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Different Facets of Analytic Cubism

The following essay was originally written as the opening address for a symposium at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art held in conjunction with the exhibition Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912.1 The talk was designed to provide a frame of reference for both the exhibition and the symposium’s subsequent papers through its brief review of the most compelling interpretations of Analytic Cubism of the past 50 or so years.  The present iteration of the essay has been slightly modified to better accommodate its new, nonsite-specific context.


We have now had over 100 years to come to terms with Analytic Cubism, to make sense of its fragmented forms and shallow, intermittent spatiality, its dense value gradations and heavily worked surfaces.  Despite having had that century for reflection, however, there exists little consensus today regarding either Cubism’s underlying intentions or its successes and failures.  Picasso himself offered relatively little explanation of his project, and Braque was no better.  Presumably they talked to one another, even daily, and at considerable length; but neither ever penned a manifesto of the movement, say, or offered interviews elaborating their intentions, at least not until long after the fact. (In that regard, they were virtually unique among early twentieth-century artists, whose paintings were almost invariably accompanied by some written explanation—instructions, as it were, for the uninitiated.)  In the case of Analytic Cubism, interpretation was left to others: other artists, or critics, who felt the need for an account of this work that looked so radically different from everything preceding it.2

Fig. 1. Picasso, Glass of Absinthe (autumn 1911), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

The first serious attempts at explanation tended to fall into two opposing camps—or frequently, as Christine Poggi has pointed out, into both at once.3 On the one hand were claims for Cubism’s heightened “realism,” principally through its purported ability to offer multiple views of objects, rather than remaining confined to the singular vantage point normally considered endemic to painting.  According to this account, in a work like Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe [fig. 1], the “glass” in question—that conglomeration of black-outlined forms situated about two-thirds of the way between the leftmost edge of the canvas and the right—was to be understood as given both in “plan” (the circles and semi-circles suggesting the round base and the stem seen in cross-section) and in “elevation” (the vertical lines between and above the circular forms indicating the upright orientation of the glass).  Whether this was interpreted as indicating the painter’s movement toward and around the object or as the result of that object’s conceptual (rather than merely perceptual) apprehension, the implication was that Cubism had overcome painting’s earlier limitations, and so could now provide a more complete grasp of things in their totality.

On the other hand there was the widespread assertion that Cubist paintings were themselves totalities, autonomous things in their own right, “real,” if you will, because no longer tied to illusionistic description of the natural world.  Carl Einstein, in his “Notes on Cubism,” perhaps summarized this position best: “The totalization of the painting comes about,” he said, “as a consequence of its unverifiability, and the fact that the spectator never exits from the reality of the picture.”4 The claim was that, in contemplation of a work such as Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe, the viewer cuts him- or herself off from the external world, which consequently recedes in memory.  That world then ceases to be the yardstick against which the painting is measured.

Again, these two views—on the one hand, that Cubist pictures give us better or truer depictions of things as they actually are; on the other, that they are themselves independent or autonomous things—would seem inherently contradictory.  (The first emphasizes the representational function of the image, the second all but denies it.)  Of course, that didn’t prevent both views from being voiced by one and the same individual, often in the space of a single essay.  Rather than seeing this as a flaw of the criticism, however, I want to suggest that the contradictions inherent in the early interpretations of Cubism actually reveal something very important about the works in question.  They help us to see that Cubism was an art built out of, and sustained by, contradiction.  Consequently, the very best accounts of it we have are precisely those that emphasize the things most contradictory in its aims and ambitions.

As far as I know, the first person to explicitly acknowledge the contradictions of Cubism and to offer a compelling account of its development based on their interplay, was the critic Clement Greenberg.  In his 1959 essay, “Collage,” Greenberg described the dilemma he saw confronting Picasso and Braque over the course of their shared enterprise.  Every Cubist work, he said, in contradistinction to centuries of Western paintings preceding it, “had to spell out, rather than pretend to deny, the physical fact that it was flat”—that it was, in other words, a “real,” tangible object—“even though at the same time it had to overcome this proclaimed flatness as an aesthetic fact and continue to report nature.”5 We should pause briefly to take stock of that rather peculiar phrase in the last line: “aesthetic fact.”  It, too, has a hint of the contradictory or oxymoronic about it.  Plainly, in using it, Greenberg hoped to give the painting’s aesthetic qualities a weight comparable to that of its physical or factual existence.  It was not enough, he felt, for the Cubist work to be flat; a blank canvas, an ironing board, a piece of wallpaper, for that matter, are all flat.  To be a painting, the Cubist work would have to confess its flatness but also—somehow—overcome or negate it.6

