11 Boulevard de Clichy Picasso’s Cubist studio
We now arrive at 11 Boulevard de Clichy where Picasso had his studio and apartment from 1909 – 1912.
The route around the lower Montmartre Pigalle area. This page describes point 2. © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).
Pablo Picasso and the French artist Georges Braque developed a new geometrical way of painting here. It became known as Cubism.
Instead of simply painting a portrait, landscape or still life, Cubism maps out a set of formal geometrical relationships which the subject suggests. It is a radical, artificial, artistic construct that aims to convey the essence of the subject in space and time through glimpses and fragments and evocations.
Key artists and paintings leading to the Cubist fracture
With Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in the Bateau Lavoir studios in the summer of 1907, Picasso had made a decisive break from the established realistic, representative artistic tradition. The painting and the artists who influenced it are described in some detail in the influences on The Demoiselles d’Avignon page.
The importance of ‘primitive’ art
A key driver for the development of modern art was Primitivism. This was the term that the European colonial powers applied to the art of the ‘primitive’ cultures that they came into contact with in Africa and Oceania. The term can also apply to pre-classical art.
Primitivism gives us lift off
Primitive art forms, especially sculptures and masks with their angular style, had a huge influence on painters like Matisse and Picasso. They immediately recognised a dynamism and power expressed in a visual language that had nothing to do with the refined and rule-bound Western European artistic tradition.
In primitive art other spirits were at work: the human form was often schematised to a block and the face represented by a series of simple often expressionless lines. Primitive art did not try to mimic nature; instead streamlined anthropomorphic shapes and surfaces now concentrate the coherence and force of expression.
Primitive art provided the raw power to break free from the established conventions of traditional art; the theoretical guidelines for what became Cubism were pioneered by Paul Cézanne.
Cézanne sets the compass for the direction of travel
I deal briefly with Cézanne’s influence on Picasso (who said that Cézanne was “the father of us all”) in the influences on the Demoiselles d’Avignon page (which is point 2.1. on the upper Montmartre walk).
Cézanne said that “art is a harmony parallel to nature” meaning that the artist should not strive to simply register what the eye saw, but to reflect upon an appropriate visual language for conveying its complexity harmoniously. The artist must discover that language and its means of expression.
His still life and landscape paintings reduce unnecessary visual clutter by imposing equilibrium through complementary masses. Strong perpendicular lines sometimes anchor and solidify his works, which often also posses a sculptural quality. There is a sense of order.
That stability is also sometimes compromised as objects are represented as though seen from different perspectives simultaneously.
The result is a decisive move away from imitation and naturalism towards a more schematic recreation of scene through form and colour.
Cézanne gets us to look at the world in a different way. How should an artist paint? What should he show? A reflection or an experienced essence? Cézanne sought to appeal to the imagination, association and construct, not just the eye.
The Cézanne expert Richard Verdi believes that by reducing the naturalism and materialism of what he painted, he was attempting to capture its essential beauty and wonder as though “seeing his subject for the first time”.
Cylinder, sphere, cone
Cézanne, writing to the young painter Emile Bernard in a letter in 1904 offers some hints as to how to find the essential harmony he sought. He urged his correspondent to “consider nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone…”
The Paris Autumn Salon (arts show) of 1907 featured a major Cézanne retrospective. Cézanne had died the year before. It was the perfect occasion for both Picasso and Braque to closely examine the work of their “father” and to consider the consequences of his example.
Cubism emerges from Cézanne’s example
Georges Braque’s 1908 painting Maisons à l’Estaque (Houses at l’Estaque) in the Kunstmuseum Bern is often considered the first Cubist landscape painting.
Braque had been following in the footsteps of Cézanne and painted a scene in l’Estaque, a small town on the coast close to Marseille. He’d taken Cézanne’s advice to heart and represented the houses as geometrical forms in the colour of the local stone.
“A large number of little cubes”
When Braque submitted the painting for exhibition at the Autumn Arts Show in 1908, Matisse, who was on the selection committee that year, refused it reportedly saying that it consisted of a “large number of little cubes”. Critics elaborated on the phrase; ‘Cubism’ had just been born.
Picasso left Paris in the summer of 1908 for La Rue sur Bois to the north of Paris. Here he too produced some fine geometrical interpretations of landscape, for example, the Small House in a Garden, (in the Pushkin Museum Moscow).
