PRINT April 1971

Cubist Object Treatment: A Perceptual Analysis

It is solely the need for some particular category of elements that causes a variation in the objects or models selected for painting. On the whole the choice falls on those which most clearly and most liberally provide the elements required by the esthetic.
Juan Gris

The object, real or illusory, is doubtless called upon to play a more and more important role. The object is the inner frame of the picture, and marks the limits of its profundity, just as the actual frame marks its external limits.
Guillaume Apollinaire

FROM ITS VERY INCEPTION CUBISM was an objective school of painting. That is, the Cubists used the representation of objects from external reality to assist them in the expression of their artistic and philosophical position. And indeed, throughout their “Cubist phases,” none of the three leaders of the movement, Picasso, Braque and Gris, ever completely banished references to external reality from his paintings, though at times these references did become highly abstract and ambiguous.1 Further, it may be argued that when the minor Cubists, Delaunay, Gleizes and Léger, finally did abandon the object, they were no longer part of the Cubist movement, in spite of their statements to the contrary, but rather were embarking on the investigation of a new problem, the possibilities of completely abstract or non-objective painting. In other words, it is the contention of this paper that Cubism depended very strongly on the retention of a recognizable connection between the Cubist forms and the objects of reality for the attainment of its effects and the communication of its ideas. Furthermore, the specific effects which evolve from the nature of the objects employed by the Cubistsand the system of fragmentation can be at least partially explained by an application of Gestalt perceptual theory.

Object Matter Vs. Subject Matter
Before embarking on a discussion of the classes of objects which the Cubists employed and their significance, it is important to draw the distinction between object matter and subject matter. Object matter is quite literally those things of the world which are represented in a work of art, the chairs, the tables, the human beings, etc. The subject matter, on the other hand, is the idea or constellation of ideas which the artist seeks to communicate through the work of art. A particular work of art may contain several levels of meaning, conscious and unconscious, and all of these together constitute the subject matter of the work. Obviously, the subject matter is communicated through the two prongs of artistic expression: the objects and the composition. Any particular level of subject matter may be conveyed by one or both of these elements. The definition of “the objects” is self-evident. What is meant by composition is all the other tools of the artist’s trade, i.e., texture, color, form distribution, etc. Objects may function on two levels. Either they may act as representations of themselves (the literal level) or they may act as representations of something else (the symbolic level). Obviously they may and frequently do function on both levels simultaneously. In Cubism, as we shall see, objects tend to function on the literal level. The compositional elements in a work of art may likewise function in two ways. They may assist in the identification of objects (sympathetic composition) or they may function as autonomous means of expression (autonomous composition). Composition in Cubism functions in both ways. We may now proceed to an enumeration of the types of objects included in Cubist paintings.

Cubist Object Matter
The main categories of Cubist object matter are:

A. The human figure
1. Female nudes
2. Figures with musical instruments
3. Male types including harlequins and café clientele
4. Portraits

B. Landscapes, cityscapes and marines

C. Still lifes
1. Fruit and bowl
2. Café still lifes, including particularly bottles, glasses, newspapers, and objects of amusement
3. Repasts
4. Musical instruments, particularly clarinets, violins, and guitars
5. Posters and cards
6. Words and letters
7. Objects of the artist’s studio

The human figure is particularly prevalent in Picasso’s early works. As an object, the human form, particularly the female nude, holds for him the status of a traditional type of object matter on which he can build and abstract freely.2 Picasso returns to the human figure periodically throughout the development of analytical Cubism, but this motif becomes secondary after about 1912, not to be revived until his post-Cubist inventions.

The human figure never really became a primary object for Braque. Indeed, Le Grand Nu of 1907-8, Braque’s major figural piece along with Le Portugais, 1911, was, as Edward Fry has shown,3 essentially a reaction to Picasso’s Demoiselles, and not a typical work. Rather, Braque’s chief subject during his formative years was the landscape, a motif which from his Fauvist period probably held the same status of traditional object matter that the female nude did for Picasso. Also, Braque seems to have been the first of the triumvirate (Braque, Picasso, Gris) to take the café still life as a major source. Gris entered into the movement in 1911, when the human figure was on the verge of being abandoned in favor of the still life. Nonetheless, one of his first works was the Portrait of Picasso, a fine, if somewhat simplified, statement of the essential problems. However, he quickly adopted the still life as his chief object matter.

