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A Cubism Primer

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

What is cubism? It isn't. It isn't, that is, a movement with a coherent set of ideas or goals based on any single manifesto. Like most -isms in art -- mannerism, romanticism, impressionism, abstract expressionism -- the term was coined after the art was made, as a convenient way to parse it out or even tie it down.

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At best, "cubism" describes a loose approach to picturemaking that was different than anything that came before, because it involved a radical disjointing of reality. Even in terms of its trademark look, however, the cubist movement (or is it better thought of as a style?) could be fiendishly varied. The so-called "analytic" cubism of around 1910 avoided all color except browns and grays and beige, and broke down the world so thoroughly that you could barely determine a picture's subject. (Take a look at Picasso's 1910 "Nude Woman," currently on view at the National Gallery.) A few years later, the approach that was later dubbed "synthetic" cubism continued to tear space apart, but it made clear reference to individual objects and preferred bright colors. (See Juan Gris's 1915 "Fantômas," hanging near the National Gallery's "analytic" Picasso.)

There's even doubt about the movement's date of birth. Many scholars count Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon" as a likely starting point. Others see that painting as too heavily indebted to African art to launch cubism proper. They prefer to see cubism's roots in certain studies for the "Demoiselles," and in a few paintings done alongside or shortly after it that became widely known. (Before it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, the "Demoiselles" itself had been seen only by a very select few.) Still other experts deny Picasso's place at the movement's founding, giving that job to French painter Georges Braque and the landscapes that he created in 1908. Gertrude Stein, who was there from the beginning, said Picasso's 1909 paintings were the first signs of "true" cubism, while some later historians have pushed the date all the way forward to 1911.

Go on to ask what cubism meant, and the waters get even murkier. Cubism was based in science -- or it was all about the occult and cabalism. It was about dislocating space. Or it was about untying time. Neuroses and sex were at its heart. Or was it focused on modernity and the machine? Or maybe, as some powerful critics once insisted, it wasn't about anything except art itself and its progression toward abstraction.

What is cubism? No one seems able to say. But most of us can tell it when we see it.

-- Blake Gopnik


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