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Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Analytic Cubism

Georges Braque, The Portuguese, 1911, oil on canvas, 1911 (Kunstmuseum, Basel)

Cold Coffee and Analytic Cubism

To understand Cubism it helps to go back to Cézanne’s still life paintings or even further, to the Renaissance. Let's use an example that worked nicely in the classroom. I was lecturing, trying to untangle Cubism while drinking incresingly cold coffee from a paper cup. I set the cup on the desk in the front of the room and said, “If I were a Renaissance artist in mid-15th century Italy painting that cup on that table, I would position myself at particular point in space and construct the surrounding objects and space frozen in that spot and from that single perspective. On the other hand, if this was the late 19th century and I was Cézanne, I might allow myself to open this view up quite a bit. Perhaps I would focus on, and record, the changes of shape and line that result when I shift my weight from one leg to the other or when I lean in toward the cup to get a closer look. I might even allow myself to render slightly around the far side of the paper cup since, as Cézanne, I am interested in vision and memory working together. Finally, if I were Braque or Picasso in the early 20th century, I would want to express even more on the canvas. I would not be satisfied with the limiting conventions of Renaissance perspective nor even with the initial explorations of the master Cézanne.
As a Cubist, I want to express my total visual understanding of the paper coffee cup. I want more than the Renaissance painter or even Cézanne, I want to express the entire cup simultaneously on the static surface of the canvas since I can hold all that visual information in my memory. I want to render the cup’s front, its sides, its back, and its inner walls, its bottom from both inside and out, and I want to do this on a flat canvas. How can this be done? The answer is provided by The Portuguese. In this canvas, everything was fractured. The guitar player and the dock was just so many pieces of broken form, almost broken glass. By breaking these objects into smaller elements, Braque and Picasso are able to overcome the unified singularity of an object and instead transform it into an object of vision. At this point the class began to look a little confused, so I turned back to the paper cup and began to tear it into pieces (I had finished the coffee). If I want to be able to show you both the back and front and inside and outside simultaneously, I can fragment the object. Basically, this is the strategy of the Cubists.

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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Karen Hendrickson
    After reading the essay, I have a better understanding of what the Cubists were doing; but I don't know how to apply it to The Portuguese. Any suggestions? Thank you.
    (14 votes)
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    • leaf yellow style avatar for user Jacey Wall
      As I understand it, The Portuguese, is a good example of Cubist art because of how it is fractured. Cubists wanted to show many angles and sides of objects simultaneously, so to do that, they fractured the image (like shattered glass). Although, sometimes, because of the way that they fractured it, it can make the image more difficult to understand what's happening within the image. The Portuguese is a Cubist painting where everything is also heavily overlapped making it harder to see the images portrayed clearly. I hope that this is the answer you're looking for, and that it helps you.
      (9 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Todd Elliott
    No question here, but keep in mind David Hockney. He did a great children special with Penn and Teller a long time ago; and from that, demonstrated a perceptual project he called, (and I paraphrase) a walk around the chair drawing. Hockney is, or was a cubist himself with the polaroid camera. Hockney gets it. He's brilliant.
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Jennifer Lemish
    Who is the author of this essay? There is no one listed.
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jin Park
    Was there a patron of this painting?
    (1 vote)
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