“I shall resign if all this talk about Cubism doesn’t cease! It’s killing me!“
Henry Tonks, Head of the Slade 1914
“This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound or Picasso: it neither helps us to enjoy nor endure!”
Philip Larkin, All What Jazz: A Record Diary, 1961-68
The painting I want to talk about is this one: Guitar and Mandolin. It’s one of Pablo Picasso’s biggest still lifes and a prime example of what’s generally referred to by art historians as synthetic Cubism. It’s not as beloved or as famous as works such as Guernica or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon but I would argue it’s a masterpiece and one that summarises something uniquely Picasso’s own.
Having invented Cubism, Picasso was probably the first artist to lose faith in it. For years he and George Braque had been a double act. Following the breakup came an odd shuttling back and forth of different styles across the next decade, of feints and impostures. But what precisely do these differences in style-type represent? Do they represent different prospective audiences? Different social attitudes to taste? It’s difficult to say. But perhaps they represent some deeper change or retrogression within the artist.
The most frequent point of comparison for Guitar and Mandolin is Matisse’s Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “La Desserte”. The similarities are intriguing when one considers the famous rivalry between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. But is it true that Guitar and Mandolin was intended as a kind of avantgarde diss track? Was Picasso really attempting to send-up what is Matisse’s least successful cubist venture? Admittedly I am not at all very interested in the veracity of this claim. But at the same time, it establishes an interesting line of inquiry. After all, if Guitar and Mandolin is a caricature of Matissean Cubism the question becomes whether the mockery of the mockery holds any kind of actual authentic status. Who in the end is actually being subverted? Is it Matisse or is it Picasso himself?
But first one has to imagine what it would look like to get a Picasso wrong; a basic awareness of the possibilities for Cubism’s successes and failures. Of course, there are all kinds of uncomplimentary, disagreeable elements in Picasso’s paintings can that vex the program. Tenderness and monstrosity tend to coexist alongside primitivism and classicism. Picasso relishes pitting these extremes against one another and aggravating the especially hard-to-settle disputes of taste, competence and artistic failure.
So let’s establish a sort of motif to our conversation: a firm structure upon which to build my argument. Many critics have seen fit to retrospectively announce Cubism as the final great achievement of 19th century bohemia, a swansong for the century that effectively belonged to middle class life.
La Boheme was a particular kind of middle class lifestyle – of structured instability and precarity. It was a provisional margin-space, a fake utopia for young people and artists who dreamed of life outside the warm safety net of bourgeois society. The rooms typically inhabited by bohemians were often dilapidated and in need of renovation. Bedrooms doubled as studios. People lived and slept in close quarters. Many bohemians, including the young Picasso himself described living on a peasant diet of bread, wine and cheap absinthe purchased in in low life cafes. This was the Baudelairian ideal of the flaneur, the self-made artist-poet of the metropolis. Picasso at the tail end of an epoch would be the last and brightest of Bohemia’s slumming stars.
To be even more brutally specific, Cubism’s main subject above all is bourgeois life, specifically the interior, domestic life found indoors. Landscape is not a natural subject for Cubism and the out-of-doors rarely makes an appearance in Picasso’s mature work except as a view glimpsed through a window.
What’s more, the still-life genre is the perfect embodiment of what we might call middle class bathos. Its ascendence coincided with the mercantile trading boom of the seventeenth century. Lots of new money meant lots of new houses to decorate. The common language would become an idealised mix of Dutch ostentation and protestant Calvinism. Often they can include symbolic or allegorical referenta but the subjects are practically always man-made and located in a shallow, interior space. These were intended as an exaltation of their owners lifestyle – the various comforts he could afford and the piety that these comforts dared one to abandon. Perhaps because of this, for hundreds of years, still life was seen as a form of art exclusively for the nouveau-riche, without the requisite gravitas of history painting or society portraiture. Yet again we see that the history of painting is the history of class and class segregations. The cabinet painting, the still life and the boudoir nude was and to some extent still is supposed to cater to a lower order of sensibility to the taste of actual or imaginary possession and consumption or rather for a confusion of the actual with the imaginary. In face of such paintings such confusion is an enabling competence, albeit one often despised in the discourses of high art. The still life today is rendered suspect as a progenitor of a certain kind of domestic kitsch.
Cubism carries on a bourgeois fixation on rooms and their particular homely charms. In this sense we could say that Cubism is perhaps quite retrospective or even conservative, with its nostalgia for the drawing room, the wainscot, the mantelpiece, the newspaper. The various whimsical oddments of middle class comfort and egalitarianism, the world reduced to a set of instruments and instructions. Here pictorial invention takes its cue from the real yet the real world is transformed by being forced against the inherent geometries of the stretched canvas and the reality of the picture-plane. The figure of the bourgeois subject is also emptied out of his own personal individuality and reduced to coded signifiers of wealth and class, to uniforms, curlicues, newspaper cuttings and wallpaper samples.
