We Have Never Been Modern. Just Cubist.

Juan Gris, Violin and Guitar, 1913
Juan Gris, Violin and Guitar, 1913

Cubism is an art movement which emerged in Paris in the early 20th century, and has never died. Boasting big names like Picasso, it represented an axial shift in the nature of art among Parisian and bohemian quarters. It is a key step in the establishment of modernity and the self-awareness of humankind, thus making it rich in philosophical value. A closer look at its historical context reveals much about the circumstances under which culture and the arts can flourish.

When the movement first emerged, experimental art had been leaning away from the realism of the early 19th century for many years. Artists like van Gogh and Monet brought a human touch to painting that had not been present in earlier methodologies, which grounded themselves in Renaissance-era techniques. As the development of the camera emerged, the role of the artist became less and less one of imitation, and more so one of seeing. The sight that an artist had to express through their work was not about the physical optics of the eye or the content of the world before them. Rather, it played on the characteristics of human perception so as to bring out more subtle reproductions of lived experience. In portraiture, the colours and tones of rough brushstrokes evinced the relationship between the artist and the painted individual, which could not be expressed in merely accurate terms. These kinds of relations; between the artist and the model, or the painter and nature; were increasingly seen as a constitutive aspect of the world.

This coincided with the turn of philosophy away from the scientific real, and towards the human real that we all experience. No longer were the differing sensations you or I might feel towards the taste of a pear, or the architecture of a bridge, matters of accuracy and correctness. Rebelling against the principles of rationalism, perception became valuable in of itself, rather than the imperfect lens sitting between us and the real world it was formerly posited to be. This shift was ultimately a pragmatic one, I believe, although it was inspired by the disparate and difficult philosophies of German idealists like G.F.W. Hegel.

With cubism came not only a revitalisation of the multiplicity of truth in science, in the births of relativity and quantum theory, but also a retreat into the personal mind. Through a singular self the whole world could be modelled, experienced, and understood. In literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses catalogued civilisation principally through the experiences of a single man, living a single unremarkable day. In mind sciences, Freud’s theories of the unconscious expanded the scope of reflection into an epistemological tool for uncovering facts about human dispositions. In  À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust did the same by exposing the phenomenology-rich bathwater of personal memory. Cubism was not distinct from these developments: it was in part inspired by the grand ideology of self-examination that prevailed at the time, a reaction against self-effacing realism.

Still Life with Milk Jug and Fruit, Paul Cézanne, 1900
Still Life with Milk Jug and Fruit, Paul Cézanne, 1900

Cubism is not about cubes; in this way its name is quite deceptive. Although some artists, like Henri le Fauconnier and Roger de la Fresnaye took the nomenclature literally, its progenitors had a very different view. The lineage of the movement is typically traced back to Paul Cezanne, who talked about the reduction of nature to geometric forms in correspondence with a friend. The cube, the cylinder, and the sphere were to be models for artistic production. Yet Cezanne’s flattened images and curious use of perspective were not an intentional development. In the very same letter, Paul complains of the shaky hands and poor eyesight that inhibited him from drawing and painting like he really wanted to. Those unevolved details, then, or his confrontational distortions of perspective, were not indicators of a knowledge of cubism.

Yet, as László Bengi et al. point out, in a book of post-comparative readings of Hungarian and Western literature, we should not limit ourselves to similarities that can be traced back to a common source. When comparing any two texts, we may find some features remarkably alike, and there may be others that proffer stark contrasts, but this is not to say that these aspects have a predetermined, essential source. By setting a painting by Cezanne aside one by Picasso, we create a space in which the two can interact, synchronise, and draw meaning from rich new sources.

This does not mean that there is truth inherent to Cezanne, or that the cubists that followed him unearthed this truth through a discovery of authentic elements. Pablo Picasso might have studied his forerunners very intensely, but he did not have their self-centric experiences or skillsets. His hands and his mind were irreconcilably distinct from those he learned from. Although he interacted with the artistic community, the distance between one being and another, or between one artistic object and another, were unbridgeable even by the perfect imitation no artist should aspire toward.

When art critic and painter Albert Gleizes draws Paul and Pablo into the same conceptual space, the world of high art is presented as an expansive dialogue. In the line of Hegel’s account of The Phenomenology of Spirit, the works that precede cubism are necessarily part of it. It is the history of artistic production which informs the creation of the new, present whole, and this in turn is as reflection of generalised history. But to link cause and effect together, which is at odds with what being-in-the-world is really like, is to conjure rationalisms that do not have a place in the thought of the cubists.

Picasso, Glass, 1911
Picasso, Glass, 1911

The “Montmartre cubists”, those that started the movement and carried it into artistic respectability, gave themselves the task of representing objects as they perceived, rather than conceptualised them. In this sense, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were not radical in the slightest. All paintings, except those that use vanishing points, attempt to do away with the conceptions of hidden space that lie beneath opaque services when conventional dimensionality is respected. It was the phenomenological method by which they tackled this mantra that brought them into a new and unexplored realm.

In the post-comparative fashion, one can find similarities between the approaches utilised during their early “analytic” phase, which sought to dissect the object into multiple views, and the ideas of French philosopher Henri Bergson. In the mind of Henri, space and time are not containers, but rather, are more comparable to matter. Under the first interpretation, corroborated by the work of Issac Newton, the two are like zones, which hold within them occurrences. Space is akin to a graph, upon which objects with mass can be plotted. The presence or absence of objects does not entail something about space itself. Similarly, time is treated as something that can be filled or unfilled. Its existence is a base upon which events can be stacked. Occurrences in either are not made of either, but of a third substance. Hence, it creates a distinction between the container and the contents. Bergson’s second interpretation flips this on its head, retreating into an anti-metaphysical understanding of time and space. Rather than time as a container, according to the durée model, it is a constituent. Likewise, space makes up objects, instead of performing as a blank canvas for them.

Similarly, Georges and Pablo constituted their form through the mode of assemblage. Their assemblages were composed of multiple perspectives, witnessed from different positions and at different times. When overlaid in transparent planes across the canvas, they represented the perception of the object. Philosophically, the “phenomenon” that was the perception of the object was not simply a snapshot image of it which sits within space and time. Rather, it was what we see and know of the object is a series of manifestations of space itself, and an encapsulation of that total of space in an object that is made of time. Space creates form, but this form can only be viewed temporally – by walking around the object, peering at it from different angles, involving movement in the visual process so as to bring together one’s understanding of the object. Sometimes, we assume the depth and dimensionality of objects through experience with past, similar objects. From our memory of these, the play of the light, or slight differences in the phenomena we experience, which get introduced by a tilt of the eyes or the head, bring a knowledge of time. This time is what would be evoked if we resolved to turn and examine that object in depth. The act of peering at an object, and seeing the possible temporality and spatial configurations which constitute that object when viewed from all three dimensions, is what is represented on the analytic cubist canvas. 

Cubism and Abstract Art Jacket, Alfred Barr, 1936
Cubism and Abstract Art Jacket, Alfred Barr, 1936

To use the language of philosopher Immanuel Kant, “analytic” cubism denies opacity, and often reduces tone to three drab hues. In this way, it is sometimes said to focus on form. Numerous perspectives of the object are placed on the canvas so as to overlap or partially intersect one another. The dynamic of the posited unseen is rejected: cubist objects have no understand. This is the key to understanding its interaction with traditional, trompe-l’œil art. In one sense, the fundamental task of realism is not to portray things as they are. It is to construct uber-facades. These are facades that do not admit the shallowness that is inherent to any pictoral medium. In other words, a realist painting does not acknowledge its own fallibility, and stubbornly refuses the thing that it is. In this relation, between an asserted truth and a concealed untruth that lies beneath, there is an unavoidable parallel with the righteous moral corruption of the early Victorian era that gestated realism.

