10 févr. 2021

The notion of linear perspective was developed during the Renaissance and prevailed as a generally valid concept for painting until the beginning of the 20th century. The painting’s frame is perceived as a window frame through which a motive is shown as an illusion of reality as realistically as possible. Cubism questions this concept and is the first style to radically break with its rules.

The Kunstmuseum Basel has an important collection of cubist art which mainly goes back to the extensive donation made by the Basler art collector Raoul la Roche in 1952. Broc et violon by Georges Braque is one of them. The scroll of the violin with the tuning pegs are clearly visible in the center of the painting. But its strings are cut and kinked. The body of the instrument cannot be precisely reconstructed as it dissolves into geometric facets. Only the violin’s F-holes help to locate the object. Above the violin a jug can be seen. While its lip and handle are recognizable the contour of its body cannot be clearly determined. These supposed objects are clamped into a structure of geometric shapes which are not distinctly definable either.

The facetted shapes showing contours and areas of light and shade emerge from the background of the canvas and evoke a sense of three-dimensionality. However, they remain firmly connected to the painting’s surface, since the shapes cannot be discerned conclusively. The viewer's perception is constantly challenged, alternating between two-dimensional and spatial effects. Certain areas emphasize the picture’s surface while others suggest a spatial depth. Whereas the violin and jug can be recognized, they seem to dissolve into undefinable shapes at the same time, allowing simultaneous views of space and objects. The linear perspective is abandoned in favor of multiple perspectives.

Only the nail at the top of the painting offers a perfect spatial illusion and is not part of the still life assembled by the splintered shapes below. Whereas the view into an illusionary spatial depth is denied in this area, the nail opens a different kind of spatial illusion. It seems to reach into the space of the viewer standing in front of the painting. Realistically depicted as a trompe l’oeil, the nail gives the impression of fixing the painting to the wall.

Cubism was decisively shaped by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who at times had such an intense exchange that their works can hardly be distinguished from one another. Like many other artists at the beginning of the 20th century, they were looking for new visual art concepts. Today cubism is celebrated as the most revolutionary innovation in art of the 20th century. Since then the eye of the beholder has become accustomed to ever more abstract art.

However, the radically new style was not met with enthusiasm right away, it also triggered a certain amount of skepticism and incomprehension. When Georges Braque wanted to submit his first Cubist works to the Salon d’Automne in 1908, the jury rejected them. The Salon was an annual exhibition of contemporary art that was of great importance to the entire art world. Artists, art critics and art dealers viewed the exhibitions and exchanged ideas about current developments in art. After being rejected by the jury of the Fall Salon in November, Braque showed his works at the gallery of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler who was enthusiastic about the cubist concept. But the influential critic Louis Vauxcelles wrote the following after having visited the exhibition: “Braque doesn't care about form. He simplifies everything, landscape and houses, into geometric schematic forms, into cubes”. This criticism ultimately led to the term "Cubism". Picasso, too, was initially not only praised for this new style. The art dealer Ambroise Vollard, with whom Picasso shared a good business relationship for over four decades, distanced himself from the artist during the Cubist years.

Kahnweiler and Uhde were the most important art dealers to market Cubist works. They had good contacts with German collectors, which is why this new style was popular in Germany before it was established in Paris. In fact, Cubist works were only shown in Paris on a larger scale after the First World War in 1918. At this point Picasso was already breaking away from Cubism and focusing on a neoclassical style.

Author: Seraina Werthemann, art historian and art mediator