Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Carl Einstein, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Cubism, and the Visual Brain

Even as the body of scholarship on the art historian Carl Einstein (1885-1940) continues to grow, he has up to now been almost wholly ignored by art history itself.1 To be sure, he has been the subject of essays and books by art historians, yet these have so far had limited resonance beyond the scholarly subculture of Einstein studies.2 When I say that Einstein has been ignored by art history what I have in mind is art-historical research that is not primarily about Einstein but that has drawn productively on his writings—a phenomenon that is, for example, quite common in the case of Einstein’s contemporary Walter Benjamin, who wrote comparatively little about visual artifacts.3

Einstein’s absence is most telling in the literature on cubism, the art on which he wrote prolifically and for which he is one of the most important early commentators–indeed, his chapter on cubism in his Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts (1926), his most developed treatment of the subject up to then, had the distinction of being the longest, most intellectually ambitious text on this art to have yet appeared in either French or German.4 Yet that account, his revised and expanded versions of it in the second and third editions of the book (1928, 1931), his Georges Braque (1934), and his numerous other shorter writings on cubism and cubist artists are rarely noted in the literature on this art.5

Einstein’s marginal reception contrasts markedly with that of his friend, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the transplanted German who was the Paris dealer of Braque and Picasso during their cubist phase and knew their work more intimately than anyone else. His book Der Weg zum Kubismus (The Rise of Cubism), which appeared in 1920 under the pseudonym Daniel Henry, is still taken seriously, still debated within cubist scholarship. The art historian Yve-Alain Bois has hailed Kahnweiler as the only early commentator “to give an intelligent account of cubism,” “a passionate critic” with a “fantastic eye,” “whose breadth we have only begun to appreciate.” Indeed, he has praised Kahnweiler’s theoretical account of cubism as “one that in many respects remains unequaled today.”6

What then of Einstein? Could we not say much the same of him? I believe we could and should. I say this even though I regard Kahnweiler’s account of the formal development of Braque’s and Picasso’s cubism as the more concrete, nuanced, and persuasive one, because more attentive to the evolving formal problematic of their painting. Einstein’s interpretation of cubism may be flawed as an explanatory model, yet it is the only early writing on this art that does justice to the radical implications of cubist representation, as painting that can fundamentally alter not only our conception of art but our intuition of the visual world, and in so doing alter our subjectivity. But here, rather than exploring the different interpretations in detail, I wish to focus on one issue that is central to both authors’ interpretations of cubism—the role played by memory in the act of viewing cubist pictures. On this question Einstein and Kahnweiler held diametrically opposed positions. Moreover–and this is my main interest–their respective positions correspond to successive phases in the developing neuroscientific understanding of the visual brain. Kahnweiler’s interpretation of cubism was shaped by the neuroscience of his day while, remarkably, Einstein’s account of seeing, as he believed it to be embodied in cubist paintings, anticipates by half a century a fundamental breakthrough in the neuroscientific understanding of vision.

The differences between Kahnweiler and Einstein take on added interest in light of the work of Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist who has done major research on the visual brain and has proposed a neurological explanation of cubism. He does this in his pathbreaking book, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999), the first extensive attempt to apply the new neuroscience to the study of art. Moreover, Zeki offers an account of the functioning of the visual system, the parts of the brain engaged in processing data from the retina and producing our images of the world, that has certain striking affinities with Einstein’s account of cubist perception, even as it helps us more precisely to locate the radicalism of Einstein’s conception of art in relation to the current neuroscientific understanding of the visual brain. Yet there is irony here. Einstein’s theory of art, as we shall see, was founded on the idea that vision was an active process, long before neuroscientific research corroborated this fact. Cubism was the pictorial embodiment of that truth. Yet Zeki’s interpretation of cubism is closer is some respects to Kahnweiler, whose understanding of vision was based on the old neuroscience.

One may legitimately ask why this matters—what do we gain by relating Einstein to a scientific discourse that postdates his death by more than three decades? In my view, it is a matter less of what neuroscience can do for Einstein than what Einstein might offer to neuroscience. While Einstein anticipates current understanding of the visual brain, he also offers an important corrective to efforts by neuroscientists to apply their knowledge to art.7 The applications of the neuroscience on the visual brain to visual art have up to now been overwhelmingly concerned with ostensibly universal aspects of visual perception and aesthetic response; in general these neuroscientists have shown little interest in the specificity of art-historical cases, and this also remains largely true in the nascent fields of neuroaesthetics and neuroarthistory. I am less interested in ‘universal’ neurobiological responses to art than in understanding how historically specific artistic practices, and historically specific interpretive accounts of those practices, can be understood in neuroscientific terms and how in turn they might enrich neuroscientific research on the visual brain. Here I will argue that Einstein’s interpretation of cubism has notable implications for these emerging fields and productively complicates the current understanding of the relationship between artistic activity and the functioning of the visual brain. As such, his writing deserves consideration in the emergent discourses of neuroarthistory and neuroaesthetics.8

