Pablo Picasso, "Portrait of a Woman" (1910)
More than any other modern artist, people have this hang up about Picasso. They want to get him, they want to feel smart, but more often than not, the childlike simplification of line and mismatched eyes prove too hard to justify. Maybe there’s just too much pressure on him—pressure to live up to the reputation of being the most innovative and prolific artist of the 20th century, a century that began, don’t forget, with academically-trained artists drunk on their own freedom and experimenting their faces off. By the time you reach the mid-century, though, art has gone so off the conventional rails, and so into its own world, that you’ve got the Italian fluxus artist Piero Manzoni selling his own poop in a can (“Artist’s Shit” from 1961, Google it) and, consequently, all previous experiments look like they were headed down this road. Thanks, Picasso. Thank you for innovating a century of art where the preeminent genius of the liberated canvas can also be a foremost example of “whatever, my seven-year-old could do that.”
I’ve said this before, and will no doubt say it again: as art-viewers, we have a tendency to forget profound and obvious statement that all art has been contemporary. Picasso wasn’t talking to you, or to me, but to his early 20th century audience, a community of fellow artists and dealers who simply wanted to see if they could put their fingers on the pulse of their moment. Cubism, like many movements in the early 20th century, was inextricably tied to its context, a mirror of society reimagined in shatters and shards. This was a moment that was well aware of its modernity, and all of the technological and spiritual concerns that go along with a newly industrialized world. If you’re living a society where x-rays are discovered in 1895, and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is published in 1899, then you’re going to be understandably mistrustful of what the naked eye can see. And if you’re an artist, that’s what the industry calls a golden opportunity.
The art of the turn of the 20th century – Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and eventually Cubism – emerged during a time of widespread dissatisfaction and at times outright rejection of a 19th century positivist worldview. We’re past the idea that God will bring the clear answers, and now we’re even getting past the idea that science will bring clear answers, that there’s an objective, absolute truth, and that we can just relax into our deterministic journey with a good book and a daiquiri. On the contrary, math and science, art and philosophy, Einstein and Freud and Bergson and Woolf, were all beginning to preach the gospel of uncertainty. Our actions and perspectives are all relative; there’s no fixed frame of reference, from our interpersonal interactions to the physics of the universe. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is predetermined. Think, for example, about the narrative of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, written several years later in 1925 but equally modernist. Every chapter is told from a different character’s perspective. The plot progresses, but largely in everyone’s head. There’s no all-seeing, detached, implicitly trustworthy narrator. Kind of like in life.
This is a core-shaking, paradigm-shifting revolution. By confidently identifying and validating our subjectivity—the limited, absolute uniqueness of our own perspectives—scientists and intellectuals have done away with certainty. We can see beneath our skin, but we can’t trust our dreams. It must have been as unsettling as it was empowering.
So back to the art. As we’ve discussed, from the 1890s until his death in 1906, Paul Cezanne had been trying to square this apple, trying to capture on a canvas what it means to only see the world through your own eyes, and in the process throwing perspectival accuracy out with the bathwater by turning the canvas from a window onto the world into a tool for his own use. Quote unquote “proper perspective” assumes we all see the same thing the same way, and we know now that’s not true. And Picasso was a disciple of Cezanne’s – really, every Cubist was. The Cubists were highly intellectual painters, and, like Cezanne, painted still lives that were just that: impassive, banal objects at the mercy of this new experimental painting technique. Again, the canvas was a tool, a blank space upon which to work out problems, and not necessarily meant to end in a sellable painting. And while their contemporary Expressionists were using experimental technique to agitate and arouse their viewers—a different kind of interpretation of the life going on beneath our skin—the Cubists painted violins and jugs and fruit and even women with calculated, analytical distance.
In fact, this stage of Cubism – and if you’re familiar with Cubism at all, this would probably be the stage you recognize – is called Analytic Cubism. It’s an almost entirely intellectual exercise, cooked up in equal measure by Picasso and his brother from another mother, Georges Braque. Picasso settled in Paris in 1906, met Braque in 1907, and they went on to form a deep friendship that Braque once described as “two mountain climbers roped together.” They worked in an incredibly intimate partnership for a short, hermetically-sealed, three-year period; their work was exhibited by the same dealer, and sometimes they even signed each other’s paintings just to mess with people. And this spoke to their attitude towards this whole undertaking: intellectual as their work was, they were both excited by Cezanne’s posthumous permission to experiment and play. Picasso and Braque liberated themselves from Renaissance convention with the freedom of teenagers with brand new drivers’ licenses. Validating the flatness of a canvas, after so many years of perspectival depth, was fun. It was the ultimate act of early 20th century artistic rebellion. Let those dinosaurs have their clear vanishing point, their fixed moment in space, their objective reality. We’re way past that.
So we get the motivation. But why the cubes? How do we make sense of this monochromatic, muted brown muddle of curves and angles? Why give the impression of breaking down objects, and women, into these overlapping facets, and rendering them essentially unrecognizable? How is this a portrait of anyone? This is where Picasso and Braque weren’t just mining inside their own heads, they’re getting into ours, and borrowing what we see. They’re giving themselves permission to take a step back and observe all our perspectives and show them to us simultaneously. This isn’t just a woman. This is a perception of a woman. And not just by Picasso. By everyone who has ever met her. This is a woman as seen by you, and me, and you and you and him and her. And all these perspectives begin to overlap with one another, each adding a specific piece of puzzle of who she is through the eyes of each unique observer, and ultimately building up into a honking visual traffic jam of cubes and curves.
And what’s more, all of these perspectives aren’t fixed. Nothing is fixed anymore, remember? She is a woman who is being experienced in duration. In other words, Picasso is painting time. What do I mean by this? Well, do we ever experience something, and especially someone in a fixed glance, in a momentary vacuum? Of course not. We come to every interaction preloaded with subjectivity to every interaction, and then we interact with someone and learn them over the course of time, and they twig associations in our own heads, and they change and we change and our perceptions of them change. And this portrait tries to capture the entirety of this exchange. Try and capture that on a canvas and have it look tidy or recognizable. Good luck.
People think this painting is abstract, but it’s not. Abstraction by definition is the lack of representation – nothing being represented, no figures or jugs or landscape. Mondrian’s squares, Pollock’s drips, artwork that becomes the experience that you give yourself over to– now that’s abstraction. We’ll get there. But abstraction doesn’t ask you to make sense of any kind of narrative, and that’s not what’s happening here. Here, we have a representation. We have a woman. She doesn’t look much like a woman anymore, but that’s not the point. It’s a rational exercise, a statement on the limitations and the license of a two-dimensional canvas. It’s an illustration of how we perceive, how we move through the world and process visual information, and moreover, it’s a statement on how the world is constructed by our own experiencing of it…because, how else? It’s incredibly intellectual, it’s incredibly experimental, and maybe it is a little pretentious, but that’s for Picasso and Braque’s little cloistered art community to decide. The point is, to the art at the time, and to us now, everyone will experience a woman, or a jug and a violin, and my experience will be distinct from yours, it will be a succession of perceptions over the course of time… and maybe this is the only rational way to capture it. Because with these experimental tools, we can now paint time, and space, and my unique imagination, and yours. And your seven-year-old’s.
So… thanks, Picasso.