A brief introduction to Cubism

Mark Schofield

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The artistic device we call perspective does not correspond to our experience of seeing. Cubism comes closer to this experience, but it can be difficult to interpret.

Perspective

In figurative art, the artist is faced with a problem : how to depict three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface.

The traditional solution to this problem is one point perspective. By using construction lines (such as the edges of buildings) which converge and meet at a single point (referred to as the vanishing point), it is possible to create a very strong illusion of depth.

The limitations of perspective

One point perspective makes one very important demand on the viewer, namely that his view of the subject be fixed in both space and time. The photograph is the epitomé of this; a single view seen through a camera lens captured in a fraction of a second.

One point perspective is actually quite a long way removed from our everyday experience of seeing. Our everyday experience of the world is not based on views fixed in space and time. We experience continual movement in a world where time is advancing and no viewpoint is fixed for very long. The question which remains is this : is there a better way to represent the experience of seeing in three dimensions than the one point perspective of a photograph ?

The Cubist approach

In the early 20th century, the artists Pablo Picasso (1882-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) decided to break with the convention of one point perspective. Instead of studing their subject from a fixed viewpoint, as the Renaissance artist did, they studied the subject from multiple view points. They took the sum of this three-dimensional knowledge and translated it into a single two-dimensional image which corresponded to their experience of seeing, rather than a straightforward copy.

Unlike one point perspective where we witness an instant in time, with Cubism we witness a composite of instances in time. This is because the viewpoint changes, and for a viewpoint to change, we know there must be movement. Movement and time are vital elements in a Cubist painting, and come closer to our experience of seeing than one point perspective.

There rests one major problem with Cubism : interpreting it. We are so accustomed to one point perspective in painting, books, magazines and television that it is very difficult to relate to any other way of seeing things. For this reason, I would like to present a brief interpretation of a Cubist painting.

Understanding Cubism : an example

Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle, Pablo Picasso

The paintings contains 4 principal elements : a bowl of fruit (top), a newspaper and bottle (right), a fringed tablecloth (bottom, between the 2 table legs) and a violin (centre and left).

Bowl of fruit

The bowl is quite complex. Look first for the rim, which is shown 3 times; as two straight diagonal lines on a dark grey area, as a single straight line through a mauve area and a curved line through a dark grey area. The profile of the bowl is shown in the blue area to the left of the rim. The stem and base are represented both in the grey-green, angular shape next to the blue area, and in a series of more rounded lines highlighted in black and white. The bowl contains a bunch of grapes and a pear

Grapes

Look in the red area at the very top of the painting. The white cloud-shape is the grapes in silhouette and the 10 circles represent the grapes in cross-section (the dots are the seeds inside). Look in the mauve area which is below the red; the grapes are shown as small arcs and circles outlined in black. In the grey area to the right of the mauve there are more grapes, and in the grey area to the left of the mauve there is a T shape which represents the stalk of the bunch of grapes.

Pear

Just above the area in blue, to the right of the grapes, we see half of a figure 8 representing the pear in profile. On top of this shape, we see a leaf shape branching off.

Newspaper and Bottle

The newspaper has the letters 'AL' written on it; no doubt part of the word 'JOURNAL'. The bottle is formed by the angular grey-green patch and the dotted area to the right of the newspaper. It is possible that the grey-green patch represents the bottle's glass exterior, and the dotted area the liquid inside the bottle.

Violin

Black lines, painted over dislocated patches of pale brown in the centre of the painting define shapes and motifs that are recognisably violin-like. They represent the view of the violin's curved edges from every side of the instrument. The sound holes are simplified to squarish S shapes. The strings of the violin are shown from two viewpoints so that we understand both how they travel up the neck and how they cut across the bridge. Finally, we see a profile view of the scroll in a complete spiral on the extreme left of the painting.

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Mark Schofield
mark.schofield.free.fr
Last updated : 09 Feb 2011