Arts Curriculum

Cubism

In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.1

 

Cubism

Accordionist (L’accordéoniste), Céret, summer 1911. Oil on canvas, 130.2 x 89.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.537. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

During his long career, Picasso experimented with many different artistic styles. Among his groundbreaking innovations was the introduction of Cubism with his pivotal painting Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which forged the way toward a new mode of artistic representation. Cubism is widely regarded as the most influential artistic style of the twentieth century because it took bold steps toward abstraction and appeared so extreme in its time that it became the prime example for revolutionary art movements that followed. Inspired by the volumetric treatment of form by the French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), who is often described as the “father” of modern art,2 Picasso and Georges Braque (1882–1963) embarked on Cubism’s first stage of development around 1909–10. Although both artists worked independently in their own studios, they met frequently to discuss their progress and learn from each other. During the summer of 1911 they spent time together in the south of France, in Céret, a popular artists’ colony. They compared their work and debated new possibilities, furthering the new style together. Some of their paintings are so similar that many critics find it difficult to tell them apart. As Braque would recall, “Picasso is Spanish and I’m French: we know all the differences that entails, but during those years the differences didn’t count.”3 The Cubist style emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, rejecting the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, and modeling, as well as time-honored theories of art as imitation of nature. Cubist painters were not bound to copying form, texture, color, and space; instead, they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects whose several sides were seen simultaneously. The monochromatic color scheme was suited to the presentation of complex, multiple views of the object, which was now reduced to overlapping opaque and transparent planes.

At its climax, Braque and Picasso brought Analytic Cubism almost to the point of complete abstraction. Accordionist, painted during that summer of 1911, is a baffling composition that one of its former owners mistook for a landscape because of the inscription “Céret” on the reverse. With diligence, one can distinguish the general outlines of the seated accordionist, the indication of the musician’s head in the upper center of the canvas, and the centrally located folds of the accordion and its keys. For this painting, as with all Cubist works, the total image must be “thought” as much as “seen.”

 

1. Picasso, in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 263.

2. See Karen Rosenberg, “Maverick, You Cast a Giant Shadow,” review of Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, New York Times, March 5, 2009, Art and Design section.

3. Quoted in Alex Danchev, Georges Braque: A Life (New York: Arcade, 2005), p. 117.

Pablo Picasso

Accordionist (L’accordéoniste), Céret, summer 1911. Oil on canvas, 130.2 x 89.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.537. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Before showing students Accordionist, tell them that they are going to see a work by the artist Pablo Picasso that he painted while staying in a town in southern France during the summer of 1911—more than a hundred years ago. On the Internet, browse photos of musicians playing the accordion. Ask students to imagine and perhaps create a list or sketch of what they expect to see in the painting Accordionist.

  • What do you notice?

  • How is the painting different from what you imagined? Is it similar to what you expected in any way?

  • How is this painting different from traditional portraits?

  • What clues does Picasso provide to let us know that the subject of this painting is a musician playing the accordion?
Accordionist (L’accordéoniste), Céret, summer 1911. Oil on canvas, 130.2 x 89.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.537. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York



  • The Cubists developed a new way of depicting space from multiple and mixed perspectives. They believed that there was no single fixed view of nature, and that objects and the spaces surrounding them (figure and ground) should be given equal importance and broken into geometric components or facets.

    To make your own Cubist work, set up a still life composed of everyday objects. Bowls, bottles, jugs, fruits, and musical instruments are common subjects in Cubist works. Draw the still life from several different perspectives, overlapping the various views on a single sheet of paper. You may want to move to the left or right, or vary your perspective by raising or lowering your viewpoint. You will now have a layered drawing reflecting multiple perspectives. Then, using shades and tints of a single color, emphasize the portions of the drawing that appeal to you most. Although your drawing was based on observation, the finished drawing may bear little resemblance to its original inspiration; nevertheless your work is a record of your multiple perceptions.
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  • In order to “see” Accordionist, the viewer must piece together the fragments and clues that Picasso provides into a vision of a person. The total image must be “thought” in order to be “seen,” and each person will see it differently.

    To demonstrate this, place a piece of tracing paper over an 8 1/2 x 11 inch photocopy of Picasso’s Accordionist. “Find” the accordionist and create your own portrait in pencil on the tracing paper, using the photocopy as a starting point. When done, remove the photocopy and replace it with a white sheet of paper underneath so that only your work can be seen. Discuss the varied interpretations with your classmates.
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  • Some of the paintings that Braque and Picasso created are so similar that even critics and art historians have difficulty telling them apart. In 1911 Braque painted The Portuguese.1 You will be able to find a reproduction of it online. Compare the two paintings. There are many similarities; are there differences as well?
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1. Georges Braque, The Portuguese (Le Portugais), 1911. Oil on canvas, 116.8 x 81 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel.