Essay: Cubism

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
  • Reading time: 16 minutes
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  • Published on: July 20, 2019
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Encompassing the twentieth century pictorial revolution and the parallel revolution in literature is modernism: a name that remains, despite it referring to an epoch fast receding into the cultural past. Modernism itself describes a cultural upheaval concerned with the relationship between artistic forms and the growing influence of scientific discovery; sexuality, aesthetics and linguistics. In essence, the boundaries that existed between creative forms were no longer so distinct: all became a way to comprehend the breakdown of structure and the possibility for artistic revival. Modernists sought to “find an aesthetic order or historic pattern to substitute for the crumbling certainties of the past.”

Cubism, arguably the seminal art movement of the last century, initiated a visual revolution through its radical approach to image making, employing some of the most important features of modernism in Europe and America: temporal and spatial disorientation, visual abstraction and obfuscation, avant-gardist rejection of past values, and breakdown of class hierarchies. The term ‘Cubism,’ notoriously misleading, refers to the ambiguous geometric and spatial relations between shapes in cubist paintings: their fractured depictions of reality. It is generally agreed that the movement was the creation of two artists, those being Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) and Georges Braque (1882 – 1963), who explored the world according to consciousness, paradoxically both vilifying and celebrating modernity in the same image.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, published in May 1925, follows a day in the parallel lives of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren. The former is a high-society woman and the latter a World War 1 veteran. The novel upholds even today its status as a pioneer experimental work that goes far beyond its façade of the trivial daily activities of the population. Although seemingly linked only by the dates in which they were created, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Cubism are inextricably tied together. Their similarities transcend themes and infiltrate the physical components and style of the individual pieces. Indeed it can be argued that what Woolf achieved, was a literary manifestation of the art movement: a novel that epitomised all aspects of Cubism in. As David Bradshaw said of Woolf, “she is invigorated by the sound of disintegration all around her, stimulated by the possibility of artistic revival…pleading for tolerance and imagination in the face of almost unprecedented cultural upheaval.”


Describing the cubist artist, critic R.H Wilenski states that eventually:

“he (the artist) has in mind a series of symbolic fragments which he fits together like a jigsaw puzzle to create a single symbol for his general perception of formal relations which is the subject of his picture.”

There exists a debate about the placement of Cubism in the generic classes of artwork: realism vs. abstraction. In 1912, at the height of the hermetic phase of cubism, André Salmon stated that painter Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet was the chief inspiration of the group. The movement, he argued, existed as an expression of Courbet’s realism. This, in turn, refers to Courbet’s own work: work that, rather than dealing with the perfection of form and line, explored the fractured irregularities and fluid nature of life through heavy paint use and figurative compositions. This realism was not the same ‘realism’ as claimed by the Impressionists – who focussed on evoking ephemeral senses – but rather depended on form. What occupied the minds of these artists was how to depict their new reality. It appeared no longer sufficient to create a visually accurate likeness of an object or muse. Picasso’s “Portrait of Ambroise Vollard” (see Fig.1) is an example of the 1910 – 1912 Analytical Cubism. The image’s colour scheme allows for the focus to remain with the form and structure: the overlapping planes and the diffusing shapes grow in size as the eye moves from the centre of the painting outwards.

Analytical Cubist paintings are virtually monochromatic, painted in muted brown, warm grey and ochre for the planes or facets. This reduced colour scheme was ideally suited to an intricate multiple-layered abstract picture, where a degree of deciphering was required. Such an austere colour scheme avoided any suggestion of mood and emotion, and left the composition devoid of naturalistic and other symbolic or narrative associations, to allow the viewer to focus on the structural aspect of the painting. An enhanced realism comes from the way they depict a more broken and distorted world, a world far closer to ‘reality’ than image perfection. Here is a depiction of the self that is intangible and indescribable. Not simply does the painting show a man, but also the unstable relationships between artist and model, viewer and painting, self and world. In a post-war environment, what was far more real was to create an artwork that depicted, through style and medium, the chaos and complexity of the everyday, and the heterogeneity of human existence.

To Woolf, it seemed that:

“prose [was] going to take over…some of the duties which were once discharged by poetry. That cannibal, the novel…will be written in prose but in prose which has many of the characteristics of poetry…the exaltation of poetry, but much of the ordinariness of prose.”

To her, the conventional sentence was “too loose, too heavy, too pompous” and therefore in challenging traditional styles of writing, she too (like the Cubists) would modernise conventional realism.

“What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air…

For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? Over twenty, –one feels even in the midst of the traffic or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes…

For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh;…In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loves; life; London; this moment of June”

Woolf represents Clarissa’s thought as associative connections that move rapidly. The swirl of images and the staccato style of sentences speckled with colons, demonstrates the mind’s gathering of impressions. What she has created, is stream of consciousness; as argued by Reuben Bower, she “moves from one narrative plane to another via image and metaphor,” using poetic and rhythmic turns of phrase, that drive the passages along with evocative prose-poetry. To Woolf, prose dealt with the common and could not express the raw emotion of poetry. Her style was created to express the lyrical heights of subjective emotional expression but also to be as flexible as prose. It “[takes] the mould of that queer conglomeration of incongruous things – the modern mind.” Essentially her labyrinthine prose physically demonstrates the schizophrenic quality of the brain, jumping between ideas, merging fact and emotion, and demonstrating the vibrancy of life through style as much as substance. She aimed to “record the atoms as they fall on the mind”, creating moods and emotions that were constantly in flux. Cubism’s reality was based on the emotions it evoked rather than the physical precision of the line; Mrs Dalloway’s reality was based on consciousness, operating on numerous levels rather than the precise depiction of a scene, person or event.