The collision between style and subject is a crucial one for French modern painting. After the provocateurism of Courbet, we are forced to think of painting as something essayic, in the sense of incessant fluctuations striving after improvement. Something being fashioned punctually. There’s a tendency towards universalism that can never be fully realised. It includes a peculiar attraction to limitation – of simultaneous beginning and end.
The arrival of Cubism was a catalyst. Refutation of Impressionism’s picturesque line of inquiry was a necessary requirement for the establishing of a new aesthetic order and one that, as is commonly accepted, helped allow for properly abstract modernist tendencies to take root. Impressionism in its time had also revolted against its own parent culture’s heroic model of subjective individualism, and now Picasso in turn rebelled against Impressionism’s brand of wooly humanism. Style gives way to style in successive waves across history. Paintings of French dandies were replaced by paintings of haystacks and snowstorms and then finally by paintings of enigmas and anthropomorphic riddles. Cubism was uniquely placed among other styles of the early 20th Avant Garde because it had little use for intimations of mystical religion or the sublime such as those indulged in by the likes of the symbolists and the Nabis; by Van Gogh and Gauguin. Instead, Cubism’s psychological charge came from internal dynamism and visual invention. It was an aspirational painterly language precisely because it seemed to propose a new kind of ‘radical’ classicism, a postwar call to order that appeared to fess up to the impossibility of such an orders existence. On its face, Cubism was the definitive moment of twentieth century aesthetics, the avant-garde’s first and last answer to the question of a universal style. But it is a style uniquely kept alive by a scepticism and perhaps even a (loving) resentment of modernism’s impossible contingency.
With Picasso there is the sense of a certain kind of subject matter coming back with a vengeance, with renewed perlecutionary force. No more landscapes and pretty sunsets. No more bustling crowds. Instead we are safely returned to the familiar four cornered world of the interior, to the shallow room-space of the still life and the cabinet painting. Why, is it, he was once asked, that he never painted a landscape? And in typical picasso style he replied: ‘I never saw one’.
Painting is a view of the world which hinges on the character of space. But the fight to make the space of painting believable, in Cubism, becomes the subject of painting itself. Take for example the supreme achievement of 1919’s Still Life and Window, perhaps one of the most criminally overlooked of Picasso’s major works wherein a room is seemingly reduced to a hologram of weightlessness and transparency. The precise nature of such a space poses itself as a problem, a kind of visual riddle meant to tease. Where do we stand in the space? Where is the window pane? Is the artist viewing the balcony railings and buildings outside the window from the interior, is he standing on the balcony looking at the interior through the glass, or are the buildings and balcony railings in the background reflected in the glass? There is no one answer, or if there is, it’s an answer prone to radical shifts in perspective, from distant to near, from exterior to interior, from miniature to giant. Its neatness and equilibrium remains as precariously balanced as a house of cards in the wind. Flimsiness perhaps is our invitation, our entry point into the space of the painting. As if he had intended to call into doubt our perception of the world but at the last second decided against it and chose to picture the real as something ontologically incomplete, as if reality itself were somehow a contradiction in terms.
Lightness and translucency are qualities far more often and easily associated with Matisse. In comparing, for instance, between Picasso’s Open Window and any of Matisse’s window paintings of the preceding years it perhaps becomes apparent as to the reason for Open Window’s critical obscurity. Even at his most evanescent, Pablo Picasso can never replicate the same sense of a circumambient light-filled space, the same sense of infinite depth that we find in say Goldfish and Palette. But compare Open Window to another Picasso painting from bit later on, Guitar on Table, and we immediately see the return of a familiar centripetal arrangement of forms—albeit somewhat more elliptical and odd.
There is the distinct impression of bullet holes puncturing the various objects. We can see right through them into the back of the space. Somehow the ovoid shape at the centre registers as both an open mouth, a bottle stopper and the soundhole of a guitar. Brought together by interlock and juxtaposition, these objects are represented as clear-cut shapes: animate at their sharp edges and detached from their separate identities. For instance, what is that curious black sail at the back? Does it belong to the guitar or some other distinct object? Or the strange brown forms that float across from the tabletop. Are they partial units or are they discrete entities? To ask such a question perhaps misses the whole point.
Another similar kind of arrangement appears in a very delicate still life from 1922. There is a wonderful coolness about this work with its azure placemats and jalousie pinstripes. It’s certainly suggestive of a quieter interior world than the one we get it Guitar and Mandolin. The colours are flat, unmodulated tokens. Virtuoso illusionism is pitted against brute materiality, appearing to destroy the figures at the same time as producing them. Their configuration is what is changing and unstable.
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of what Cubism was like a decade before in the early teens. People said it looked like drunkenness. But a painting like Man at Table is all elegance and freedom. The figure’s whole being in space as a body, his uprightness and facing and leaning, is reconstructed as artificially and self-evidently as possible as a kind of floating grid of patterned shapes, opaque and tactile. A painting like this is arguably Cubism at its best – an ideal mix of the toy-like and totemic.
But let’s turn to the ‘synthetic’ Cubism of Guitar and Mandolin from 1924 and it’s an eye-poking contrast. How different this is from the still lives of Pablo Picasso’s early career such as Bread and Fruit Dish, from 1908. There are things in common, that much is sure. Take for instance the similarly scaled central arrangement of the key forms. But the crucial difference is a matter of gravity. The objects on the table of Guitar and Mandolin are like so many floaters riding towards us on a current of helium. Those in Bread and Fruit Dish are as immobile and upright as stone.
What are the devices of Cubism then? Generally speaking, Cubism reduces forms to hard edge geometries and pushes those forms closer and closer to the picture plane. It interlocks the edges of area-shapes into a rough network or grid. It has a remarkable finitude for flat solids such as the surface of the table here, or the surface of the guitar in Guitar and Mandolin.
There is a conceptual generality to the language (devices, syntax) used. In analytical Cubism there is a tendency towards monochrome and chiaroscuro which diminishes contrast. The use of collage, relief crazing, decoupage, found material and ‘shaped’ supports created the possibilities of accommodation to an eccentric or inflected surface. Types of surface treatment that assert a physical three coordinated reading are recomposed as a spatial non-determinant. There is a continuum between surface and surfaces presented and juxtaposed discretely.
All the particularising functions of dimension mass and shape could form the bases for ordering relationships. Quality of complexity between forms subverts generality at which point the work’s specificity is established. There is much that is inflected which is impossible to take to clear realisation without the need of compositional climax (the edge or contour). Order out of chaos, etc. This process is additive.
What about the key forms? The guitar is scooped out of the picture surface while the sand mixed into the pigment dramatises the low relief. The guitar’s white face is oil but oil that half-pretends to be a piece of cut paper stuck over the instruments inside. Every shape inside the picture somehow takes cognisance of the shape that contains it. But never mechanically nor reiteratively. Somehow the guitar shape never quite lets go of the various enclosing rectangles while still retaining its identity. All the jostling shapes seem somehow preternaturally aware of surrounding geometry, the particular strange forces of the pictures two dimensions.
Cubism’s subversive visual humour derives directly from its radical reductions and recalibrations of the visual. It’s like a machine for the constant reorientation of the visual field and can be turned in multiple directions, from the dignified and syllogistic, to the hallucinogenic and hilarious. These oscillations and distortions frame the picture plane as a playground for visual puns, non sequiturs, puzzles and heightened perceptual ambiguities.
The stylistic shift we see in Pablo Picasso’s move towards synthetic Cubism is not, to contradict some notable art historians, a shift from tragedy to comedy. Nor does it amount to some betrayal or rejection of Cubism’s basic stylistic predicates. On the contrary, comedy, humour and satire have always been stock properties of Pablo Picasso’s work going all the way back to his caricatures of the early 1900s. Similarly silly is the myth that Picasso subscribed to the popular modernist notion of a pure or ‘autonomous’ art representing a contiguous visual experience, free from representation. Picasso was, as a matter of policy, vocally opposed to the idea of an abstract art and even scoffed at being described as a surrealist. “I’m not a surrealist,” he said. “I’ve never been outside reality.”
Take this early portrait by Picasso from 1910. Does this look like a painter striving for purity? Harmony? Wholeness? If so then it’s a conflicted sort of autonomy. An autonomy animated by incongruity and irregularity. Compare its vagaries to the clarity of Man Leaning On A Table which unfolds in the manner of a beautifully patterned quilt. This on the other hand is a much darker, disturbing picture with its tonal shading and sepulchre of crushed bone. It has all the psychodrama of an ivory miniature by Goya or an écorche by Versalius. It’s a chilling image but one hatched from a profound scepticism about painting’s ability, at this particular point in history, to articulate anything interesting or worthwhile at all. It’s high-minded but also muddled. Maybe this is what Picasso meant by Cezanne’s ‘anxiety’? Cubism seems to be a concerted attempt to exploit that anxiety and take it to new extremes.
