Essay: Cubism

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  • Cubism
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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”

In this Woolf appears to be suggesting that nothing is ever trapped in a single moment, but rather it can influence an infinite stream of links and memories: a ‘mobile reality’ according to metaphysics. Every moment in time is changed by the memory of the moment before. Fixed concepts cannot exist. Thus, just as for Bergson, time and perspective combine into an all-encompassing emotion, for Woolf, reality flows and constricts but is never restricted to a photographic stillness.


The dichotomy that exists between the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ has always been a hugely important feature of art. In the 1900s, ‘Feminine’ mass culture was pitted against ‘masculine’ high art; male artists and poets received far more renown and recognition than their female counterparts. Within Cubism, these oppositional viewpoints were both endorsed and countered but, in both cases, formed one of the foundations of the art movement.

‘Fine art’ as opposed to ‘decoration’ has defined the gender theory behind Cubist works. Gleizes and Metzinger (the writers of the Cubist manifesto: Du Cubisme) explicitly reject the ‘decorative’ integration of an artwork with its surroundings. Art should be an independent “organism” with its own “raison d’être.” An artists decorative integration of a piece with its environment was thus a sign of artistic ‘impotence’ suggestive of a passive and feminized domestic space antithetical to the Cubists’ own ‘virile’ aestheticism and masculinity. Ultimately, the modernist celebration of aesthetic autonomy was part of a gendered dispute that placed masculine high art against the feminine lower art and ‘mass’ culture. Yet this clearly anti feminist theory was directly challenged with André Mare’s Maison Cubiste at the Salon d’Automne in 1912 (see Fig 6). The house was made up of three rooms designed and decorated with both female and male cubist artists: Roger de La Fresnaye designed the woodwork, fireplace and chandelier with simplified classically geometric forms; Jean-Louis Gampert designed the wallpaper, Sabine Desvallières the fire screen etc. Although it should be noted that men alone created all of the art pieces on the walls, the very inclusion of these into a decorative, domestic interior confused the gendered divisions that the writers of Du Cubism had attempted to enforce. As Art Historian Nancy Troy notes:

“the independent organism was embedded in a simulated bourgeois environment designed, like the department store display, to arouse desire on the part of the consuming audience so the masculine force of the tableau de chavelet [easel painting] was overwhelmed by the feminizing associations of decoration and the decorative arts.”

Paintings themselves quickly followed suit. Braque began to introduce ‘decorative’ techniques into his work: artificial wood grain that he would create by brushing combs through the paint; letters and numbers; commercial papers and eventually decorative wallpaper glued to the canvas. The use of such techniques and materials acted simultaneously to introduce the ‘decorative’ into cubist art itself, incontrovertibly challenging the ‘masculine’ space of earlier works.

The movement’s focus on gender also ties to the depiction of gender roles. Bergson’s work on the élan vital was, in Cubist theory, intrinsically linked to female reproduction. Female creative capacities were therefore synonymous with those in nature, biological reproduction being her primary creative role. Women, in this theory, are placed within the realm of the ‘animal’ – a position that stops them from being able to, like men, transcend such a simplistic life and create cultural artefacts. There existed a female-as-nature/male-as-culture dichotomy. In Cubism, the élan vital is obvious in images of the female nude, shown cradling a child – the organic product of her own fecundity. Although perhaps in theory this concept reduced women to a single function, the effect of it became representative of a celebration of the importance of women. These women were depicted as almost reinvented Venuses, holding a power rooted in their fertility and their sexuality.

Central to Woolf’s radicalism is a much more forceful challenge to the depiction of female sexuality. Within the novel, Clarissa Dalloway’s meditation on what it feels like to ‘fall in love with a woman’ is the most famous of examples of this:

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination, a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew, the hard softened

Here we can clearly recognise the symbolic equivalence for female genitalia (the match and cross), her emphasis on sexual ecstasy and her often highly poetic (and indirect) depictions of romance. Expected (as a middle class Victorian woman) to remain sexually ignorant, Woolf pushes the limits of art by using it to expose the deplorable effects of sexual repression. Her mission is to push for a female sexual awakening. Indeed Clarissa’s “diamond…infinitely precious, wrapped up” is, once the reader understands the transparent lesbian content, unmistakably sexual. Woolf uses Clarissa to open up a dialogue with her readers about sexuality – a dialogue that forces them to confront their own.