Kahnweiler’s early writing on cubism dates from his five-year exile in Bern during the First World War and its aftermath. When Germany declared war on France in August 1914, Kahnweiler and his wife were on holiday in Italy. As a German national he was barred from returning to France, and, at the invitation of his friend and client Hermann Rupf, he opted to sit out the war in neutral Switzerland. During his Swiss exile, forced into suspending his work as a dealer, Kahnweiler had dedicated himself to reading philosophy, psychology, and art history in an effort to “explain to myself and to others what had happened, what cubism was.”9 In 1915 he wrote a long theoretical essay, ”Der Gegenstand der Ästhetik“ (“The Object of Aesthetics”). In this text, which remained unpublished for more than a half-century, Kahnweiler treated cubism in the broadest historical trajectory as a decisive shift in the practice of plastic representation and of viewer response.10 His short book on cubism, Der Weg zum Kubismus, he developed from the last chapters of this manuscript. It was destined to become the classic early critical text on the movement.11

For Kahnweiler the fundamental problem facing Cubist painting was a strictly pictorial one that had emerged with impressionism: the conflict between Darstellung and Aufbau, between illusionistic representation and an increasingly autonomous pictorial structure (Kahnweiler, Rise of Cubism, 1). One of the fundamental tasks of painting, as he formulated it, was “to represent three dimensions and color on a flat surface, and to comprehend them in the unity of that surface” (7). In the first phase of cubism Braque and Picasso attempted to resolve this conflict by adapting three-dimensional objects to the painting surface through extreme distortions of form. Yet this discrepancy between the beholder’s generic memory images of such objects and their deformed pictorial representation was deeply disturbing. In the summer of 1910, writes Kahnweiler, Picasso found a solution to this conflict. It was then that he took “the decisive step that detached cubism from the previous language of painting. . . . He had pierced the closed form” (10).

Fig. 1. Pablo Picasso, Woman with Pears (Fernande), 1909
Figure 2. Picasso, Guitarist, 1910

Comparing Picasso’s Woman with Pears (fig. 1) with his The Guitarist (fig. 2) we can see the effects of this radical step. Even in the abstract, faceted forms of the woman we can still perceive closed contours; line and color are synthesized to create a sense of volume by means of modeling. In The Guitarist there are no closed forms; planes are suggested but not consistently defined; line and color now began to function as independent entities. As a result brushstroke, largely subordinated to modeling in the earlier work, becomes more individuated and texturally varied. This piercing of the closed form eliminated perplexing deformations of the motif—indeed, without the title, which Kahnweiler deemed essential for these more abstract works and which he himself usually provided, we would scarcely if at all be able to identify it. As Kahnweiler described it, following this step the subordination of parts to the unified pictorial structure “can take place without producing disturbing deformations, since the object in fact is no longer ‘present’ in the painting, that is, since it does not have the least resemblance to actuality” (12). At the same time, these highly abstract works came to include selected “real details,” as Kahnweiler called them—lettering, clay pipes, bottles, tassels, etc.— integrated into the structural whole (fig. 3) (11). Such details, augmented by the painting’s title, were, in his words, “a stimulus which carries with it memory images (Erinnerungsbilder). Combining the ‘real’ stimulus and the scheme of forms, these images construct the finished object in the mind. . . . There is no possibility of conflict here, and yet the subject ‘recognized’ in the painting is now ‘seen’ with an intensity of which no illusionistic art is capable” (12). Ultimately, for Kahnweiler the painting is reconciled with the known, familiar world as given.

Figure 3. Picassso, The Architect’s Table, 1912

In 1923, before Einstein had himself written anything of substance on cubism, he praised Kahnweiler as “the only one in Germany who described and explained cubism correctly.”12 Yet, in his long letter to him from that same year it becomes clear that Einstein’s views on what was at stake in cubism went far beyond Kahnweiler’s narrowly circumscribed aesthetic interests. “I have long known that the thing one calls ‘cubism’ goes far beyond painting,” he declared. “Cubism is tenable only if one creates equivalents in the mind. 13 In these two sentences, Einstein opened up a wide gulf between his conception of cubism and Kahnweiler’s. First, that it goes beyond visual art; secondly, that ideally its impact will ultimately be a radical refiguring of the mental world of viewers and their intuition of visual phenomena. The experience of cubism is no mere theory, he insists, but leads to a “gradual modification of sensations,” in which “a person waxes and wanes . . . in the sensation of himself or his feeling for objects, in the harnessing of time,” so that what is represented is “the very history of the sensations, experiences brought close up, whose symptoms are at best so-called things” (140, 141). Kahnweiler had written of the cubists’ desire to glorify “the beauty of things” (1); for him cubism was about a new form of aesthetic pleasure; it was not about changing human subjects and their mental representations of self and world. He did not respond to Einstein’s letter, but we can easily imagine that it must have struck him as alien to his own conception of cubism.

