The evolution of the self-sufficient picture

Pablo Picasso
The Torero or the Aficionado, 1912
Oil on canvas, 135x82cm
Basle, Kunstmuseum

It is not easy to understand and appreciate Cubist and Futurist paintings. The following description is an example of the process of coming to terms with the art of the 1st quarter of the twentieth century.

Picasso's 1912 painting The Torero or the Aficionado is a good example of the problems raised by Cubism. To an unprepared and unprejudiced observer, even after his first impression, the picture seems to bear very little resemblance to the objects of the ordinary visual world it is supposed to refer to. He is inclined to the normal way of looking at things, on the perception that helps him deal with most situations, as an adequate approach to any painting; so why not this one? He tries to use the title as an aid to understanding: The Torero (bullring) or the Aficionado (bullfighting fan). But what it might lead him to expect from the painting isn't there. Perhaps the painter chose the title in order to deceive the observer and make him assume from the start that the painting contained a figurative image of someone connected to bullfighting. If the observer does not know much about Cubist painting, even though he might retain an interest in it, he will only be able to take the title as a general indication of the rough fields of the topic to which the picture refers. He will treat it rather like the title of novels, short stories and poems. Instead, he/she is required to use the hints afforded by the title as a guide to what is actually to be seen in the picture.

The first steps in understanding Cubism

Pablo Picasso
Three Musicians, 1921
Oil on canvas, 2.01x2.23m
Museum of Modern Art, New York

It is important to clarify the distinction between 'imitation' and 'mere signification' of the visible external world. It is this distinction which proved to be especially decisive for Cubism and Futurism and, in fact for the entire evolution of art in the twentieth century. When looking at even very highly imaginative, fantastic paintings of Pieter Brueghel we can soon ask the question 'What does it show?'  The same question, when asked of what is thought of typically modern art, is, however, almost certainly a sign of the observers' puzzlement. Since he thinks that the question is unanswerable, he often gives up the attempt to find out exactly what he is supposed to think when faced with a modern work of art.

The main reason for this uncertainty is that our knowledge and experience are determined in some way by our previous linguistic understanding of the everyday world. Until the modern period, it was taken for granted that an essential criterion for the unity of the work of art was the picture should accord with a slice of the external world. But the artistic avant-garde of the first decade of the 20th century saw it as their mission not to perpetuate but destroy such notions of unity. Artists were concerned with shocking directness, to make clear in their paintings that the visible world exists on one level and its representation, or something referring to it, exists on a quite different level. In other words: a representation of a slice of visible external world is never the repetition of that slice of reality, just as an eye in a painting can never be used to see with, The notion of making a pure replica of that kind was, at least from an artistic viewpoint, absurd.

Artificial vs Natural beauty

Pablo Picasso
La driade (Nu dans une forêt), 1908
Oil on canvas, 108 x 185 cm
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Torso Before the Bath, 1875
Oil on canvas, 81.5 x 63 cm
Barnes Foundation, Lower Merion, PA, U

In 1908, Picasso produced, in addition to landscapes and still lines, the figurative work Family of Harlequins and the vertical oil Nude in a Forest. This work which is now in Leningrad hermitage shows a human figure which takes up almost the entire area of the canvas. in the upper half of the picture, there are tree trunks with forked branches. The figure is a frontal view of a female nude in a slightly crouching position with thighs straddled. The light is directed diagonally to the tree trunks at the top left above the thighs, shoulder, neck and right-hand side of the face.

The foregoing description is obviously inadequate if we want to know how Picasso's work differs from the traditional representation of a nude. Picasso in this painting is not interested in the nude in the style of, say, Renoir. There is no grace of pose or attitude; there is no delicate, sensitive depiction of flesh and no soft line visible through a light which brings out the rounded contours of the female body. There are no lovingly drawn lines and no details which prompt the observer to imagine, say, a young girl, a mature woman or anything in any way erotic.

Georges Braque  Big Nude, 1908  Oil on canvas, 101 x 139.5 cm Private Collection

Georges Braque
Big Nude, 1908
Oil on canvas, 101 x 139.5 cm
Private Collection

Even if we try to describe the nude in this painting more exactly in terms proper to conventional everyday perception, it is hard to think of it as anything other than heavy, awkward and ungainly, and the figure's position as clumsy and stiff, if not just unnatural. In Greek mythology dryads are tree-nymphs who, in traditional literature and painting, are represented as young girls under trees, singing, swaying and dancing. Picasso's dryad, on the other hand, is notable for her heaviness, compactness and sheer mass.

One the earliest statements made about Cubism in 1908, Brague commented on his work, Grande Nue: 

'I couldn't portray a woman in all her natural loveliness. I haven't the skill. No one has. I must, therefore, create a new kind of beauty, the beauty that appears to me in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight, and through that beauty interpret my subjective impression. Nature is a mere pretext for decorative composition, plus sentiment. It suggest emotion, and I translate emotion into art. I want to expose the Absolute, and not merely the factitious woman'.

