The Evolution of Cubism
Beginning in 1908, and continuing through the first few months of 1912, Braque and Picasso co-invent the first phase of Cubism. Since it is dominated by the analysis of form, this first stage is usually referred to as Analytic Cubism. But then during the summer of 1912, Braque leaves Paris to take a holiday in Provence. During his time there, he wanders into a hardware store, and there he finds a roll of oil cloth. Oil cloth is an early version of contact paper, the vinyl adhesive used to line the shelves or drawers in a cupboard. Then, as now, these materials come in a variety of pre-printed patterns.
Braque purchased some oil cloth printed with a fake wood grain. That particular pattern drew his attention because he was at work on a Cubist drawing of a guitar, and he was about to render the grain of the wood in pencil. Instead, he cut the oil cloth and pasted a piece of the factory-printed grain pattern right into his drawing. With this collage, Braque changed the direction of art for the next ninety years.
As you might expect, Picasso was not far behind Braque. Picasso immediately begins to create collage with oil cloth as well—and adds other elements to the mix (but remember, it was really Braque who introduced collage—he never gets enough credit). So what is the big deal? Oil cloth, collage, wood grain patterns—what does this have to do with art and Cubism? One of the keys to understanding the importance of Cubism, of Picasso and Braque, is to consider their actions and how unusual they were for the time. When Braque, and then Picasso placed industrially-produced objects (“low” commercial culture) into the realm of fine art (“high” culture) they acted as artistic iconoclasts (“icon”=image/”clast”=destroyer).
Moreover, they questioned the elitism of the art world, which had always dictated the separation of common, everyday experience from the rarefied, contemplative realm of artistic creation. Of equal importance, their work highlighted—and separated—the role of technical skill from art-making. Braque and Picasso introduced a “fake” element on purpose, not to mislead or fool their audience, but rather to force a discussion of art and craft, of high and low, of unique and mass-produced objects. They ask: “Can this object still be art if I don’t actually render its forms myself, if the quality of the art is no longer directly tied to my technical skills or level of craftsmanship?”
Still-Life with Chair Caning
Virtually all avant-garde art of the second half of the twentieth century is indebted to this brave renunciation. But that doesn’t make this kind of Cubism, often called Synthetic Cubism (piecing together, or synthesis of form), any easier to interpret. At first glance, Picasso’s Still-Life with Chair Caning of 1912 might seem a mish-mash of forms instead of clear picture. But we can understand the image—and other like it—by breaking down Cubist pictorial language into parts. Let’s start at the upper right: almost at the edge of the canvas (at two o’clock) there is the handle of a knife. Follow it to the left to find the blade. The knife cuts a piece of citrus fruit. You can make out the rind and the segments of the slice at the bottom right corner of the blade.
Below the fruit, which is probably a lemon, is the white, scalloped edge of a napkin. To the left of these things and standing vertically in the top center of the canvas (twelve o’clock) is a wine glass. It’s hard to see at first, so look carefully. Just at the top edge of the chair caning is the glass’s base, above it is the stem (thicker than you might expect), and then the bowl of the glass. It is difficult to find the forms you would expect because Picasso depicts the glass from more than one angle. At eleven o’clock is the famous “JOU,” which means “game” in French, but also the first three letters of the French word for newspaper (or more literally, “daily”; journal=daily). In fact, you can make out the bulk of the folded paper quite clearly. Don’t be confused by the pipe that lays across the newspaper. Do you see its stem and bowl?
Looking Down and Looking Through
But there are still big questions: why the chair caning, what is the gray diagonal at the bottom of the glass, and why the rope frame? (Think of a ship’s port hole. The port hole reference is an important clue.) Also, why don’t the letters sit better on the newspaper? Finally, why is the canvas oval? It has already been determined that this still life is composed of a sliced lemon, a glass, newspaper, and a pipe. Perhaps this is a breakfast setting, with a citron pressé (French lemonade). In any case, these items are arranged upon a glass tabletop. You can see the reflection of the glass. In fact, the glass allows us to see below the table’s surface, which is how we see the chair caning—which represents the seat tucked in below the table.
Okay, so far so good. But why is the table elliptical in shape? This appears to be a café table, which are round or square but never oval. Yet, when we look at a circular table, we never see it from directly above. Instead, we see it at an angle, and it appears elliptical in shape as we approach the table to sit down. But what about the rope, which was not mass-produced, nor made by Picasso, but rather something made especially for this painting? We can view it as the bumper of a table, as it was used in some cafés, or as the frame of a ship’s port hole, which we can look “through,” to see the objects represented. The rope’s simultaneous horizontal and vertical orientation creates a way for the viewer (us) to read the image in two ways—looking down and looking through/across. Put simply, Picasso wants us to remember that the painting is something different from that which it represents. Or as Gertrude Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Musée Picasso in Paris, and we’re looking at a little oval painting by Pablo Picasso called “Still Life with Chair Caning.” This dates to 1912. Chair caning is the woven material that rattan seats are made of.
Dr. Beth Harris: [0:20] Interestingly, this is not actual chair caning.
Dr. Zucker: [0:23] This is collage. Picasso has introduced this printed industrial material. That’s a kind of outrageous act. It had been done also by Georges Braque, Picasso’s collaborator in Cubism. Introducing mechanically reproduced imagery into a painting is a violation of so much of what painting had been about. We revere good painting because of its virtuosity.