Three years later, in Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, Einstein presented his own account of cubist painting. The most critical point about Einstein’s cubism is that, in contrast to Kahnweiler, he understood it as an “example of a subjective realism” rather than as an abstract art—realist, because as Einstein interprets it, cubism is based on “the direct experiences of the human subject”; it seeks to reconnect to a direct phenomenological perception of objects as experienced in time and space (63). What is represented is not, as in illusionistic art, ostensibly stable objects that exist apart from perceiving subjects, but rather our own unfolding subjective process of vision as we apprehend and mentally construct the volume of objects in moving toward and around them in space. In short, a cubist painting presents us with a synchronic image of a diachronic process, a process Einstein called das vorstellende Sehen, envisaging seeing (59). These different viewpoints, these discrete moments of envisaging an object or objects, rather than being abstracted into a single motif as in previous painting, are synchronically represented as planes and juxtaposed on the two-dimensional picture surface. What Einstein describes here fits the style of Braque’s and Picasso’s cubism of the period 1908 to early 1910; it is harder to reconcile with the subsequent phases of their cubism up through 1914, when their paintings often began as “pure paintings,” furnished only toward the end of the process with “attributes,” figurative details.14 It is noteworthy that he says nothing about the fundamental shift that came with the puncturing of the closed form later that year, which Kahnweiler regarded as the fundamental strategic shift in cubist painting. Yet it follows from Einstein’s interpretation of cubism that for him there was no problem with deformation, so there was no need of a solution—“We can speak of deformation,” he wrote, “only if we declare imitation to be the task of art.” Our normal habits of perception were deformed, but not objects, which were but “signals and symptoms” of our own visual and cognitive functions (63, 64).

Einstein’s interpretation of the significance of multiple viewpoints in cubist paintings, a focal point of most of the early commentary, was radically original within cubism criticism itself. For Kahnweiler this feature was motivated by the quest for plasticity in representing a three-dimensional body in space on a two-dimensional surface (Kahnweiler, Rise of Cubism, 11, 12). The most influential explanation, however, was that of Maurice Raynal, a friend of Picasso’s, which was widely embraced and repeated. According to Raynal, writing in a 1912, if art is a means of “augmenting knowledge,” he declared, “its function will only be served by painting forms as they are conceived in the mind.” This interpretation was directly related to multiple viewpoints. “We never see an object in all its dimensions at once.” “We must fill in the gaps. Conception gives us the means.”15 Yet despite their shared focus on multiple viewpoints, Raynal’s understanding of cubism is diametrically at odds with Einstein’s.16 For Raynal what is painted is the world as already known. The objects are seen from multiple viewpoints, but it is information-gathering, not a dynamic process of generating an object sequentially out of the viewing subject’s movements in space. For him and most other early cubist critics, including Kahnweiler, the object exists before the painting; for Einstein the painting is the product of the object’s genesis in the mind of the artist.

Yet it is on the issue of visual memory, crucial for both Einstein and Kahnweiler in their respective theorizations of cubism, that the most fundamental difference between them emerges. For Kahnweiler, as we have seen, Braque and Picasso solved the conflict between representation and structure by abandoning deformation of the object in favor of an abstract geometric grid into which realistic details and sometimes words were inserted as clues. These realistic details, aided by the picture’s title, triggered memory images in the viewer, memories of the familiar object world. For Einstein it is precisely such memory images that prevent us from seeing concretely and directly: “in reality,” he writes, “we do not at first see purely, with optical directness, but quickly associate a cumulative memory image with some known optical stimulus that obscures the genetic stimulus with a supposedly stable and comprehensive image. We conceal from ourselves that this memory image is a reconciliation of temporally as well as optically (qualitatively) distinct actions, and this image seems to endure because as something latent, mechanized, and rather unspecific . . . it is fused with visual function,” namely the present act of perception. Cubism disrupts these well worn mnemonic circuits. “We discover,” Einstein writes, “that the object is a nodal point of functions, the result also of subjective activity, that its rigidity is effected above all by linguistic habit and the desire of enabling extremely easy–i. e., conformist—actions; thus it is a matter of biological memory” (Einstein, Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, 58, 64). Cubism displaces and overwrites that memory by painting phenomenological optical experience. It is important to note the distinction between two kinds of memory—the biological memory formed by long-term perceptual experience, i.e. the kind that Kahnweiler has in mind when he refers to Erinnerungsbilder, and what I would call instantaneous short-term memory that accompanies a single event of perception as it unfolds in space and time. This latter form of memory is what Einstein refers to with the term simultané (63, 68).

