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Picasso and Cubism

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1939
  • Category: Art

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It would seem a given that Cubism was a major influence on what is now termed modern art, and Pablo Picasso was a major influence on Cubism.  The Cubism Movement began in France, with Pablo Picasso and George Braque considered to be its founding fathers. Cubism created a new way of looking at two-dimensional art. It created, in essence, a revolution in the world of art. However, it should be remembered that Cubism did not spring from nothingness. It drew from other styles, using perspective from the Impressionists and borrowed heavily from African tribal art.  Far from being a flash in the pan, it has survived and influenced art well into the 21st century. At the same time that Cubism was making its presence felt in late 19th century Europe, other art movements were becoming known.

Fauvism, a precursor to Cubism, arose in France, Die Brucke (The Bridge) and a decade later Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), modern art movements, arose in Germany. Futurism swept into Italy during this period. All were innovations, with artists realizing that Impressionism was not the only way to break with the past and express feeling and emotion in a different way. Then came the twin giants of Cubism, Picasso and Braque, yet it is Picasso, today, who stands alone in the minds of art lovers. It is Picasso who is thought of as the Father of Cubism. Arguably it is Picasso’s  Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon that was the first masterpiece of the emerging cubist style.

David Galenson, author of Artistic Capital, calls Demoiselles a “forerunner to Cubism”, adding that it is the single most reproduced painting in the history of Modern Art (33). He goes on to call Cubism the most important artistic revolution of the modern era (33). Picasso drew on the works and style of Cezanne and in turn was drawn upon during much of the 20th century. Influenced by Cezanne and Matisse, he heavily influenced such masters as Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and others. Picasso’s influence on Cubism and Modern Art cannot be over-stated. Virtually single handedly Pablo Picasso’s powerful influence over Cubism transformed the face of Modern Art.

            Henri Matisse, twelve years Picasso’s senior, was a rival and a friend to Picasso. This dual relationship began in Paris early in the 20th century when Picasso left his native Spain to travel to the city of Paris, which he considered to be the heart of the artistic world. Matisse had decided to hold an exhibition at the Salon d’ Automne (Salon of Autumn) in 1908. He had planned what author Jack Flam called an apotheosis, or a breakthrough in art, becoming a master in one fell swoop. He believed that the one exhibition would catapult him into the ranks of such French masters as Ingres, Manet, Gauguin, and Cezanne. George Braque had submitted some of his cubist works to the juried exhibition, and Matisse, using his influence, had them rejected. Says Flam, “When Braque’s paintings were presented to the jury, Matisse reportedly muttered, “Always the cubes, the little cubes,” … (This incident was the basis for a number of writers mistakenly attributing the origins of the word “cubism” to Matisse.)” (62).

There is a question as to why Matisse reacted to emotionally to the works of Braque. These early works were a virtual homage to the French master, Cezanne, and  Matisse, according to Flam, was sympathetic to Cezanne. Flam attributes the adverse reaction to the obvious influences of Picasso and cubism in the Braque landscapes. Matisse was both repulsed and attracted to the departure from convention exhibited by Picasso and Cubism. Nonetheless, Matisse, says Flam, “… was put off by the aggressive and purposeful misreading of Cezanne that Braque’s canvases embodied”  (63). Thus began a battle and in essence a love/hate relationship, between Picasso and Matisse, and was the beginning of the battle over how Cezanne, and by extension, Modern Art, would be perceived, and how Picasso would influence Cubism throughout the century.

            It is generally accepted that Cezanne spanned the centuries, standing firmly astride both the 19th and 20th. During this period much of the art world was in a state of flux, while Cezanne stood firmly as an anchor to those artists who understood his work. He went beyond the Impressionists and their virtual realism, but still he showed disdain for the rules of art, ignoring conventionally accepted ideas of perspective. He once commented that all of nature could be rendered in the sphere, cylinder, and the cone. It is little wonder that he was embraced by Picasso and Braque as a progenitor of Cubism. Thus it is that Picasso’s works, embracing Cezanne’s principles, heavily influence the Cubist Movement.

            David Cottingham, writing in Cubism: Movements in Modern Art, remarks that in the early years of the 20th century, “… in cities where revolution had politicized avant-garde debate, art’s role in building as well as representing a new world was on the agenda” (75). In 1909 the Polish-born American artist, Max Weber (1881-1961), had met Picasso in Paris and carried his art back to the United States. Picasso’s work was examined by American artists and in one leap Picasso’s influence had spanned the Atlantic, and was soon to take root in the New World. In 1911 Weber convinced Alfred Stieglitz to mount a Picasso exhibition at his 291 Gallery in New York.

With this entrée into the capital city of American art, Picasso became a demi-god. That first show helped in the creation of what was to become a virtual cult-worship of Picassso, and, naturally, Cubism. American artists like Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and Weber became so well versed in the process of Cubism and the personal style of Pablo Picasso that it is sometimes difficult to determine what artist painted what work from that early phase of Cubism in New York.