Fine art critic Edward Fry characterises their reaction to realism as part of a wider creative retreat away from the mind. Whereas music at one point attempted to create cognitive scenery, which functioned descriptively to impel emotion, at the turn of the 20th century, it pivoted toward the ear itself. In the dissolution of classical musical theory and standard methods of conceptualisation, we see a renewed effort to make the art what it really is – in other words, to make it appeal to the ear first and foremost. Similarly, painted art begins to go beyond illusionary representation, and rather than conjure mental images, lays out a purely aesthetic project.

This interpretation was particularly apt to the “synthetic” closing years of cubist activity, when George and Pablo began to move away from alluding to space. By pasting textural elements like newspaper and wood-grain prints directly into their images, they put up a barrier of resistance between our naturalised desire to see things within the image, and the image as an indivisible thing-in-itself, an object that cannot be dissolved into its component parts. Through this, they told us that the painting was a thing in its own right. A work is not a representation of the world, but is overlain with meaning through interactions with conscious beings and other artistic objects.

This “linguistic” function, along with the self-awareness that arises from the art overcoming realistic representation, establishes aesthetics in modernity. The creative is no longer a mystic who speaks of access to the true nature of things. That veil between us and objects as they are without a perceptual filter is replicated in the veil between art and the real world. Unable to complete their phantasmic premodern project of communicating authentically with things-as-they-are, artistic objects begin to use themselves and each other as reference. Wood-grain does not refer to wood, but rather “wood”, as it is artistically constructed. The pasted newspaper is not intended to be itself but rather “newspaper”, the thing with which we might do things like read, or fold, or touch, rather than the unveiled, subperceptual object a realistic depiction alludes to. The newspaper, plain and stereotypical, identifies itself as a signifier, but can only relate its meaning to other signifiers, other stereotyped meaning.

Le Bateau Lavoir

Geometric cubism, which used rectilinear patterning to creatively depict objects, was considerably different from the analytic and synthetic forms. It is hardly surprising that artists and art-writers, like Guillame Apollinaire, maintained strict divisions between the approaches that emerged under the cubist moniker. Often, this leads to the reputation and role of Picasso being held up at the expense of his talented contemporaries and sometimes even Braque. Yet it was Braque’sobsession with Cezanne that turned Pablo onto the ideas he later became famous for. Paul had just died, in 1906, and Georges attended an exhibition of his works that was held at the Salon d’Automne the following year. The retrospective was utterly inspiring to him, and he saw a lot more in Paul’s still lifes than anyone, including Paul, saw during his lifetime. Braque began to produce a series of works, which he later submitted to the 1908 Salon. The event was the premier location for distinguished artists to display their work, and with Henri Matisse on the board, the intent was to expose the public to groundbreaking paintings. Nevertheless, all six of Braque’s submissions were rejected, rare for a well-respected artist. Georges got very bitter about it, and wrote in contempt of Matisse.  

Luckily for him, he had the support of art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Kahnweiler was a wealthy and insightful man, who believed he could dictate the tastes for the art market, rather than acquiescing to their reactionary demands. Under Daniel-Henry, Picasso and Braque received a small stipend, which allowed them to continue producing innovative works and not think about having a means to get by. In their time living bohemian lives among the cafes, bars, salons, and studios of Paris, they were able to mingle with fellow artists and writers who shared their passions, whilst being subject to the high standards of a competitive creative community. Patrick Cohendet et al. note, in their paper on epistemic communities, that experimentation and innovation often sprouts from special communities where talent can densely congregate. In locations like Andy Warhol’s Factory, Steve Jobs’ garage, or Building 20 of MIT, tightly interwoven networks form between people with mutually beneficial interests and pursuits. Montmartre, in Paris’ Northern quarter, was no different.

