Analytic Cubism

The Rise of Analytic Cubism

The famous British author Virginia Woolf’s quote about how the world changing “on or about December 1910,” might better have been applied to rise of Analytic Cubism just a couple of years before.  Woolf’s comment was about a Bloomsbury gallery post-Impressionist exhibition that she attended, and she was definitely onto something, but the real center of the change that would come to define the modernist period in literature and have so much influence on the 20th century art world, was not in England but in France where the Spaniard Picasso was just beginning to make a name for himself.

The Origins of Analytic Cubism

To trace the origins of Analytic Cubism we need to look not at Picasso, however, but to the Impressionist painter Cezanne.  Cezanne, who many remember for his still-lives of apples and pears, was the painter who most influenced the Cubists of the early twentieth century.  We can think of Impressionism itself largely as a reaction to the rise of photography.  With technology having largely replaced the need for painters to capture the “reality” of a portrait or landscape, painters turned to more difficult endeavors—capturing first motion and then “impressions”.  Thus, Impressionist paintings became increasingly hazy and less realistic, even as photography became increasingly vivid and precise.

Cezanne, who helped establish Impressionist during his mid-career, then provided the bridge to Cubism in his late paintings.  Increasingly Cezanne turned from paintings of pairs and apples to landscapes, painting stone quarries and bridges.  However, as Cezanne became increasingly withdrawn in his late life, he began to paint the same landscapes over and over, as he did with his famous paintings of Mont Sainte Victoire.  Increasingly Cezanne began to emphasize the sharp geometric shapes in these paintings, becoming increasingly less realistic or even Impressionistic and more abstract.  He began to see what the Cubists would see: that the visual medium of painting could be used as a method of analyzing the visual medium itself.  His paintings began pulling out the shapes that lay underneath what we saw, and thus of looking at how abstract notions of reality contained in our minds were repeated in the visual images in the world itself.

Picasso and the Rise of Analytic Cubism

This notion of painting as a method of philosophical analysis is exactly what Picasso would pick-up from Cezanne in his own early work.  The painter who would become known as the greatest Twentieth century painter—and some argue the greatest artist ever—was still in his early stages of career building.  With his Blue Phase not far behind him, Picasso began to experiment with what would come to be known as Cubism.  Unlike Cezanne, however, Picasso would turn Cubism to the analysis of living beings.

The painting that we most associate with this period and that some mistakenly call the first Cubist painting is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  In it, Picasso took the female form and began to break it down into its constituent shapes.  The painting is at once misogynist and pro-feminist.  It is misogynist, because it enacts in painting what male sexual desire does to women in every day life, turning women into non-human shapes that act as repositories for male desire.

The wonderful perversity of Picasso, however, is that the painting also breaks down this desire and captures it within its colors as well.  By representing the women as mere shapes, the painting also seeks to analyze what it is about feminine curves that so incites lust and thus puts male desire on operation table as well, slicing and dicing it just as analytically as it did the painting’s subject—the women of the brothel at Avignon.

This was the power of Analytic Cubism—that it could be used to go beyond mere surfaces to look at the psychological and cultural operations involved in seeing.  For this reason, it is hard to underestimate its importance to our understandings of the world and ourselves.