            The Abstract Movement, too, owes a debt to Picasso and that debt is acknowledged in the works and writings of Arshile Gorky. He was so devoted to Picasso and Cubism, it is said, that he has been called a disciple of the master. Hayden Herrera, writing in Gorky: His Life and Work, acknowledges the connection. He says, quoting Gorky’s remarks to a friend in 1930s New York, “ It is the fate of the son to kill his father, but Christ’s father was God, and Christ couldn’t kill God” (11).

The friend, says Herrera, said that Gorky was comparing Christ’s relationship to God with his relationship to Picasso, and that he could not even symbolically kill off his artistic creator. This statement is potent testament to the idea that Picasso wielded a powerful influence over Cubism, Modern Art, and over those who chose to follow in those disciplines. Gorky, says, Herrera, was always aware of what he called “Picasso’s latest invention” (177) and virtually always incorporated it into his work.

 Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), Russian artist and architect, saw Picasso’s work in Paris in 1917 and carried it home to Moscow. Picasso, Tatlin observed, did not seem constrained by two dimensions. It was thus that his influence on Cubism spread beyond Paris, beyond France,  beyond Europe, and the United States.  Writer Jack Flam quotes a Russian art critic of the era, “In the final analysis,” [comparing Matisse and Picasso] “Matisse is a cravate, a colored necktie, in the words of Pablo Picasso, his opposite” (81). Matisse was a decorator, almost passé and virtually irrelevant. Picasso stood astride the world of Modern Art and made Cubism his own province.

Jackson Pollock, says Leonhard Emmerling, writing in Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956, was fully acquainted with the Spaniard’s oeuvre, having seen much of the body in its original state. He had seen Demoiselles  at MoMA , he had seen the monumental Guernica on tour, and had seen the 1940 MoMA exhibit, Picasso: Forty Years of His Art. It was artist and writer John D. Graham who first encouraged Pollack to study Picasso, says Emmerling, saying that the involvement was both fruitful and paralyzing. Pollock, says Emmerling, once threw a book of Picasso’s art onto the floor, screaming out, “God damn it, that guy missed nothing” (28)!

In 1980 William Ruben began planning a Picasso retrospective at MoMA for the centenary of Picasso’s birth in 1983. Picasso was far and away the most prolific artist of the 20th century, and likely the most prolific in history. Art patrons were treated to samplings of most all of Picasso’s periods ands styles.  In the early 1960s it was accepted that Picasso was then the most influential artist of the 20th century, but by the 1970s the feeling among those in positions of power in the art world, according to Flam, felt that his influence on young artists was on the wane (219).

            Yet, for all that, it is obvious to anyone with the eyes to see that art movements of merit do not just pass away like smoke in the wind. There are little parts, pieces, techniques and forms that do not pass. They are absorbed by the next wave of art that catches the fancy of the fickle public. They meld, incorporated into that new art, and become one with it. Artists such as Ashile Gorky were not mere sycophants. Gorky was a master in his own right, but through quirk of personality or merely his upbringing in a rural Armenia, he seemed physically or emotionally incapable of divorcing himself from his mentor and master.

Merika Herskovic, in American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s quotes Gorky as saying, “There are large numbers of critics, artists, and public, suspended like vultures, waiting in the air for the death of the distinctive art of this century, the art of Leger, Picasso, Miro, Kandinski, Stuart Davis” (16). Yet, says Kerskovic, while it is true that an artist produces no work after his death, the work of a master is likely to go on, to meld with the art of the next generation. “We shall not,” states Kerskovic, quoting Gorky, “hear of the sudden death of Cubism, abstraction—so called Modern Art” (16).

            Cubism will endure, and continue to influence those who see it. That is the nature of art. Picasso strode through the 20th century as if he were its owner, and, in an artistic sense, he was. Since Picasso was, in essence, Cubism, he, too, will endure. Artists come in and out of fashion. History is strewn with the bones of those discarded movements, along with their proponents, but inevitably the next generation of artists scavenges all that is good. While it is not possible to predict with any degree of certainty in what direction the art of the future will go, it is relatively safe to vouch the opinion that Picasso and his Cubism Movement will not soon be forgotten.  Virtually single handedly Pablo Picasso’s powerful influence over Cubism transformed the face of Modern Art.

                                                Works Cited

            Cottingham, D. Cubism: Movements in Modern Art  New York:

                        Cambridge University Press 1998

            Emmerling, L. Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956 Germany: Taschen 2003

            Flam, J. Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Their

                        Friendship  New York: Westview Press 2003

            Galenson, D. Artistic Capital  New York: Routledge 2006

            Herrera, H. Gorky: His Life and Work  New York: Farrar, Strauss, and

                        Giroux  2003

            Herskovic, M. American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s

                        Franklin Lakes, N.J.: New York School Press 2003

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