Landscapes, cityscapes, and marines do not constitute a truly major class of paintings for Cubism. Picasso’s examples are limited to the few paintings done during the initial few years of Cubism while he was vacationing at Horta de Ebro or Cadaqués. Braque, too, abandoned the motif after a few years. Gris did only a few paintings of this type, two cityscapes and a landscape. The chief practitioners of this type of object matter were the minor Cubists, who tended to turn their various “scapes” into salon pieces, such as Gleizes’ Threshers, or Delaunay’s City of Paris and Fenêtre series. Léger was really the only Cubist who painted uneclectic and quite handsome cityscapes. But these owed more to his particular interest in the mechanical nature of society than to any investigation of the purely formal problems of Cubist abstraction.

The still life, particularly that denoted as the “café still life,” became, after 1911, the major object matter of Cubism. The constituent elements of the motif, the bottle, the glass, the pipe, the newspaper, and other objects of idleness, are generally arranged in a seemingly casual manner on a round topped table, the type which is still very common in Parisian cafés, or against an indefinite background so that the objects appear to float unsupported on the picture plane itself.

The second most common class of objects included in the Cubist still life is the musical instrument, particularly the guitar, the violin or the clarinet. The guitar has Spanish overtones, but if Le Portugais is meant to be a portrait of a typical café entertainer,4 then a café association may be more significant. The violin is associated with a slightly higher class of music, but it is an instrument, like the guitar, which is very familiar and which has an easily recognizable shape. The clarinet may suggest a connection with the new jazz idiom, but more likely it also was included because of its familiar, easily abstracted form.

The important point to note about those objects is that they all derive from everyday experience, particularly the experience of the artist, but also more generally that of any Frenchman. All of these items are represented in the viewer’s mind by visual constructs which are firmly implanted through repeated contact. Furthermore, these objects are either universal, such as the human figure, or urban. Thus, aside from a very few exceptions, the Cubists chose to represent objects which were familiar to the 20th-century Parisian.

Visual Perception
A great deal of the impact of Cubist painting comes from the setting up and defeating of certain perceptual and psychological expectations.5 Therefore, a brief examination of some of the current thinking regarding the process of object perception and recognition is in order.6

Object recognition7 may be divided into three steps, stimulus absorption, stimulus grouping or organization, and image retrieval. The light from the visual world arrives on the retina as nothing more than a vast montage of variated stimuli. There are no objects in the visual world except as they are created through the organizing processes of the central nervous system. As the first stage in perception the eye notes the differences in the stimulus pattern and translates them into variation in hue and/or value. Without such variations the stimulus field is completely homogeneous and it must be registered as empty. This very fundamental fact impressed itself on Gleizes and Metzinger. In Du Cubisme, they say, “Every inflection of form is accomplished by a modification of color, and every modification of color gives birth to a form.” Once these stimulus differences are detected or absorbed, the individual units are then grouped according to certain similarities or associative factors which have been described by Max Wertheimer.8 These factors are proximity, common fate (particularly for units in motion), similarity of hue, value or shape, objective set and good closure.9 Once the stimuli are grouped according to these factors a figure may be perceived, that is a figure-ground relationship may be established with one shape becoming dominant over the rest. Two of the main characteristics of the figure-ground relationship are: 1) the ground is seen as a homogeneous surface extending behind the figure; and 2) the figure has a shape as defined by the boundary contours between figure and ground. Obviously, the figure-ground differentiation may become ambiguous when either of these characteristics is not achieved. Once the shape of the figure is established, object recognition or “image retrieval” can take place, if the object is a familiar one. That is, by some as yet unknown mental process, the stimulus configuration in its newly organized form is matched with a constellation of previously implanted configurations which embody the concept of the particular type of object and all the spatial and intellectual characteristics which that object implies.10 It is obvious that the primary stimulus configuration need not conform in all respects to the total concept constellation, and that in many instances only a few unique characteristics are sufficient to allow the connection to be made. In the event of an ambiguous stimulus organization certain other factors become important in the process of object identification. These are: Einstellung or set,11 experience, learning and the intrusion of extra-visual clues.

