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Although not the most recent painting in the National Gallery’s collection, this picture is perhaps the most self-consciously modern. It is also the Gallery’s only example of Cubism, the early twentieth-century art movement initiated by Pablo Picasso and his colleague Georges Braque, which radically transformed the visual arts, particularly through its rejection of single-point perspective that had dominated art since the Renaissance.
Although the picture may seem to be entirely abstract, there are several recognisable objects. These include a table, an off-white tablecloth with grey tassels, the strings and neck of a violin, part of a newspaper (including the letters ‘AL’ of ‘JOURNAL’) and a dish of fruit. Picasso shows these objects from more than one point of view – for example, we see the table from the side and also look down at it from above. He has also mixed sand with the paint in some areas to create texture.
Although not the most recent painting in the National Gallery’s collection, this picture is perhaps the most self-consciously modern. It is also the Gallery’s only example of Cubism, the early twentieth-century art movement initiated by Pablo Picasso and his colleague Georges Braque, which radically transformed the visual arts, particularly through its rejection of single-point perspective. At first glance, the picture appears to be entirely abstract, but on closer inspection parts of several recognisable objects become apparent. Moving upwards from the bottom of the painting, these include a table (the curvy outline of one leg is just to the right of Picasso’s signature), an off-white tablecloth with grey tassels, the strings and neck of a violin, part of a newspaper (including the letters ‘AL’ of ‘JOURNAL’) and, at the very top, a dish of fruit.
Around 1908, Picasso and Braque began to develop a new way of painting that became known as ‘analytical’ Cubism. Objects were broken down into facetted surfaces that combined multiple points of view. Following Cézanne’s example, the two artists wanted to paint what they knew about an object (for example, that a jug is a three-dimensional structure that is also hollow) rather than what they could see from just one point of view. They chose familiar motifs, typically still lifes and portraits that could be easily recognised. Colours were reduced to neutral browns and greys, and the light could come from multiple sources. These paintings are often very sculptural and give the impression that if the canvas could just be folded, like origami paper, it would form a three-dimensional version of the object depicted.
By around 1912–13 Picasso and Braque were adopting new approaches to picture-making such as incorporating actual materials and objects (such as rope, fabric, paper and newspapers) directly into their pictures. In this canvas, Picasso has added sand to the areas of dark paint to create texture. These new approaches ushered in the next stage of Cubism that is often referred to as ‘synthetic’ Cubism – of which this painting is an example. In synthetic Cubism Picasso and Braque effectively reversed the procedures of analytical Cubism. Instead of reducing objects to their essential structural components, they built up – or synthesised – their pictures into an arrangement of lines, shapes and areas of colour. As the composition evolved, these lines and shapes became recognisable objects and motifs, such as the still life on a table that we see here. The pictures would still include more than one point of view – for example, we see the table from the side (the view of its legs) and also look down at it from above.
Synthetic cubist paintings can often be very dense and complex, but this picture is quite accessible. Not only can we recognise various objects, but Picasso has created a decorative design that holds the composition together. By repeating and counter-balancing various pictorial elements – for example, the even distribution across the canvas of areas of blackish brown (often adjacent to areas of white) and the echoing of particular shapes and patterns (such as the curves of the violin or the vertical legs of the table) – the picture has an almost classical symmetry. Using these techniques, Picasso has created a dynamic composition that rearranges everyday objects and playfully tests our ability to recognise them.
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