There are moments in the history of art when the genesis of a new and major style becomes so important that it appears temporarily to dictate the careers of the most individual artists. So it was around 1510, when the diverse geniuses of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bramante rapidly coalesced to create the monumental style of the High Renaissance; and around 1870, when painters as unlike as Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro approached a common goal in their evolution toward Impressionism. And so it was again around 1910, when two artists of dissimilar backgrounds and personalities, Picasso and Braque, invented the new viewpoint that has come to be known as Cubism.
From our position in the second half of the twentieth century, Cubism emerges clearly as one of the major transformations in Western art. As revolutionary as the discoveries of Einstein or Freud, the discoveries of Cubism controverted principles that had prevailed for centuries. For the traditional distinction between solid form and the space around it, Cubism substituted a radically new fusion of mass and void. In place of earlier perspective systems that determined the precise location of discrete objects in illusory depth, Cubism offered an unstable structure of dismembered planes in indeterminate spatial positions. Instead of assuming that the work of art was an illusion of a reality that lay beyond it, Cubism proposed that the work of art was itself a reality that represented the very process by which nature is transformed into art.
In the new world of Cubism, no fact of vision remained absolute. A dense, opaque shape could suddenly become a weightless transparency; a sharp, firm outline could abruptly dissolve into a vibrant texture; a plane that defined the remoteness of the background could be perceived simultaneously in the immediate foreground. Even the identity of objects was not exempt from these visual contradictions. In a Cubist work, a book could be metamorphosed into a table, a hand into a musical instrument. For a century that questioned the very concept of absolute truth or value, Cubism created an artistic language of intentional ambiguity. In front of a Cubist work of art, the spectator was to realize that no single interpretation of the fluctuating shapes, textures, spaces, and objects could be complete in itself. And, in expressing this awareness of the paradoxical nature of reality and the need for describing it in multiple and even contradictory ways, Cubism offered a visual equivalent of a fundamental aspect of twentieth-century experience.
The genesis of this new style, which was to alter the entire course of Western painting, sculpture, and even architecture, produced one of the most exhilarating moments in the history of art. Born within six months of each other, the two parents of Cubism, the Spaniard Pablo Picasso (b. 1881) and the Frenchman Georges Braque ( 1882-1963), could hardly have stemmed from more unlike artistic roots. Yet, by 1920, with the strange destiny of history, their viewpoints had converged so closely that their respective works of this time can be distinguished by connoisseurs alone.
The unfolding of the Cubist adventure might begin conveniently in 1905, the year after Picasso left Barcelona to establish himself in Paris. While Braque became fascinated with the problems raised by the coloristic outburst of Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck at the Salon d'Automne, Picasso was less involved with these currents. Still steeped in compassion for humanity and concern with morality and emotion, Picasso's work at the time was remote from Braque's characteristically French interest in the sensuous and intellectual aspects of painting. The Girl on a Ball of 1905 is a case in point. Here, in an arid plain, are the lonely, wistful figures who people the strange world of beggars, circus performers, and other pariahs that preoccupied Picasso until the first tremors of Cubism.
Continuing the allegorical intention of so many of his early works, Picasso contrasts the youthful innocence of the frail fledgling with the world-wearied sobriety of the older acrobat by opposing her precarious equilibrium on the ball with his ponderous position upon the block. Yet, given the hindsight of history, there are portents of the Cubist world even here. The parallelism of the sphere and cube with the human forms may symbolize the theme of youth and maturity, but its very presence is also prophetic of the interaction between organic and geometric form that, stripped of symbolic implications, will dominate the early evolution of Cubism. Moreover, this painting, like others of the time, presents a curiously flattened and ambiguous space. Although the radical diminution of figures from foreground to middleground and background suggests a deep recession, all these forms defy such spatial inferences by hovering close to the picture plane. Here, too, there is a foreshadowing of the Cubist dialectic between the representation of objects in space and the assertion of the reality of the flat picture surface.
By the following year, 1906, the withdrawn, introspective mood so prominent in Picasso's early work vanished rapidly, to be replaced by a new sense of creation and energy. In two self-portraits, of 1901 and 1906, this transformation is immediately apparent. Paradoxically, the brooding, tragically isolated twenty-year-old artist of 1901 looks older and more somber than the twenty-five-year-old artist of 1906. In the later portrait the feeling of youthful, potential energies is apparent not only in the lighter, more optimistic color, but above all in the lunging arcs that define such areas as the jaw, eyebrows, neckline, and sleeve, and in the tensions of the face and the muscular compactness of the forearm.