Presumably the more familiar an object is, the easier is its recognition. Leeper has done some experimentation on the role of practice in the recognition of incomplete figures and has found that practice does improve performance.12 Since familiar objects are not always seen in their entirety—for example, part of a table may be hidden behind a chair or under a bowl of fruit — it may be assumed that the average individual has had a great deal of experience in recognizing these objects from bits and pieces in his everyday life, and that the practice phenomenon which Leeper discusses frequently comes into play in organizing the total sensory stimulus once a preliminary recognition has taken place. It also seems reasonable to assume that the more familiar, or commonplace, an object is, the greater the number of possible keys which will trigger the complete image retrieval. Once an object is identified, the mind fills in the remainder of the meaning constellation and it is then possible to perceive what elements are present and/or missing from the expected fully articulated figure. It also follows that the more familiar an object is, the greater will be the figural expectations aroused and the stronger the reaction to their unexplainable absence.13 For example, the concept “man” implies, among other things, a cognizant being with two arms, two legs, a nose and a mouth. Thus, if one were to meet Gogol’s noseless man on the street, sufficient clues would be present for one to quickly recognize him as a man. However, simultaneously due notice would be made of the lack of one important characteristic.

Now in applying this scheme to painting, one could argue that the viewer expects certain liberties to be taken with representation and, hence, is not nearly as sensitive to departures from reality. However, this attitude is really a post-Cubist one. One need only mention the critical reaction to the Fauves or the Cubists to see how unwilling even the educated early 20th-century viewer was to accept deviations from the representational norm.

To summarize the above discussion, placing special emphasis on those aspects which are particularly germane to the effects achieved by the Cubists:

1. Object recognition first involves the grouping of stimuli according to certain factors including similarity, proximity, good closure, learning or experience, and set.

2. Once the stimuli are grouped, a figure-ground relationship is established. The figure is psychologically isolated from its surroundings.

3. Next, key characteristics of the figure trigger the recognition or retrieval process during which the whole constellation of expectations associated with the object is aroused.

4. Finally, the remaining parts of the figure are fitted into place and the fully articulated object is perceived.

Six Esthetic Doctrines Of The Cubists
The chief obstacle to any clear definition of Cubist thought during the movement’s formative years, 1906-1912, is the extreme paucity of material written by the painters themselves during this period. Indeed, the literature seems to be confined to the reported interviews of the American architect Gelett Burgess,14 presumably conducted in 1908 and published in 1910, and the thin volume written by Gleizes and Metzinger in 1911 and published in 1912, entitled Du Cubisme. Aside from these works there are the writings of contemporary Cubist apologists: Salmon, La Jeune Peinture Contemporaine, containing Histoire anecdotique du Cubisme, 1912; Apollinaire’s articles for Soirées de Paris, published under the title of Les Peintres Cubistes, in March of 1913, Raynal’s Qu’ est-ce que . . . le Cubisme?, also from 1913; and Kahnweiler’s Der Weg zum Kubismus, written during the first World War.15

Fortunately, these writings have almost the status of actual statements from the artists themselves, since all accounts of the intellectual interactions between the Cubists and these writers seem to indicate that the writers were intimately involved in the formulation of the philosophy behind the movement. Also, the second phase of Cubist work, i.e., that done after about 1912, reflects the thought of these men as much as their writings reflect the content of the Cubist paintings. However, it is always necessary to maintain a certain degree of skepticism when dealing with a written expression of a visual doctrine, since words cannot always capture the full range of implication of a visual image.

