Influenced by Cézanne to explore the further potential in analyzing the structure within painting and vision, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque began making works which would eventually be understood as Cubist. Cubism arguably began with Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and George Braque's Houses at L'Estaque (1908), and the name was initially applied as an insult—like many of the names of avant-garde movements—by a critic when he was discussing Braque’s Houses.
Cubism has been understood to have two phases: Analytic and Synthetic. During the Analytic period, Picasso and Braque progressively broke down three-dimensional objects into fragments—corresponding to an object’s appearance from various different viewpoints in space—until they came close to entirely abstract artworks. To understand the speed of this progression, look at the difference between Braque’s 1908 Houses and Picasso’s 1910 Portrait of Art Dealer Ambroise Vollard. It is these works which are best-known as Cubist.
At some point during 1911, Picasso and Braque became less concerned with painting as a description of multiple viewpoints or as a collection of shattered viewpoints—depending on how you interpret Analytical Cubism—but instead in a new kind of pictorial construction and a new kind of art-making. This kind of creating resulted in what were considered more “legible” cubist images. This new legibility and the idea that these new images were constructed rather than subjected to analysis (built-up rather than broken-down or apart), is why this period was dubbed “synthetic,” meaning a synthesis, or a collection of disparate elements into a coherent whole. Central to the ability of these works to build up elements was the invention of collage.
Collage was an extraordinary break with the past. Even though artists previous to Picasso and Braque had represented (i.e. painted, drawn, etc.) mass culture in their works, and even though artists in both art and popular culture previous to Picasso and Braque had occasionally used the method of collage, Picasso and Braque were the first well-recognized artists to do it intentionally and towards the purposes of artistic innovation. Collage (like Cubism itself) was hugely influential. After word of Picasso and Braque’s new technique spread, just as with the birth of Cubism, a virtual torrent of artists (other Cubists, but also Futurists, Dadaists, and others) started working with collage. Importantly, Picasso and Braque should also be seen as the first artists to make mixed-media works (i.e. works made out of more than one medium)—a term we use very often today. As well, they were the first artists to put into question whether art could consist of pre-made materials (foreshadowing the work of Marcel Duchamp), and finally, collage questioned the separation between art and life—ideas so many artists of the 20th century—such as Duchamp, but also the Dadaists and Neo-Dada artists like Robert Rauschenberg—would take up subsequently.
Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning was arguably one of the first collage works by Picasso and Braque, and definitely the most developed. So what are we looking at? First off, the work is a small painted assemblage of the letters “JOU,” and—according to various art historians—there is also a pipe, a glass, a knife, a lemon and a scallop shell in the picture. These objects are augmented by the insertion of a strip of oilcloth onto the canvas (at the bottom left) that was an imitation—i.e. fake—strip of chair-caning. (Oilcloth is basically what contact paper used to be called. One might use it today to line drawers. It was bought in a department store.) While the oilcloth alone signals that this is a revolutionary type of work, what would be called a collage or papier-collé, there is also another piece of material from the real world, a rope, which acts as a frame for the work.
Calling this just the first collage ignores some of this work’s magic. Most of the Still Life’s power lies in its interest—through the addition of a piece of man-made material—in playing with the difference between art and illusion, which was a major theme of Synthetic Cubism. (JOU does mean game in French.)
How does one see this play? On one hand, this can be seen as a work of two-dimensional art, in a rope frame; of certain (aforementioned) objects; brought together and seen from various angles. Yet on the other hand, the insertion of an actual piece of oilcloth that looks like chair caning—which would be used to cover chairs in cafés of the time—makes this image feel like an actual circular table that one might look through, from above (making it appear an oval), so that a chair could be seen below the glass table and the objects sit on top of a table. Accordingly, you then become part of the scene, a customer sitting at a café table, reading your newspaper (JOU then stands in for Le Journal, the most popular newspaper in France at the time) and having breakfast. There’s even more play in the image if you keep thinking about it. Though Picasso could have used real chair-caning in this work, the one he chooses (and buys) is actually fake. This simultaneously deflates the illusion Picasso is trying to create just as he is making it occur.
Read the next post in this series, about Marcel Duchamp and how real-life objects became works of art in themselves.