The function of visual memory and its role in object recognition—the final step in the complex physiological and neurological process of seeing—is not only central to the differences between Einstein and Kahnweiler, it also figures in Semir Zeki’s treatment of cubism. He relates current knowledge of the visual brain to cubism, and finds this interpretation supported by some of the earliest interpretations (50-57).

As Zeki relates in his earlier book, A Vision of the Brain, until recently science understood vision as an essentially passive process; the image, it was thought, is received whole by the retina as though on a photographic plate,17 and is then transmitted through nerve fibers to the primary visual cortex at the back of the brain, and analyzed and interpreted by another, surrounding and distinct cortical area, which was known as the “association cortex.” There “received visual impressions are associated with previous visual impressions of a similar kind, resulting in recognition.”18 Kahnweiler was at least superficially familiar with this neuroscience on the visual brain. In a chapter of his Der Gegenstand der Ästhetik entitled “Das Sehen” (“Seeing”), he quoted from the recent book Gehirn und Auge, in which its author Robert Bing describes the primary visual cortex as a “Wahrnehmungszentrum,” a center of perception, which through the “Assoziationsfasern,” association fibers, connects to the occipital lobe, which contains “die optischen Vorstellungszentren,” the centers of mental representations, “in which the memory images (Erinnerungsbilder) for establishing the meaning of a seen object are stored.” Erinnerungsbilder, we recall, is the term Kahnweiler would use in Der Weg zum Kubismus, and Bing was almost certainly his source.19

Since the 1970s neuroscientists have discovered that the visual brain is much more complex than the old model of the primary visual cortex and an association cortex. Most importantly, they have now established that vision is an active rather than a passive process. The visual brain does not receive images from the retina, as was previously believed; rather the retina transmits to it unfiltered, unprocessed visual data from which the brain actively produces images, synthesized from stimuli processed by geographically and functionally distinct areas of the visual brain, in temporally discrete stages separated by milliseconds. The neurons in each area have the specialized function of responding to a different attribute of the visual scene, such as form, color, and motion. The primary visual cortex, V1, has been compared to a post office, where information gets sorted and distributed to other visual centers with specialized functions. V3 processes information related to orientation and, it is believed, dynamic form. V4 deals with hue discrimination and color constancy; V5 processes information on motion and stereoscopic depth.20 There is further specialization within these areas; some cells are sensitive to vertical lines, others to horizontal or diagonal lines in specific directions; other neurons respond to particular colors, and so forth. All of this data must be coordinated and matched with items in the cumulative catalogue of our visual memory, which is believed to be localized, at least in part, in the area anterior to V4.21

This process of object recognition is crucial to the cognitive function of the visual brain, for the information we receive from the visual domain is, in Zeki’s words, in “a continual state of flux” (Zeki, Inner Vision, 5). We see objects in different lighting conditions, which affect the appearance of their color, from different angles and distances, distorting their shape. This means that the visual brain has work to do if we are to make sense of what we see. Zeki explains: “Vision must . . . be an active process requiring the brain to discount the continual changes [of visual phenomena]and extract from them only that which is necessary for it to categorize objects.” The brain acquires “knowledge about the enduring and characteristic properties of the world; the brain is consequently interested only in the constant, non-changing, permanent and characteristic properties of objects and surfaces in the external world, those characteristic that will allow it to categorize objects”(6).

The major premise of Zeki’s book is that “the function of art and the function of the visual brain are one and the same or at least that the aims of art constitute an extension of the functions of the brain” (1). Art, like the brain, seeks “to represent the constant, lasting, essential and enduring features of objects, surfaces, faces, situations, and so on, and thus allow us to acquire knowledge, not only about the particular object, or face, or condition represented on the canvas but to generalise from that to many other objects and thus acquire knowledge about a wide category of objects or faces” (9-10). This quest for “the constant, lasting, essential and enduring features” of visual phenomena is central to Zeki’s interpretation of cubism. As he proposes, the cubists, like the visual brain, seek to grasp the “constant and essential elements” of the visual field, disregarding the fugitive accidents of appearance (50). Zeki really believes that objects have constancy and stability; for Einstein that is a convenient fiction of “biological memory,” born of the practical necessity of our functioning in our visual environment.

