Cubism was a revolutionary new approach to representing reality. It is generally thought to have begun in 1907, with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, which included elements of the cubist style. The name was coined from Louis Vauxcelles comment upon seeing Georges Braque’s paintings, that they reduced everything to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes’. Cubism stands out from other styles due to its concern to break objects and figures down into distinct planes. The artists of the style, including Braque and Picasso, aimed to show different viewpoints at the same time, and within the same space, and so suggest a three dimensional form. Braque was particularly influenced by Cezanne’s multi-perspectival ideas. Edward Fry, in his Cubism 1907-1908: An Early Eyewitness Account illustrates that ‘a comparison of the works of Picasso and Braque during 1908 reveals that the effect of his encounter with Picasso was more to accelerate and intensify Braque’s exploration of Cézanne’s ideas, rather than to divert his thinking in any essential way.’ The works didn’t often create the illusion of depth, because the two-dimensional quality of the canvas was brought to light. This was a revolutionary break from the European tradition of creating the illusion of real space by using devices like linear perspective, that had prevailed from the Renaissance onwards.
We can look to Braque’s 1909-10 Pitcher and Violin as an example of the influences and techniques that epitomised this early period. The image shows a violin in the bottom middle of the canvas and a pitcher to the upper left of that. The main viewpoint for the violin is from slightly below, whereas for the pitcher its from slightly above, as we see the curved rim protruding from the top of the vessel. Apart from the juxtaposing viewpoints, making us uneasy of how to observe the painting, the object itself is viewed in all its deconstructions. The shaft of the violin shows both the back and front, the strings are bent round to give a better view of the base, and the pitcher has a dent in the bottom, inverting the pitcher’s exterior as though it could be the interior. Braque said ‘When I paint a vase, it is not with the intention of making a utensil capable of holding water. It is for quite other reasons.’ The work is primarily in brown and grey, with occasional white accentuations that bring out the bulge of the pitcher and the gleam of the polish on the violin.
Clement Greenberg cleverly questioned the works of the early Cubist period (Analytical Cubism), by saying they took on the form that they did out of a need for balance between, on the one hand, the flattened ‘facet planes’ that echo and emphasise the surface’s two dimensionality and on the other hand, modelling that could potentially disrupt our awareness of the surface. In Pitcher and Violin, Braque adds to these complications by applying what Greenberg calls a ‘tack-with-a-cast-shadow’ as though we can see the method for hanging the work, running through the picture plane. Braque is bringing together the two sides of the balance, by both alluding to deep space within the composition, but also highlighting the literal surface of the canvas. In a way, Braque’s addition guides the viewer through the work, leading us from the surface of the form, into the depth of it, and back continuously to the surface.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education