Finally, there is the source of later statements by the Cubist painters themselves, particularly Picasso, Braque and Gris, either about art in general or Cubism in particular. It is natural to doubt the validity of such after-the-fact statements for a discussion of the early goals of Cubist painting since time often radically changes a man’s view of his art. However, in the case of each of these artists I think that an argument can be made for the relevance of their post-Cubist statements. In Picasso’s case his entire oeuvre to the present day, including his Cubist paintings, reveals a certain consistency of approach to the investigation of the function of the object in painting, and the relationship of the painted image to the artist, the viewer and reality. He has never abandoned the object although he has consistently taken extreme liberties with its form and color. Also, he has never ceased to create an image which arouses in the viewer a certain state of visual tension. His women, plants, animals and inanimate objects always jar with the expected, though unquestionably his renderings have become almost reactionary in comparison with the work of the Abstract Expressionist and non-objective painters. But the very “reactionary“ appearance of Picasso’s work suggests a consistent artistic point of view. Therefore, it seems fair to assume that his contemporary statements have at least some bearing on his Cubist period when, in effect, he was formulating his now characteristic artistic attitudes. In Gris’ case, an argument of credibility can be based on the internal consistency of his statements. Throughout his lifetime his highly lucid writings reveal the same basic artistic attitudes time and again.16 And finally, for Braque, taking only his 1928 statements to Raynal, it is the axiomatic tone of his pronouncements and his posture as a craftsman which make it reasonable to assume a certain consistency of attitude over time.17 For a craftsman works according to the rules of the trade, inventing and innovating within a clearly defined framework. Braque’s 1928 statements are a revelation of his own personal system of rules, as well as observations about Cubism, its goals and means. Therefore, they are relevant to this study.

The six Cubist esthetic doctrines,18 then, which can be distilled out of the above enumerated material are:

1. Sensory experience is fugitive and dynamic. That is, it changes continuously with the movement of the spectator or the passage of time.

2. Painting should seek to capture the “absolute” in experience as seen through the artist’s systematic, more sensitive point of view.

3. The final image must exist in a state of visual tension with the viewer. This visual tension may have been seen as a mirror of the conflict between the imposed system and the dynamic character of the visual world.

4. Painting is a medium of communication, not merely a means of visual pleasure; therefore, it must speak to its time and the future, not to the past.

5. Though painting represents an abstraction of the visual world it must still make contact with the world of objective reality; that is, Cubist painting should not banish the object from its canvases. The basic reasoning behind the retention of the object is that if a painting is to communicate something about the formal potential of the world of reality it must make contact with this world. If there is no common ground of contact, there can be no communication. Also, it must impose its content on the viewer and not allow him to adduce whatever object matter he wishes and thereby lessen the paintings’ impact, which would have come from the contradictions. This is why, as was noted above, when certain of the minor Cubists completely abandoned object matter they were simultaneously abandoning Cubism. Their statement became too far removed from objective reality to be a Cubist one.

6. There is no class of objects which must be excluded from painting a priori because of a predetermined canon of suitability. All objects are fit for artistic representation as long as they perform the desired communicative and compositional function.

These six statements briefly summarize the Cubist position on the role of the object in painting, the relationship of the artist to visual reality, and the relationship of the painted canvas to the viewer. We are now prepared to discuss the implications of the above doctrines to the Cubist mode of object treatment, the perceptual effects which result, and the relationship between object choice and perceptual effect.

Object Treatment
If we divide Cubism into its two traditional phases, analytical and synthetic, with the division coming in the winter of 1912-13, we can see certain similarities, as well as differences, between the two treatments of object matter. Let us consider four typical works, one Picasso figure piece from each period, the Portrait of Kahnweijer from 1910 (Fig. 1) and The Cardplayer from 1914 (Fig. 2), and one Braque still life from each period, Le Guéridon from the spring of 1912 (Figs. 4 and 5), and Music, from 1914 (Fig. 3), in order to determine exactly what the characteristics of object treatment are in each.

In the Picasso, individual figures are portrayed with certain identifying features. Kahnweiler has carefully parted hair, fairly realistically rendered eyes, a moustache and a watch chain; the Card-player has a prominent numerical looking nose, long flowing hair and a moustache. Both figures are half length. They are set in cluttered environments. In the Kahnweijer there are a few sketchily defined objects in a highly modeled space. An Oceanic figure hangs on the wall to his right, with a still life on a table below it. To his left stand, perhaps, a basket and easel with a painting. The figure and his surround are broken up into linearly defined rectangles of approximately uniform size and texture. The paint is applied to the canvas in quick, flat brushstrokes. This method of applying paint, as well as the color choice, give analytical Cubism its much discussed iridescent quality. The canvas has the appearance of being encrusted with a very thin layer of similarly colored tesserae.

The Cardplayer is surrounded by the objects of his life—cards, a pipe and a newspaper. The basic units are much larger and the application of paint much flatter. Contour definition is achieved primarily through color change rather than line.