One particular serendipity which gave both Georges and Pablo a leg up, as well as fellow artists Juan Gris and Amedeo Modigliani, was a building known as Le Bateau Lavoir. A disused piano factory-cum-studio space, its shabbiness and lack of facilities offered the bare minimum a person with creative aspirations needed. Its rent was priced at half that of the nearby Hôtel du Poirier, and that allowed many artists at the time to work on what they loved rather than working to sustain themselves. The congregation of broke but inventive people at this dishevelled location created an epistemic community, in which cubism, as well as a related movement called orphism, flourished. Reed Hastings, in his book on management strategy, noted that teams of a few work better than teams of many, when those few are the most determined of the bunch. The same may be said of Le Bateau Lavoir. The squalor of the cheapest place in Paris drove away all those that did not have a very good reason to be there, and left those serious about art to talk and paint in peace.

The Cubist room at the Armory Show, Chicago - 1913
The Cubist room at the Armory Show, Chicago – 1913

Cubism was not, in truth, caused by innovation. We must credit structural shifts in the art market for its emergence. At the end of the nineteenth century, a rigidly hierarchical system connected small and large exhibition spaces in Paris. The most prestigious – Durand-Ruel, Bernheim-Jeune, and Petit – owned the less-well known. Larger spaces, which had been enriched by tradition and now served as bastions of the artistic canon, leaned towards more conservative tastes. They reproduced what people liked, by acquiring works which fit within known styles and formal brackets. With such high running costs and a somewhat aged leadership, it was in their best interest to show paintings and sculpture that fit comfortably within the Overton window of Good Taste.

Yet the control which the gerontocracy exerted over smaller spaces created a demand pressure that had no outlet. More obscure galleries traditionally would have found their unique selling point in catering to a niche. A savvy avant-garde, that sought the shocking rather than the acceptable, could have existed alongside those that legislated good taste, and did to some extent. Yet when controlled by major business interests, the small spaces were unable to self-style. It came to a point where preferences converged, and innovation was disincentivised. The organisation of the art economy led to creative inhibition, which created a build-up of counterpower pressure.

Dénicheurs, as they were known, scoped the art world for bargains they hoped would become highly desirable pieces. Arising from the French word for an amateur who discovers rare objects, in an era without vertical monopoly there would be little room for them to profit. Yet France – and by extension, Europe – had left the leading edge of creativity without a structural medium through which it could be expressed. The metropolis of Ile-de-France was thus caught in an odd bind of filicide and fertility. As Cohendet et al. said, although Le Bateau Lavoir was a uniquely concentrated pocket, it was part of a wider ecosystem. The constant intermingling of painters with people who published articles on them and talked about them knitted Paris together into the grand factory of culture that earned it a global reputation. It was not enough to merely host radical painters: one had to get others to understand them. That task was performed by artists-cum-men of letters like Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, and Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote manifestos on cubism.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907

On the transactional front, Kahnweiler also played a key role. The art dealer was the one to suggest to Picasso that his faces looked like the Wobe mask he had just bought, brought from the French colony in Côte d’Ivoire. Pablo was a famously silent man, and part of his mystique came from the fact that he rarely marketed his work. It was up to men like Henri, or collector Gertrude Stein, to vocalise the ingenuity behind experimental painting, and offer palatable interpretations to the intellectualist public which eagerly listened to them. Although the inner circle was small, acclaim spread concentrically. A well-written essay on a few artworks could have an impact on the fortunes of a struggling visionary. The fact that so many people were writing about, thinking about, and creating art, inhabiting shared spaces where they could feed off one another’s capacities, gave Paris the means to give birth to a whole generation of great creators.

With those creators locked out of institutions, it made for a significant profit opportunity, that roiled a tsunami of aesthetic experimentalism. La Société de la Peau de l’Ours, as it was known, was formed by 14 with the purpose of investing in previously unknown artworks before they became popular. When the group completed its first sale in 1914, they had earned an annualised profit of 8% a year – a figure that only the American stock market consistently matches today. By focusing on Pablo, and showing other dénicheurs that endorsing contrarianism could pay off, they established the reputation of his idiosyncratic oeuvre. Along with Daniel-Henry, they helped synthesise informal economic structures in which difference, rather than similarity, became valued. This axiological shift was what gave birth to cubism, and provided an engine through which modern art could flourish into the form it takes today. The anti-bourgeois mentality had become a commercial success.

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