Greenberg’s concerns at the beginning of his essay were with Picasso’s and Braque’s paintings from 1911, which is to say, with those from the height of what is sometimes referred to as Cubism’s “hermetic” phase.  According to Greenberg, works of this period took the particular form that they did as a result of an effort to achieve a balance between, on the one hand, flattened “facet-planes” that would echo and therefore emphasize the two-dimensionality and rectilinearity of the canvas and, on the other, a modeling that could potentially disrupt our awareness of the surface.  The modeling should do nothing more than that, however.  Were it to function successfully, creating a plausible illusion of solid, volumetric form, the painting would have to be deemed in denial of its physical flatness—masquerading as sculpture, then, rather than owning up to being the painting that it actually is.  Greenberg’s terminology is nicely counter-intuitive here: “The main problem at this juncture,” he said, “became to keep the ‘inside’ of the picture—its content—from fusing with the ‘outside’—its literal surface” (“Collage,” 71). If Greenberg designated the surface of the canvas as outside, and the work’s representational content within, it was presumably to emphasize that, for Picasso and Braque, representation remained the proper purview of painting.  Conversely, any work that abandoned that function would become simply an object and, as a result, fall outside the domain of art.

Fig. 2. Braque, Violin and Pitcher (late 1909 - early 1910), Kunstmuseum Basel

At the same time Greenberg wanted to call our attention to the way that “inside” and “outside” were coming into increasingly close proximity, and so he referred not to the painting’s “illusionistic depth” but rather to its “depicted flatness.” “Depicted flatness,” he said, “—that is, the facet planes—had to be kept separate enough from literal flatness to permit a minimal illusion of three-dimensional space to survive between the two” (“Collage,” 71-72). Early on, Braque had tried to address the problem by means of trompe-l’oeil.  In his Still Life with Violin and Pitcher [fig. 2], he painted a tack at the top of the canvas casting a highly illusionistic shadow below.  By effectively conflating the wall of the room—in other words, the rearmost of the painting’s represented planes—and the physical plane of the canvas itself, Braque was able to suggest a space forward or on top of the picture’s rendered flatness, between the depicted planes and the space that we ourselves inhabit.  But such devices, Greenberg felt, were mere “expedients,” more gimmick than actual solution to the problem at hand.  Still, they did bring Picasso and Braque to a crucial realization—namely, that there might be a way to overcome literal or physical flatness by, paradoxically, bringing it to the fore. It’s worth quoting this part of Greenberg’s argument at some length:

If the actuality of the surface—its real, physical flatness—could be indicated explicitly enough in certain places, it would be distinguished and separated from everything else the surface contained.  Once the literal nature of the support was advertised, whatever upon it was not intended literally would be set off and enhanced in its non-literalness.  Or to put it still another way: depicted flatness would inhabit at least the semblance of a three-dimensional space as long as the brute, undepicted flatness of the literal surface was pointed to as being still flatter. (“Collage,” 72)

Fig. 3. Braque, The Portuguese (autumn 1911- early 1912), Kunstmuseum Basel

Hence the printed or stenciled letters and numbers that, in 1911, first Braque and then Picasso began introducing into their compositions [see fig. 3]; the point was to draw attention through those inscriptions to the literal surface of the painting, so that everything less obviously adhering to that surface would appear to recede in depth as a result of the comparison.

Fig. 4. Braque, The Clarinet (summer 1912), Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

The only problem, according to Greenberg, was that familiarity seemed to weaken the effect.  By 1912 Picasso and Braque had begun selectively adding sand to their paint so as to give it a visible texture [see fig. 4].  The hope was that, by introducing an explicitly tactile element, still larger areas of the actual surface could be emphasized, thereby prolonging the desired spatial illusions everywhere else.  As Greenberg tells the story, this strategy too eventually proved insufficient; and, of course, it was bound to.  Insofar as the intention was to overcome (and not merely to deny) the literal flatness of the painting’s material support, the project was doomed to failure from the start.  Ontological failure, I hasten to add—not aesthetic failure.  On aesthetic grounds, I think we can agree, most of the works manage quite nicely.  Yet it was their nonreconciliation to flatness—to, we might say, the unavoidable conditions of their own existence—that Greenberg regarded as their most distinctive feature.  It is also what he saw motivating Cubism’s development.  Faced with the impossible demand to simultaneously spell out and overcome its literal flatness, Cubist painting was driven to ever more extreme measures; its history appears, as a result, as a succession of retrospective, dialectical responses to its inability to free itself from its all-too-literal, material support.