Zeki’s theorizing is not completely unmoored from history, however. He cites some of the earliest French commentary on cubism, which supports his conviction of the common function of the visual brain and of visual art. He cites statements by, among others, Picasso and Juan Gris and the critic Jacques Rivière, whom he quotes: “The true purpose of painting is to represent objects as they really are, that is to say differently from the way we see them. It tends always to give us their sensible essence, . . . this is why the image it forms does not resemble their appearance” (11). Zeki probably also found confirmation for this view in Kahnweiler, whose book on Juan Gris he cites. According to Kahnweiler, the cubists “strove to produce a complete image of the objects signified . . . which should be at the same time devoid of everything ephemeral and accidental, retaining only what was essential and permanent.” “Unsatisfied by the fortuities of a single visual impression, [cubism]endeavored to penetrate to the very essence of an object by representing it, not as it appeared on a given day at a given time, but as it exists ultimately composed in the memory.”22 Later in the chapter, Zeki again cites a passage by Rivière that fits neatly with a neurobiological perspective: “Contrary to what is believed,” writes Rivière, “sight is a successive sense; we have to combine many of its perceptions before we can know a single object well.”23 What the cubists were trying to do, Zeki now asserts, “was to try and mimic what the brain does. . . . They decided to depict all the different views and unite them on a single canvas, much as the brain unites what is seen from all different views” (51).

Figure 4. Picasso, Man with a Violin, 1911-12

This may sound a lot like Einstein, but when Zeki turns to Picasso’s Man with a Violin (fig. 4), a funny thing happens: the painting is so abstract, with so many points of view “that the final result is only recognisable as a violin player through its title. A brain ignorant of that title can hardly construe that this is a violin player. The brain of course regularly views objects and people from different angles, but it is able to integrate those different views in an orderly way, allowing it to obtain knowledge about what it is viewing. The attempt by Cubism to mimic what the brain does was, in the neurobiological sense, a failure—an heroic failure perhaps, but a failure nonetheless.”24

Now what Zeki sees as a failure is precisely what Einstein, with a radically different understanding of cubism’s agenda, saw as cubism’s triumph. But before I elaborate this point let us, now that we are familiar with Zeki, revisit a passage from Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts that I earlier quoted in part, in which Einstein describes what he calls cubism’s Gegenstandsgenetik, its genesis of the object. It is even closer to contemporary neuroscience’s understanding of the visual brain than the statements by Jacques Rivière cited by Zeki. Addressing the hermetic abstraction of cubist painting, Einstein writes:

One might perhaps object, this is not how we see in reality; yet in reality we also do not at first see purely, with optical directness, but quickly associate a cumulative memory image with some known optical stimulus that obscures the genetic stimulus with a supposedly stable and comprehensive image. We conceal from ourselves that this memory image is a reconciliation of temporally as well as optically (qualitatively) distinct actions, and this mental image seems stable because as something latent, mechanized, and rather unspecific —specificity comes from the linkage of the memory image [i.e., the “biological memory”]with the individual stimulus–it is fused with visual function. (Einstein, Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, 58)

This is a much more nuanced account of the visual process than we find in other writers on cubism. Moreover, Einstein’s emphasis on perception of an object as comprising “temporally as well as qualitatively distinct actions” anticipates current neuroscientific knowledge. Even if he doesn’t know of the functionally distinct regions of the visual brain, he seems to intuit that the image is a result of an active neural process unfolding in discrete stages. In Einstein’s words, “Cubism put an end to the laziness or fatigue of vision. Seeing had again become an active process” (Einstein, Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts [1931], 107). This is what I meant by cubism’s triumph, as Einstein saw it. In his “Notes on Cubism” (1929) he illustrated Man with a Guitar, a work from the same year as Man with a Violin, which so perplexed Zeki.25 “It was,” Einstein writes there, “the cubists who undermined the object forever identical with itself, in other words they undermined memory, in which mental images are reconciled with one another. Their chief merit is having destroyed mnemonic images.” The cubist painting becomes “the distinguishing sign of the visually active human being, constructing his own universe and refusing to be the slave of given forms.”26 In other words, for Einstein cubism short-circuited the normal operations of the visual brain, allowing us to discover vision as a creative act to make the world new. Einstein summed it up concisely in his Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts: “Painting or sculpture become necessary to a critique of visual intuition. . . . For the sensory is not some fixed, limited material that is altered only when interpreted through concepts; visual intuition and seeing change and exhaust themselves, and optical dissatisfaction forces such change; . . .what is at stake is not reproducing [Abbilden] but forming [Bilden]” (57).27

