Cubism Explained

Left: Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (Spring 1910) Oil on canvas
Right: Picasso, Standing Female Nude (1910) Charcoal on canvas

No-one, to my mind, has ever satisfactorily explained Cubism. Indeed I have found the explanations and their complexity totally confusing. Roland Penrose, a close friend of Picasso, claimed that Cubist images try: 

‘to state the penetration of knowledge beneath the appearance of objects that we normally accept as reality.’1

I am not quite sure what that means but like other attempts to clarify Cubism it views the art objectively. That, given what we have learned on this site, has to be a mistake. Nevertheless, before I try to define it, I need to tell you what others have said. Skip the next four paragraphs if you are short of time.

[Many scholars essentially claim that Picasso, being modern, destroyed the tradition of one-point perspective to bring art in line with developments in modern science and technology. Erwin Panofsky, a colleague of Einstein’s at the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote that Cubism was an attempt:

“to open up the fourth dimension of time so that objects ceased to be determinable by three co-ordinates alone and can present themselves in any number of aspects and in all states of either 'becoming' or 'disintegrating.'”2

Rosalind Krauss claimed that:

“Cubism was, after all, the painstaking and thoroughgoing dismantling of unified, perspectival space that the camera, with its particular optics, could not but reproduce again and again.”3

Another wrote that:

“Cubism breaks with Renaissance perspective. It views objects relatively: that is, from several points of view, no one of which has exclusive authority…Thus, to the three dimensions of the Renaissance…there is added a fourth one time..The presentation of objects from several points of view introduces a principle which is intimately bound up with modern life – simultaneity. It is a temporal coincidence that Einstein should have begun his famous work Elektrodynamik bewgter Korper, in 1905 with a careful definition of simultaneity.”4

John Richardson, Picasso’s acclaimed biographer, sees Cubism as a reaction against earlier styles like Impressionism and approves of Roger Allard’s definition that Cubism was a means to register ‘mass, volume and weight’, that everything including space had to be tactile and that it need not ‘look like the real thing; it simply had to be as real as the real thing.’5 These explanations sound impressive but are flawed. Very few, if any, of the great masterpieces of Western art use one-point perspective to begin with. The Mona Lisa doesn’t. Great masters have always broken the perspectival rules minor painters abide by because while minor painters traditionally depict the exterior world great masters never have. Picasso, we will see, extended art's traditions; he did not break them.]

This website would not be needed if art lovers thought differently but they almost always think alike: as viewers. Don’t. “I was Picasso”, you ought to say, “What did he/I see?”  The hundreds of paintings analyzed on this site all come down to a view inside the artist’s mind as he or she imagines the conception of the very image we are looking at. They depict the artist's mind at work. Picasso’s earliest paintings done in Paris, as we have already seen, are views of himself as an earlier great artist (normally, Raphael) in deep thought.6[See article] Thus the Blue Period works mostly represent the feminine half of Picasso’s mind waiting, disconsolately and melancholically, for conception. In his next phase, the Rose Period, Picasso again focuses on the social outcast, facing an uncertain future, but now, as acrobats and circus performers, they are a metaphor for the anxiety and high-wire act involved in artistic production. Their poverty and proximity to disaster is representative of the lack of confidence so common in creative thinkers prior to insight. There are risks involved and great leaps of imagination are as likely to end in failure as in canonical achievement. All this is an integral part of the creative process and is perhaps most clearly expressed in Picasso's images of the acrobat balancing on a ball or the young girl who displays the hands of a great master but may fall at any moment. Then, after two distinct phases focussing on the conception of his art, comes Cubism.