Fig. 5. Braque, Fruit Dish and Glass (September 1912), Private Collection

In the end, as Greenberg tells the story, the accumulation of stenciling and textures threatened to overwhelm and thereby collapse the distinction between depicted and undepicted flatnesses that it had been the explicit purpose of those devices to produce.  But it was just at this point, and presumably as a direct result of those earlier failures, that Picasso and Braque hit on the idea of papiers collés [see fig. 5].7 To be sure, the new ploy raised the stakes considerably.  The pieces of paper that were affixed quite tangibly to the surface declared that surface with an unprecedented literalness.  The risk was even greater now that undepicted flatness would become “the main event of the picture,” effectively subsuming any and all implications of depth (“Collage,” 75). The brilliance of the new medium, according to Greenberg, was that within the narrowing confines of an opposition between literal surface and illusionistic depth—and at the very moment when literal surface seemed on the brink of becoming the only term—papier collé delivered a solution in which illusionism was transformed but thereby preserved.  Again I think it’s worth quoting Greenberg at some length on these matters, particularly as he sees them playing out in a specific work:

In the upper center of Braque’s first collage, Fruit Dish [fig. 5], a bunch of grapes is rendered with such conventionally vivid sculptural effects [or at least effects sufficiently “sculptural”] as to lift it practically off the picture plane.  The trompe-l’oeil illusion here is no longer enclosed within parallel flatnesses, but seems to thrust through the surface of the drawing paper and establish depth on top of it.  Yet the violent immediacy of the wallpaper strips pasted to the paper, and the only lesser immediacy of the block capitals that simulate window lettering, manage somehow to push the grape cluster back into place on the picture plane so that it doesn’t “jump.”  At the same time, the wallpaper strips themselves seem to be pushed into depth by the lines and patches of shading charcoaled upon them, and by their placing in relation to the block capitals; and these capitals seem in turn to be pushed back by their placing, and by contrast with the corporeality of the woodgraining.  Thus every part and plane of the picture keeps changing place in relative depth with every other part and plane; and it is as if the only stable relation left among the different parts of the picture is the ambivalent and ambiguous one that each has with the surface. (“Collage,” 76)

Greenberg’s language in this passage is particularly compelling; it also signals a major turning point in his narrative.  Over the course of the next several pages of his text, he will go on to claim that the papiers collés managed to achieve, at last, what the earlier works had not, namely, an overcoming of the opposition between literal and depicted flatnesses that, until that moment, had been presented as the insurmountable contradiction driving Cubism’s development.  The key to the reconciliation, according to Greenberg, was papier collé’s peculiar illusionistic potential.   In the pasted-paper works, he conceded, “flatness may monopolize everything, but it is a flatness become so ambiguous and expanded as to turn into illusion itself” (“Collage,” 77). Mind you, the illusion at issue in these works is, for Greenberg, no longer pictorial, achieved through perspective and sculptural modeling as in the works of the past.  Rather, it is an optical illusionism, arising within formal configurations that openly declare their two-dimensionality, an illusionism capable of displacing surfaces so that they seem to hover in an imaginary (and decidedly non-physical) space.  In the later papiers collés, according to Greenberg, the last vestiges of sculptural shading that still clung to Braque’s Fruit Dish were progressively eliminated, thereby demonstrating that optical illusion could be produced without the aid of any pictorial illusion whatsoever—that the physical surface could be displaced and re-created out of shapes that were wholly and unimpeachably flat.

Admittedly, there are problems with this account of Cubism (including the reality that neither Picasso nor Braque ever did actually produce papiers collés devoid of all sculptural modeling).8 Still, it seems to me that Greenberg’s larger narrative, especially the part concerning the paintings of 1911 and 1912, is able to accommodate many of the eccentric features of those works—their stenciling, for example, and the addition of sand to their surfaces—that demand explanation yet that, prior to Greenberg’s essay at least, had seemed particularly inexplicable.  My own feeling (obviously enough) is that, because of this explanatory power, “Collage” deserves rather more attention than it has received, particularly over the last several decades.