Pablo Picasso was happy to parody the humanism of the era, although one could argue that he is ironically its greatest achievement. Over simplification of the human form produces cartoons – near lifeless automata saluting the professional codes of fashion, taste and class available to all good consumers at the time. In this portrait for example he reduces a human head to a collage of journal clippings and a sketch made hastily in charcoal. The elated, spontaneous nature of the composition, the belief that the face must have somehow come together all at once, from just a few diagonal marks and scraps of glued paper is worth savoring for its economy of invention. But this pleasure is interrupted by a peculiar bathos. One gets the sense that Picasso is provoking us to look at the portrait and ask, ‘is that me? is that really what I’m like? can I really be described thus?’
Whether one chooses to read Pablo Picasso’s work as a socialist critique or as middle class nostalgia or both is beside the point. The point is to say that Picasso, even at his most austere and grandly ‘modern’, even at the heights of collage and object relief, which is supposed to be the most free and stoic of the cubist cannon there was still an insistent impurity and need to cause tension. Picasso is impatient, transformative. We are supplied with a continual metamorphosis of imagery. An eye socket becomes the shadow of a door handle over a keyhole. A lump of absinthe becomes a die which becomes a woman’s pillbox hat. We get a tightly woven sign system that points cross-eyed in multiple directions. But multiple directions is not the same thing as multiple interpretations. A painting like Guitar and Mandolin I suggest is far too rhetorical for that, and far less accommodating. After all, what would be the point of interpretation? For Picasso there is only one truth, his truth. In inventing a Cubist syntax, arguably the world’s first potentially self-sustaining art, Picasso had to fight the hardest to avoid becoming a slave to its rules.
Jumping even further back in time, let’s now compare Guitar and Mandolin with an early work—perhaps the young Pablo Picasso’s first masterpiece.
This is one of the rare moments of the blue period where tenderness doesn’t yield to sentimentality. The picture simply Is tender, rather than being an illustration of tenderness. Observe the difference in how Picasso paints the rumpled bedsheets in this early work compared to the starry tablecloth in Guitar and Mandolin. We couldn’t be dealing with more extreme polarities. And yet Picasso seems to unconsciously show his hand by virtue of his irresolute sense of internal arrangement, his basic sense of formal logic. The tension between the straight edge and the curve. The way that the heavy blue walls, the table leg and the figure come down and forward to meet us – yet despite the proximity, everything is out of reach. It’s as if the very room belongs to itself and not the figure of the girl. Or rather, they seem to both belong to each together, attendant familiars to the others possession. Who is whose property?
Possession and ownership relate once again to my leitmotif of 19th century bohemianism and its notion of space as something eminently possessable. Space is a constant. Yet space is never the same space. It has a particular character for humans that changes across time and over the course of history. Our existing and reposing in an environment is inflected by a totality of contingent events. The question is: what does Picasso think space is for? The answer can be found, I would suggest in a work like The Blue Room, an emblem for Picasso’s life as a young bohemian painter, shacking up with prostitutes, picking fleas out of the carpet and refusing to tidy up for fear of getting dust on his paintings. For whom living space was something desired, vulnerable, patently constructed and easily lost. In this sense, one wonders if Pablo Picasso ever truly managed to leave the 19th century behind him? Perhaps the key to his genius lies in the arrest of an incipient dandyism, an act of faith that whatever changes, the room will never disappear. The interior is for Picasso the best way of making three dimensions imaginatively habitable, a space the invites, envelops and contains.
The floor of the room in Guitar and Mandolin appears to be tiled. There is little to suggest a ceiling. A negative semicircle of white and black hatchings keeps us at a remove from the tabletop and the utensils so that we are never really standing within the scene or firmly upon it’s ground. The semicircle symbolises some kind of immense distance between us and the various objects, but also manages to create pressure, to make even more intensely present and tactile the various items on display. A painting called Monument: Head of a Woman from Picasso’s bathers series makes similar use of a curve along the bottom edge but to a much more obvious effect, suggestive of the Earth’s curvature.
The world for the bourgeoisie is a room. No style beside Cubism has ever made the interior such a fundamental basis for its model of aestheticism. Painting’s resource for distance and circumambience is greatly reduced so as not to tempt our imagination and the trade-off is a much more intensely felt sense of proximity – of coziness, even. In Guitar and Mandolin utensils and instruments float up to meet us. The floor appears to pour into the picture to support the muscular table. A window swings back into the room and attaches itself to the wall. Diamonds migrate and change colour. The guitar is a titbit of ex-flesh metamorphosing into oilcloth.