In spite of these differences the two paintings do show several important similarities. First, both works show a range of object treatment. Some motifs are handled very realistically, such as Kahnweiler’s eyes and watch chain or the wall paper pattern in The Cardplayer, while others are highly schematized, such as Kahnweiler’s torso and the Cardplayer’s face. Second, both paintings reveal an essentially geometric mode of abstraction. The scaffolding in the Kahnweiler is based on a much smaller unit than in The Cardplayer, and the geometric motif used is more uniform,19 but both are geometric nonetheless. And third, in neither case is there sufficient grouping force for the establishment of a clear figure-ground relationship. In other words, there is no clear, dominant figure area. The surfaces seem to flip in and out of depth. And, indeed, in both works it is frequently impossible to assign unequivocally a particular motif to either the central figure or his surround.

An examination of the two Braque still lifes reveals the same phenomena. In the earlier Le Guéridon, some clear spatial definition is suggested by the semicircle in the bottom third of the painting, but this is quickly negated by a horizontal line, and the surface of the table is never allowed to resolve itself spatially. In addition, the forms above the horizontal line appear to build straight up the surface of the canvas. However, they do not rest on a firm base since the horizontal line from which they proceed offers no suggestion of planar extension. Furthermore, the forms all appear to exist in the same plane parallel to the picture surface. A similar instability of forms exists in Music. This time it is achieved by having the elements appear to rest on the surface of the canvas without any kind of support. The objects seem as though they should slide off the picture plane and onto the floor. So, it can be seen that in both paintings strong visual tensions are created by the compositions. Also, both paintings exhibit a fundamental geometric form of abstraction, a variety of handling, and ambiguous figural definition.

In addition, there are two more important techniques of object treatment employed by the Cubists. First, as noted above, the only keys to stimulus differentiation are variations in value or hue. The Cubists frequently manipulate these variations in an abnormal way. In the analytical phase there is a tendency towards monochromaticism and a seemingly arbitrary variation of value, or, more exactly, a system of value variation which does not correspond to that which exists in nature. Only very occasionally do value and hue work in concert with linearly defined contours to create realistic motifs, such as Kahnweiler’s eyes, or the scroll of the violin in Le Guéridon. In the synthetic phase color is reintroduced along with greater textural differentiation. However, though local color is used to define large geometric areas, these areas do not always coincide with normal object contours, nor does the variation in hue or texture always follow linear boundaries, for example in the head of the Cardplayer, and the glass and violin body in Music.

The second important technique is the introduction of a new type of symbolism, a formal symbolism. In traditional symbolical systems objects are related to one another by meaning or convention. For example, in Northern Renaissance painting the Virgin is frequently portrayed in a room containing a variety of seemingly casual objects: a lily, a crystal flask of clear water, a pomegranate, etc. To the educated Northern viewer in the 15th and 16th centuries each of these objects would have some specific symbolic connection with the essential nature of the Virgin; the lily represents her virginity, the water in the clear vase her purity, and the pomegranate her divine eternality. This type of symbolism relies chiefly on the intellect of the viewer to decipher its significance.20 No purely visual connection is implied between the various objects and the Virgin. Such a symbolic approach naturally requires that the observer be part of a common religious and educational tradition, and for the 15th and 16th centuries such an assumption was quite a valid one, at least on the level of education at which this type of symbolism functioned.

However, in the 20th century, no such common educational or religious heritage can be assumed except on the level of popular culture. Therefore, the 20th-century painter, particularly the Cubist, had six symbolic approaches open to him. He could descend to the level of common, or popular culture, a path definitely taken by the Cubists. However, the associations attached to these objects of everyday experience were most broad and could carry only the most crude statements about life in their own right. He could use the most basic elements of the old symbolic code, assuming that they would still have the same meaning for the vast majority of viewers. But this is basically a reactionary approach and was contrary to the progressive attitude of the Cubists. He might make his symbols even more abstruse so that his paintings would speak only to a select group of cognoscenti. Such a solution was, however, contrary to the avowed desire of the Cubists to communicate to a broad public. He might adopt the so-called universal symbolism of the Freudians or Jungians. But, presumably, by its very nature, the content of these symbols is locked within the symbol itself, and therefore not open to free variation by the artist. The result of such a symbolic approach is the limitation in mood and content which one detects in Surrealist painting. A fifth alternative was to abandon symbolism entirely. This is essentially what the impressionists did, and the Cubists’ avowed aversion to the Impressionists may have influenced their rejection of this solution. But, more probably, they felt that their message required some form of complication for interest and impact. Therefore, they selected the sixth and final alternative, the adoption of a symbolism which depended solely on the eye and the attention of the viewer, a formal symbolism. They sought to communicate the connections between objects by purely formal means.