Fig. 6. Picasso, Violin (December 1912), Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

The essay’s disregard or disfavor during that extended period is plainly the result of a kind of collective dissatisfaction over what we might call its “optical dénouement.”  Unhappy with the story’s conclusion, scholars have tended to overlook or discount even its more promising beginnings.  Certainly one way to understand the several semiotic interpretations of Cubism that appeared in the 1970s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s—notably those by Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois—is as reactions to Greenberg’s “opticality” (and, we might add, his tendency to measure all modern painting against that single standard).9 Precisely at the moment where Greenberg saw the triumph of optical illusion—in Picasso’s and Braque’s papiers collés—Krauss and Bois would have us see instead Cubism’s unprecedented engagement with quasi-linguistic signs.  Indeed the very turn to papiers collés is to be understood, in their view, as driven by a desire to develop, if not for painting per se, at least for picturing, discrete signifying units analogous to the words or phonemes of written and spoken language.  They regard each shard of paper in Picasso’s Violin [fig. 6], for example, as just such a unit, neatly delimited, in contrast to the generally seamless continuity of an oil painting’s surface.  For Krauss especially it was also important that Picasso wasn’t using just any kind of paper; his preferred material was newspaper, the printed text insinuating that an analogous process of signification was operating in the context of each individual collage.

Fig. 7. Diagram from Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 66

It seems to have been important, too, for both Bois and Krauss that Cubism’s experiments with papiers collés were being conducted more or less concurrently with major developments in structural linguistics, notably in the work of Roman Jakobson and Ferdinand de Saussure.10 Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, which was offered three times at the University of Geneva between 1907 and 1911 before its publication as a book in 1916, emphasized that language constituted at any particular moment a formal system, the elements of which drew their meaning only oppositionally, as a result of their differences from one another.11 Language was not, then, the simple naming process it was commonly taken to be—not a matter of a simple one-to-one correlation between a word (the Latin word “arbor” or “equos,” for example [see fig. 7]) and some thing in the world (i.e., the tree or the horse standing over there in the field).  In actuality, things are more complicated than that.  In his course [see fig. 8], Saussure distinguished, first, between the concept (designated as “arbor” in the lower left of his diagram) and the written or spoken word (“tree”); and, then (in the right-hand ellipse), between the concept (below) and its referent in the world (above).  He also underscored the fact that different languages cut things up differently, as illustrated in the diagram reproduced here as fig. 9: “A” represents the undifferentiated field of possible concepts, “B” the range of signifiers (sounds) that might potentially be used to designate them.  Again, different languages divide those streams differently.  English, Saussure pointed out, has two separate words—“sheep” and “mutton”—for the living and cooked forms of the animal, whereas French has only one: mouton. (The other example everyone always trots out—although, factually, it stands on shaky ground—concerns Eskimo languages, which purportedly have many different signifiers for everything encompassed by our one word “snow.”12)  These linguistic differences occur because the relation between signifier and signified is wholly arbitrary, which is to say, the word “tree” (whether written or spoken) in no way resembles the maple outside on the lawn.  Images, of course, are typically not of this order; they signify something precisely by resembling it.  One of the upshots of that condition, however, is that images, no less than words, are often taken to have a one-to-one correspondence (in effect, a quasi-nominal relation) to the things that they denote.  Patently enough, even Saussure, when he wanted to refer to a real tree rather than its linguistic signifier, used an image of a tree [fig. 8].  The metaphor of the painting-as-window, ubiquitous throughout the Western mimetic tradition, has similarly encouraged viewers’ tendency to regard images as more or less transparent to the things that they portray.

Fig. 8. Diagram from Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 68
Fig. 9. Diagram from Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 113