Georges Braque
Viaduct at L'Estaque, 1908
Oil on on canvas, 72.5×59 cm
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris

Braque's statement makes clear that the attempts to describe cubist paintings offered up till now are inadequate to what the artist himself calls a new kind of beauty. Cubist pictures gradually dispensed with all attempts at imitation, which hitherto had tried to impose a woman's beauty on the spectator: shape and development, hair-style, ornaments and clothes, look, movement, posture and so on. Instead of imitating these characteristics and features, the artist himself begins subjectively to work out pictorial elements and techniques in order to structure and organise the painting appropriately: that is so that the object in question is represented and not imitated.

Let's explain the distinction between 'natural beauty' and 'beauty...in terms of volume, of line, of weight' is to be understood in Picasso's painting. In general, the female nude is divided in accordance with its verbally apportioned components: head, neck, trunk, arms, hands, legs, feet. The trees depicted show the same overall classification: trunks, branches, twigs. If the observer looks for details to complete the portrayal, his/her expectation of the soft curved female form is disappointed. In place of the expected detail, Picasso offers planes and forms which are meaningful in terms of painting as such, but quite inappropriate and alien to the conventional notion of nude. The artist's devices that so disturb the observer do not offend against the general classification already described; it is the details before all else that annoy. The conjecture of light and dark planes and sharply broken lines, the alternate curves and angles, give rise to forms reminiscent of those proper to geometry and stereometry.

Pablo Picasso
Le Taureau, 1946
The series of pictures below show the sequence Picasso made to finally reach his illustration.

Analytical Cubism

Pablo Picasso
Portrait de Ambroise Vollard. 1910
Oil on canvas, 65x92 cm
Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia

We learned the vocabulary of early Cubism with the aid of imitative painting. We can speak of a Cubist pictorial language only when it has its own specific laws of organisation. This is always the case in analytical Cubism, where imitation is abandoned in favour of a Cubist principle of order. In Picasso's Torero, we have a configuration of sharp-edged and angled forms which are relatively isolated yet also elements of the same multi-faceted tracery. In general, these forms have a vertical format. The arrangement and interrelation of the individual forms, segments and parts are always subject to the introduction of spatial and planar ambiguity. For example, the planes are so interrelated that spatial distances are observable but isolated so that they do not give the whole picture a uniform spatiality. The angular forms are equally ambiguous as regards their superficial linear value. They serve to delimit and to separate planes but are also used to intersect and to fill part-fields. These aspects enable us to look at the pictorial elements from different points and virtually to interconnect them. In addition, therefore, to the artificial ambiguity of the composition, there is a fictive network which is absent from, the picture as such and appears only in the process of contemplation.

In analytical Cubism, then, the painter does not analyse objects, before he starts painting, only to depict those fragments. Analysis, division and arrangement take place in the act of painting so as to produce an orderly whole. In the picture, breakdown or analysis are visible only in coordination and structuration.

The complex fact determines whether the painter can smoothly insert realistically painted details, such as a banderilla, into a picture in such a way as the word 'Nimes' and other letters and words. The ambiguous structure of the painting makes possible a multilateral connection of these and all other pictorial elements.

Hence, it can be said that an ideal student of Cubist work of art must be absolutely prepared to trust the paintings themselves. Such an observer will obtain sensuous satisfaction and pleasure in an openness and an adventurous perception that depends on the actual characteristics of the paintings rather than some predetermined formula of assessment. Cubist art is fully achieved when a picture affords perfect equilibrium between direct visual apprehension, knowledge and memory. The observer has to apply all his sensibility and responsiveness in maintaining the balance between the obvious and the incomprehensible.

Futurist painting as 'transitional art'

Carlo Carrà
The Red Horseman, 1913
Oil on Canvas, 26 x 36 cm
Civico Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan

Giacomo Balla
Girl Running on a Balcony, 1912
Oil on canvas

Early Cubism is best regarded as a search for forms and elements which would contribute to the stability of the painting; thus it developed a repertoire of basic pictorial elements analogous to ideal objects in geometry and stereometry. It also disregards objective and thematic representation to  focus on an ordered pictorial structure which is intended to afford the best possible perception of the object represented: for example, by requiring the use of touch as well as vision.

Giacomo Balla
Dinamismo di un cane al guinzaglio, 1912
Oil on canvas, 110 x 91 cm
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, US

The Futurist painters rejected the heritage of western art and culture in order to move as freely as possible, without the burden of tradition, towards new formal discoveries, which always included new ways of living. Futurists were concerned to find and recommend a conception of life apprpriate to the great progress that had been made in science and technology. Hence, just as strongly as early Cubism, an observer of Futurist paintings was faced with a question: 'What does the artist intend? What does he wants to communicate?' In Carrà's The Red Horseman, the horse and the rider are fairly interpretable. To this extent the potrayal is fairly imitative. Yet in comparison to Picasso's Dryad it is muchmore difficult to take about the major and minor structures of painting, of its coarse and detailed parts since the horse and the rider as a whole are relatively 'disfigured'. The delimitation of the human and the animal body is variable and their is certain repition and superimpositions. Ray-shaped diagonals directed to the edges of the picture are also evident, and it eventually becomes clear that the intention of painter is that the observer should be enabled to see neither a horse standing or galloping, but the horse 'undergoing' the whole process of galloping.The artist does not wish to show a single frame of the movement. Hence, the devices that are shown in the painting is opposite of imitation. Galloping is not arrested and shown (as is conventional) as one particular gallop. Instead the whole action is depicted.