The technique of formal parallelism, or punning, is quite old. It was used by artists long before the Cubists adopted it for their own. However, in general, the technique was previously used only for emphasis, and not as the chief means of drawing parallels. The Cubists themselves used the device fairly sparingly at first, and it is not really until the synthetic phase that it became the dominant theme of their work. Le Guéridon betrays a subtle use of the repetition of formal motifs, for example the themes A, first stated in the scroll of the violin, and B (Fig. 4).21 It can be argued quite convincingly that the construction of objects out of small rectangles is a special case of formal symbolism, since connections are automatically created by means of the consistency of the individual constructive units. In contrast, Gris’ still life Breakfast, 1914, (Fig. 7) depends on this device of formal symbolism for a great deal of its visual impact. The relationship between the teapot, glasses, cups, spoons and table legs is strongly asserted through the use of the same circular form to describe each of them. Braque’s repetition of the bass clef in Soda, 1911, (Fig. 8) is another earlier example of the same notion. It is necessary to reemphasize the fundamental distinction between the two types of symbolism: the old symbolism depended on the intellect for its effect, the new relied on the eye. This change in the fundamental means of communication is,22 indeed, what makes Cubism so different from previous painting, akin to Impressionist theory. and very close to “pure painting.” Cubism is first and foremost a style which achieves its primary impact via the vision and the fundamental perceptual expectations of the viewer.

Whereas most painters before Impressionism, except for certain landscape artists, proposed to portray a meaningful event or tableau in their work, the Impressionists broke with this tradition and proposed to reproduce only their sensations. They were willing to sacrifice intellectual significance at the altar of the transience of nature. They sought to act as receptors of light and color, and to translate the froth and delicacy of the insubstantial world of sensation into the soft pastel colors and pebbly textures of their paintings. The Cubists, in reaction to this, turned to the immutable side of nature, the form of objects and their absolute colors. Gris substantiates this:

By way of natural reaction against the fugitive elements employed by the Impressionists, painters felt the need to discover less unstable elements in the objects to be represented. And they chose that category of elements which remains in the mind through the apprehension and is not continually changing. For the momentary effects of light they substituted, for example, what they believed to be the local colors of objects. For the visual appearance of form they substituted what they believed to be the actual quality of this form.23

From this quotation we can see that it is not the fugitive aspects of form which concerned the Cubists, not those aspects which change with the viewer’s perspective, but rather the geometric essence of object form, or the pure geometric equivalent for the more transient and imperfect actual shape (shades of Plato). It is the realization of this goal which gives the Cubist works their realistic and at the same time autonomous appearance. Cubist painting, then, may be viewed as a revelation of the consistency of the formal nature of the visible world. The new symbolism, the extraction of the geometric essence of shape and, in the analytical phase, the uniformity of texture and value, are all devices for impressing the viewer with the formal brotherhood of all natural objects.