But is painting necessarily rooted in mimetic likeness?  Might it be possible for painting to develop and make use of essentially “arbitrary” signs, signs that, like words, would be capable of referring to things in the world but in the absence of illusionism, perhaps even foregoing resemblance altogether? These questions are the ones explicitly raised, according to Krauss and Bois, by Picasso’s papiers collés.13 From one work to the next, Picasso often re-used nearly identical shapes but had them signify different things in their different contexts.  Evidently enough, a shape such as the leftmost newspaper fragment in the Violin [fig. 6] could easily serve in another collage—were it re-positioned slightly rightward—not as the notched silhouette of a violin but rather as the front face and sound-hole of a guitar.  In that case we would want to say that the pieces in their separate contexts function like homonyms, like words that sound alike but have distinctly different meanings.  Historically, paintings and other works of visual art have not functioned in this manner, because mimetic resemblance precludes such multiple significations.14 In fact, Picasso’s Violin may represent the limit-case in Cubism’s effort to create an arbitrary visual sign.  As Krauss pointed out, the two newspaper fragments employed in the work evidently once belonged to the same sheet; we are readily able to re-join them in our imagination.  (Having scissored them apart, Picasso simply turned one over before pasting them both down onto the surface.)  Again, the leftmost piece designates in the context of this collage the surface and silhouette of a violin.  But what about the rightmost fragment?  Krauss convincingly argued that we are meant to see its parallel lines of type as more or less continuous with the charcoaled hatchings below (an effect that was undoubtedly even stronger before the newspaper yellowed with age), and therefore as signifying the shadowy space alongside of the instrument.  We have, then, two signifiers—materially indistinguishable in that they once belonged to the very same sheet of newspaper—but that in the context of this single work have been made to signify not just different things but opposites, objects and qualities essentially antithetical to one another: on the one hand, flat opaque surface and, on the other, shadowy, atmospheric depth.

Fig. 10. Picasso, Three Women (autumn 1907-late 1908), The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Krauss presented her reading of Picasso’s Violin at a 1989 symposium held in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art’s blockbuster exhibition, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism.15 As his contribution to that same symposium, Yve-Alain Bois provided an account of Cubism’s development, from roughly 1908 through 1912, which also drew heavily on semiotics.  (I should add that the more or less simultaneous presentation of those two papers contributed to the impression at the time that the semiotic angle was fast becoming the reigning orthodoxy among interpreters of Cubism.)  For his part, Bois wanted to show that, from the outset, Cubism had been working toward the development of a system of arbitrary signs, the discrete signifying units of papiers collés being but the culmination of that effort. What Bois designated the first phase of Cubism, represented by Picasso’s Three Women [fig. 10], was characterized, he said, by the repeated subdividing of the painting’s surface, the figures or other representational elements of the work seeming to emerge only as a result of that division.  In the case of the figures in the Three Women, Bois argued, their anatomical features are patently a byproduct of the canvas’s partitioning into multiple, triangular segments. That it was a matter of dividing a single, continuous surface is underscored not only in those places (e.g., in the area of the leftmost nude’s upraised elbow) where the figures still seem attached to their background, but also by that odd, shared contour that serves simultaneously to delineate the breast and torso of the rightmost woman and the buttocks and thigh of her sister alongside.16

Fig. 11. Picasso, Still Life with Liqueur Bottle (August 1909), The Museum of Modern Art, New York

In what Bois called Cubism’s “second semiological phase” the units became rectangular and, in certain instances, such as Picasso’s Still Life with Liqueur Bottle [fig. 11], the artist selected objects that were particularly well suited to the new geometric paradigm.  (That is, the cut-glass of the depicted bottle of liqueur was, in some sense, already Cubist.)  Over the course of the next ten or twelve months, the rectangular units of these Cubist paintings increasingly took on the overall form of a grid [see fig. 12].  As a result, they took on too a kind of double signification, simultaneously referring to the figure or objects represented (however elusively) and to the rectangular shape of the canvas itself, which the grid effectively replicated in miniature.

Fig. 12. Picasso, The Rower (summer 1910), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

At this point, according to Bois—following the summer that Picasso and Braque spent together in Spain, in the town of Cadaqués—Cubism arrived at a crossroads.  It could abandon representation altogether—stop figuring the world outside of the work—or somehow devise a means of signification that would allow painting to retain its representational function but without having to return to the illusionism of the past.  Clearly both Picasso and Braque felt that, were painting to renounce its traditional representational function, there would be neither any rules governing its production nor criteria by which to measure its success.  Any decisions regarding the placement of this line or that color could only ever be arbitrary, now in the negative sense of “entirely random.”

Fig. 13. Picasso, Portrait of D.-H. Kahnweiler (autumn 1910), The Art Institute of Chicago

It was at this point that Picasso and Braque both began introducing into their paintings small pictographic elements: in the case of Picasso’s Portrait of Kahnweiler [fig. 13], for example, the black linear configurations denoting moustache, hair, watch chain, hands, etc.  These “signs” or, better, signifying elements are all still “iconic,” which is to say, they all represent something (a watch chain, for example) by resembling it; but they are doing so now in the conspicuous absence of sculptural modeling or any other form of illusionism.  Bois designated this Cubism’s “hieroglyphic” stage—precisely because, like hieroglyphs, the pictographic elements of these paintings seem to inhabit a territory in between illusionistic images and the arbitrary or unmotivated signs of writing.

