Painstaking revolution in space and time

Cubism slammed the door once and for all on this century's lingering preoccupation with the issues and values of 19th-century painting, and was largely responsible for the direction 20th-century art took from then on.

It has probably been the most important art movement of this century, and the one most crucial to a full and true understanding of the art of our time.

One reason for this was that it evolved slowly and logically as a reasonable next step forward from what CEzanne had done in his profoundly monumental paintaings, and didn't arrive on the scene first as theory and then, hopefully, as art.

Another was that it was that it was the product of the brains, talents, and sensibilities of two of the greatest artists of our age, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Any movement instigated by two such figures was bound to be remarkable. But also to have evolved out of the art of Cezanne couldn't help but place it dead center, even make it a gateway to what would become the main thrust of 20 th-century art.

One of the crucial steps along the way toward the "classical" phase of Cubism was Picasso's "Carafe, Jug, and Fruit Bowl." It was painted in the summer of 1909 while Picasso was living in a mountain village in his native Catalonia, and represents one of the first points of confluence of the forces that would shortly fuse to become Analytical Cubism.

Although it is neither as successful nor as stunning as some of his later and more typical Cubist works, this painting represents such a critical moment in the evolution of that movement that it actually tells us more about what lay behind Cubism and why it was such an important event than some of his more "perfect" and famous Cubist masterpieces.

The remarkable thing about Cubism was that it centered its activities totally on questions pertaining to the nature and the future of painting, and that it focused its energies on new beginnings despite the shrill protestations of a tottering older tradition predicated on varying kinds of illusion.

Illusion in art had gone about as far as it could. Already in the 1870s, for instance, as much attention was paid to perfecting the various techniques of painting highlights on glass, velvet, metal, water, eyes, fur, wood, etc., as was paid to the composition as a whole. An artist was as likely to achieve fame for the realistic way he painted fur as for what he had to say.

But revolutionary acts often take a while to get up steam, and Cubism certainly didn't erupt in a vacuum. The issues that would ultimately come into focus in the first decade of this century had first been given very tentative form 40 years earlier in Impressionism, and were then given added weight and authority by Cezanne.

It was Cubism, however, that took the final step by going beyond the "point of no return."

And that point was the notion that an artist's conception of a subject was more essential to his art than its appearance, and that what the artist did with that conception was of much more consequence as art than what that subject had been or done originally. In other words, a painting was a thing unto itself, with its own unique function and place; this function existed beyond any dependency upon physical resemblance or appearance; nature, rather than being art's final arbiter, was only its point of departure; what an artist knew or felt about a subject was of greater importance to his art than what his subject looked like.

In "Carafe, Jug, and Fruit Bowl," for instance, Picasso broke down and scrambled the objects before him, and then reassembled them, not as representations of how they had originally appeared to him, but as components of a separate object called a painting.

Even the canvas, which had previously been seen merely as a flat surface upon which the magic of three-dimensional illusion was affected, was now fully taken into account as part of the structural dynamics of the composition itself.

Flatness itself became a virtue as did attempts to portray objects as though seen from all sides at once.

In Picasso's painting we are not shown how the jug on the right looked to his eyes, but are shown how it exists in our minds. We know it has volume and occupies space, and so Picasso has painted it as we know it exists. That is to say, the way it is painted reflects our knowledge that, at one and the same time , the jug has a front, a back, a side, a top, and a bottom, even though in "real life" we can only see it from one angle at a time.

Thus Picasso painted the jug's mouth as though seen from above, its body as though seen from the front, and the handle as though seen in profile. Although this is still a very primitive and tentative version of the multiple-view structures he would later create, it still adds up to a complex perceptual experience, one requiring both time and empathy to complete.

Much the same is true of the carafe on the left: its handle in particular demands that we make dramatic spatial adjustments in our viewing of it if we are truly to follow its configurations.

The composition as a whole reflects a creative mind adjusting what it sees to what it knows and what the picture's structure demands. The bowl and the fruit in it have been tilted and flattened for strictly conceptual and structural purposes, and at the obvious expense of illusion. We read and comprehend certain forms as fruit, others as a tablecloth, still another as a glass -- but certainly do not recognize them visually as such.

However distorted from their original appearance they may be, there are still enough natural points of reference for us to acknowledge that they must be the objects listed in the title. In that respect this picture is not far removed from the still lifes of Cezanne. There is still also a kind of illusionism in the way the objects are placed within three-dimensional space rather than being totally fragmented and conceived as existing within the "fourth dimension" of spacetime -- as was to be the case with Cubism in its prime.

"Carafe, Jug, and Fruit Bowl" is a transitional work, hovering on the edge of Analytical Cubism. It still hasn't quite assimilated and transcended the influences of Cezanne, African and Iberian art, and Picasso's own crucial 1907 work which broke essential ground for Cubism as such -- that is his monumental and revolutionary "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

But it does tell us a great deal about how and why Cubism evolved as it did. Most essentially, it tells us that the objects a Cubist wished to include in his work were first broken down and then reassembled as flat planes representing the multiple viewpoints and the varying points in time from which those objects could be viewed. And that this was done to create a new reality, not to mimic the old.

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