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Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, oil and oilcloth on canvas framed with rope, 29 x 37 cm (Musée Picasso, Paris), speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Dr. Steven Zucker] We're in the Musée Picasso, in Paris, and we're looking at a little oval painting by Pablo Picasso called 'Still Life with Chair Caning'. This dates to 1912. Chair caning is the woven material that rattan seats are made of. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Interestingly, this is not actual chair caning. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] This is collage. Picasso has introduced this printed, industrial material. That's a kind of outrageous act. It had been done also by George Braqué, Picasso's collaborator in Cubism. Introducing mechanically reproduced imagery into a painting is a violation of so much of what painting had been about. We revere good painting because of its virtuosity. - [Dr. Beth Harris] It's undermining his very vocation as a painter. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] The illusionistic creation of depth, it had been so much a part of painting since the Renaissance is here emphatically two-dimensional because we're aware of this oil cloth. - [Dr. Beth Harris] I also noticed the letters 'J-O-U', writing on something, you know, you write on paper, that also is a very flat surface. But here, Picasso's doing something much more complicated. He's so clearly telling us that he's playing with space and with illusionism. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] There's no question that lettering is on a surface and so writing on a canvas destroys the illusion of depth. That's an idea that had been introduced also by Braqué, originally, but here, it has a double meaning. Look at the off-kilter rectangle. You can read that as a bundled newspaper. And the word in French for newspaper is 'journal' or 'daily'. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Like 'The Daily Post'. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Or 'The Wall Street Journal'. - [Dr. Beth Harris] But it could also, since we're in Paris, be part of the word 'jouer' which means to play, which is exactly what I was saying Picasso is doing with space. And in any case, those letters have become independent of any printed matter, any magazine or newspaper that they were part of and rides ambiguously on the surface of the painting. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] And what we're looking at is a depiction by Picasso of the stem of a pipe. You can see clearly a white pipe, perhaps one made of clay. You can see the white of the stem, you can see the bowl. The bowl doesn't seem to connect to the stem. There is a bit of disassembly here. Actually, in all of the forms that we see depicted within this canvas. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Meaning a kind of taking apart, and you just referred to the taking apart of the pipe. And so, I'm looking for other still-life elements because after all, that's the title of this painting, 'Still Life in Chair Caning', so what might be on a Parisienne tabletop, a glass of wine perhaps? - [Dr. Steven Zucker] And we see a piece of stemware with the bowl at the top, with a stem and with a round base. The problem is, is that Picasso seems to be, and this is central to understanding what Braqué and Picasso were trying to do with Cubism. This glass seems to be seen from a variety of different angles, different perspectives, or points of view. So, for instance, it looks as if we're looking down at the base, but perhaps across at the stem, and then the bowl of the glass is completely fragmented. - [Dr. Beth Harris] For hundreds of years, since the Renaissance, the idea of depicting something from one vantage point, at one moment of time, that was the standard. That's what paintings were. And so this is a revolutionary thing to do, and calls into question not only hundreds of years of illusionism, but also how we see, how we experience the world. Who says we should experience it from one place, at one time. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Well, we don't. We see through time, and we see through space. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Exactly, so that Renaissance idea is a construction. It's not reality. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Picasso and Braqué are not inventing this. Cézanne had begun to explore this idea in the late 19th century. He's quite famous for his still lives. One of the reasons Picasso was returning to the still life. And what Cézanne did is place and apple on a table and look at it from in front, but then perhaps he would lean forward and look down at the apple ever so slightly, and he would allow for that disjunction to exist simultaneously. Picasso and Braqué pushed that further, and begin to say, "How can I explore the full visual experience of the forms on what is here, actually a cafe table. - [Dr. Beth Harris] With a rope as a frame, the way that we perhaps might see something holding in place the edges of a tablecloth at a cafe. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] And also poking a little bit of fun at the ornate frames with which paintings are often exhibited. - [Dr. Beth Harris] If you walk through The Louvre, you see all sorts of ornate gold frames, and so this idea of including industrial, pre-fabricated, not custom-made materials. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Although, in this case, the rope was custom-made by a rope maker so that it would fit this oval canvas. On the right, you can see the handle on the blade of a knife and a bit of citrus. Maybe a lemon, maybe a lime ... Below that, the scalloping of a napkin. And so all of these elements are things that you might see on a glass cafe table, and then to fit it all together, the chair caning that gives the painting its title, perhaps that's a chair that's been tucked under the table that we're looking down at. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Again, thinking about 'jouer', playing with the idea of the painting as a window through which we view reality, this is an idea that's so central to western painting since the Renaissance. The painting is so real that we mistake it for a view out the window. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] But here Picasso is placing both shadow and reflection on that glass tabletop. We can see diagonal brush strokes, for instance, off the bottom of the wine glass. - [Dr. Beth Harris] The great irony, it seems to me here though, is that pre-fabricated chair caning that he's purchased and cut out and glued to the surface of this canvas does a better job at providing an illusion than the paint does. Which is what painting has been supposed to have been doing for hundreds of years, but now, a manufacturing process can do it better. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] And it makes clear that the art is in the poetry, in the intellectual pursuit, in the investigation, in the analytic disassembly of what we see in the philosophical investigation, rather than in the craftsmanship. But the irony is that Picasso is also a brilliant craftsman. - [Dr. Beth Harris] But this idea of devaluing craft and elevating philosophical ideas, elevating the conceptual, is something that is so important for the rest of 20th century painting. (lively piano music)