Looking round upon the world of human beings as we know it, we are hard put to it to say what is the natural shape of men or women, so old, so all-enveloping are the moulds fitted by history and custom over their personalities. We do not know how much of sensitiveness, intuition, doility and tenderness may not be naturally ‘male’, how much of curiosity, aggression, audacity and combativeness may not be ‘female’.

Here, the critic Holtby supports Woolf’s argument that culture and history distort the presentation of the sexes: twisted patriarchy essentially being used to enforce the subservience of the female sex in order to reaffirm the ‘superiority’ of men. In Mrs Dalloway, there is the voice “of someone resenting the treatment of her sex and pleading for its rights.” The woman, someone who Woolf notes as being linked to other down-trodden and afflicted types of human being such as “a working man, a negro, or one who for some other reason is conscious of disability,” is encouraged to fight their constant repression and to embrace their own sexuality and sense of self. The writing not only portrays women who vocally and physically exude power and sexuality, but it also challenges gender conventions through style. The English language to Woolf was one that confined thought patterns and was developed by, and for the use of, men. Through her unique technique she expands and encourages the woman writer to pave her own way in a male dominated world. To “no longer [plead] and [protest] as she writes” but stand in support of her gender.


“A shift in the scale – the war, the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages – has shaken the fabric from top to bottom, alienated us from the past and made us perhaps too vividly conscious of the present” (Woolf). The impact of the First World War, a war of attrition that resulted in human slaughter on a historically unprecedented scale, was seismic. As British soldier Edward Blunden remarked, “by the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won and would go on winning.” In France, the social elite responded to the events of the conflict through their culture. Indeed Bergson quickly turned the War into a spiritual battle between despotism (Germany) and freedom (France), his views being shared by historian Félix Sartiaux who stated (in Morale kantienne et morale humaine: Kantian Ethics and Human Ethics”) that one of the “most subtle traits of the German character is its hypocrisy.” The Cubists were not exempt from the cataclysmic storm of events that transformed the Parisian cultural landscape. The vast majority of painters, with the exception of Gris and Picasso, volunteered or were conscripted and, as the war evolved, Cubism played a role in the politics of anti-war resistance. War, it seemed, would break down the ideals of ‘la vie unanime’ where a collective fraternity would destroy class divides and prejudices. Masereel’s Cubist–inspired frontispiece for Arcos’ “La Sang des Autres” captures this essence in its entirety, depicting a swarm of dying combatants, a broken city and sinking ships.

Gleizes celebrates these Unanimist ideals in his 1917 painting titles In Port (see Fig. 7). The artwork was completed before the US’s entrance into the war and symbolises the role of neutral America and Spain in promoting international trade and cultural communication. The blue sea, characterised by scallop waves, surrounds the port that, in turn, is seen from multiple perspectives. The port itself includes the tension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge and aspects of the Barcelona Port he painted in previous works, reminding the viewer that international cooperation and prosperity could still remain despite the horrors of total war.

Although many critics assert that France’s cultural revolution in the early 1900s had the greatest impact on Cubist works, it cannot be denied that artists on the front line used these experiences in their artwork. As a result, Cubism was often response to the more imminent threats – those of the War itself. Its style seemed to encompass, through aesthetic dissonance and contrast, the extreme violence of the conflict. The fragmented style that broke up objects and distorted the usual line of sight appeared to convey the shattered landscape on the front line and the disjointed relationships between people. The hard geometric lines, in addition, became a reference to the growing industrialisation and mechanisation of the military force. The paintings are a powerful depiction of the loss of order and the unrestrained chaos that encompassed the lives of both the soldiers and the civilians. The First World War’s destruction revealed the pernicious potential of technology that was ironically originally intended to better the quality of living and extend lifetimes.