Time cannot be measured but only divided superficially
— Roy Baumeister

In addition to this method of representing motion, by which the figure as a whole is retained but its limbs are multiplied to indicate movement, Futurism developed a second technique can be described from Balla's Girl running on a Balcony. Here the eye is directed initially to a relatively unified and in fact uniform arrangement of large taches of color through which it is possible to distinguish shapes which are reoeatedly differentiaited from head to legs and feet, so that the eye finally begins to follow a series of feet across the picture. The observer has to perceive the various stages in the representation of one and same figure (and not several figures at once) as if representating a chronological movement, or the process of movement in time. The method of dividing movement into phases could be compared with chronophotography as developed by Marey and Muybridge, though the comparison offers no sufficient criteria of assessment for Balla's method of painting.

The composition in these examples and pictures alongside persuades the observer's eye to follow every declivity and fragmentation of the object as depicted in the canvas, moving straight ahead or in circles as directed. The painter does not construct the picture so that the observer can take the whole thing in one visual sweep, nor does he allow the moving or moved objects just to pass by his resting eye, as happens in Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. The particular separation of objective from the figurative elements does not use quasi-geometrical or stereometrical forms but accords entirely with the spontaneity and intuition demand by the Futurist. It is concerned with the main theme of Futurism: movement, speed and tempo in a two-dimensional painting. The technique of French Divisionists like Van Gogh, who used colour in a loose sequence of uniformly applied patches, was heightened by the Futurists in order to fit the dissection of form. Its new task was not the establishment of a visually arousing colour perspective but the portrayal of the transient nature of the movement. According to Carrà, the right angle is mainly an 'expression of sublime rest and rejoicing'. In place of horizontals and verticals, the Futurists used round or curved shapes such as arcs, segments of spheres and spirals. These convolutions were countered effectively by acute angles whose acuity was emphasized by the length of the sides running diagonally across the picture.  Twisted lines and obtuse angles occupied the intermediate area between these linear components.

Giacomo Balla
Auto in corsa (studio). Velocità astratta, 1913
Tempera, watercolour, paper, 70 x 100 cm
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Giacomo Balla
The Hand of the Violinist, 1912
Oil on canvas. 56 x 78.3 cm
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London

Luigi Russolo
Dynamism of an Automobile, 1911
Oil on canvas, 106 x 140 cm
Paris, Musée National d'Art Morderne

'The acute angle'... said Carrà, 'is ardent, impetious and dynamic. It expresses volition and persistence. The obtuse angle is geometrical expression of the variablilty and neglet of that same will and power. The crooked or curving line has an intermediate function: it is a "transitional" form, and together with obtuse angles serves to unite the other angles.'

In order to portray this simultaneity, the Futurists constructed their pictures from precisely described axes or guidelines, while gradually dispensing with the direct use of wheels, the hub of a car wheel, and arms and legs. Sharp colour contrasts are also evident: for instance, red and blue in Russolo's Dynamism of an Automobile without any intermediate colour.

Cubism & Futurism compared

It is undeniable that the Paris avant-garde at the time of Cubism influenced the course of Futurism. We can also trace the effects of Cubism and Futurism on German Expressionism. Yet as far as essentials went, Cubist and Futurist artists worked independently of one another in their use of division and analysis of conventional objective and thematic models of representation in order to present the painting as a cohesive pictorial entity, or as an image of movement. 19th-century realism and then photography had made the perception of the status quo, of hard facts, a representational norm. It was that norm that the Cubist and Futurist challenged and set out to destroy. They thought art should respond quite differently to the objective components of the visible world. They were no longer interested in copying the images of the everyday world that people already knew only too well: for instance, street scenes or family and work situations. The desire of experience and to sense things is concerned with testing, discriminating and recognizing objects, and their characteristics and qualities. This 'theoretical' perception deals with not just seeing a wood, but being concerned with its hardness and fibrous nature of the wood as a material. For that reason, they are 'a-scenic' and do not represent any situation or complex of situations. Both Cubism and Futurism accept that painting is a static medium, but while Cubism strongly emphasises its static aspects in order to establish patterns of mediation between planar stability and spatial instability, Futurism is interested in exploring and revealing the energy dynamic possibilities of the pictorial area.

Find below some of my personal favourites among Cubist and Futurist paintings which are not covered above: