Art of the 20th Century
A Revolution in the Arts
in 20th century Art Map
The work Picasso did in 1907 on "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" placed him
squarely in the contemporary vanguard. But in his radicalness he stood
alone. From 1908 to 1911, together with Braque, he developed Cubism, and
moved on to the frontiers of abstraction. Only a very few insiders were in
a position to follow this progress, though. When the two artists created
Synthetic Cubism from 1912 onwards, the situation had changed, and Cubism
was no longer the property of the experts, a style hidden away in a
handful of galleries, but rather the new sensational talking point among
all who had an interest in contemporary art.
Late in 1911, a number of young artists calling themselves Cubists
exhibited in the Salon des Independants and at the autumn Salon. But
Picasso and Braque were not the stars of these shows; they were not even
to be seen. The most important artists of the Cubist group were Albert
Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Henri Le Fauconnier, Robert Delaunay, Roger de la
Fresnaye and Fernard Leger. In 1912, the now expanded group again
exhibited at both Salons. By now, public interest was even greater, and
there was a scandal comparable only with that which had accompanied the
arrival of the Fauves in 1905. From our point of view, if we compare their
work with what Picasso and Braque had just been doing, the fuss is
difficult to understand. The Cubism that caught the public eye was by no
means a genuinely revolutionary, innovative art. Almost all the pictures
on show can be seen as pleasing variants on what the two true
revolutionaries had been painting earlier, around 1908-1909. Only Delaunay
and Leger had ideas of their own about abstraction from the
Nevertheless, the controversy raged in the press and even at political
meetings. This rapid reception was doubtless assisted by the fact that the
group offered the public a readily-grasped notion of Cubism. Their work
was essentially geometrically abstract, taking its cue from the cube.
Without taking Picasso's and Braque's latest work into account, the
painters had gone back to Cezanne, and to the older work Braque had
exhibited at Kahnweiler's in 1908.
The twin lines of development were plainly not running in synch.
Artistic approaches, their significance for progress in art, and their
recognition in the public arena, were evolving in dislocated fashion. The
reason must be sought in the new conditions of art and its reception in
the early 20th century - which will also account for the shift in the
evaluation of various Cubist artists that occurred during the debate of
Bottle of Pernod and Glass
In the 19th century it was the official Salons, and they (very nearly)
alone, that decided the recognition of artists. Discussion divided
according to whether artists were Salon or anti-Salon artists: we need
only recall Courbet, or the Impressionists. But since the turn of the
century it had been commercial galleries and the press that steered the
reception. Most important shows of avant-garde art were to be seen in the
galleries. They acted as middlemen between the studios and the public,
ensuring that the latest work was seen and providing journalists and
critics with the material for reviews and essays. Of course the motives of
the galleries were commercial, at least in part. Certain artists were
promoted and marketed. This, after all, was the dawn of middle-class
society's commercialization of art.
Till the decisive Cubist breakthrough, Picasso's career too was one
that depended on dealers' speculation. His early exhibition at Vollard's
in 1901 represented an investment in his future productivity. Everyone who
knew what was what realised, after all, that Salon art was being
superseded by something new. Thus in early 1907 Vollard bought up
everything of Picasso's, including all his sketches, for 2500 francs. Both
Picasso and Braque had contracts with the young German dealer Daniel Henry
Kahnweiler, who paid a fixed price for their startling new work. An
arrangement of this kind gave the artists a degree of security and also
enabled them to ignore the processes of official recognition. Picasso, in
fact, never exhibited at a Paris Salon; instead, Kahnweiler sold his work
to collectors, and introduced it to other galleries and dealers via his
contacts. In 1911, both Picasso and Braque had exhibitions abroad - in the
Galerie Thannhauser in Munich, for instance. These shows familiarized
experts with their work but were largely ignored by the broader public.
The official Cubist shows of 1911, at which Picasso and Braque were not
represented, inevitably changed things. The public debate forced their
work into the open and made it imperative to establish their significance
in the evolution of Cubism. In 1912 Metzinger and Gleizes published "Du
cubisme", a theoretical, popularizing view of Cubism that took Cezanne as
the great exemplar.
But numerous writers in Picasso's circle published other views. That same
year, Salmon published two books which are seen to this day as vital
sources in the history of Modernist art: his "Histoire anecdotique du
cubisme", and "La jeune peinture francaise".
He was the first to stress Picasso's key position and the seminal
importance of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" in the founding of Cubism. Then
in 1913 Apollinaire's book "Les peintres cubistes" appeared, and made an
attempt to distinguish and characterize groupings within the movement.
Braque and Picasso were labelled "scientific" Cubists.
All of this produced a fundamental revaluation of Cubism and the
individual painters. Now Picasso stood centre-stage, vilified and
acclaimed as the innovator par excellence. Though it does not fit
the facts, Braque has been viewed ever since as Picasso's junior partner.
This too can be accounted for if we look at the art scene of the time.
Before Cubism, Picasso already had a name, while Braque was merely the
young man among the Fauves. Though Picasso was the elder by a mere half
year, he retained his advantage. From the start it was a financial
advantage too: though both artists were under contract to Kahnweiler, the
dealer paid Picasso four times what he paid Braque for his Cubist work.
This appears to have had no effect on the two artists' personal relations,
though, and Picasso certainly seems to have considered Braque his equal.
The letters they wrote each other - even if they were partly playing to
the gallery, so to speak - record real friendship and mutual respect.
Their exchange entered a new phase in 1912. Braque was continually
trying to adapt craft techniques to Cubism, to put it on a new footing.
The tactile sense could be appealed to in more ways than paint and a
drawing pencil. He tested materials and methods familiar to the house
decorator but new to art. Along with templates and other illusionist
tricks, he mixed his paint with sand or plaster to create a rough,
textured surface like that of a relief. In place of two-dimensional,
surface mimesis on canvas or panel, Braque now used material textures of
various kinds as an expressive value in itself. The next step, logically
(as we can now see), was to redefine the visual function of technique and
of the materials) used.
Guitar "I love Eve"
"Ma Jolie" (Marcelle Humbert-Eva)
In early 1912, following a stay at Sorgues, Braque showed Picasso his
new work. It was three-dimensional. He had been cutting sculptural objects
together, using paper or cardboard, and then painting or drawing over
them. The spatial experiment was designed as a way of assessing
illusionist techniques. He then applied the same ideas to two-dimensional
work, retaining paper and cardboard as materials; and a new kind of work,
the papiers colles, was born.
Subsequently he varied the textural effects and tried out further ways of
developing them. In particular, he used pre-formed, printed, coloured and
structured pieces of paper.
For Picasso, Braque's latest innovations provided the occasion to
extend Cubism's visual system. Paintings such as the 1914 "Ma Jolie", personal in their allusive range, were the result. In these works,
Picasso used letters and words as graphic, indeed iconic signs. The
conventional meanings remain, since the letters can still be read, but the
statement is puzzling. Picasso deploys messages that seem unambiguous but
which become inaccessible once they appear in the context of his pictures.
Thus in "Ma Jolie" the guitar, the make-believe music, the pipe, glass,
playing card, dice, and the word "Bass", implying a drink, all provide
ready associations with a cafe interior. The words "Ma Jolie" on the music
would be perceived by contemporaries as a quotation from a popular chanson
by Fragson; but the phrase also had a private meaning intended only for
the artist's closest friends. It referred to Eva Gouel, a young woman who
had entered the artistic milieu of Montmartre as painter Louis
Marcoussis's girlfriend and then became Picasso's partner. Picasso
similarly attached messages to his use of the house painter's "comb"
template. In "The Poet" it not only provided texture, as it had
for Braque. By using it for the poet's hair and moustache, Picasso
introduced a mechanistic component into the representational process,
well-nigh destroying all trace of illusionism and thereby redoubling the
His approach to Braque's new papiers colles method was similar. The
graphic structure of the printed paper produced a quality that was
figuratively random in terms of a picture's import. In 1912 Picasso
produced a number of masterly works of striking economy of means, one of
the finest of them being the "Violin". Two scraps of newspaper, a
few lines and charcoal hatchings - and the picture is finished. It is one
of the loveliest and most intelligent Cubist pictures. First, Picasso
clipped an irregular piece of newspaper and stuck it on cardboard. Then he
drew a stylized violin's neck with the characteristic curled head.
