PRINT September 1989


CUBISM IS WIDELY REGARDED as the most innovative, most influential art style of the 20th century. “Perhaps the most important and certainly the most complete and radical artistic revolution since the Renaissance,”1 in John Golding’s words, it is in fact seen as more than a style: the “moment of Cubism,” as John Berger called it, is often associated with a basic attitudinal change in Western culture, implying a renewal of human as well as artistic possibility. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the early dealer in Cubist art, believed that during “those crucial seven years from 1907 to 1914” when Picasso and Braque developed Cubism, “a new epoch was being born, in which men (all mankind in fact) were undergoing a transformation more radical than any other known within historical times.”2 This transformation was supposedly experienced as a positive sense that the world could be and would be changed for the better. As Clement Greenberg wrote of Cubism, “one of the greatest of all moments in painting arrived on the crest of a mood of ’materialistic’ optimism . . . a mood of secular optimism.”3 Indeed, “the generation of the avant-garde that came of age after 1900 was the first to accept the modern, industrializing world with enthusiasm.”4

Similarly, Berger asserts that Cubism represents a happy revolutionary interlude between the old suffering of the previous centuries—“the suffering of hopelessness and defeat”—and the “new kind of suffering” that was born after World War I, “an inverted suffering” that “has persisted . . . until the present day,” a counterproductive—counterrevolutionary—suffering in which “men fought with themselves about the meaning of events, identity, hope. This was the negative possibility implicit in the new relation of the self to the world. The life they experienced became a chaos within them. They became lost within themselves.”5 Coming in the middle of this shift from objective to subjective suffering, Cubism supposedly escaped both, offering a beacon of unequivocal identity and hope in the modern world.

My own sense of Cubism is that it was in fact far more ambivalent about modernity than this body of criticism suggests. It’s true that the originators of the style were apparently enthusiastic about the new age: when Picasso called Braque “mon cher Vilbure,” for example, referring to the aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright, and used the slogan “Notre avenir est dans l’air” (Our future is in the air) in some of his 1912 paintings,6 he seemed to be embracing modernity in the form of the airplane, and wittily attaching Cubism to the then equally novel, equally promising mechanical flight. But there is a cruel, aggressive note of disharmony in Picasso’s allusion (a matter of course in most of his work, which he once described as a sum of destructions). Wright had just died; did Picasso wish Braque dead, or intend to knock him off artistically? Presumably this ambivalent remark did not disturb the two artists’ fraternal intimacy, their mutual dependence and shared adventure as, in Braque’s words, “two mountaineers roped together,”7 yet it is certainly suggestive of competition and conflict as well as of collaboration. More important, Picasso’s quip signals the anxiety as well as the elation at the heart of Cubism, and in his relationship with Braque. It suggests the hypochondriacal artmaking that Cubism was.

There is a chaos within Cubism, and this art does express the “inverted suffering” of the modern world. In both its stern, tense, melancholy Analytic phase and its more self-accepting, if far from upbeat, Synthetic phase, Cubism articulates the “negative possibility” of modernity. It is a mistake to regard True Cubism (Douglas Cooper’s term for the seminal Cubism of Picasso and Braque) as welcoming and assimilative of the modern world, unresistant to it. It is also a mistake to regard Cubism as essentially an intellectualizing art (as has been customary almost from the start of its creation, through the association of Cubist space with four-dimensionality, and in subsequent interpretations). If Cubism is intellectualizing, it is so in the psychoanalytic sense, as an attempt to use abstract thought to prevent the emergence and acknowledgment of emotions, inner conflicts, and fantasies—in effect to repress, even deny them. But a careful look at Cubist work shows that they do break through—are vehemently visible. Cubism is in effect a kind of expressionism.

