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Key Issues: Perspective, Viewpoint and Cubism

Cubism was a revolutionary new form of painting developed by Picasso and Georges Braque in the early part of the twentieth century. The most intensive period of that development was from 1908 to around 1913, just prior to the First World War. During this time the relationship between the two artists was very close. Braque said they were like two climbers roped together on a mountain and Picasso referred to Braque as his 'wife'. It was a mixture of collaboration and rivalry that resulted in some of the most radical thinking in the history of Western art. Many other artists explored and experimented with the ideas that Cubism raised, the most significant contributions coming from Fernand Léger and Juan Gris.

Painters had always faced a paradox. They were attempting to represent the living, three-dimensional world on the motionless, two-dimensional surface of a canvas. It was impossible to replicate the space and depth around them. However, from the Renaissance onwards, European artists had a convincing way of faking it. This was called perspective. The trick was to exploit the fact that things appear smaller the further away they are from the eye. This effect could be imitated in a painting by carefully managing the size and position of things in relation to each other. Put simply, those objects the artist wanted to portray as further away would be painted smaller than those closer to him. When a painting can give a sense of what is near and what is far, it also gives us a sense of space.

But near or far from where? Just as we need to hold down one end of a tape measure to be sure of an accurate measurement, so the painter needed a fixed point to which everything else related. Since the artist was attempting to recreate the experience of looking, that fixed point was his own eye. This is sometimes called a viewpoint.

A single viewpoint formed the basis of an artist's calculations. With it he could construct a picture in which the size and position of the objects he painted bore a proper relation to their distance from his eye in reality. A single viewpoint also meant that the objects were in proportion because their size and position were in an appropriate relation to each other. Crucially, if every object was painted from the same static viewpoint, an illusion of depth was achieved.

To an extent, painters had attempted to create an illusion of depth before the Renaissance. But it was not until the fifteenth century that the rules of single point perspective were mastered and guesswork was replaced by a system. From then on, painters could convincingly imitate a sense of space stretching away from the viewer.

Braque, Gris, Léger and especially Picasso could have produced accomplished paintings playing by the rules of perspective, but Cubism totally rejected this method. Gris described Cubism as "simply a new way of representing the world." It still aimed to paint a convincing representation of reality. Yet unlike art that had gone before, Cubist paintings were more than happy to admit to being flat objects.

Cubists felt that perspective didn't truthfully represent the world because a single viewpoint only gave one side of things. Picasso and Braque were not interested in the superficial appearance of objects. They wanted to reveal many aspects at once and encompass a whole experience. Braque once said that it was 'necessary to draw three figures in order to portray every physical aspect of a woman. Cubism's solution was to show multiple viewpoints simultaneously.

The difference between a perspective and a Cubist representation of reality can be compared to the way two people might describe the same scene to us on the telephone. Using the perspective method, the first person takes up a fixed position in front of a scene and without moving, states the shape, size, colour and position of each object in a few firm and decisive sentences. We don't receive any conflicting information and the description maintains a consistent tone. But when we ask for a description of the back or the underside of an object, our caller finds it impossible because from where they are standing these views cannot be seen. As far as they're concerned, these other views might as well not exist.

The second person using the Cubist method relates a whole range of thoughts and observations about the scene. They shift about so as to peer under, over and around the objects. They tend to repeat and contradict themselves as they describe the same object in different ways from different viewpoints. They also seem to be experimenting with the language they use to describe things. Occasionally they sound like the first caller, providing some detail and structure. But more often they choose simpler, more playful language, exaggerating shapes, colours and key features. They sound almost childlike at times, enjoying the repetitive, chaotic nature of their description.

The first person gives us a steady mental picture. But the second person's description is lively and becomes increasingly revealing as we mentally assemble the various pieces of information they give us. Cubist subject matter is simple, usually a single figure or a still life. This was deliberate, as by representing familiar things the viewer had a way into the painting. It also removed additional complications for the artists during the difficult process of deconstructing forms. Cubism had two phases, Analytic and Synthetic. In the first Analytic phase objects are shown from many viewpoints at once so that solid forms are shattered. They become fractured, geometric shapes compressed into a sliver of space and flattened against the canvas. Space is treated as if it were a solid, tangible mass making the air seem brittle. Areas of transition between a solid object and the space surrounding it are blurred. This confusion is enhanced because colour is removed and everything is painted in browns and greys with a few fragmented black outlines.

Towards the end of the Analytic phase, Picasso and Braque introduced stencilled lettering to their painting. The letters quoted titles of popular songs and newspapers. This was another slap in the face for the establishment because stencils were for pub signs and packing cases, not fine art. They also draw attention to the surface of the canvas because the uniform letters appear independent of what's painted underneath them.

Around 1912 during the period known as Synthetic Cubism, colour was re-introduced with two technical innovations called papier collé and collage. Papier collé involves sticking coloured paper onto the canvas and was invented by Braque. Collage was subsequently developed by Picasso and involved including all kinds of material such as newspaper or fabric in the painting. Both techniques bridged the gap between art and life by sticking bits of the real world onto the canvas. They also aggressively drew attention to the fact that a painting it is a flat object and blurred the line between painting and sculpture. Picasso and Braque also simulated textures like wood grain, suggesting different layers on the surface of the painting that playfully confused what was real and what was an illusion.

Collage plays with traditional ideas about representation and art. Namely, what is more realistic, to perfectly simulate the look of a newspaper in oil paint, or to stick actual newspaper onto the canvas? In some compositions Picasso would both paint a newspaper and also cut newsprint into the shape of another object entirely. This way he could give the viewer two representations of a newspaper, one real and one painted but neither was naturalistic. Picasso also made Cubist sculptures. The techniques of papier collé and collage were explored in three dimensions. Objects are deconstructed and then built up using essential elements and shapes that are welded together. These sculptures often included objects from the real world and were sometimes painted. The richness and complexity of the ideas raised by Cubism provided Picasso with the material for most of his subsequent work. They also influenced many major movements such as Surrealism and Constructivism.