black and blue areas alongside the brown ones suggesting the actual colour of a violin. Black areas seem suggestive of shadow, just as white ones imply bright light; yet this contrasts with the way things appear in reality. Graphic and spatial approaches, and the art of the painter, have all been combined in a sophisticated synthesis in this sculptural construction.



Cut metal, painted, with iron wire



This playful approach to form can hardly be taken any further without exceeding the bounds of meaning - and evolving an altogether new artistic idiom. Constructions such as these thus took Cubism to the furthest limit of its options. The art scene had changed in the meantime. Cubism, still far from being publicly recognised as an apt response to the times, was now seen as the precursor of the artistic avant-garde throughout Europe. The dogmatic group centred on Metzinger and Gleizes no longer existed and the Cubist visual language had altered, acquiring international currency. In 1912, the Galerie La Boetie in Paris established a "Section d'Or" in which Marcel Duchamp and Juan Gris set the tone. Gris extended Analytical and Synthetic Cubism, while Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" found new ways of presenting motion. Braque and Picasso had invented a style which could now serve the formal needs of many different kinds of artists.

The Futurist movement, for instance, sponteously proclaimed in Paris in 1909 by the Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was devoted to dynamism and movement, and played its own variations on the fragmentation technique of Analytical Cubism. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian exhibited at the 1911 Salon des Inde-pendants together with the other Cubists - but then accused Picasso, Braque and others of having failed to grasp the true aims of Cubism with the necessary precision. Mondrian advocated totally abstract art. With a number of others he started the "De Stijl" movement in Holland in 1917-one of the core groups in European Constructivism. The importance of Cubism was international. It inspired the avant-garde everywhere.


From 1908 on, thanks to the collector Sergei Shchukin, Picasso's latest Cubist work cold be seen in Moscow. Contemporary west European art was seen in a number of exhibitions not only in the main cities of Russia but also (for example) in Odessa, and was soon well known, spurring the abstract programmes of Supremat-ism (practised by Kasimir Malevich) and Rayonism (Michail Larionov). The Swiss artist Paul Klee and the Germans August Macke and Franz Marc saw Cubism in Paris and subsequent developments such as Delaunay's Orphism; what they saw fed their own varieties of German Expressionism. In December 1911, Delaunay had exhibited in the first Blauer Reiter show in Munich's Thannhauser gallery. Klee and the American-born Lyonel Feininger subsequently took their impressions with them to the Bauhaus. In Prague there was a veritable Cubist centre, with groups of artists organizing shows of French Cubism and doing their own Cubist paintings and sculptures.

As early as 1911, Alfred Stieglitz exhibited Picasso's work in his New York gallery, introducing the Spaniard to America.
The great Armory Show, held in New York in 1913, was the US breakthrough for many of the new European artists, among them the Nabis, the Fauves and the Cubists.

So Cubism was a determining factor for many different kinds of Modernist art, as a model and a catalyst. Encouraged by Cubism, Wassily Kandinsky - precursor of total abstraction in art - was able to pursue his course. Yet Cubism did not directly initiate all of Modernism's artistic styles; abstract art in particular drew upon a complex variety of sources, including the decorative style of art nouveau. Taking that style as his point of departure, the German Adolf Holzel painted almost abstract pictures as early as 1905. But it remains true that without the authority of Cubism, Modernism as we know it would quite simply not have existed.

Moreover, Picasso and Braque had invented new media such as collage and assemblage, enriching the expressive repertoire. From Dada to the present, artists of every stylistic persuasion have used and developed these methods. Small wonder, then, that as Cubism gained ground it also founded international recognition of Picasso's special status in 20th-century art. In the second decade of the century he was already being seen as the artist who initiated the great Modernist breakthrough. Whenever new movements were started, it was Picasso and his work that served as a rallying cry. In a word: he became the hero of 20th-century art.

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