The key to Cubism is the recognition that it dissolves traditional representation. This accomplishment has been widely acknowledged, and Cubism has been much congratulated for it, as though to dissolve traditional representation were in and of itself enough to be modern—that is, to accept the modern understanding that there is no one dominant sense of reality, and thus no one ultimately convincing mode of representation. Yet True Cubism does not simply dissolve traditional representation; indeed, although it may transform representation, it never quite gives it up. Instead, Cubism carries to an extreme the modern attack on the idealization of the body (and of the world it inhabits). This attack effectively began with the realism of Courbet; in a sense, Cubism is a reductio ad absurdum of the “cult of ugliness,” to use the term applied to Courbet—an extreme form of that painter’s realist refusal of beauty and harmony in favor of an unideal bodiliness. If modern realism is a recognition of the materiality of social and generally human reality, Cubism offers us a more ugly, more antiidealistic vision of reality than Courbet did—shows it to have a kind of depth ugliness, we might say. Indeed, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, so crucial to the development of Cubism, was initially experienced by many artists of the period as more “pointlessly” ugly—a ridiculing hoax in its ugliness—than anything they had previously seen.

Cubism’s shift from traditional, idealizing representation to modern, uglifying representation is in effect a shift from a conceptual, conscious, secondary-process articulation of reality to a nonrational, primary-process one. This art is a kind of deliberate disrupting, a near overcoming, of secondary-process pictorial thinking to get at the primary processes that are fundamental to picture-making. This makes it a kind of regression in the service of the ego of art. If expressionism can be defined as an art in which primary-process thinking tends to dominate secondary-process thinking, then the distance between the expressionist and the Cubist mentalities dwindles, even if expressionist and Cubist works are quite different on the stylistic surface. In fact, True Cubism makes explicit—but with a special twist—the project implicit in Fauvism: the articulation of bodiliness as such, or, more precisely, the representation of what Freud called the body ego, the first ego, the ego, as Phyllis Greenacre has said, that is the basis for all further constructions of identity.8 In Fauvism the body ego is already less than ideal; as though in compensation, it becomes intensely vital. But in Cubism this reinforced vitality is lost. A dramatic change has occurred: the body—all bodies, the very bodiliness of the world—is shown in the process of disintegration.

Berger is no doubt correct to assert that Cubism is inseparable from the early-century feeling that the world was “on the eve of revolution”9 and that Cubism was revolution’s “prophecy, but prophecy as the basis of a transformation that had actually begun.”10 However, Berger misidentifies Cubism’s revolutionary awareness: the superficially positive transformation he perceives was actually profoundly negative. Material reality and society were no doubt being reconceived, but so was the self, which was coming to be experienced as radically conflicted and precarious. It no longer seemed to have a hard indivisible core. By necessity of his Marxist and scientific materialism, Berger overstates the social-revolutionary dimension of Cubism, and the influence of technology on it. (At the most, the new technology gave Braque and Picasso the courage to change, or else to rationalize their innovations; their would-be social revolutionariness is no more than quasi-anarchistic disaffection with bourgeois existence and style.) In Cubism we find not only the sense of freshness that comes with the new realization of nature and society, but the articulation of the new suffering.

While there are elements of the old sense of helplessness at the hands of the world in Cubism, this art is essentially about the new suffering at one’s own hands. Analytic Cubism—especially in the climactic, “negative Apollonian” portraits of 1911–12—symbolically presents the modern sense of the divided self; Synthetic Cubism, coming later, can be understood as articulating that division in a spirit of what Nietzsche called Dionysian pessimism, that is, as playful habituation to what is eternally recurrent. Analytic Cubism shows the body ego perpetually defeating itself, caught in a kind of Sisyphean quandary in which its every attempt at self-unification leads to further self-splitting; in Synthetic Cubism we have an attempt at self-healing: the acceptance of the inevitability of self-divisiveness, but at the same time the attempt to make a pseudo-harmony out of it. If the seamless integration of opposites within the self is unattainable under modern suffering, then at least one can try to juggle opposites into the illusion of integration. Where Analytic Cubism’s repeated attempts at integrity end in failure by generating fresh disintegrations, in Synthetic Cubism there is not only a resignation to disintegration as a fait accompli, but also an effort to create the nominal integration of a judicious juxtaposition (not resolution) of opposites. Where an Analytic Cubist picture has a bitter, caustic aspect, a Synthetic Cubist picture is a species of dry, momentary wit, a formal shell with no kernel.

