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





Analytical Cubism



Looking back on the history of modern art from today's perspective, it is difficult to conceive of the bewilderment "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" occasioned among Picasso's contemporaries. One German critic, Wilhelm Uhde, thought it "Assyrian" in some way or other; Georges Braque felt it was as if a fire-eater had been drinking petrol; and Derain ventured that some day Picasso would hang himself behind his picture. Comments such as these seem all the more incomprehensible in view of the importance the painting was soon to have: Cubism derived its formal idiom from it. Most emphatically there were two sides to the work's reception.

The contemporary verdict is illuminating. After all, it was not the opinion of the general public - Picasso kept the picture under wraps, so it was not widely seen till the 1920s and thus not widely subject to the opinion of the public. The bewilderment came from art dealers, fellow artists and friends, all of them insiders with progressive, avant-garde views, surely the ideal receivers of work so profoundly innovative. Why were they so helpless and shocked? Because the painting really was utterly new, something that had never before been seen. And yet, like all things revolutionary, the "Demoiselles d'Avignon" signalled not only a new start but also the end of a long process of development.

Picasso had evolved a new form by examining the idiom that had prevailed in European art since the Renaissance, dismantling its rules, and re-applying its mechanisms. In doing so he transcended that idiom and - logically - the principles underlying it. This was his declared aim, and he succeeded in achieving it.

Picasso marked the end of a historical process that had begun in the mid-18th century. At that time, writers on aesthetics, thinkers such as Denis Diderot or Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, had scrutinized and re-defined the meaning and function of painting. Since the Renaissance, art had been of a functional, content-oriented nature, serving to convey messages in visual form. The imitation of Nature and the illusionistic reproduction of the appearance of things was a way of making the world comprehensible. Paintings could tell stories by showing narrative actions, representing emotions, and expressing the movements of the soul.

The dichotomy between given reality and imitation produced numerous possible ways of communication. In the 18th century this changed significantly. The frontiers of painting were defined anew and it was stripped of its narrative side; now it could only represent. It was not long before the representational function of painting was questioned too, since it was essentially an illusionist process dependent on purely technical and unreliable processes. The philosophy of Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer prompted a recognition of the absolute aesthetic impact of painting and the autonomous status of draughtsmanship and colour.

This was a fundamental change. Where once content and form, message and image had needed to harmonize, now form became dominant, and indeed became the content. If ways of seeing, conceptualization, and cognition were to be considered inseparable, then the cognitive content of painting must logically enough be purely a matter of how the observer looked at it. Inevitably, once this view gained ground, painting would tend to lose its mimetic character and become detached from the things which it claimed to represent. French 19th-century art and the art of post-Romantic northern Europe underwent a parallel move towards greater abstraction.


Nude with Raised Arms





That evolution peaked in Picasso's "Demoiselles". It is the key work of Modernist art. Of course Picasso had his precursors - but the Impressionists' colourful attempts to capture the fleeting moment, and the Fauves' orgiastic use of colour, essentially remained faithful to the principle of mimesis. Random changes of natural form and colour, such as the Impressionists and Fauves used in their different ways, were psychologically prompted, and aimed at establishing moods. The natural original which the painting represented remained unaffected. Deviations were merely shifts in expressive emphasis.

Cezanne was of greater significance for High Modernism, though. However, his deconstruction of the given, and his treatment of form and colour, were stylistically determined. His reduction of natural shapes to geometrical solids upheld the traditional technical repertoire of the academies. Still, Cezanne did show what an individualist approach could accomplish. And his work served as a vital point of reference in the turning-point year of 1907: a direct line of evolution runs from his "Bathers" to Matisse's "Blue Nude" (Baltimore, Museum of Art), Derain's "Bathers" (New York, Museum of Modern Art), and finally the "Demoiselles d'Avignon" (all three of which were painted in 1907). It is a telling fact that it was a painter academic in the cast of his thinking - Picasso - who created the formal approach of the new art.


Picasso started not from colour but from form and form alone. This too reflected his place in history. In the 19th century, scientists made important discoveries relating to the human organs and the principles of sense perception. The physiological independence of cognitive processes was established, and this legitimized aesthetic views on the subject and indeed provided artists with a new impetus. Experiments in colour vision conducted by the Frenchmen Joseph Plateau and Eugene Chevreul in 1834 and 1839 influenced painters from Delacroix to Georges Seurat. Hermann Helmholtz's "Physiology of Optics" (1867) and Wilhelm Wundt's "Physiological Psychology" (1886) were widely available in the French translations.



