Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview
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If Picasso and Braque began as very different artists, their common invention of Cubism temporarily involved them in an artistic union whose extraordinary closeness tended to suppress the many contradictory aspects of their personalities. By the 1920s, however, those differences of temperament and interest which had been concealed in the years around 1910 again became pronounced, and their careers diverged almost as sharply as they had in their pre-Cubist years.

A startling example is a Picasso still life of 1925, the Ram's Head, a gruesome display of table objects which would be unimaginable on the pleasurably ordered table tops of a French painter but which stands fully in the macabre still-life tradition of Picasso's Spanish pictorial ancestors. Like Goya late Still Life with a Slaughtered Sheep, Picasso Ram's Head controverts both the hedonistic and the rational tenor of the French still-life tradition. Most prominent in this grisly array are the blank, dead eyes of the severed ram's head, which have the disquieting intensity familiar in Picasso. The ram's head, however, is no more repellent than the entourage of prickly and slimy sea life, which includes two scallops, a squid with two staring eyes, a bristling scorpion fish whose savage mouth seems to gasp for breath, and an equally untouchable sea urchin.

To what extent can such a painting still be considered Cubist? As in the Goya, the subject is so repugnant, its emotional and physical presence so immediate (here, even in tactile terms), that Picasso appears to have abandoned completely the measured and cerebral world of earlier Cubism in favor of something flavored with the morbidity and irrationality of Surrealism, whose first manifesto had been proclaimed in the previous year. Yet, for all its insistent ugliness, such a work bears the indelible stamp of Cubism. In structure alone, the flattened space, the elisions of contour, the complex planar intersections of the tablecloth and the still-life objects all depend on Cubist innovations; and even the metaphysical confounding of identities so prominent in collage is used here to relate the fanlike shape of the scallops to the tail and fin of the scorpion fish or, still more imaginatively, to effect a biological and pictorial transition between the ram's head and the submarine creatures by emphasizing the snaillike character of the ram's horns and tough curls of hair.

The persistence of the Cubist aesthetic may be seen throughout Picasso's later work, though it is often combined with a thematic complexity that seems foreign to the original character of Cubism. A case in point is a magnificent pair of pictorial meditations on the creative process of the artist. In the earlier of the two, the Studio of 1927-28, Picasso again asserts his Spanish heritage by alluding, as he was later to


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