Cubism’s negation of cohesive representation reflects the fact that the self is necessarily divided against itself in the modern world. Modernity initially seemed overloaded with possibilities, potentially offering to open up nature and society completely. There could be no representational closure in such a world; where everything is possible, anything is possible, and none of the old organizing structures can be expected to cohere. Neither self nor world can be intelligibly imaged any longer, and they are instead hallucinated, in a kind of disintegrative fury.

Heinz Kohut has argued that “the environment, which used to be experienced as threateningly close, is now [in the modern world] experienced more and more as threateningly distant.”11 One of the “psychotropic social factors,” as Kohut calls them,12 responsible for this modern sense of distance is modern industry, which duplicates and usurps the human gesture to the point where one feels depersonalized, even disembodied. In Cubism we are midway between the organic and the robotic—witness to the destruction of the body, but not yet arriving at its reconstruction as a kind of machine. Greenberg thinks that Cubism enthusiastically embraced industrialization, but the art’s apparently positive response to industry and to the modernity it signals is superficial and preliminary—a blind response to novelty. The deeper reaction is the anxious discovery of the sense of distance that modern machinery creates, and the experiencing of this distance as threatening, annihilative.

A feeling of depersonalization and disembodiment—mistaken as intellectualization—appears in Cubism from the start. It is evident in the representation of rounded bodies by flat planes, of flexible, organic, intimate shapes by relatively rigid, geometrical, inorganic ones. These depictions annihilate the closed, personal, lived body. The body is not completely destroyed in Cubism, however; it survives as a field of fragments, sometimes eroticized, sometimes thanatopic. That is, the body endures as an eccentric balance of regressions, an inconclusive play of life-and-death forces, their balance always on the verge of being lost. In this sense, Cubist art is hypochondriacal, as John Gedo defines the term: “Hypochondriasis [is] a very early form of hallucinatory wish fulfillment . . . in which the recall of previous somatic experiences is used as a coping device when the individual is facing a threat. Because the typical danger situation at the dawn of self-awareness is the loss of the sense of self, hypochondriasis is most likely to be resorted to when the self-organization is on the verge of disintegration.”13 Cubism’s hypochondriacal anxiety about the health of the body of the picture reflects an anxiety about the emotional health of the human body in a changing world. In other words, the Cubist picture shows madness—regression—in process: loss of control of representation, and finally of the power to represent—to integrate.

The near-representationless state achieved in Analytic Cubism is stabilized as a state of illusory representation in Synthetic Cubism, where regressive splitting becomes simply another picture-making code. Standardizing, or institutionalizing, or stylizing the abandonment of representation, Synthetic Cubism achieves a kind of mastery. It in effect regulates divisiveness and ambiguity rather than futilely attempting to overcome them. But the nature of the mastery confirms the trauma of the splitting. As Picasso said, comparing Cubist paintings to the first airplanes, “If one plane wasn’t enough to get the thing off the ground, they added another and tied the whole thing together with bits of string and wood, very much as we were doing.”14 The cure is part of the problem; it confirms the representation’s precariousness.

Cubist pictures are always being described as fragmented, discontinuous surfaces and spaces, fetishizing ambiguity. Thus Robert Rosenblum notes that already within the “apparently rudimentary vocabulary” of such an early Cubist work as Braque’s Houses at L’Estaque, 1908, “there are the most sophisticated and disconcerting complexities.” To Rosenblum, the painting builds a contradictory structure involving simultaneous “planar simplifications [to] suggest the most primary of solid geometries” and “contrary light sources that strongly shadow and illumine these planes [to] permit, at the same time, unexpected variations in the spatial organization. Suddenly a convex passage becomes concave, or the sharply defined terminal plane of a house slides into an adjacent plane to produce a denial of illusionistic depth.”15 The important words here are “at the same time” and “suddenly.” Simultaneity and spontaneity—the spontaneous generation of and oscillation between opposites—suggest the sense of a perpetually changing, unfixed pictorial structure.