Fig. 14. Picasso, Still-Life with Chair Caning (spring 1912), Musée Picasso, Paris

Again, like Krauss, Bois regards the papiers collés of the following year as being different in kind, in that, he says, they fully inhabit the territory of the arbitrary sign.  But he sees Picasso’s Still-Life with Chair-Caning [fig. 14]—a work of collage that preceded the papiers collés (indeed it was the very first collage ever produced)—as importantly transitional in this whole process.  As Rosalind Krauss first noted, the Still-Life with Chair-Caning makes itself available to two contradictory readings.  On the one hand, we can regard it as a more or less traditionally oriented still-life, a painting of so many objects (a glass, a newspaper, a pipe, a slice of quiche or tart) arrayed on a table at some distance in front of us, the line of our gaze at those objects being, then, essentially perpendicular to our upright bodies.  But it is also possible to see the painting otherwise.  That is, we might instead regard the rope-encircled, oval-shaped canvas as referring to the top of the table, perhaps a glass table, with the collaged piece of caning-imprinted fabric suggesting the edge of the chair pushed underneath.  In that case, we would not be looking out at the still-life objects but, rather, down at them, our line of sight now running more or less parallel to our upright bodies.   Christine Poggi has aptly described this collage as offering itself as both table and tableau, that latter term implying precisely the vertical orientation of the works historically associated with easel painting.  Bois, for his part, describes Still-Life with Chair-Caning as marking “the moment when something is about to topple, for in the collapse of the vertical and the horizontal, what Picasso is inscribing is the very possibility of the transformation of painting into writing—of the empirical and vertical space of vision, controlled by our own erect position on the ground, into the semiological, …horizontal space of reading” (“Semiology of Cubism,” 186-87). Again, for Bois, that “horizontal” space of reading and writing is the one that the subsequent papiers collés would come to fully inhabit.

Bois’s argument played an important role in shaping the last of the art-historical accounts of Cubism that I want to discuss, the one advanced by T.J. Clark in his essay “Cubism and Collectivity.”17 In a footnote to that essay, Clark explicitly credits Bois’s work with having helped him to sort out “the strengths and weaknesses of the semiotic account of Cubism, and the ways it does and does not connect with previous ‘modernist’ [i.e. Greenbergian] descriptions” (“Cubism and Collectivity,” 424, note 9). In contrast to either Bois’s or Greenberg’s narratives, a certain “disconnected quality” characterizes Clark’s own, “precisely because,” he says, “it is the opposite quality that I most distrust in the accounts…we already have: that is, the way they are driven by a basic commitment to narrative continuity, by a wish to see Picasso’s works from 1907 to 1912 as possessing a logic or forming a sequence, as not being broken or interrupted in any important way—not, above all, encountering failure” (“Cubism and Collectivity,” 175). If the Cubist works “are historical at all,” Clark adds a bit later in his text, “it is only insofar as they constantly seem to be moving toward some declaration of epoch-making failure—painting at the end of its tether, so to say, or in an ether where its means are hopelessly clotted or more and more impalpable” (“Cubism and Collectivity,” 187).

Clark actually agrees with Bois that in Cubism the pictorial signs become highly—unprecedentedly—arbitrary.  But he insists that the works themselves suggest only a grudging acceptance of that arbitrariness, and do so always in a dark or sardonic mode. “The freer and freer play of the signifier is represented,” he says, “at the same time as it is embraced, as a mereness, a mechanizing or automatism of markmaking, an overall-ness which registers as the opposite of liberty or even ‘autonomy’” (“Cubism and Collectivity,” 185), Clark’s basic claim is that Cubism never did achieve the status of a language, though, importantly, he says, it pretended to have done so.  It was essentially the counterfeit of such a language, feigning to offer some truer or more accurate description of the phenomenal world but in fact being unable to deliver anything of the sort.18

Fig. 15. Picasso, Man with a Pipe (summer 1911), Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

As Clark tells the story, in the summer of 1910, the one spent at Cadaqués, where Picasso’s work in particular became as arbitrary or abstract as it ever would—where paintings such as The Rower [fig. 12] perched on the edge of a wholly “unverifiable” relation to the things they purported to describe—the artist came “face to face with the disenchantment of the world.  Which meant, in Picasso’s case,” Clark says, “the disenchantment of painting—the revealing of more and more, and deeper and deeper, structures of depiction as purely contingent, nothing but devices” (“Cubism and Collectivity,” 220). Subsequently light (and not just the stale academic simulacrum of it that was present in the works from Cadaqués) would return to illuminate Picasso’s paintings.  The representation of specific objects or figures was also reasserted, via the introduction of Bois’s “hieroglyphic” elements [see fig. 15]—all of those preposterous moustaches, cleft chins, and little beady eyes showing us quite explicitly, according to Clark, “what the pursuit of likeness looks like, in a situation where all versions of such a pursuit have proved impossible to sustain” (“Cubism and Collectivity,” 221).