Woolf wrote amidst the “smashing and crashing…the sound of breaking and falling, crashing and destruction”. It was an “age of fragments” in which, as she noted, “all human relations ha[d] shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children.” Mrs Dalloway focuses on the impact of the war on society, set very precisely on a single day in June 1923. The historical references throughout – those being to the politics of the time – are used, according to critic Alex Zwerdling, to “suggest that class under examination in the novel is living on borrowed time.” Peter Walsh’s “public spirited, British Empire, tariff-reform, governing class spirit” are being directly challenged. The old establishment and its oppressive values are coming to an end; the disorder and chaos of the narrative voice parallels a broken and disordered Empire that faces its imminent demise.

Where painting used a chaotic, broken structure to demonstrate the breakdown of society, Woolf used another metaphor in depicting a similar disintegration. Traditional English society within the novel is characterised by waves: waves that “flood [Clarissa’s] room.” It is a tide that pulls the characters under; Lady Bradshaw is described as having “gone under,” her will becoming “waterlogged” and Septimus (shortly before his suicide) views the light as a “watery gold,” his hand on the sofa as if floating in seawater. This is a society that is dragging the characters into the depths. The water is a constant reminder that the great symbols of pre-war stability are decaying. That said, Clarissa herself is “lolloping on the waves.” She appears to be the single character that is able to remain strong against the changing currents of society.

In terms of the fragmentation of Cubism, Woolf uses a similar technique. Septimus himself is a war veteran, a man who is “lost within his own mind” and is irrevocably damaged by shell shock. He exists as a direct contrast to the opulence of the upper class, highlighting the materialism and hypocritical superiority that exists in post-war Britain. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay describes how traditional narratives restructure the survivor’s fragmented consciousness:

“Severe trauma explodes the cohesion of consciousness. When a survivor creates [a] fully realized narrative that brings together the shattered knowledge of what happened, the emotions that were aroused by the meanings of the events, and the bodily sensations that the physical events created, the survivor pieces back together the fragmentation of consciousness that trauma has caused”

Septimus’s ‘prenarrative’, (a narrative that does not have the cohesion or progression of a traditional narrative) is one that seeks to depict the madness and depression that envelops him as a result of the war. Woolf creates a fragmentation of consciousness that occurs in the aftermath of trauma; her characters are unable to write in a sequentially arranged, communicable narrative. These are narratives that infiltrate the reader’s own mind. Septimus’ agitation becomes our own; his tumultuous mental state seeps into our own consciousness until we too are pulled under water, unable to resist the pull of a society in ruins.


Virginia Woolf wrote in a way that aimed to capture perceptions, examining the tension between a labyrinthine interior mind uncontained by the boundaries of place and an exterior world that, in the aftermath of the First World War, existed as a hollowed out shell of its former glory. Cubist artists had a similar goal but used a different medium. Their works examined this relationship through form and space, challenging the traditional rules of perspective to depict a world whose complexity could no longer be portrayed by old-fashioned imperatives. What dominated the intellectual and cultural sphere in the early twentieth century was this desire to challenge: to confront convention, to question one’s understanding of time, space and gender. In both Cubist art and Mrs Dalloway lies an appreciation of the importance of the everyday, in all its incomprehensibility. The ties that bind these two art forms together are striking. Through their understanding of consciousness, reality, gender or war, they uncover new ways of making sense of a schizophrenic exterior. Their aims are the same and their goals are almost identical. As Woolf writes:

“with all these voices crying and conflicting in his ears, how can the artist still remain at peace in his studio contemplating his model or his apple in the cold light that comes through the studio window?…two causes of supreme importance to him are in peril. The first is his own survival: the other is the survival of his art”

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