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1906-1914 Cubism: Bodies

The Cubist revolution began in 1907 with Picasso’s brutal simplification of the figures in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In the next two years, he condensed the body into curves and divides it into facets. In 1910-12 he said goodbye to conventional anatomy, transforming the body into an open framework of planes, cones, and cylinders.

I saw that everything had been done. A break was needed to create a revolution and start again from scratch. I have put myself at the head of the new movement. The problem is how to go beyond, avoid the object and give artistic expression to the result.’”

[Pablo Picasso in Alexander Liberman, ‘Picasso’, Vogue, November 1956]

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This small oil painting on canvas depicts a standing nude – or so we are told from the descriptive title, likely added later by one of Picasso’s dealers, collectors or scholars. Deprived of the title’s aid, the viewer may perceive no representational content at all, but a composition of shapes, colours and lines that seems wholly abstract. Given the task of describing such a work, one enumerates qualities rather than stable objects or subjects: 1) a series of straight lines in black paint (some diagonal, some roughly orthogonal) organised into a network or grid; 2) a few schematic curves distributed throughout; 3) a near-monochromatic palette of earth-tones; and 4) areas of shading or chiaroscuro that appear unmoored from any binding contour lines. 

This mode of painting epitomises Cubism at its most hermetic. At this moment, roughly between 1910 and 1911, Picasso’s art tested the outer limits of mimesis (the visual imitation of the world’s appearance) and came closer to abstraction than he would ever again venture. Indeed, throughout his life, Picasso consistently criticised the pretention of many artists to have done away with subject matter in their art, proclaiming: ‘It’s a joke to suppress the subject, it’s impossible.’  And yet, speaking to his lover Françoise Gilot much later, he confessed his interest in a form of painting devoted to its own inner logic, rather than to imitating the visual appearance of objects in the world. Gilot recalls: ‘I told Pablo I thought nobody could have done completely nonfigurative painting better than he.’ Picasso agreed and noted of his art during the phase of Cubist Composition (Woman Standing Nude): ‘At that period I was doing painting for its own sake. It was really pure painting, and the composition was done as a composition.’  

Indeed, despite his occasional protestations, Picasso’s Cubism was defined by a push and pull between abstraction and figuration, with neither tendency allowed to predominate. For, even though Cubist Composition is made up of a network of abstract marks – such as half-moon curves and triangular peaks – that seem to float free from the surrounding washes of brown, white and black, there is an undeniably figurative logic at play in the work. All these forms coalesce into an area of pictorial density at the centre of the composition that is defined by its vertical orientation, just enough to suggest the uprightness of a standing human body. In Picasso’s work, the viewer’s task of making meaning out of seemingly non-naturalistic signs became the engine of visual interest. Although he refused to countenance the possibility of a purely non-representational art, Picasso’s Cubism provided the tools needed by a number of artists, from Francis Picabia to Piet Mondrian, from Sophie Taeuber-Arp to Sonia and Robert Delaunay, to develop the art of abstraction.

Text: Trevor Stark: “Cubist Composition (Woman Standing Nude)”. In Catalogue Pablo Picasso. New Collection 2017-2020, pp. 106-107