Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

III. PICASSO AND BRAQUE, 1912-1924

If Cubism wished to make explicit the means by which nature becomes art, then the growing complication of Cubist syntax in 1911 must have threatened the balance between dependence upon nature and autonomy of art. For example, in Braque circular Soda of 1911 the teeming fragments of still-life objects 35 (which appear to include a wineglass, a pipe, a sheet of music, and the label SODA) have become so intricate that not only the composition itself but its references to the external world are dangerously obscured. Although Picasso never reached so complex a degree of analysis as this, both he and Braque apparently began to feel a strong urge toward clarifying their ever more diffuse and labyrinthine pictorial structure and their increasingly illegible constructs of reality. With the same intellectual exhilaration that characterized the successive revolutions of 1907-11, first Picasso and then Braque resolved the crisis of 1911 by revitalizing their contact with the external world in a way that was as unexpected as it was disarmingly logical.

This revolution in picture making was inaugurated by Picasso Still Life with Chair Caning, which has 36 traditionally been dated winter 1911-12, but is now dated, according to a recent conversation between Douglas Cooper and Picasso, May 1912. Here, within this small and unpretentious assemblage of the letters JOU (from Le Journal), a pipe, glass, knife, lemon, and scallop shell, another fundamental tradition of Western painting has been destroyed. Instead of using paint alone to achieve the appearance of reality, Picasso has pasted a strip of oilcloth on the canvas. This pasting or, to use the now familiar French term, collage, is perhaps even more probing in its commentary on the relation between art and reality than any of such earlier Cubist devices as trompe-l'oeil or printed symbols, since the result now involves an even more complex paradox between "true" and "false." The oilcloth is demonstrably more "real" than the illusory Cubist still-life objects, for it is not a fiction created by the artist but an actual machine-made fragment from the external world. Yet, in its own terms, it is as false as the painted objects around it, for it purports to be chair caning but is only oilcloth. To enrich this irony, the most unreal Cubist objects seem to have a quality of true depth, especially the trompe-l'oeil pipe stem, which is rendered even more vivid by juxtaposition with the flatness of the trompe-l'oeil chair caning below. And, as a final assault on our suddenly outmoded conceptions about fact and illusion in art and reality, Picasso has added a rope to the oval periphery of the canvas, a feature that first functions as a conventional frame to enclose a pictorial illusion and then contradicts this function by creating the illusion of decorative woodcarving on the edge of a flat surface from which these still-life objects project.

Perhaps the greatest heresy introduced in this collage concerns Western painting's convention that the

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