This brings us to a discussion of the relationship between the types of objects chosen by the Cubists and their esthetic goals. First, it follows that if the major aim of the Cubist painter is to reveal formal unity throughout the visual world, then any object in that world is fit subject for painting. And indeed, the more common the object the more suitable it is. Since these items of everyday life are normally given the least attention by the average viewer, if their formal essence can be revealed to him, then the greatest possible return in terms of the transference of the revelation to the experiences of everyday life will result. In other words, if the spectator can be made aware of the formal nature of a glass and a bottle, objects he normally ignores, then his entire range of formal acuity will be extended. Second, common objects, that is, objects with which we have had literally hundreds and hundreds of contacts, are the same types of objects which will be most easily recognized even in an abstracted or geometricized form. For with such objects there is a great variety of subtle keys which are sufficiently imprinted perceptually so that if they are retained an at least generic recognition of the object is virtually assured. Two perfect illustrations of this point can be seen in Picasso’s Portrait of Kahnweiler (Fig. 1) and Gris’ Portrait of Picasso (Fig. 6). In the former, Kahnweiler’s presence is a very small number of significant keys, a bit of hair, a moustache, eyelids. Only these are painted in anything truly resembling a realistic style. Yet, these are quite sufficient to make the viewer aware that the main figure of the composition is a man, even though no complete outline is given. On the other hand, the Oceanic figure to Kahnweiler’s right is only visible if specific attention is drawn to it, though approximately the same number of clues to its presence is supplied, hair, a broad nose, a beard and the breast and pelvic lines. In the second painting, the Portrait of Picasso, a similar disparity in ease of recognition exists between the figure of Picasso and his palette. The figure, though broken into various sized geometric facets and merging with the background at the hairline, is clearly visible. The palette, on the other hand, tends to be lost in the figure in spite of the fullness and accuracy of its rendering. In both of these paintings the incomplete but familiar object is easily recognizable while the exotic one remains masked in its abstraction. Then, given the avowed Cubist desire to communicate something about the world and at the same time to retain a taut relationship between the viewer and the image, it follows that if they wish to indulge in abstraction they must work from or towards objects which are familiar. For, if the object is too unique, then the keys necessary for its recognition become too numerous and some of the tension between the object expectations and the presented image is lost. Hence, common objects permit more overall abstraction and a greater disparity between total image and expectation.

The question now arises: what expectations will generally be aroused by the primary recognition of a common object? A constellation of emotive associations may be one of the first things brought to mind. However, in the case of very common objects, unless in a highly specific setting, the varieties of emotive experiences probably will tend to cancel each other out so that the total array of emotive associations will not be strongly directed. But even if it should be, this would not mitigate the second set of expectations which will be conjured up, the spatial and formal ones. These probably will be quite strong, though unconscious, since, for the objects which appear in the Cubist café still lifes, the average spectator has had an enormous amount of tactile and visual experience. These expectations are somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that one is viewing a painting. However, perspective has created an equivalent for the spatial extension of an object and so some conventional representation of realistic extension will probably be anticipated. Therefore; the absence or direct contradiction of these spatial and formal expectations should arouse strong reactions in the viewer, as in fact they did, as witnessed by the furor raised over the first public exhibitions of the Cubists. Furthermore, the greater the degree of radicalism of handling, the more distressing the result, so long as primary recognition can take place.

This difference in degree of abstraction and its effect is nicely illustrated by a comparison of the Portrait of Picasso (Fig. 6) and the Portrait of Kahnweiler (Fig. 1). In both paintings there is a reductionist approach, but in the latter there is a much greater degree of figural loss and hence a greater complexity. The Portrait of Picasso seems to be a much calmer painting visually, since all of its compositional elements can ultimately be rationalized into either figure or ground. In the Kahnweijer, on the other hand, there is an extreme figural ambiguity and a very real visual effort is required to resolve the conflict between image and expectation. If we examine The Cardplayer (Fig. 2), a parallel effect can be observed. This time it is produced by the flattening of the forms and the refusal of the clearly defined shapes to conform to the normal extension and shape of the human form. The same effects may be observed in Le Guéridon and Music. The tension is not as great in Soda because most of the motifs do not appear to have an objective antecedent.

The Cubists, then, were most successful in their stated esthetic aims when they dealt with objects of everyday life and when they retained sufficient indications of the object’s identity, to permit the viewer to recognize it. At its most successful the Cubist approach functioned as perhaps one of the most complete statements of the formal brotherhood of the objects of the visual world. They reduced objects to their essential forms and then related these forms to each other to reveal the universal geometric scaffolding underlying the common visual experiences of urban man. That the oeuvre of the Cubists did not (and still doe: not) appeal to a broad spectrum of the population does not refute the contention that these artists wished to speak to a large audience, for, as has been shown above, their aim was to unsettle and awaken, not to delight. Furthermore, their system of abstraction was bound to evoke visual tension because of the fundamental perceptual conflicts inherent in their method of object representation. What was revolutionary and anticipatory in Cubism, then, was not only the liberties which these artists took with the objects they portrayed, but also the fact that the chief impact of their art derived from the subconscious perceptual processes of the viewer. In this they anticipated the work of subsequent 20th-century movements and the advent of a purely perceptual approach to art now devoid of object matter.