The room also doubles as a kind of bulbous and shifting mugshot. It has to be stared out but the animated objects take, if you insist upon it, the form of features in a face, both there and not-there. Turn, and it appears to vanish like the anamorphic skull in Holbein. Yet perhaps this is nothing more than my own un-requested subjectivity as self-portrait. Confirmation that an icon-shaping instinct is alive in me still.
We see beneath the table, shockingly, a miniature epitome of the room space in sharp contrast to the over-life size proportions. The rhyme with the balcony railing is forceful to the point of lyricism. Yet again we can observe Picasso’s tendency to stage pictures within pictures, pseudo-pictures unfolding from a centre and depending upon a settled contingence. We are meant to be reminded that painting is similar to a toy theatre made of paper such as the one that appears in the didactical Still Life with Plaster Bust of the next year.
One is reminded of something as contemporary as ‘vaporwave’, the internet pop genre with its curious blend of nostalgia, neoclassical pastiche and surrealism. Once described by a music journalist as something between a ‘real genre that sounds fake and a fake genre that could be real’, vaporwave’s particular attraction to fakery and phoniness seems right at home next to paintings like Still Life with Plaster Bust or Guitar and Mandolin with their baffling assaults on the accepted standards of good taste. One enjoys the work with a dubious conscience, mindful that the whole exercise could easily slip, perhaps when we aren’t looking, and plunge into comic spectacle.
In Three Dancers, Pablo Picasso returns to his beloved window motif, but now instead of a still life we are presented with a dance of death. The painting’s surface is a craze of different textures like the afterburn of some obscene invocation. The airless forward pressure of the blue is like a criminal thirst that takes in water and gives out blood, draining roses from the flapping wallpaper of memory bedrooms. A red and white striped jawbreaker whorls towards us through an aperture in the left dancers boneless torso. These are devices which are beyond explanation but which nag at the notions of purity and geometrical harmony we associate with ‘analytical’ Cubism.
The effect is one of distance but also of presentness, an almost uncomfortably material forthrightness. Picasso paintings often exist as problems for the surrounding space. In the case of Guitar and Mandolin or Three Dancers the arrangement of forms are at war with the edge, jockeying against it. And why not? Why should we be on good terms with modernism? Why should we settle for tone-poem completeness or an easy conscience? Instead, the paintings’ object-status and the internal aesthetic arrangement are in open dispute.
Imitators of Pablo Picasso (sub-Picassos) always worked with greater caution or with keener awareness of the patron culture. The brash fake-monumentality of a Picasso becomes real and gentile monumentality in the work of someone like Henry Moore. The unease of a Picasso like Three Dancers becomes epater les bourgeois and attitudinalising in the work of Francis Bacon.
But the quality of a Picasso has little to do with mere attitude. Let’s return to Guitar and Mandolin with its broad chromatic elements, and jaunty staccato rhythms. The reason why it stands the test of looking, is precisely because of its tension with the outside, as if the world itself and not the painting was in doubt. It refuses to rest quietly in a pre-established art realm in which it might be able to just crack on and do its job. The surface is infinitely nervous, crackling with puzzles. How much detail can we bear? How much decorative glibness of style? How to pin down so weightless and free floating a space to the floor on which we stand?
Like anything else, once realised, Cubism with all its freedoms gradually became another bunch of cliches. Increasingly, its appeal for Picasso (and others) was to be found in its utility, its free-floating repertoire of neat tricks and rehearsed techniques. Perhaps his eventual turn towards monstrosity in the twenties and thirties would have something to do with his becoming aware of Cubism’s unworkability: its becoming a static manner. All of a sudden the bourgeois coziness of the interior is trapped in scare quotes. Coziness has become uncanniness. Pablo Picasso’s instinctive self-masochism, his lashing-out against his own style seems to me to be in keeping with a kind of historical theme. After all, ‘retrogression’ is perhaps the deepest and most persistent note of modernist painting, from Impressionism to New York abstraction. Could all of modern art finally be described as one long process of refusal, one long avoidance of catastrophe? A blithe self-absorption? A garlic against the apparitions of the present?
For fear that I am perhaps being a little too self-indulgent let me conclude this essay by attempting to nip things off with a rather crude summary. Cubism is in part an effort to memorialise the vanished space of 19th century bohemianism, its flows and mobilisations, its particular feeling for a space that could be closed, opened, inhabited and entered. Picasso was perhaps the last great poet and revivalist of a bourgeois society that no longer really exists and that he must have in some way realized was on its way out. Still as a painter he lived strictly within its limits. I’ve always lived inside myself Picasso said, as if the inside of Picasso were a place that could be visited, populated, as if Pablo Picasso himself were a room, sealed against the inexact.
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