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Painstaking revolution in space and time

"Cubism was a work of patience, and a very complicated work, too. It requires thousands of workers to accomplish a thing like that," Picasso is quoted as saying, and Picasso, generally speaking, cannot be described as a patientm artist. There is therefore some truth in the claim made by several writers, that the kind of picture-making he invented and explored (along with Braque) between 1907 and 1914 -- to which the nickname "Cubism" has been permanently attached -- was contrary to his natural tendencies. His predominant traits were facility, spontaneity, ease, and a quick, unquestioning translation of ideas into paintings (or structure). In short, Picasso was an impatient artist.

The last thing you'd expect an artist of this kind to do was study Cezanne, a painter who had developed slowly into everything Picasso wasn't: a dogged, attentive observer, a man who struggled endlessly with the small problems and frustrations of painting the "motif," who wore out his models with demands that they sit motionless for hours and hours as if they were jugs or carafes or bowls of fruit. Nor was there anything anecdotal about Cezanne's later works -- and they evinced little or no "poetry": whereas Picasso's pre-Cubist paintings were full of sentiment and mood and storytelling.

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In 1907 a kind of rebellious violence took his art by storm when he produced the famous "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," throwing to the winds a host of conventions to which he had, until then, subscribed largely without query. The painting was primitive, angular, disturbed by strange awkwardnesses. It was born of stylistic conflicts and uncertainties, and caused outrage and bewilderment that took years to change to admiration. As painting it abandoned a single "Renaissance" viewpoint. It abandoned the proportions of classical figure painting. It abandoned academic modeling. It abandoned Western traditions. And it was unfinished.

Historically, the experiments and developments of "Cubism" look like the aftermath of this blast, but in many ways Cubism follows a quite different path. By comparison it is a rather steady (in 20th-century terms) and considerate venture. "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" was audacious, and although Picasso prepared for it with many drawings and studies, its actual painting was determined and fast. Cubism, however unconventional, was nevertheless rooted in caution -- in concentration and analysis -- because it was rooted in Cezanne. However complex, its aim was consistency, not conflict.

"Carafe, jug, and fruit bowl," painted during a return home to Spain in the summer of 1909, shows the one painter deliberately trying to see through the eyes of the other. "One doesn't pay enough attention," Picasso once told his friend Sabartes. "If Cezanne is Cezanne, it's precisely because of that: when he is before a tree he looks attentively at what he has before his eyes; he looks at if fixedly, like a hunter lining up the animal he wants to kill." Cezanne was painstakingly careful, and Picasso's Cubism is likewise attentive -- to the extent that it was possible for this energetic prodigy. He stares at its subjects -- portraits, landscapes, still life -- taking the eye round the forms, trying to include on the canvas their complete three-dimensionality, turning painting into an ambiguously faceted sculpture as though the world was made of cut glass. Structure becomes everything, and everything becomes part of one kind of structure, the structure of the painting itself. In the landscapes, even the sky takes on something of the rectilinear buildup of the mountain, or of the mountain-of-houses, below it: no part of the painting is a vacuum, a mere space without. Objects are not separated from one another; the fruit and the bowl and the tablecloth and the table, the pattern on the wall and the wall itself, are inextricably connected. Scale becomes difficult. A still life, a village, a mountain, all climb with intricate boldness up the canvas, their spaces becoming solids, their solids spaces.

Picasso was patient. He even had a model walk out on him because he was taking so long to complete his picture of her: it remained incomplete. Her patience had collapsed before his, for he had become (temporarily, as it turned out) a painter who was dependent on the "motif." Cubism is not abstract. Picasso was being specific, actually observing particularities, in a way that he had not needed before. Out of the complex of small interlocking planes of which his 1909 and 1910 portraits are composed emerge the perfectly recognizable features of Vollard, Uhde, or Kahnweiler -- or of the rather baroque carafe in the picture reproduced here.

This picture could never have been painted without Cezanne's example, and without Cezanne's exhaustive "researches." It is quite obviously not a primary idea, but what it takes rather literally from Cezanne is already heading in another direction. For Picasso it evidently had the excitement of discovery. It has the strengths and weaknesses of a freshly grasped style: it is dynamic but somehow lacks full comprehension. It looks at the "what" of Cezanne, rather than the "why." Cezanne's art is all experience, every particle of it. Thus Picasso has the advantages and drawbacks of inexperience.

Cubism has, perhaps, in the end, a quite different kind of uncertainty from Cezanne's: the uncertainty of an artist caught in the turmoil of a rapidly changing vision. Cezanne's persistence was bent toward the consolidation of perceptions: Cubism toward their fracturing and subsequent reconstruction in completely new terms. Cubism grasped an evolutionary idea and turned it, with extraordinary determination, into a revolutionary one.

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