The conventional wisdom about the ‘meaning’ of Analytical Cubism is that it’s an attempt to depict subjects from ‘multiple points of view’. You hear this all the time as received wisdom, from artists, students, teachers, critics and casual art enthusiasts. I don’t think so.
If Cubism is about the perception/depiction of space or an idea as pedestrian as ‘multiple points of view’, why is there not a single attempt at a 360 degree depiction – of anything? Analytical Cubism, as complicated as it may superficially appear, is stubbornly frontal. Why doesn’t Picasso ever talk about Cubism as an exploration of space? He never says a word about it. [Not that the words of artists matter that much. I care a lot more about what the work says than what the artist says.] Braque did once say that early Cubism was “the quest for space”, but that’s pretty vague. I’ll just say it: of the two of them, Picasso is the main driver of Cubism and – with a few exceptions – the better painter.
[An aside: How do you recognize a Pissaro in a room of Impressionists? By elimination. “Well it’s not a Morisot, not a Manet, not a Monet, it must be … ” The same is true of Braque. Sue me.]
There’s a reason why, as driven as Picasso is, there’s never any rigorous or methodical attempt to explore ‘space’. It’s that Cubism was never about ‘space’. Cubism is about the depiction of time, or more precisely, the experience of time.
There is a painting, often included in the Cubist canon, that really doesn’t belong there – it stands completely apart. Nude Descending A Staircase, by Duchamp, depicts a woman walking down a flight of stairs, very much like stop action photography would show it. It is carelessly labeled ‘Cubism’ without any appreciation for what it really is – a brilliant act of criticism and insight. Duchamp, one of the sharpest critics to ever wear the hat of an ‘artist’, is pointing out precisely what ‘Cubism’ really is, in its own language.
Cubism is the painting of time itself – the time it takes to make a painting, the changes in the subject over time or between sittings, in the painter and very importantly, the time it takes to read a painting. Being about time, it’s also about memory and the way memory functions. Many great Cubist paintings are like contained time loops which continuously bring a viewer back around to the beginning, like looped animations, or the nickelodeon loops popular at the time these paintings were made. Others may have noticed that when painted on rectangular supports, the corners of the pictures often fade into nothing – the meat of the painting is in an oval in the center. Picasso, particularly, came to paint many on oval supports or to draw Cubist compositions in ovals. I think there’s a connection between the circularity of the composition and the time loop it represents.
By necessity, Cubism is also about code – the radical abstraction and simplification of form needed to play with time. And that shared code, by extension, makes it a perfect vehicle for private jokes. Picasso does talk about that. He and his friends could read those paintings and get the jokes while those outside their group took the ‘signs’ to be purely formal. I don’t think this aspect can be stressed enough: Cubism is a game, played among friends.
Picasso is the Snorlax* in the road, as he said himself (in other words). To paint in any serious way you have to confront him. There’s no way around it. I could – and do – make the argument that most of painting since he died is less evidence of achievement than evidence of attempts to find a way around his body. But you can’t. And he’s not always great: the portrait of Vollard at the top of this page is staggering, but Ma Jolie, at the bottom, is pretty thin and mannered – practically a Klee (sorry, Paul). That doesn’t matter. It’s like Cezanne – no, he can’t paint a good nude with a gun to his head, but you have to face him where he’s best – and fail. That goes without saying.