Queen Isabella



The Parisian literary avant-garde liked to discuss the ideas on the spatial sense which William James, taking Helmholtz further, had expressed in his "Principles of Psychology" (1890). The book did not offer Picasso any direct inspiration to revise figurational procedures, and indeed he would have found little more in the physiological mechanics described than techniques of formal figuration which he had long been familiar with through drawing. Still, these publications hallmarked the spirit of the age. It was a period when an artist might be in a position to rethink first principles. This was also true of the discovery of unfamiliar modes of expression -the contemporary enthusiasm for what was considered primitive or exotic art. We need only recall the influence Japanese woodcuts had on van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, and the interest in archaic art which Picasso himself had recently demonstrated. This all resulted from the quest for new ways of creating visual images, traditional methods no longer seeming adequate to the needs of the age. There is nothing more indicative of his contemporaries' helplessness, and their way of clinging to newly-established conventions, than the terms that were applied to Picasso's painting. To Uhde the "Demoiselles" seemed "Assyrian", and Henri ("Le Douanier") Rousseau, prized for his naive art, said Picasso's Cubism was "Egyptian". The inapt supposition that the new visual idiom drew on black, African art - though this did play some part for the Cubists later - was a product of this way of thinking too. Of course Picasso saw it all, and was prompted to find a basic solution to the problem. He drew till he had devised a new formal language, which he then articulated in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" - showing how the old could be re-used to make something altogether new. If they were perplexed at first, his fellow artists soon understood what he was doing. Cubism became established, slowly but surely: the first major peak that it reached is generally known as Analytical Cubism.


Picasso's famous portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard is an arresting example. Amidst the complex criss-cross of lines and overlapping colour zones we are immediately struck by the head. It is done entirely in shades of yellow; and it also strikes us because, unlike the composition as a whole, it clearly represents the outline, structure and features of a human head. The oval broadens at the jowls. About the middle there are lines to denote eyebrows and the bridge of the nose. At right and left, narrow patches of white clearly indicate sideburns. We see the face of a man with a high, commanding forehead and a short beard already grey at the sides - a somewhat older man, presumably. The central lines delineate a strong, straight nose with a noticeable dent and broad nostrils. The thin upper lip also conveys the sitter's personality.

Picasso's painting fulfils the main requirements of a portrait: it represents the outer appearance of a certain individual in a recognisable way. But the artist is also displaying his skill at playing with the natural image. The lines are continued at random, no longer restricted to defining an available form. They have a life of their own. So do the colours: lighter and darker shades, with little regard for the subject, obey the curious rules of the composition instead. The subject is dissected, as it were, or analyzed. And hence this kind of Cubism has become known as "Analytical Cubism".



Portrait of Ambroise Vollard


The Dryad

Though the laws of the random afford common ground, the portrait of Vollard remains a distinctly different work from "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon". In the 1907 painting the aim was closed form; in the 1910 work it is open figuration. The dissolution of the subject establishes a kind of grid in which overlaps and correspondences can constantly be read anew. The essential characteristics of the subject are preserved purely because Picasso is out to demonstrate that the autonomy of line and colour is on a par with straightforward representation, and just as convincing aesthetically. His new approach put an end to the traditional scheme of foreground, middleground and background, and the demarcation of subject and setting, which were still present in the "Demoiselles". Between the two extremes lay a three-year transitional period. It began in 1908 and can be seen as the phase in which Cubism was established.

The first works to follow the "Demoiselles" highlighted the draughtsmanship and the correspondence of subject and background. Colour and line were juxtaposed or at times contraposed, as in the famous "The Dance of the Veils (Nude with Drapes)". Picasso's 1908 "Composition with a Skull" must be seen as a continuation of this line. But in the two great nudes that he worked on from spring to autumn 1908 the emphases were clearly being placed differently. In both "Three Women" and "The Dryad (Nude in a Forest)" the draughtsman's lines are no longer so independent of the subject. Now, the lines and colour zones are creating shapes of geometrical import. But the perspective has been exploded, so that various points of view are at work in the same composition. The light and shade are not juxtaposed in a spatial relation; yet spaces and areas derived from the construction of form evolve a spatial presence.