Rosenblum notes that Picasso’s Cubist pictures have greater “vigor and energy . . . excitement and unpredictability . . . concreteness and particularity of objects” than Braque’s,16 but he also observes that “the impulse of fragmentation of surfaces” is equally strong in both. “The very core of matter seems finally to be disclosed as a delicately open structure of interlocking arcs and angles.”17 That can hardly be called a “core” in the traditional sense of the term. Despite “occasional ventures into the recording of specific sites” (indicating the token retention of a representational intention without substantial representational substance), both artists move away from “a literal description of reality” toward a fantasy of inner matter in motion. They create the first truly modern art: an art of discontinuity and rupture, an art in which representation fails at its task of rendering the seeming wholeness and stability of things. The fragmentation and spatial incoherence characteristic of the Cubist representation of reality is the visualization of what Freud called “expectant dread,” or “anxious expectation.” What is expected? The self-disintegration of which the anxiety is itself the harbinger. As Freud notes, the derivation of the word “anxiety”—from the Latin angustiae, a narrow place or strait—reflects the characteristic tightening of the body in the face of a threat. The tight, concentrated structure of Analytic Cubist art, I believe, reflects the anxious tightening of the self against the threat of its disintegration.

Under the pressure of anxiety—a danger signal from the ego—the ego constricts. If the danger is intense and persistent enough, the ego collapses into helplessness, into an unfocused, ill-formed, all-too-fluid group of fragments. Barely readable as ego, it is visible only the way the mythical figure designated by a constellation of stars is visible. Indeed, just as the picking out of a particular group of stars as a constellation is a more or less arbitrary act considering the sea of stars, so the picking out of certain features as an ego becomes arbitrary. (We needn’t even speak of giving the identity so “determined” a name or character.) This is why the key Cubist works are the portraits and, secondarily, the still lifes. In losing its constancy, the object loses its self-identity; in losing its self-identity, the figure collapses into a “set” of parts.

While Analytic Cubism is usually understood as evolving from primitivism—from Picasso’s and his colleagues’ now-notorious interest in tribal objects—it has also been seen as a challenge thrown down to the premier old master portrait painter, Rembrandt (who also haunts and is mocked by later Picasso).18 Where primitivism aimed at a certain stark, harsh effect—a confrontational, transgressive, crude immediacy, as in Les Demoiselles—Analytic Cubism involves a return to a subtle nuancing of surface and space, to chiaroscuro and to finicky, often tactile detail—the gist, as it were, of painterly expressivity. Yet a key difference remains between Rembrandt and the Analytic Cubists. Rembrandt’s portraits invite us to intimacy with the subject; those of Picasso and Braque forbid such closeness. They retain the impersonality of the primitivist figure—its distanced, uninviting character. (Again, Les Demoiselles is characteristic.) There is no way of achieving emotional intimacy with such forbidding and distant personages. One might say that expressivity exists for the sake of empathy, but in Analytic Cubist portraits fellow-feeling is eschewed: expressivity is alienating anxiety. The tight pictorial structure, with its dense matrix of splits, seems to invite one into the picture but in fact is a screen or veil shutting one out. Humanness goes incognito in Analytic Cubist portraits; indeed, Picasso’s portraits are his first true monsters. Humanness becomes the unknown at the end of a pictorial labyrinth.

Rosenblum has argued that Analytic Cubism is more dependent on “the data of perception,” “on a scrutiny of the external world,” than Synthetic Cubism, although he is quick to point out that in the latter the “presumed independence of nature is more often of degree than of kind.”19 Analytic Cubism may observe the world closely, but only in order to shatter it; Synthetic Cubism is more reconstructive—more “arbitrary and imaginative,” “subjective and symbolic” (very much as Post-Impressionism was in comparison to Impressionism). Synthetic Cubism, I would argue, completes what Analytic Cubism began, namely the movement away from objective to subjective representation. The two together realize Baudelaire’s idea of the action of imagination, which “decomposes all creation,” like Analytic Cubism, and then, “with the raw materials accumulated and disposed in accordance with rules whose origins one cannot find save in the furthest depths of the soul, it creates a new world,”20 which is what Synthetic Cubism can be said to do. What is new is the sense of the inescapability of disintegration, the pervasiveness of anxiety, now made pictorial law. Where Symbolism used the objective to articulate the subjective, Cubism is freshly and explicitly subjective, if with a certain cabalistic flair.