Following the precept of Analytical Cubism, he added formally
deconstructed lines to suggest the parts of a violin. The newspaper text
is still decipherable, but its original function and meaning have
vanished. Though identifiably from a paper, it is seen purely as a
graphic design, an image. The yellowing adds an extra interest, echoing
the brownish colour of the violin. But Picasso did not merely
defamiliarize his found material: the part of the newspaper from which he
had clipped the first was reversed and placed at top right, where it acts
as a background, this function being at odds with its identity as a
newspaper fragment. We are offered an object and spatial dimensions - but,
even as Picasso establishes them, he destroys them once again.
The newspaper scraps are placed to mark an irregular vertical diagonal,
a visual instability which the artist has echoed in the charcoal hatching.
The tonal polarity creates a balance of the white card, the printed and
yellowed paper, and the economical lines of the drawing. The form and
content of the picture are at variance, but they are necessarily combined;
and thus a subtle tension of great aesthetic and intellectual presence is
Picasso varied this stylistic approach in a number of papiers colles
done in 1912. In one work he explored presence and vacancy by
cutting an irregular rectangular shape out of a sheet of newspaper and
then sticking the sheet upside-down on a sheet of cardboard. The art
consists primarily in an intellectual rather than a technical process.
Once again, Picasso deploys the first principles of representational art
in absurd fashion. The table and bottle in the still life are presented
with a few charcoal lines using the vacant space in the paper. Bottles are
three-dimensional, and in terms of solid geometry cylinders.
Bottle on a Table
Geometrical Composition: The Guitar
In transferring his bottle to the two dimensions of a picture, Picasso
dispensed with any attempt at illusionist spatiality and rendered the
bottle in two flat dimensions. Seen two-dimensionally, though, bottles are
long rectangles; so that was the shape the artist cut out of the paper.
The bottom of a bottle is circular, so Picasso's peculiar logic renders a
circle in the two-dimensional projection. This circle is in fact a
surviving area of newspaper in the cut-out section, displaced sideways. A
few days later, in December 1912, Picasso made an exact counterpart of
this picture, the bottle now represented - conversely - by the newspaper.
During that period, Picasso also used other patterned materials such as
wallpaper, advertisements, cloth and packaging, to good visual effect.
Though unfamiliar materials were being introduced into the pictures, the
iconic quality of presentation remained. The materials were integrated
perfectly into the style and logic of Picasso's compositions, and were
there primarily to add texture or patterning. These papiers colles
can thus be read as systems of signs producing a new level of effect. The
best example is perhaps a painting done in Ceret in 1913. According to its
title, it shows a guitar.
The picture consists of a few irregular, angular areas of khaki, white
and black. It is a copy of a papier colle that Picasso had recently
done - that is to say, it imitates an imitation. This defamiliarization
is intensified by the use of angular shapes, since they are plainly at
variance with the rounded shapes of what is supposedly the picture's
subject, a guitar. And, further, the fundamentals of illusionism - light
and shadow, perspective foreshortening -are not meaningfully deployed but
are absurdly juxtaposed. The overlapping which at other times conveys
spatial dimensions completes the defamiliarization in this picture so
effectively that we would have no idea what it represented were it not for
the title. The picture seems wholly abstract.
This defamiliarization still works entirely within the parameters of
mimetic iconography. Picasso went about his work quite differently in the
collage technique he devised at the time. In collage -unlike papier
colle - an object is introduced into a context in such a way as to
alter not only the medium but also the style and meaning of the motif.
"Still Life with Chair Caning", done in May 1912, is the
cornerstone work of this new method. A composition in the manner of
Analytical Cubism has been joined to a slant rectangular area showing the
weave of a cane chair. This naturalistic component is at odds with the
style of the rest. In fact it is not a representational piece of work by
the artist, but a printed scrap of oilcloth. The semblance of reality is
deployed as an illusion, identified as such, and exploited iconographically.