The Dance of the Veils (Nude with Drapes)



Three Women



In midsummer 1908 Picasso made a breakthrough with his landscapes. "House in a Garden (House and Trees)" and the simply-titled "Landscape" take the principle of autonomous spatial values and evolve forms that make a stereometrically stylized impression. At the same time, the young French painter Braque had arrived at a similar position. He had met Picasso in spring 1907, and had seen "Le's Demoiselles d'Avignon" at Picasso's studio that November. Though it startled him at first, the painting's impact stayed with him, and mingled with ideas derived from Cezanne. During two stays in southern France in summer 1908, painting the landscape near L'Estaque, Braque deconstructed representational and spatial values. The fundamental coincidence of his approach and that in Picasso's landscapes is arresting. But they were working independently of each other, with no direct contact.

At first glance, the motifs look like cubes - which is why the term "Cubism" was coined in the first place. In autumn 1908, Braque unsuccessfully submitted his new work for the Paris autumn Salon. Matisse, who was a member of the jury, observed to the critic Louis Vauxcelles that the pictures consisted of lots of little cubes. Vaux-celles adopted the phrase in a review he wrote in the magazine "Gil Blas" when Braque showed the paintings at the Kahnweiler gallery in November. And thus (as is so often the case) a misunderstanding produced a label; and by 1911 everyone was using the term "Cubism".


House in a Garden


House in the Garden






Landscape with Two Figures



Fernande with a Black Mantilla



In the winter of 1908, following Braque's exhibition, Picasso and Braque developed a give-and-take that often verged on collaboration. The Spaniard's misgivings about the Frenchman vanished. (That spring he was still accusing Braque of pirating his inventions without making any acknowledgement.) They did not share a studio, though; both artists worked resolutely on their own. But they did meet constantly to discuss their progress and learn from each other. They took trips - Picasso to Spain in 1909 and 1910, Braque twice to La Roche-Guyon in the Seine valley. Not till summer 1911 did they spend time together in Ceret in the south of France, a popular artists' colony. They compared the fruits of their labours and debated new possibilities, often in a competitive spirit. Thus, for instance, Picasso's "Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier)" is plainly a response to a painting by Braque. Both artists - and this is unique in the history of art - were developing a new style together. It was emphatically a give-and-take process: both artists have the same standing in the history of Cubism. The painstaking Braque, a slow worker, painted extraordinarily subtle works incomparable in their aesthetic effect. By contrast, Picasso was more restless and abrupt, jumping to and fro amongst various formal options. Both were experimenting in their own way, and both, independently, hit upon significant innovations.


Woman with a Mandolin


Woman with a Mandolin


Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier)


Woman with a Mandolin



For Picasso, drawing and the investigation of form were always the focus of his interest. One of the finest and most instructive of his games played with form is the still life "Loaves and Bowl of Fruit on a Table", painted in winter 1908/09, a drop-leaf table with loaves of bread, a cloth, a bowl of fruit and a lemon on it. The informing principle is not one of Cubist transformation, though, so much as a genuine metamorphosis - for the picture began by showing not objects in a still life but carnival merry-makers in a bistro! Picasso pursued his idea through a number of studies. The first showed a flat-perspective group of six at a drop-leaf table. Subsequently he interwove the forms so as to blur the distinction between the subject and the background. His most conspicuous stylistic feature was the spatial extension of lines to include the figures in a veritable scaffolding of major diagonals and curves that dominated the entire picture. In other sketches he bunched lines together, and made visible progress in the deconstruction of form. The motifs and directional movements assembled into geometrical figures - trapeziums, rhombuses - which, taken individually, had already become completely non-representational. Light and shadow likewise acquired a life of their own, appearing in contrastive shades of lighter and darker.



Loaves and Bowl of Fruit on a Table



At this stage, Picasso had put mimesis aside and was free to define his forms anew. As he went on, formal similarities remained -though we would not perceive them if we did not have the preliminary studies. Thus the man's left arm propped on the table became a baguette, and his right arm became another, while the hand he was resting on the table became an upturned cup with no handle. The loaf in mid-table, cut into, was formerly the left forearm of a harlequin. The bust of the woman seated at left became the fruit bowl. These metamorphoses occurred in the smallest details; X-ray examination has shown that Picasso accomplished this fundamental transformation of what was once a figure composition in one bout of work on the canvas.