Gedo writes, “The most profound regression in the function of human communication leads to the expression of a specific message by means of an affectomotor act alone. . . . The convulsions mimicking both epilepsy and sexual intercourse that may occur in the syndrome of hysteria are the most notorious examples of such use of ‘body language.’”21 Each fragment of a Cubist picture functions as an “affectomotor” act—an act reflecting the fundamental simultaneity of body and psyche—and the body language of the Cubist picture as a whole is convulsive. This is the beginning of the convulsiveness that André Breton said was the only beauty—that modern beauty which had been in the making since the perceptual convulsiveness of the landscape series painted by Monet and Cézanne (their compulsive repetitions are a kind of preliminary convulsiveness) and the conceptual convulsiveness of Seurat’s Divisionism. It is the convulsiveness that reaches a premature crescendo in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1911, intensifies in Futurism, makes an appearance in aerodynamic Suprematism, becomes a kind of emotional violence in Surrealism, and reaches its apotheosis and stylization in Jackson Pollock’s allover paintings, which are pure affectomotor acts—the essence of bodiless.22 Because there is no ideal that can stand as the core of the modern self, the self seems to be in perpetual desperate action. It looks stunningly vibrant, but in fact it is shaking itself to pieces. The Cubist picture is the first truly regressive communication from the disintegrating self. Its morbid message—and True Cubism is tangibly morbid—is the impossibility of coherent organization in a world of change that is as emotionally discomfiting as it is physically exhilarating.

All this makes Cubism the archetype of 20th-century creativity. Edgar Levenson describes creativity as “a binary process. That is to say, the keynote of creativity is the ability to hold incompatible ideas simultaneously, without resolution.”23 Cubism’s pictorial ambiguity—of surface, space, scale—establishes irresolvability. It is not maintained for long: even in Picasso, after World War I, Cubism becomes a kind of Method acting, as in Three Musicians, 1921. The nihilistic obscurity of True Cubism—its frustrating, elated withdrawal from the world of objects—is worth all the later “clarification” of Cubism, which is beside the emotional point. True Cubism is a blow against the narcissistic smugness of art, the realm in which incompatible elements—both narrative and formal—are “ideally” reconciled to afford a fictional emotional security.

True Cubism involves the difficult acceptance of, in Freud’s words, “contrasting—or, better, ambivalent—states of feeling, which in adults would lead to conflicts, [but] can be tolerated alongside one another in the child for a long time, just as later on they dwell together permanently in the unconscious.”24 In a sense, True Cubism is a regression from traditional adult to modern childlike or unconscious representation. Unexpectedly, it can be conceived as the major realization of the 20th-century ideal of childlike art. (Primitivism is one of the instruments of this ideal.) Such work involves the desublimation of well-organized secondary-process imagery into the primary-process affectomotor visual acts that are the expressive basis of every significant art. They give it its evocative, hallucinatory impact, its connotative power. Freud held that primary process involves the tendency to discharge while secondary process involves the tendency to defer; in True Cubism we witness the transition from the traditional representational art of deferred action to the modern abstract art of action discharged. The transition articulates a hypochondriacal response to the modern world of change. The self-splitting that we see in True Cubism—the tightening of the object until it fragments, loses self-identity—is in a sense the subjective correlative of objective change, announcing the internal need to adapt to a metamorphic, conflicted external reality.