Still Life with Chair Caning
During this phase of Cubism, using new materials and techniques,
Picasso was exploring the problem of spatial values in the illusion
established by pictures. Many of his works therefore started from
three-dimensional work. Alongside the papiers colles he began to
make guitars out of cardboard. The instrument is
crudely but recognisably made: the brown colours of the cardboard,
reminiscent of the wood of guitars, doubtless help us in the recognition.
But inappropriate materials are used too, and spatial values subverted.
The lid, bottom and side walls of the cardboard boxes are flattened to
equal status. The basic Cubist rule of combining the representational and
the random applies to these works too. But in contrast to Analytical
Cubism, which dissected objects, here they are re-assembled. And for this
reason a different term is used: Synthetic Cubism.
Cardboard, paper, canvas, string and pencil
Cardboard, paper, canvas, string and pencil
Following this line, Picasso devised another new form, the assemblage.
Basically it transposes the methods and effects of collage into three
dimensions. Two still-life works from 1913 are good examples: "Guitar and
Bottle of Bass" and "Mandolin and Clarinet". The
vehicle, structurally and visually, is wood. Picasso uses its tactile and
visual properties, such as the graining and colour. By adding extra colour
and drawing, he intensifies the effect, levels out spatial qualities,
covers textures - but also contrasts his materials and techniques. It is a
style that is nicely visible in the tondo "Glass, Pipe, Ace of Clubs and
Dice". As well as wood, Picasso uses metal here; but it is
painted over, and its original textural properties are no longer recognisable. The ace of clubs is sheet metal, the club symbol punched
out. The dice is a slant, cut-off section of a cylinder; only the painted
motifs convey what it is meant to be.
Guitar and Bottle of Bass
Mandolin and Clarinet
Glass, Pipe, Ace of Clubs and Dice
Picasso also combined multi-level semantic defamiliarizations with
tandem aesthetic and intellectual appeals in his only regular sculpture
from this period, a famous serial work of which six copies were made: "The
Glass of Absinthe". He made a wax and plasticine mould and
variously painted the bronze casts. Absinthe (a vermouth brandy now banned
because it is a health risk) was drunk from a glass goblet of the kind the
sculpture shows. Picasso dissolved its transparent volume, with various
highlights occasioned by the light, into isolated zones which he then
juxtaposed, adding a genuine little spoon with a wax model of a sugar
A great many things that are demonstrably wrong have been written about
this yoking of different materials and methods of presentation. It is true
that three formal levels meet in a mould: the reality of a genuine spoon,
simple representation in the form of a wax copy of a sugar lump, and
defamiliarization of the appearance of the glass. But this is of no
relevance in artistic terms, and is merely of practical significance. In
the casting process of all six copies, the distinction between reality and
simple representation inevitably vanished, because the spoon too now
became only a representation of itself. The wax model of the genuine sugar
lump was technically necessary because sugar, being porous, was unsuitable
for bronze casting. All that really matters, in terms of the principles of
Synthetic Cubism, is the contrast between conventionally faithful
representation (the spoon and sugar) and Cubist methods. In all six copies
this contrast is observed. The various painting merely served purposes of
The Glass of Absinthe
Thus the processes of deception underlying the art of illusion are
excellently displayed in the assemblages and sculptures of Synthetic
Cubism. Picasso arguably took this line of thinking to the logical extreme
in his metal "Violin", done in 1915 and a full metre high. It is
made of cut sheet metal, but the parts are wired in and colourfully
overpainted so that the nature of the material is once again not
immediately apparent. The volume of the metal components and the spatial
values implied by the painting are at variance. The impact is further
blurred because Picasso, partly harking back to the 1912 "Guitar", has
interchanged spatial values. Parts that should occupy a foreground
position in the object supposedly represented, and others that would be
further from us in a conventional three-dimensional treatment, have
exchanged places. The two holes in the soundboard are not depressions or
holes in the metal but added components. Reversing their state in the real
world, they have here become small rectangular boxes lying on the board.