Artists have adopted the use of light and shadow –chiaroscuro – across the centuries to suggest volume. Cubism challenged this. Braque’s depiction of space and form is a clear contradiction to ‘orderly’ and ‘rational’ space and form, where objects are clear. He constructs an image of objects from multiple perspectives whose resulting spatial relationships are disorientating. Take Braque’s “Violin and Palette” (See Fig 2): one side of the violin is rounded and the other cubic; the table is not viewed in perspectival recession but rather is seen in parallel (receding vertically rather than horizontally); myriad details of light and shape cross and contradict each other. Instead of the classic spatial model, cubists turned to the ‘fourth dimension’ and ‘non-Euclidean geometry,’ declaring their freedom to transform space in response to their own subjectivity. Apollinaire referenced Nietzsche in his May 1912 claim that the Cubist’s role was to “modify the illusions of the public in accordance with his own creation.” This overthrow of traditional perspective was an overthrow of the vanishing-point perspective and Euclidean geometry style – a revolution known as ‘simultaneity.’ It is worth explaining the basis of Non-Euclidean geometry. This refuted one of the postulates that underlay Euclid’s three-dimensional geometry: the ‘parallel postulate.’ This stated that two parallel lines will never converge but will extend to infinity (see Fig 3). Non-Euclidean Geometry undermined this using the curvature of spherical space, to show that form is far more malleable than how it was previously defined (see Fig 4). For Cubists, this idea was adopted in the form of the fourth dimension: as movement in depth by the simultaneous presentation of multiple aspects of something. Their response came in the form of a rejection of traditional perspective in favour of ‘multiple views’ that expressed the painter’s visual understanding of the object but also their understanding of time and space. The ‘three dimensions of Euclid’ were abandoned in favour of a far more distorted reality in which something could be viewed from all angles at once. This is no better evidenced than in Metzinger’s Le Goûter of 1911 (see Fig 5). In this image, the female figure is merged with her environment, seen in both profile and three quarter view. The suspension between two moments – those being between eating and putting the spoon into the food, but also between the movements and perspectives – shows certain fluidity and ‘tactile space.’ It is this ‘tactile space’ that is highly significant in Cubism.

However, ‘tactile space’ refers as much to time as it does to physical space. Bergson claimed that the human experience of time was radically different from measurable, deterministic time. The idea of time is one that has always been critical to both literature and art. Indeed, the symbolist poet Tancrède de Visan believed that ‘free verse’ (very similar to Woolf’s narrative style) was a literary counterpart to Bergsonian ‘la durée’ and that the rhythmical cadence of poetry was a depiction of time in one’s own mind. In art, this concept of human consciousness and time is shown through form. By subsuming pictorial space into the temporal flow of consciousness, the artist is rendering the viewer vulnerable to the limits of time and space. There appear to be two types of time within these art works: scientific time (which is depicted in traditional perspective) and artistic non-quantifiable time that is represented with multiple viewpoints and perspectives.

The same concept of “tactile space” cannot be applied precisely to Mrs Dalloway in terms of aesthetics. However, it is true that perspective is experienced in the same way through free indirect discourse, the way of representing speech or thought by combining the narrative voice with the voice of the protagonists. It is a blend of direct and indirect speech where words, thoughts, feelings and emotions are evoked by a paratactic style that dips in and out of the mind of the narrator and protagonists.

And as she began to go with Miss Pym from jar to jar, choosing, nonsense, nonsense, she said to herself, more and more gently, as if this beauty, this scent, this colour, and Miss Pym liking her, trusting her, were a wave which she let flow over her and surmount that hatred, that monster, surmount it all; and it lifted her up and up when – oh! A pistol shot in the street outside!

In the above passage, the reader doesn’t know where they stand. The style conflates two deictic systems anchored simultaneously in the character’s present and the narrator’s past, combining third person viewpoints with the emotions and expressivity of the character. The text cannot be ascribed to either the narrator or Clarissa; it exists as a combination of perspectives that blur the boundaries of characterization. Our orientation dissipates, and all that remains is the hazy ephemera of perspective. The comparisons between this and the geometrical perspectives within cubist works are clear. Both pieces aim to evoke an emotion rather than provide a single reality. They symbolize a break from traditional understandings of space and surroundings, creating an incomprehensible and all encompassing world that infiltrates our own mind: whether than be through narrative voice or through vision.

Just as cubism experiments with the rigid mathematical idea of time and the more fluid consciousness, Woolf splits time into two clear parts. Indeed she goes to great lengths to highlight, as academic Whitworth states, “the distinction between psychological time and clock time”. Big Ben’s proclamation of the passing hours serves as a reminder of scientific, external time: the irrevocable nature of every second and the impending death at the climax of the tale.

“There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.  The leaden circles dissolved in the air”

Yet, what is more interesting perhaps is the depiction of internal time. Within Woolf’s narration, the reader is able to delve into the thoughts and memories of the protagonists: whether these be Clarissa’s memories of Sally, or Septimus’s recollection of his meeting with Rezia. Time, in these moments, is not limited to the present, but is able to dilate and expand. Woolf illustrates the ability for a single external moment to trigger an infinite amount of internal time. As Clarissa says, the mysterious car sends everyone in range into fits of speculation:

“Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China could register the vibration; yet in its fullness rather formidable…for the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound”

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