Charles M. Rosenberg



1. It may be argued that during the hermetic phase of 1910-11, both Picasso and Braque did, for a short time, abandon such references. However, close scrutiny of their works from this period reveals that though the relationship between the forms in the paintings and the objects of reality is very densely veiled, connections still do exist.

2. Ackerman, in Art and Archeology, (Princeton, 1963), observes that in order for an artist to progress he must work from a basis of tradition, i.e., accept some elements from his artistic environment in order to eclipse others. It seems that for Picasso the human figure functions as one of the main traditional elements which permits him to exercise his formal creativity. In fact, four of his avowed masterpieces have human object matter: La Vie, Demoiselles, Three Musicians, and Guernica. The only painting which represents a significant turning point for Picasso and which is not a figure piece is the Table Top with Chair Caning, 1912. However, at this point in his career Picasso had so immersed himself in the café still life that this collection of objects had probably temporarily taken the place of the human figure as his “traditional object matter.”

3. E. Fry, “Cubism 1907-8: An Early Eye-witness Account,” Art Bulletin, XLVIII (March, 1966), pp. 70-3.

4. Though the painting is supposed to represent a particular singer, it may still be seen as representative of a wider class of café entertainers.

5. By this I do not mean to imply that the Cubists were investigating perception or psychology from a scientific viewpoint, but rather that these effects do exist in their paintings and are therefore worthy of examination.

6. A great deal of this thinking has evolved out of a seminar which I took at Swarthmore College with Hans Wallach. Any errors in the explanation are mine, and not Dr. Wallach’s.

7. An excellent discussion of the process of recognition is to be found in Dr. Wallach’s article, “Some Considerations . . .,” Journal of Personality, 1949. And more recently, in Rudolph Arnheim’s “Perceptual Abstraction and Art,” in Toward a Psychology of Art, Berkeley, 1966, pp. 27-50.

8. Max Wertheimer, “Law of Organization of Perceptual Forms,” in Willis D. Ellis (ed.), A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, pp. 71-88.

9. This final factor is especially interesting because it seems to reveal some built in preference for contour completion, for the resolution of a perceptual conflict. Good closure means, for example, that stimuli will tend to be grouped in order to form a complete curve if such a configuration is possible rather than a series of discontinuous lines.

10. See Rudolph Arnheim, op. cit., and Rudolph Arnheim, Visual Thinking, Berkeley, 1968.

11. i.e., preconceptions of what should be represented.

12. Robert Leeper, “Development of Sensory Organization,” Pedagogical Seminary, 46 (1935), pp. 41f.

13. i.e., exclusions which could not be explained by other considerations, such as superimposition or orientation, etc.

14. The Burgess article, “The Wild Men of Paris,” appears in Architectural Record, 1910, pp. 400–14. The attention of the scholarly world was recently directed to this article by Edward Fry’s article “Cubism 1907-8: An Early Eye-witness Account,” Art Bulletin, XLVIII (March, 1966), pp. 70-3.

15. This list derives from the first chapter of Golding’s Cubism, A History and Analysis, London, 1959.

16. These attitudes even appear in his letters, documents which presumably represent less guarded thought processes, i.e., forums, in which an artist might be more inclined to deviate from a publicly adopted position.

17. Braque, in Raynal, Modern French Painters, New York, 1928, p. 52, “I like the rule, the discipline, which controls and corrects emotion.”

18. For a more extensive study of these doctrines cf. Christopher Gray, Cubist Esthetic Theories, Baltimore, 1963.

19. i.e., the units of construction are almost all variations or the rectangle in the Kahnweiler, while The Cardplayer units are based on curves and irregular geometric shapes.

20. Though in Freudian terms a sort of metaphorical connection may exist in the connection of the crystal vase with the Virgin, as female. Such associations may, in fact, have been the unconscious source for this connection and similarly may have been subconsciously aroused in the viewer. However, the communication of the primary symbolic and doctrinal idea in the connection does depend on the intellect.

21. Though, admittedly, in this example spatial and geometric qualities are compositionally more important.

22. I say “fundamental means of communication” because form has almost universally been used as a means of reinforcing intellectual content. The change is that form now becomes virtually synonymous with content, and not merely a device.

23. D. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and His Work, New York, 1947, pp. 144–5.