Cubism can be explained simply. It is the next stage in the artist's creative process after the long wait for inspiration. Cubism is what the artist sees inside his mind; a Cubist image is a mental image. Picasso knew what artworks in the mind look like. He was not guessing because great creators have access to levels of their mind that we, less sensitive types, are not aware of. We think and can then see the final product in words, music, or art; they can visualize the thought process itself. Mozart said that on completing a long composition he could:

"survey it, like a fine picture or beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once."7

Mozart's comparison of a mental image to a work of art that can be seen from all sides simultaneously must be accurate because Beethoven described his thought in similar terms:

"...In my head, I begin to elaborate the work in its breadth, its narrowness, its height, and its depth, and as I am aware of what I want to do, the underlying idea never deserts me. It rides, it grows up. I hear and see the image in front of me from every angle, as if it had been cast..." [italics added].8

Even the Archives of General Psychiatry in the late twentieth century described a mental image as more abstract than a picture:

‘It has a deep as well as a surface structure, whereas a picture as such is just its own surface structure.’9

Luckily Picasso himself, who once expressed feigned surprise that the mental image of a work and the finished painting do not differ very much, has left us a verbal description of what a mental image looks like and, once again, as in Mozart's and Beethoven's descriptions, it involves multiple viewpoints simultaneously: 

"If we think of an object, let us say a violin, it does not appear before the eye of our mind as we would see it with our bodily eyes. We can, and in fact do, think of its various aspects at the same time. Some of them stand out so clearly that we feel we can touch and handle them; others are somehow blurred. And yet this strange medley of images represents more of the ‘real’ violin than any single snapshot or meticulous painting could ever contain (italics added)."10

A mental image must contain views of an object from multiple angles or we would not, for instance, be able to recognize a friend from behind. Nor is it surprising, within the paradigm of art which we use here, that Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist, recognizes himself when reading the words of certain artists. He has noted that they often sound like neurobiologists of vision. For instance, unlike art critics who erroneously suggest that they see with their eyes, great artists often imply correctly that they see with their cerebral cortex:

"It is for this reason that I hold the somewhat unusual view that artists are in some sense neurobiologists, studying the brain with techniques that are unique to them, but studying unknowingly the brain and its organization nevertheless."11

Cubism then, at least in Picasso's hands, is not a style. Nor was it a thoroughgoing dismantling of perspectival space as Krauss and others argued. It is instead the simple, accurate depiction of a mental image, something ordinary viewers like us had never seen and could therefore not recognize. Unable or perhaps unwilling to look at Picasso's art through Picasso's eyes, art historians have always assumed that Cubism, like prior styles, depicted traditional subjects in new ways when the scenes in question only ever existed in Picasso's mind and on canvas. (For an analysis of the drawing above, see article.)

1. Roland Penrose, “Beauty and the Monster” in Picasso in Retrospect (New York: Harper & Row) 1973, p. 104

2. Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) 1953, p. 5, 362, cited in Meyer Schapiro, The Unity of Picasso’s Art (New York: George Braziller) 2000, p. 52

3. Rosalind Krauss, The Picasso Papers (New York: Farar, Straus & Giroux) 1998, p. 114

4. Siegfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 1967, p. 14, cited in Schapiro, op. cit., p. 51

5. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume 2, 1907-1917 (New York: Random House) 1996, p. 103

6. See Picasso's Harlequin (1901) and Blue Period at 

7. “Mozart: A Letter” in Brewster Ghiselin, The Creative Process (New York: The New American Library) 1952, p.45

8. Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, ed. M. Hamburger (New York: Pantheon Books) 1952, p. 195, cited in Albert Rothenberg, “Homospatial Thinking in Creativity”, Archives of General Psychiatry 33, 1976, p.20

9. Cited in Roger N. Shepard, “The Mental Image”, American Psychologist 33, 1978, p.130

10. Paul Smith, Interpreting Cézanne (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang) 1996, p. 73

11. Semir Zeki, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (Oxford University Press) 1999, pp. 10-11

Reader Comments

Coming from Picasso his statement concerning cubism, and it as a style representing and/or being a composite so to speak of the artists mental milieu of any painting, and his/her concept of how it will look. I understand ( I think ) that For Picasso Cubism as a style was how he saw his work coalescing into a concept in his mind, and then trying to ( in his case I believe successfully ) paint it. I can appreciate this way of viewing art and painting etc., But I just must confess that I could not do it.

03 Jul 2013

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