For all his care to separate himself from the so-called “semioticians,” Clark’s position here looks, at least from my vantage point, not so very distant from that of Rosalind Krauss.  In her essay “The Motivation of the Sign,” Krauss had presented Picasso turning to quasi-linguistic signifiers as a kind of last resort, a way of “writing” /depth/ on a field from which its illusionistic invocation had been effectively banished.   If we’re to grasp the full weight of her argument, it’s extremely important we recognize that the only claims Krauss made for wholly arbitrary signification pertained to precisely those signifiers that indicated depth or the related notions of obliquity and luminosity.  In “The Motivation of the Sign,” she is very clear on this point:

This matter of motivating the sign, raised by my title does not, then, refer to the import of the semiological turn heralded by collage.  Rather, it addresses the specific set of signifieds that Picasso seems most insistently to organize in the opening years of his exploration of collage.  Those signifieds—/depth/ and /atmosphere/ or /light/—are in no way random, but are prepared for, motivated if you will, by the experience of the preceding five years. (“The Motivation of the Sign,” 271-72)  —She means by the way that three-dimensionality had been progressively drained from the picture.  So, for example, when Krauss points to the two mismatched f-holes in Picasso’s papier collé Violin [fig. 6] and suggests that they are arbitrary signs, it is emphatically not the case that they are arbitrary signs for f-holes.  If they signify those holes, it is because they resemble them, however much the “typographic” quality of the rendering insinuates some connection to language and writing.  The mismatched f-holes remain, then, iconic signs insofar as they refer to those particular features of the violin.  In their disparity, however—in the mismatching designed to suggest the violin’s oblique turn into space—they become fully arbitrary signs, but now signs specifically for /depth/.  Together, the f-holes signify space or depth even as they assert its absence, even as they cannot or will not conjure it illusionistically for the composition.

Fig. 16. Picasso, Girl with a Mandolin (spring 1910), Museum of Modern Art, New York

In Krauss’s account, Cubism’s progressive flattening—and so also its recourse to a form of arbitrary signification—is accompanied by a profound sense of loss.  Krauss would have us see that a distinctly melancholy air pervades works such as Picasso’s Girl with a Mandolin [fig. 16], a melancholy made all the more poignant by those few places—in the area of the woman’s right arm, for example, or along the curve of her breast—where the machinery of illusionism is not malfunctioning, and so is yet able to conjure, miraculously, a palpably believable, tangibly present form.

Again, in Krauss’s description of these passages, we are not so very far, it seems to me, from the “dark mood” that Clark sees coloring Cubism, particularly in those years from 1910 to 1911 that are the focus of his attention.  In fact, I would argue that we are not on ground so very different, either, from that covered by Clement Greenberg in his essay on “Collage”—at least before “Collage” took its turn toward a triumphant “opticality.” In all three cases it is a matter of a kind of negative dialectic within Cubism, the works increasingly forced into a position of grudgingly acknowledging that which they most fear or revile: Clark calls it an abstract “unverifiability”; in Greenberg’s account, it is mere flatness; in Krauss’s, a two-dimensionality devoid of any carnal connection to the world.  In all three accounts, however, the works manage in such a way that both the acknowledgement and the antipathy are fully on view.  The works’ achievement—“triumph,” we might even say—resides precisely in their ability to make both things simultaneously apparent.  Admission or acknowledgement alone would have amounted to mere acceptance, resulting in something simply, flatly decorative, and detached from any engagement with the world.  Conversely, antipathy or avoidance on its own would have been tantamount to a denial of how much painting (and the world around it) had changed in the first decade or so of the twentieth century.  It is finally this doubledness, I would argue—the works’ acknowledgement of loss and their stubborn refusal to be reconciled to it—that makes them the compelling, occasionally haunting, images they are.  I tend to think that Krauss, Clark, and Greenberg might even all agree that it is also what makes them so wholly exemplary of modernity.