Dr. Harris: [0:46] It’s undermining his very vocation as a painter.
Dr. Zucker: [0:49] The illusionistic creation of depth that had been so much a part of painting since the Renaissance is here emphatically two-dimensional because we’re aware of this oilcloth.
Dr. Harris: [0:59] I also noticed the letters J-O-U. Writing on something… You know, you write on paper, that also is a very flat surface. Here, Picasso is doing something much more complicated. He’s so clearly telling us that he’s playing with space and with illusionism.
Dr. Zucker: [1:17] There’s no question that lettering is on a surface. Writing on a canvas destroys the illusion of depth. That’s an idea that had been introduced also by Braque originally. Here, it has a double meaning. Look at the off-kilter rectangle. You can read that as a bundled newspaper. The word in French for newspaper is “journal,” daily.
Dr. Harris: [1:38] Like the “Daily Post.”
Dr. Zucker: [1:39] Or the “Wall Street Journal.”
Dr. Harris: [1:41] It could also, since we’re in Paris, be part of the word “jouer,” which means to play, which is exactly what I was saying Picasso is doing with space. In any case, those letters have become independent of any printed matter, any magazine or newspaper that they were part of, and rides ambiguously on the surface of the painting.
Dr. Zucker: [2:02] What we’re looking at is a depiction by Picasso of the stem of a pipe. You can see clearly a white pipe, perhaps one made of clay. You can see the white of the stem. You can see the bowl. The bowl doesn’t seem to connect to the stem. There is a bit of disassembly here. Actually, in all of the forms that we see depicted within this canvas.
Dr. Harris: [2:21] Meaning a kind of taking apart, and you just referred to the taking apart of the pipe. I’m looking for other still life elements, because after all, that’s the title of this painting, “Still Life with Chair Caning.” What might be on a Parisian tabletop? A glass of wine, perhaps?
Dr. Zucker: [2:39] We see a piece of stemware with a bowl at the top with a stem and with a round base. This is central to understanding what Braque and Picasso were trying to do with Cubism. This glass seems to be seen from a variety of different angles, different perspectives or points of view.
[2:59] For instance, it looks as if we’re looking down at the base, but perhaps across at the stem. Then the bowl of the glass is completely fragmented.
Dr. Harris: [3:08] For hundreds of years since the Renaissance, the idea of depicting something from one vantage point, at one moment of time, was the standard. That’s what paintings were. This is a revolutionary thing to do and calls into question not only hundreds of years of illusionism but also how we see, how we experience the world. Who says we should experience it from one place at one time?
Dr. Zucker: [3:34] Well, we don’t. We see through time, and we see through space.
Dr. Harris: [3:38] Exactly. So that Renaissance idea is a construction. It’s not reality.
Dr. Zucker: [3:42] Picasso and Braque are not inventing this. Cézanne had begun to explore this idea in the late 19th century. He’s quite famous for his still lifes, one of the reasons that Picasso was returning to the still life. What Cézanne did is place an apple on a table and look at it from in front. Then perhaps he would lean forward and look down at the apple ever so slightly.
[4:00] He would allow for that disjunction to exist simultaneously. Picasso and Braque push that further and begin to say, “How can I explore the full visual experience of the forms on what is here, actually, a café table?”
Dr. Harris: [4:15] With a rope as a frame, the way that we perhaps might see something holding in place the edges of a tablecloth at a café.
Dr. Zucker: [4:23] Also poking a little bit of fun at the ornate frames with which paintings are often exhibited.
Dr. Harris: [4:29] If you walk through the Louvre, you see all sorts of ornate gold frames. This idea of including industrial, prefabricated, not custom-made materials.
Dr. Zucker: [4:39] Although in this case, the rope was custom-made by a rope maker so that it would fit this oval canvas. On the right, you can see the handle on the blade of a knife and a bit of citrus — maybe a lemon, maybe a lime. Below that, the scalloping of a napkin. All of these elements are things that you might see on a glass café table.
[4:56] Then, to fit it all together, the chair caning that gives the painting its title. Perhaps that’s a chair that’s been tucked under the table that we’re looking down at.
Dr. Harris: [5:05] Again, thinking about “jouer,” playing with the idea of the painting as a window through which we view reality. This is an idea that’s so central to Western painting since the Renaissance. The painting is so real that we mistake it for a view out the window.
Dr. Zucker: [5:20] But here, Picasso is placing both shadow and reflection on that glass tabletop. We can see diagonal brushstrokes, for instance, off the bottom of the wine glass.
Dr. Harris: [5:29] The great irony it seems to me here, though, is that prefabricated chair caning, that he’s purchased, cut out, and glued to the surface of this canvas, does a better job at providing an illusion than the paint does, which is what painting has been supposed to have been doing for hundreds of years. Now a manufacturing process can do it better.
Dr. Zucker: [5:52] It makes clear that the art is in the poetry, in the intellectual pursuit, in the investigation, in the analytic disassembly of what we see in philosophical investigation rather than in the craftsmanship. The irony is that Picasso is also a brilliant craftsman.
Dr. Harris: [6:11] This idea of devaluing craft and elevating philosophical ideas, elevating the conceptual, is something that is so important for the rest of 20th-century painting.