The gathering power of this self-portrait is equally evident in the many female nudes that Picasso painted in the same year. In two characteristic studies, the human figure is compressed in order to explore now the qualities of welling physical force rather than to achieve the pathos and asceticism created by the distorted anatomies of the earlier Blue and Circus periods. In details like the stumpy, muscular forearms or the mighty break of the wrists, these grotesquely compacted limbs and torsos arouse a sense of harnessed superhuman strength rivaled only in the figures of Michelangelo.
So heroic, in fact, is the torsion of Picasso's figures that every movement -- even the turning of a head away from the picture plane -- seems the product of titanic energies. In color and texture, too, these almost prehistoric women evoke the birth throes that precede Picasso's first full statement of this new world, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. They are painted, for the most part, in earthy, terracotta tones that, especially in the frequently unfinished areas, suggest a primordial soil from which this radical vision will soon grow to maturity and fruition. Like the first sculptor of prehistory, Picasso molds and shapes figures who stand, solemn and silent, on the threshold of an unpredictable new world.
This new world began with an explosion, for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, projected in 1906 but worked 1 on mostly in the spring of 1907, appears to be the thunderous outburst that released the latent forces of the preceding year. If it might be said that Picasso's hallucinatory masterpiece of 1905, the Family 6 of Saltimbanques, is the last picture of the nineteenth century, then certainly Les Demoiselles is the first of the twentieth. Like most major pictorial revolutions, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (whose title, a reference to a Barcelona red-light district, was given it later) mirrors the past and proclaims the future, for it both resumes an earlier tradition and begins a new one. Yet no masterpiece of Western painting has reverberated so far back into time as Picasso's five heroic nudes, who carry us across centuries and millenniums.
To begin, we sense the immediate heritage of Cézanne's studies of bathers, and, through them, the whole Renaissance tradition of the monumental nude, whether the noble structural order of Poussin and Raphael or -- in the extraordinary anatomical compression of the two central figures -- the anguish of Michelangelo's slaves. But Les Demoiselles can take us even further back in time, and in civilization, to ancient, pre-Christian worlds. The three nudes at the left, who twist so vigorously from their draperies, evoke first the Venuses and Victories of the Hellenistic world, and then, cruder and more distant, the squat, sharp-planed figures of the pagan art of Iberia. And in the two figures at the right, this atavism reaches a fearsome remoteness in something still more primitive -- the ritual masks of African Negro art.
The most immediate quality of Les Demoiselles is a barbaric, dissonant power whose excitement and savagery were paralleled not only by such eruptions of vital energy as Matisse's art of 1905-10, but by music of the following decade -- witness the titles alone of such works as Bartók Allegro barbaro ( 1910), Stravinsky Le Sacre du printemps ( 1912-13), and Prokofiev Scythian Suite ( 1914-16). Les Demoiselles marks, as well, a shrill climax to the nineteenth century's growing veneration of the primitive -- whether Ingres' enthusiasm for the linear stylizations of Greek vase painters and Italian primitives or Gauguin's rejection of Western society in favor of the simple truths of art and life in the South Seas.
In Les Demoiselles, this fascination with the primitive is revealed not only in explicit references to Iberian sculpture in the three nudes at the left and to African Negro sculpture in the two figures at the right but in the savagery that dominates the painting. The anatomies themselves are defined by jagged planes that lacerate torsos and limbs in violent, unpredictable patterns. So contagious, in fact, are the furious energies of these collisive, cutting angles that even the still life in the foreground is charged with the same electric vitality that animates the figures. The scimitarlike wedge of melon, contrasted with the tumbling grapes and pears, seems to generate the ascending spirals of pink flesh; and, similarly, other inanimate forms, such as the curtain at the left, seem to echo the harsh junctures of the human anatomies.
Pablo Picasso, Cubism, Pablo Picasso Biography, Picasso Paintings, Picasso Drawings, The Blue Nude, Don Quixote, Enamel Saucepan, Evening Flowers, Femme A La Fleur, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Spanish Art, The Dream, The Pigeons, Guernica, Musse, Bull with Bullfighter, Mediterranean Landscape, Nude and Still Life, Toros y Toreros, Mother and Child, Girl with Red Beret, Frau Mit Turban, The Bathers, The Lesson, The Old Guitarist, Three Bathers, Violin and Guitar, Lovers, Evening Flowers, The Kitchen