1. The exhibition, which was curated by Eik Kahng and jointly organized by the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, opened first in Texas before making its way to California.  It will be on view in Santa Barbara through January 8, 2012.  There is also a fine accompanying catalogue, Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), with essays by Eik Kahng, Charles Palermo, Harry Cooper, Annie Bourneuf, Christine Poggi, Claire Barry and Bart Devolder.
2. For a useful anthology of early writings on Cubism, see Edward F. Fry, Cubism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
3. Christine Poggi, “Frames of Reference: ‘Table’ and ‘Tableau’ in Picasso’s Collages and Constructions,” Art Journal 47, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 311-322, especially 311-312.
4. Carl Einstein, “Notes sur le Cubisme,” Documents, no. 3 (1929), 154; cited by T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New York and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 186.
5. Greenberg, “Collage,” Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 70-83; this particular passage comes from page 71.  Italics added.
6. On this point, see my essay “The Flattening of ‘Collage’,” October, no. 102 (Autumn 2002): 59-86.
7. Art historians generally, and those interested in Cubism in particular, tend to draw a distinction between the practice of collage, which can involve all manner of materials, and papiers collés, whose elements are limited, as the name implies, to pieces of pasted paper.
8. Most of the criticism of the essay has been directed toward the fact that Greenberg refused or, at minimum, failed to acknowledge the pop- or mass-cultural nature of the collaged materials in the Cubist papiers collés.  For an attempt to work out how Greenberg might have been able to make sense of those materials without abandoning the initial terms of his argument, see my essay, “The Flattening of ‘Collage’,” especially 59 and 74 ff.
9. In “The Cubist Epoch,” a review essay for Artforum, 9, no. 6 (February 1971): 32-38, Rosalind Krauss first advanced an interpretation of Cubism informed by semiotics. “In the Name of Picasso,” which appeared in Krauss’s book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 23-40, built on that argument, as did (more fully) her essay, “The Motivation of the Sign,” in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium, ed. William Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe, and Lynn Zelevansky (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 261-86.  Bois’s major statements on the subject are “Kahnweiler’s Lesson,” in Bois, Painting as Model (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 65-97; and “The Semiology of Cubism,” in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium, 169-208.
10. I say that “it seems to be important,” although it should be emphasized that neither Krauss nor Bois is claiming that Picasso had read Saussure, for example, or had even heard of his work.  Rather, they treat Cubism and structural linguistics as cultural homologues, whose contemporaneity suggests some interconnection, but potentially quite diffuse.  It is the case, however, that Roman Jakobson knew of Cubism and even claimed that it was instrumental in reorienting his own thinking about language.  See Bois, “The Semiology of Cubism,” 177-178.
11. Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale was first published in Paris (by Payot) in 1916.  See also the critical edition of the English-language translation, by Wade Baskin, of Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, ed. Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
12. For a history of this dubious idea, see Geoffrey Pullum, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 159-171.
13. Significantly, both Bois and Krauss argue that only Picasso’s papiers collés function this way; Braque’s, they assert, do not operate in even a quasi-linguistic manner.  See Bois, “The Semiology of Cubism,” 191-194; and Krauss, “The Motivation of the Sign,” 264-272.
14. The exceptions here—all of which postdate Cubism—are the double images produced by Salvador Dalí’s “paranoiac-critical method.”  For illustrations and a pertinent discussion of those works, see Dawn Ades, ed., Dali’s Optical Illusions (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).
15. The exhibition ran from September 24, 1989 through January 16, 1990.  The symposium proceedings were subsequently published as Lynn Zelevansky, ed., Picasso and Braque: A Symposium (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1992).  Krauss’s essay, “The Motivation of the Sign,” appears on pages 261-286; see also the transcript of the discussion following her talk, 287-304.
16. For an interpretation of the painting that makes much of these striking features, see Leo Steinberg’s “Resisting Cezanne: Picasso’s Three Women,” Art in America 66.6 (November 1978): 114-33.
17. T.J. Clark, “Cubism and Collectivity,” in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 169-223.
18. I should add, as Clark himself does at several points throughout his essay, that he sees this “failure” as not a weakness of the work but, in a sense, as its strength.  In Clark’s account Cubism remains the “classic moment of modernist painting” (213), but it occupies that position rather differently than others have claimed: it does so, he suggests, because its ambitions and shortcomings alike show us something crucial about what it meant to be modern.
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