Then there are the colours, white, black and blue areas alongside the
brown ones suggesting the actual colour of a violin. Black areas seem
suggestive of shadow, just as white ones imply bright light; yet this
contrasts with the way things appear in reality. Graphic and spatial
approaches, and the art of the painter, have all been combined in a
sophisticated synthesis in this sculptural construction.
Cut metal, painted, with iron wire
This playful approach to form can hardly be taken any further without
exceeding the bounds of meaning - and evolving an altogether new artistic
idiom. Constructions such as these thus took Cubism to the furthest limit
of its options. The art scene had changed in the meantime. Cubism, still
far from being publicly recognised as an apt response to the times, was
now seen as the precursor of the artistic avant-garde throughout Europe.
The dogmatic group centred on Metzinger and Gleizes no longer existed and
the Cubist visual language had altered, acquiring international currency.
In 1912, the Galerie La Boetie in Paris established a "Section d'Or" in
which Marcel Duchamp and Juan Gris set the tone. Gris extended Analytical
and Synthetic Cubism, while Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" found
new ways of presenting motion. Braque and Picasso had invented a style
which could now serve the formal needs of many different kinds of artists.
The Futurist movement, for instance, sponteously proclaimed in Paris in
1909 by the Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was devoted to
dynamism and movement, and played its own variations on the fragmentation
technique of Analytical Cubism. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian exhibited
at the 1911 Salon des Inde-pendants together with the other Cubists - but
then accused Picasso, Braque and others of having failed to grasp the true
aims of Cubism with the necessary precision. Mondrian advocated totally
abstract art. With a number of others he started the "De Stijl" movement
in Holland in 1917-one of the core groups in European Constructivism. The
importance of Cubism was international. It inspired the avant-garde
From 1908 on, thanks to the collector Sergei Shchukin, Picasso's latest
Cubist work cold be seen in Moscow. Contemporary west European art was
seen in a number of exhibitions not only in the main cities of Russia but
also (for example) in Odessa, and was soon well known, spurring the
abstract programmes of Supremat-ism (practised by Kasimir Malevich) and
Rayonism (Michail Larionov). The Swiss artist Paul Klee and the Germans
August Macke and Franz Marc saw Cubism in Paris and subsequent
developments such as Delaunay's Orphism; what they saw fed their own
varieties of German Expressionism. In December 1911, Delaunay had
exhibited in the first Blauer Reiter show in Munich's Thannhauser gallery.
Klee and the American-born Lyonel Feininger subsequently took their
impressions with them to the Bauhaus. In Prague there was a veritable
Cubist centre, with groups of artists organizing shows of French Cubism
and doing their own Cubist paintings and sculptures.
As early as 1911,
Alfred Stieglitz exhibited Picasso's work in his New York gallery,
introducing the Spaniard to America.
The great Armory Show, held in New York in 1913, was the US breakthrough
for many of the new European artists, among them the Nabis, the Fauves and
So Cubism was a determining factor for many different kinds of
Modernist art, as a model and a catalyst. Encouraged by Cubism, Wassily
Kandinsky - precursor of total abstraction in art - was able to pursue his
course. Yet Cubism did not directly initiate all of Modernism's artistic
styles; abstract art in particular drew upon a complex variety of sources,
including the decorative style of art nouveau. Taking that style as
his point of departure, the German Adolf Holzel painted almost abstract
pictures as early as 1905. But it remains true that without the authority
of Cubism, Modernism as we know it would quite simply not have existed.
Moreover, Picasso and Braque had invented new media such as collage and
assemblage, enriching the expressive repertoire. From Dada to the present,
artists of every stylistic persuasion have used and developed these
methods. Small wonder, then, that as Cubism gained ground it also founded
international recognition of Picasso's special status in 20th-century art.
In the second decade of the century he was already being seen as the
artist who initiated the great Modernist breakthrough. Whenever new
movements were started, it was Picasso and his work that served as a
rallying cry. In a word: he became the hero of 20th-century art.