W.R. Bion, according to André Green, thought that the fundamental dilemma the psyche faces is “either flight from frustration by evacuation, or tolerance of it by elaborating it through thought. He said of the psychotic that he carries out projective identification with interstellar speed.”25 In the True Cubism of Picasso and Braque, the frustration generated by modern change is elaborated in visual thought. No flight from frustration seems possible, since change is everywhere, constituent of the modern world. And that frustration has a disintegrative effect—clearly at the danger level, as Cubist division suggests. (It is also a manic mask, hiding the danger.) Picasso and Braque projectively identify with and split objects with interstellar speed, preventing their frustration from making them altogether psychotic—from splitting their selves completely apart. Yet Cubist pictures show a strong psychotic tendency. Courbet’s realism has become psychotic realism. True Cubism is its most masterful, refined, archetypal version.

Donald Kuspit’s next book, Styles of Art Fame, will be published by UMI Press in 1990. He is a regular contributor to Artforum.



1. John Golding, Cubism: A History and an Analysis 1907–1914, Boston: Boston Book & Art Shop, 1968, p. 15.
2. Daniel-Henry Kahweiler, quoted in John Berger, The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays, New York: Pantheon, 1969, p. 5.
3. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1965, p. 97.
4. Ibid.
5. Berger, p. 13.
6. Sec Douglas Cooper, The Cubist Epoch, London: Phaidon Press, 1970, p. 59.
7. Georges Braque, quoted in ibid., p. 42.
8. Phyllis Greenacre, “Early Physical Determinants in the Development of the Sense of Identity,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 6, 1958, pp. 612–27.
9. Berger, p. 10.
10. Ibid., p. 9.
11. Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, New York: International Universities Press, 1977, p. 271.
12. Ibid., p. 270.
13. John E. Gedo, The Mind in Disorder: Psychoanalytic Models of Pathology, Hillsdale, N.J.: The Analytic Press, 1988, p. 91.
14. Quoted in Cooper, p. 59.
15. Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art, New York: Harry
N. Abrams, 1961, p. 34.
16. Ibid., p. 38.
17. Ibid., p. 60.
18. In “From Michelangelo to Picasso” (1912), Apollinaire compares the “sublime and inysterious” light in Picasso’s Analytic Cubist works of the period with that of Rembrandt (Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews 1902–1918, New York: Viking Press, Documents of 20th-Century Art, 1972, p. 196). Similarly, in 1913, he notes with approval an exhibition of Picasso’s and Braque’s works next to Rembrandt’s in an Amsterdam museum (p. 284). In general, Picasso’s interest in Rembrandt reflects his preference for Northern manner, as evidenced in his assertion that he would “give the whole of Italian painting for Vermeer of Delft, who simply said what he had to say” (quoted in Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views, New York: Viking Press, Documents of 20th-Century Art, 1972, p. 167). Picasso also admired the Le Nains, whose “awkwardnesses are almost proofs of authenticity” (p. 166). Analytic Cubism can be understood as a suin of awkwardnesses, refined into a whole in Synthetic Cubism. This confirms T.W. Adorno’s principle that modern dissonance is quickly read as consonance, even by its own advocates. In general, Analytic Cubism can be understood as a kind of maniera tedesca in rebellion against the seductive charms of Mediterranean art. In Cubism, Picasso was not the Mediterranean artist he was before and after it.
19. Rosenblum, pp. 70–71.
20. Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” in The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Anchor Books, 1956, pp. 234–35.
21. Gedo, p. 95.
22. The bodily point of Picasso’s art is made explicit by Berger in Success and Failure of Picasso, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 169. Guernica, 1937, is described as “a profoundly subjective work,” making its effect through “what has happened to the bodies.” Picasso offers “the imaginative equivalent of what happened to them in sensation in the flesh. We are made to feel their pain with our eyes. And pain is the protest of the body.” The subjective, anxious body that Guernica brings to stylized fruition was first articulated, with amazing candor, in Cubism.
23. Edgar Levenson, “Real Frogs in Imaginary Gardens: Facts and Fantasies in Psychoanalysis,” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 8 no. 4, 1988, p. 564.
24. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Standard Edition vol. 16, p. 332.
25. André Green, On Private Madness, Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, 1986, p. 15.

An exhibition of Cubist art, “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism,” opens at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on September 24, and remains there until January 16, 1990.