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Pablo Picasso and the new language of Cubism

Pablo Picasso, The Guitarist, 1910, oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm (Centre Pompidou, Paris). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    Picasso was inventing a new language of depiction. That I fail to understand it is not Picasso's "fault", but my own. Were I to invent a new "language" using my own created words in an order that I devised to express ideas, and was consistent in my grammar and attachment of meanings to the words I created, then another's failure to understand me would be similar to my failure to understand Picasso, right?
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Video transcript

- [Beth] We're in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, looking at a painting by Pablo Picasso called The Guitarist, from 1910. - [Steven] This is what is often referred to as analytic cubism. - [Beth] Analytic in the idea of taking something apart, analyzing the parts of something. And you can see that does look like a jigsaw puzzle. Where the forms have been disassembled. - [Steven] It's an abstraction. - [Beth] The further we stand back from the painting the more I can see the forms of a man. A head, shoulders, elbows, the fingerboard of the guitar, the rounded forms of the outside of the guitar. - [Steven] But I don't think that Picasso meant this to be a puzzle that we're supposed to put back together. Although Picasso is best known for abstracted paintings such as this, it's important to remember that Picasso was something of a child prodigy, he could draw in the academic style beautifully. For the previous four or five hundred years, Western art had been preoccupied with naturalism, with representing the natural world as carefully and exactly as possible. - [Beth] Representing the world as it appears to our eyes. - [Steven] An artist developed a toolkit to do this, this included linear perspective. - [Beth] Using light and shadow to create the illusion of three-dimensional form. - [Steven] The problem that Picasso faced, is that the modern world was one that felt ruptured. Old systems no longer felt valid. - [Beth] The early twentieth century is a time of tremendous upheaval. There is sense that vision itself is unreliable. - [Steven] Picasso was grappling specifically with the issue that painting was a kind of illusion, a representation of three-dimensional form and space on a two-dimensional surface. - [Beth] A system of representation. - [Steven] So could Picasso invent a new language for representation? But one that was not hiding the two-dimensionality of the canvas, but rather putting that in the forefront. So let's look closely at this painting and see if we can understand how Picasso has done this here. Picasso has simplified the human form. - [Beth] We see diagonals, horizontals, vertical lines, in black. We see circles that intersect. - [Steven] But it's so abstracted that if we oriented it as if it were a landscape, we might expect to see the rooftops of a village instead of a man holding a guitar. - [Beth] The fundamentals of perspective that governed Western painting for so long, supposed a single viewer fixed in front of a work of art, and showed us that view. - [Steven] And Cezanne in the nineteenth century had developed those ideas. Cezanne said, "Instead of standing in one place, looking from one point in space and time, I actually move around the thing that I'm painting." - [Beth] Even if you don't move around it, what if you slightly turn your head to the right or to the left? The reality is that one's view is constantly changing and shifting. - [Steven] And Picasso takes that idea and runs with it, what would happen if you represented this man holding a guitar, over time, from multiple perspectives? - [Beth] That's a different kind of truth than the kind of truth that Western painting had given us for 500 years. - [Steven] So this is not less true, it's just differently true. - [Beth] Picasso has also emptied the painting of much of its color. - [Steven] And much of its content, we don't see hands, we don't see a face, we don't see emotion. The things that generally draw us into a painting of a person. What Picasso is interested in instead, is the structural logic of the language that he's inventing. And he's inventing it not by himself, but with his compatriot, Georges Braque. - [Beth] And we still do have some illusion of space, there is a shallow relief here, we have light and shade, we have the movement between those pale tones and darker shadows. So there is a suggestion of a form there, this is not entirely flat. But it certainly is reminding us of the flatness of the canvas that this is painted on. - [Steven] And as you said he's reducing color so that we focus on mind, on form, on mass, on structure. The color's reduced to some browns, and whites, and blacks, and perhaps some pale greens. - [Beth] So we have light and shade that suggest three-dimensional form, and we have overlapping of shapes that also suggests depth. - [Steven] But not deep space. This is a shallow space, maybe a few inches, just enough for the fractured forms that are represented. It's as if Picasso has taken a series of views of the human body and reconstructed them on the two-dimensional plane. - [Beth] I find a tension between the title The Guitarist and the painting itself. - [Steven] Without the title as a prompt, you'd be hard-pressed to locate the man or the guitar. This is a painting that is about the way that painting itself works. Picasso here is on the edge of abstraction, but this is not pure abstraction. It is not entirely divorced from the world that we see. Throughout his entire career, Picasso remained interested in the tension between what we see and the way in which we depict it.