With such rethinking of visual possibilities in his mind, Picasso, prompted by the southern light when he was in Spain during 1909, created pictures that approached perspective and optics as an interweaving of geometrical shapes and colour tonalities. Eloquent examples are "The Reservoir (Horta de Ebro)", "Houses on the Hill" and "Brick Factory in Tortosa".

The Reservoir


Houses on the Hill


Brick Factory in Tortosa


Head of a Woman


It is characteristic of Picasso (and a contrast to Braque) that he never saw Cubism purely in terms of painting. He tackled spatial values and planes in various media, using various motifs. Braque at that time restricted himself to relatively few kinds of picture, preferring those such as landscapes or still lifes that were conducive to abstracted formal games, and in his work he experimented with the manifold opportunities that monochrome painting afforded. Picasso, for his part, stuck to his usual repertoire of subjects. He tried to introduce them into his new experiments, and did not flinch from strong colour contrasts. Thus in 1909 he did a number of portraits that explored the analytic breakdown of form. The areas of the human face defined by the placing of nose, mouth, cheeks, forehead and eyes, and resolved by light and shadow, were now a fabric of juxtaposed planes. And, as in 1906, Picasso went into questions of volume in sculpture, to see if they too had autonomous values. In preparing the near-lifesize "Head of a Woman (Fernande)", a portrait of Fernande Olivier, Picasso made his experiment using plaster; a small edition was later cast in bronze for Vollard.


Bust of Fernande



Woman with Pears (Fernande)



In this sculpture, three-dimensional volume appears to be made of particles roughly equal in size. The ruling structural principle is an equilibrium of volume and emptiness. The most important points - the eye sockets, nose, lips - are done in accordance with their natural appearance. But in the forehead, cheeks and neck the natural lie of the features has been inverted - most noticeably in the neck and nape - so that a new rhythmic sense arises that introduces dynamics to the work.

Picasso used the same procedure in the three portraits of his dealers, the Germans Kahnweiler and Uhde and the Frenchman Vollard (above and right), painted in 1910. He did so in a way adapted to painting, by dissecting the space and fragmenting the image. This is the apogee of a line he had been following through a number of pictures in 1909, most doggedly in "Still Life with Aniseed Brandy Bottle". It says a lot for the non-representational autonomy of form in this work that for many years its subject was misinterpreted. In the middle is a bottle of aniseed brandy. The translucent, reflective glass offered the artist a teasing visual surface, especially because of the fluting. In every painting, this analytic deconstruction of form inevitably led to the presence of non-representational elements; and this led Picasso and Braque to scrutinize the function of drawing and of signs.


Still Life with Aniseed Brandy Bottle



The line outlines the object and establishes a visual sign. In a Cubist picture, though, this mimetic function is dissolved. Picasso and Braque now extended the scope of signs in pictures, and alongside representational images they included symbols and juxtaposed colourful structures without content. It was a new approach to a problem long familiar to painters, and the Cubists found new solutions. Titian and Velazquez had drawn strength from the combination of mimetic representation, in line and colour, and the sheer virtuosity of the artist's craft - a combination which accounts for much of their appeal to us today. In 1910, Picasso and Braque took the strategy to the borders of pure abstraction. Paintings such as "The Guitar Player" or "The Clarinet", compositions of great artistic charm, clearly demonstrate that beauty in art need not be pinned down to illusionist representation.


The Guitar Player


The Clarinet



Woman with a Guitar by a Piano



Cubism now entered a somewhat different phase, one that was heralded in 1911 and led the following year to new visual forms different in structure and principle. Braque, who had already used single letters of the alphabet in Cubist paintings of 1909, now took to using entire words. It was not a new idea; but in painting it had been restricted to producing the illusion of real lettering actually before the beholder. Picasso borrowed this, and in "Still Life on a Piano ('CORT')" transposed it to a new level of meaning. Whereas Braque retained the meanings of words and thus their value as communications, Picasso was pointing up the random quality of meaning in signs. The word "CORT" was a meaningless abbreviation for the name Alfred Cortot (a pianist). But it was also a witty riposte to Braque, who had included the words "Mozart" and "Kubelik" to suggest a concert. Picasso's still life also used musical instruments upon a piano, motifs which are directly related to concerts. It is an enigmatic picture, walking a thin line between meaning and nonsense and tantamount to a visual statement of epistemological tenets - and yet insisting on the truth of art.


Still Life on a Piano ("CORT")

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