The notion that visual art precisely does not parallel the operations of the visual brain, but is rather continually unsettling and refiguring our construction of the visual world is not unique to Einstein—one finds it as early as 1876 in the writings of Conrad Fiedler. “Artistic activity begins,” wrote Fiedler, “when man finds himself fact to face with the visible world as with something immensely enigmatic; when, driven by an inner necessity and applying the powers of his mind, he grapples with the twisted mass of the visible world which presses in upon him and gives it creative form. . . . What art creates is the world, made by and for the artistic consciousness.” This is not a world, Fiedler insists, that existed prior to its realization through art: “What excites artistic activity is that which is as yet untouched by the human mind” (Fiedler, On Judging Works of Visual Art, 48-49). In that same year Stephane Mallarmé wrote of impressionism: “the eye should forget all else it has seen, and learn anew from the lesson before it, should abstract itself from memory, seeing only that which it looks upon, and that as for the first time.”28 This is consistent with how Claude Monet described his practice to Lilla Cabot Perry:

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you . . . until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.”

He said he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he could have begun to paint in this way without knowing what the objects were before him.29

It is noteworthy that the young Wassily Kandinsky, not yet a painter, experienced bafflement when he saw a Monet Haystack for the first time: “That it was a haystack, the catalogue informed me. I didn’t recognize it. I found this non-recognition painful. . . I had a dull feeling that the object was lacking in this picture.” And yet this strange picture “gripped me” revealing “the unsuspected power of the palette.”30 There are countless such examples.

In other words, effective visual art does not, as Zeki claims, parallel the operations of the visual brain, which always favor generalized repetition of the previously seen; rather art is continually unsettling and refiguring our construction of the visual world, working against the brain’s reproductive and classificatory operations. Vision has the potential for agency. As Einstein puts it: “In the act of looking we change man and the world.”31 He wrote these words with reference to cubism, and it is in his writings on cubism that we find his ideas most fully developed.

Current neuroscience, even as it acknowledges the ‘plasticity’ of the brain, its capacity to be structured by experience, treats vision as purely neurobiological. The situation described by the philosopher Marx Wartofsky nearly four decades ago is little changed today: “. . . the historical development of modes of perceptual action is not yet mapped into accounts of neurophysiological structure.”32 The leading neuroscientists who work on vision have shown no acknowledgment of the historicity of vision, or of how artworks and other visual representations might alter the structures and influence the cognitive activity of the visual brain. Yet, as Wartofsky eloquently argued, “Human vision is itself an artifact; with the advent of human culture the visual system breaks loose from its previous biological domain, and acquires a history; and . . . in this history, it is we who shape and transform the modes of visual praxis, of visual cognition and perception.”33 This has clear implications for art: ”with the development of representational practice, we come to see by means of the forms and styles of visual representation that we create; and . . . our modes of visual perception change with changes in these modes of representation“ (Wartofsky, “Sight, Symbol, and Society,” 28). This idea, that art had the capacity to shape human vision, was, as we have seen, a central tenet of Einstein’s writing.

As a young man, Einstein defined the task of art in these words: “Negation says nothing at all, and affirmation just as little. The artistic begins with the word ‘otherwise’.”34 It is this concept of art that Einstein can offer to neuroscience, and so enrich our understanding of the visual brain and the neurobiological foundations of human aesthetic response.


