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Cubist Still Life: Artists & Paintings

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Cubism is one of the most innovative and influential art movements of the twentieth century, yet it frequently turned to the traditional genre known as the still life. This lesson will describe how Cubism reinvented the still life, and discuss some illustrative examples.

Context

Imagine you were going to create an artwork to represent yourself. You could paint a portrait of what you look like, or instead you could lay out the objects that are important to you on a table: maybe your laptop, a favorite food, a seashell you picked up from your last vacation, and that stuffed animal you still hang on to. The second version would be a still life, a type of artwork that depicts inanimate objects. These may be natural objects (like a seashell, a flower, or fruit), or man made ones (like a laptop or cup). Artists are interested in still lifes because they can control exactly what subjects to depict, and how to arrange them.

Artists have been producing still lifes for a very long time, but even innovative art movements like Cubism have created their own take on this traditional genre. Even as they experimented, Cubists liked to echo their predecessors. The work of French artist Paul Cezanne was one important forerunner of Cubism. Stylistically, Cezanne's works use angular forms that would be developed to an even greater degree in Cubist painting. Cezanne was also very interested in painting still lifes of things like fruit, bowls, and cloth. Works like the Still Life with Putto (1895) are typical of his style.

Still Life with Putto, 1895
Still Life with Putto

Analytic and Synthetic Cubism

Georges Braque's Pitcher and Violin (1909-1910) is a representative example of early Cubist still life.

Pitcher and Violin, 1909-1910
Pitcher and Violin

The painting depicts some standard still-life subjects, a picture and a violin (the Cubists LOVED depicting musical instruments). At least that's what the title says: it's actually hard to tell where the pitcher and violin are. There's a bit of what look like violin strings near the bottom, a piece of the scroll-like tip of the instrument in the middle, and what might be the rounded top of the pitcher to the left.

Most of the still life, however, looks like Cezanne gone haywire: jagged, angular forms are spread across the whole picture plane, as though the pitcher and violin had been exploded into fragments, then pieced back together in the dark. The angular fragments of the still life's subjects seem fused with those of the background and surface they sit on. The color scheme is noticeably muted, restricted to shades of brown and blue-gray.

The Still Life in Analytic Cubism

Braque's still life exemplifies the first phase of Cubism, known as Analytic Cubism. The fragmentation of the forms, the limited color schemes, and the flattening of the picture plane all show how the early Cubists were interested in changing the still life game. Traditional still lifes tried to represent three-dimensional forms (pictures, violins, fruit, and so on) in the two-dimensional picture plane by using the rules of perspective to create the illusion of realistic depth.

On the other hand, the Cubists very consciously broke with these expectations, showing parts of objects from multiple perspectives at the same time. In Braque's Pitcher and Violin, for example, you can see the side of the violin's scroll and the full top of the instrument, which wouldn't be possible in ordinary, three dimensional space. You might say that the Cubists were trying to turn three dimensions into four instead of making two look like three!

Cubists like Braque and Pablo Picasso were a rebellious bunch, so they may have been bending these rules just to break with tradition. However, art historians have pointed out that their innovations came around the same time as ideas like Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which changed the way we think about space and time. Bold new ideas in science may have made artists feel like finding new ways to represent the world, including their old favorite, the still life. Or perhaps this is just a striking coincidence!

The Still Life in Synthetic Cubism

As time went on, the Cubists started looking to more diverse color schemes and slightly less chaotically fragmented forms. This began the second phase of the movement, known an Synthetic Cubism. Fernand Leger's, Still Life with a Beer Mug (1921) is a good example of a still life from this period.

Still Life with a Beer Mug, 1921
Still Life with a Beer Mug

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