Matisse's Nu Bleu

cubisme or not cubisme

Les demoiselles d'Avignon : Pablo Picasso

Cube-y, or not cube-y?

Exclusive interview with art historian Christian Lassalle.

Words always have several meanings. They may be invested with different ideas and be used for opposing theories. This is the case of the word “cube”, which, in French, may describe a die or a geometric solid, and of the related word “cubism”.

The term cubism was inaccurate right from its coining, because it suggests that this style is much more geometric than it is in reality. Picasso himself said that there were no cubes in cubism. It was only subsequent to paintings by Braque and Picasso, mockingly described as “cubist”, that artists would inject into the word “cubism” theories which are, for the most part, opposed to the ideas and works of its two “founders”.

We will attempt to trace this evolution in a formalist way by examining the works of Braque and Picasso.

Around 1905 –1906, before the word cubism existed, artists such as Derain and Matisse (Fauvists), Braque or even Dufy were introducing into their work drawings of fractured, broken lines and angular forms which contrasted with the dynamic of their colours. They toned down the vivacity of their strokes and gestures by painting more with parallel lines than curved strokes, which they combined with zones of solid colour. In this they were above all following their admiration for Cézanne, as well as the opposing examples of Seurat’s pointillism and Gauguin’s cloisonism.

During this era, colonisation was playing a part in the discovery of African, Oceanian and Asian cultures. Matisse and Derain saw negro masks (their first purchase dates back to 1906) and certain of their hieratic features would find their way into their sculptures and engravings. However, it is undoubtedly in the works of Picasso that this primitivism became essential, together with his knowledge of Romanesque and Egyptian art, to the extent that his painting was transformed around 1906-1907.

Between 1900 and 1905, Picasso’s painting was dominated by the colour blue. The relatively cold blue hue gives the paintings their expansive quality, where figures often seem to fade away. Around 1906, pink and ochre replaced blue as the dominant colours. After a stay in the village of Gosol in Catalonia, Picasso emphasised this use of earth colours, reminiscent of Spain and a manifestation which gives the paintings a sculptural envelope. This pink colour, associated with the rediscovery of Romanesque sculpture, the discovery of 4th century BC Iberian sculpture and of masks and African statuettes, drove Picasso to paint as if he were carving or sculpting. This can be seen in the portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein, or in his self-portraits which resemble masks.

He reinforced his rift with traditional tendencies, and even recent ones like impressionism, and sharpened the “savagery” seen in Matisse’s “Nu Bleu” or Derain’s “Les Baigneuses” by producing “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907. In this painting, Picasso the iconoclast flouts his knowledge of the great paintings of this vein. He removes all sensuality from his female nudes and tears up the space surrounding them. This is, in his own words, “exorcism painting”, showing the parallel he made with the magical role of masks. This masterpiece, “the crux of the drama, centre of all the conflicts which Picasso stirred up” (Breton) was met with stupefaction from his entourage. Braque, who was in close contact with Picasso from this moment onwards, would paint “Grand Nu” in 1908, in which his interest for Cézanne’s “Grandes Baigneuses” is evident.

Before this, Braque had been producing highly-coloured paintings, on a par with those of the “fauvists”. He renounced and even destroyed this painting style, returned to Cézanne’s territory in L’Estaque and put forward some paintings for the Autumn Salon of 1908, which were turned down. In November 1908 he managed to exhibit them in Kahnweiler’s brand new gallery. The critic Louis Vauxcelles, taking up a witticism that Matisse had uttered when the works were offered to the Autumn Salon, wrote a short article, which is exceptional in spite of its irony, where the word “cube” appears: Monsieur Braque is a highly audacious young man. The disconcerting example of Picasso and Derain has emboldened him. He is also perhaps overly obsessed with the style of Cézanne and evocations of Egyptian static art. He constructs little people, metallic and distorted, which are horribly simplified. He shuns form and reduces everything, sites and figures and houses, to geometric patterns, to cubes. Let us not make fun of him, as he is acting in good faith... and let us wait.

This comparison with children’s building blocks (or dice) may well be pejorative, but it was also ­– quite unintentionally on the critic’s part – a very bright idea. An ill-conceived but nonetheless effective comparison between cubes and paintings using colours, images made of facets which are moving together or apart, the vision of edges, the evocation of a movement which separates or unites. Between 1908 and 1909 the term was on everybody’s lips, all the more so as cube-shaped objects from everyday life were disparagingly associated with the cubists, then used humorously by the artists in return, from Kub stock cubes to packets of tobacco.

From 1908 onwards, Braque and Picasso would see each other regularly and have intense discussions. Their common trajectory even led them to a period where they stopped signing their paintings (this was Braque’s idea). Braque would compare this experience to that of a group of climbers, roped together. Around 1920, their dealer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, divided this trajectory into different stages. He considered that the “cubist revolution” (in which he included other artists of the entourage, such as Léger and Gris) was “the greatest revolution ever to occur since the Italian Renaissance”.