1. Thanks to Charles Palermo, John Onians, Michael Kelly, Andreas Michel, Nicola Creighton, and David Quigley for critical comments on earlier versions of the paper.
2. Two recent book-length studies by art historians are especially noteworthy: Uwe Fleckner, Carl Einstein und sein Jahrhundert: Fragmente einer intellektuellen Biographie (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2006) and Sebastian Zeidler, “Defense of the Real: Carl Einstein’s History and Theory of Art” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2005).
3. Two recent rare examples of Einstein breaking through into that larger discursive world are: Charles Palermo Fixed Ecstasy: Joan Miró in the 1920s (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), which not only derives its title from Einstein’s Negerplastik, but cites him repeatedly throughout a book on an artist about whom Einstein wrote almost nothing; and Christopher Green, Picasso: Architecture and Vertigo (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005).
4. Carl Einstein, Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1926),56-86. The 1926 cubism chapter was surpassed in length only by Vincenc Kramár’s 88-page study in Czech, published in 1921. Vincenc Kramár, Kubismus (Brno: Moravsko-slezská revue, 1921), Translated into French: Vincenc Kramár, Le Cubisme, ed. Hélène Klein, Erika Abrams, and Jana Claverie (Paris: École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 2002).
5. To cite one recent example, in David Cottington’s study of the literature on cubism, which includes a close analysis of some the most influential early writing on the movement, Einstein gets fewer than two pages, and true to what has become a pattern, the text cited is “Notes sur le cubisme,” the short essay from 1929; Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts is not even mentioned. David Cottington, Cubism and Its Histories (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press distributed in USA by Palgrave, 2004), 175–76. T. J. Clark refers briefly to Einstein in the cubism chapter of his Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 186, 223. On the debit side Elizabeth Cowling, in her massive study of style in Picasso’s work, which offers an extensive chronological survey of the critical commentary on Picasso as “a painter without style,” cites only a minor 1928 essay by Einstein (one translated into English), without noting the originality of his viewpoint on this issue or his most important writing on Picasso, in the 1928 and 1931 editions of Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts. Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning (London: Phaidon, 2002), 458. A notable exception à propos Georges Braque is a footnote by William S. Rubin in his indispensable Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism (exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989), 55–56, n23: “Except for its occasional appearance in bibliographies Einstein’s long monograph on Braque has been entirely overlooked, to the best of my knowledge, in the literature on Cubism. This is all the more surprising since–despite its occasional Marxist clichés, its disorganized character, and its repetitiousness (not to say logorrhea)—it contains some brilliant insights that one would have thought worthy of interest (especially to Marxist scholars, who often purse a path much narrower and less interesting than Einstein’s in the matter of Cubism).”
6. Yve-Alain Bois, “Kahnweiler’s Lesson,” in Painting as Model (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 65–97, here 65–66, 67. Bois wrote this before he had read Vincenc Kramár. As is clear from his introduction to the French translation of Kramár’s Kubismus, he clearly would add him to Kahnweiler as an early commentator who gave “an intelligent account of cubism.”
7. Margaret Livingstone, Vision and Art the Biology of Seeing (New York: Abrams, 2002); Anjan Chatterjee, “Neuroaesthetics: A Coming of Age Story,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23. 10 (2010): 53–62; V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 193–244. For a critical view, see John Hyman, “Art and Neuroscience” in R. Frigg and M.C. Hunter, eds., Beyond Mimesis and Convention, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 262 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2010): 245-61.
8. For an informative summary of this literature, see John Onians, Neuroarthistory from Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 1–17.
9. Daniel-Henry with Francis Crémieux, My Galleries and Painters, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Viking, 1971) 50-51.
10. Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Der Gegenstand der Ästhetik (Munich: H. Moos, 1971). This was the first publication of the work, accompanied by a 1970 afterword by the author.
11. Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Der Weg zum Kubismus (München: Delphin, 1920); English ed., Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, The Rise of Cubism, trans. Henry Aronson (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1949). On Kahnweiler’s readings and writings from this period, see Yve-Alain Bois, “Kahnweiler’s Lesson,” in Painting as Model (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), 65–97 and Licia Fabiani, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Eine Werkbiographie (Hildesheim: Olms, 2010).
12. Carl Einstein, “Gerettete Malerei, enttäuschte Pompiers,” in Werke Band 2. 1919–1928, ed. Hermann Haarmann and Klaus Siebenhaar (Berlin: Fannei & Walz, 1996), 334–39, 334.
13. Carl Einstein, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Correspondance, 1921–1939, ed. and trans. Liliane Meffre (Marseille: A. Dimanche, 1993), 139.
14. This is how, according to Françoise Gilot, Picasso described his work process in these years. Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 72-73. On this point a commentary by William Rubin on the 1912 Picasso painting The Architect’s Table, merits quotation: “Speaking of the transformations of motifs in this picture Picasso observed that he possibly could not have surely identified the point of departure in reality for all its shapes even at the time it was painted—and certainly cannot now. ‘All its forms can’t be rationalized’ he told [me]. ‘At the time [Picasso continued]everyone talked about how much reality there was in cubism. But they didn’t really understand. It’s not a reality you can take in your hand. It’s more like a perfume—in front of you, behind you, to the sides. The scent is everywhere, but you don’t quite know where it comes from.’” In a footnote Rubin adds: “Picasso would not have used such an image for the more tactile cubism of 1908-10”—precisely the cubism that best fits Einstein’s interpretation. William S. Rubin, Picasso in the Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1972), 72, 206 n 3 (The Architect’s Table).
15. Maurice Raynal, ”Conception and Vision,” in Edward F. Fry, Cubism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 95. For a discussion of the early interpretation of cubism as an art of conception, see Lynn Gamwell, Cubist Criticism (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1980), 30–31, 43–48.
16. In his later book on Picasso, published initially in German, Raynal abandons this explanation and moves toward a position that is closer to Einstein. Picasso, he writes, is engaged in creating new objects. In this later publication his primary focus is synthetic cubism of 1912-14. In his earlier writings he had focused on analytical cubism of 1908-10. Maurice Raynal, Picasso (München: Delphin-Verlag, 1921).
17. A metaphor that was used, for example, by Hermann von Helmholtz in “Optisches über Malerei,” in Vorträge und Reden, 4th ed. (Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn, 1896), 2: 98.
18. Semir Zeki, A Vision of the Brain (Oxford Boston: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1993), 91–92.
19. Robert Bing, Gehirn und Auge (Wiesbaden: J. F. Bergmann, 1914), 39. Kahnweiler also used the term in Gegenstand der Ästhetik, 24.
20. Martin J. Tovée, An Introduction to the Visual System, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 62–73.
21. For a diagrammatic illustration of the functionally specialized areas of the visual brain, see Zeki, Inner Vision, 16, fig. 3.1(b).
22. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, trans. Douglas Cooper (New York: Curt Valentin, 1947), 71. Zeki quotes a statement by Gris included in an appendix in Kahweiler’s book: “painters felt the need to discover less unstable elements in the objects to be represented. And they chose that category of elements which remain in the mind through apprehension and is not continually changing” (144, Zeki’s italics). He does not note that a few paragraphs later Gris goes on to distance himself from this position as purely descriptive.
23. Zeki, Inner Vision, 50–51. The entire text, “Sur la tendance actuelle de la peinture,” can be found, in English translation, in Mark Antliff and Patricia Dee Leighten, eds., A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906–1914, trans. Mark Antliff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 249–67.
24. Zeki, Inner Vision, 54. Kahnweiler, let us recall, had claimed that such a painting as this was representative of Picasso’s and Braque’s solution to the conflict between mimetic representation and pictorial structure. That an abstract, autonomous pictorial structure embellished with details such as the bridge and sound holes of a violin, an ear, etc., would allow the beholder to conjure up a memory image, to complete the representation in the mind. But then Kahnweiler did not subscribe to the interpretation of cubist abstraction as “conceptual realism,” nor did he accord central importance to the representation of multiple viewpoints as did Rivière and Maurice Raynal.
26. Carl Einstein, “Notes on Cubism,” trans. Charles W. Haxthausen, October 107 (Winter 2004): 165, 168.
27. Einstein’s view of cubism evolved in the later 1920s beyond the phenomenological interpretation of the first edition of Die Kunst de 20. Jahrhunderts. A change becomes evident in the book’s second edition. He rewrote the Picasso section, expanding the text to five times its original length. Although the account of cubism in the chapter’s introductory section remained essentially unchanged from 1926, the new Picasso section that immediately followed it told a different story. Now the cubist painting of Picasso and of Braque offered not merely a simultané, “a deformation of our experience of three dimensions, generated through our movements, into two-dimensional form,” as Einstein had interpreted it in 1926, but was in part internally generated by “dreamlike visions,” by states of “formal ecstasy” with a “hallucinative basis.” Carl Einstein, Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Propyläen-Verlag, 1928), 73. Einstein’s encounter with surrealist ideas was the major catalyst for this re-interpretation. André Breton had declared Picasso “as one of us”; cubism had pointed the way to surrealism, as it “dared break openly” with “tangible entities . . . and the facile connotations of their everyday appearance.” André Breton, “Le Surréalisme et la peinture,” in La révolution surréaliste, no. 4 (July 15, 1925), 26-30, 29-30. English translation in André Breton, Surrealism and Painting (London: Macdonald and Co., 1972), 9.
28. Stephane Mallarmé, “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,” reprinted in Penny Florence, Mallarmé, Manet & Redon: Visual and Aural Signs and the Generation of Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 12.
29. Linda Nochlin (ed.), Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1874-1904 (Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966), 35.
30. Wassily Kandinsky, “Reminiscences“ (1913), in Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), 1:363.
31. Carl Einstein, Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts (1931), ed. Uwe Fleckner and Thomas W. Gaehtgens (Berlin: Fannei & Walz, 1996). Or, as Marx Wartofsky would formulate it several decades later: “Perception is a mode of outward action. . . . In this sense, it is perceptual activity in the world, and of a world as it is transformed by such activity.” Wartofsky, “Perception, Representation, and the Forms of Action,” in Models: Representation and the Scientific Understanding, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Dordrecht/Boston: D. Reidel, 1979), 188–210, 194.
32. Wartofsky, “Perception, Representation, and the Forms of Action,” 199.
33. Marx W. Wartofsky, ”Sight Symbol, and Society: Toward a History of Visual Perception,” Philosophic Exchange 3 (summer 1981), 23-40, 28.
34. Carl Einstein, Bebuquin oder die Dilettanten des Wunders (1912), Werke Band 1. 1907–1918, ed. Hermann Haarmann and Klaus Siebenhaar (Berlin: Fannei & Walz, 1994), 101.
Show CommentsClose Comments