All of these works, because of their sculptural and geometrical qualities, may be considered important as approaches to Cubism. Some of the earliest examples of Cubism, according to the French Picasso expert Pierre Daix, are a series of male and female portraits (head of woman, head of man), produced by Picasso and actually painted in the Bateau Lavoir in the spring of 1909.
According to Daix these paintings are recognisably and characteristically Cubist because:
• The head and face is divided into strict geometrical form
• These are further divided into smaller geometrical layers known as facets
• These facets, aspects or interlocking planes, often expressed with fine brush strokes, give the blocks more fluidity, articulation and expression
• The entire surface of the painting is subjected to the process giving a frontal quality
Horta de Ebro
Picasso, still living at this point in the Bateau Lavoir, left Paris in the summer of 1909 for a painting expedition to Horta de Ebro in the Tarragona region of Catalonia, Spain.
Reconnecting with the Spanish landscape was certainly fruitful for Picasso. This trip and the paintings he produced in the village were crucial for the development of Cubism.
Picasso did a series of landscape paintings of the village and the area of which Houses on the Hill, (Berggruen Museum, Berlin), The Reservoir (in the MOMA New York) and The Factory (the State Hermitage Museum, Moscow) are considered the prime examples.
Picasso was probably thinking about Cézanne’s reaction to the Mediterranean landscape and his Mont Sainte-Victoire series. These try to capture the mountain and its hinterland in form and colour and mood.
Picasso took a series of photographs of the countryside around the village.
The geography here is typically Mediterranean: rocky hills, evergreen scrubby vegetation, dry ochre earth, olive groves and terraced enclosures. The summers are hot and dry.
The houses of Horta de Ebro cluster together on the crest of a hill for defence, their proximity affording some shade in the narrow streets below.
In Houses on the Hill the houses, the vegetation, the hills, cliffs and fields have been schematically represented as a series of sharp, interlocking geometrical forms.
A restricted series of structures and colours
The colour palette is reduced to silver grey, shades of ochre and a hint of light green. Whilst the palette is appropriate for the landscape, the accent in this and other paintings in the series is firmly on the form that strikes the artist’s eye and imagination.
Picasso has depicted a restricted series of colours and structures that evokes the scene but no longer represents it directly. We see a set of formal relationships that the subject suggests. It is a personal artistic reaction to the place using the developing Cubist technique.
In Houses on the Hill, the multiple perspectives that Picasso chooses to show suggest, at the same time, a view from above and as though we are observing the scene from below. Houses and the hinterland are represented similarly.
The proximity of the limited palette helps blur the distinction between the houses and the natural colours of the surrounding countryside. The buildings seem to emerge organically from the landscape, the forms reflected in the structure of the local geography.
By emphasising the complementarity of houses and hinterland, Picasso is implying that the village of Horta de Ebro in a formal and natural sense belongs here. The painting thus also serves as a reflection on the village’s rootedness in the immediate environment and the close relationship between the two.
An artistic construct
With these Cubist landscapes, Picasso is hinting at a cumulative evocation of scene and place as though perceived, remembered and seen from many different points in space and time.
The painter no longer captures a perfect view of the place – a photograph or a film could do that – now the challenge for the artist was to somehow represent the constructed, experienced essence of a place using a series of formal relationships that the subject suggested to him.
The “harmony” that Cézanne talked about finds expression in Picasso’s works in Horta de Ebro in “a structure that speaks to the imagination” (Pierre Daix).
When Picasso and his companion Fernande Olivier returned in the autumn of 1909, they moved down from the hill of Montmartre and the Bateau Lavoir studios on Rue Ravignon (point 2 on the upper Montmartre walk) to this studio.
Picasso’s art dealers
Picasso next painted a series of portraits of his art dealers. His dealers were: Ambroise Vollard (Pushkin Museum, Moscow), Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (Art Institute, Chicago) and Wilhelm Uhde (private collection). All of these were produced here in 1909 – 1910. The most powerful of these is the portrait of Ambroise Vollard.
In this portrait the great oval of Vollard’s head seems to emerge like a bubble of erupting yellow and orange lava. If we pursue the image, then the head contrasts with the fragmented black and grey background of shattered planes and layers of cooling grey rock and ash.
Just as in much of the Horta de Ebro work, in spite of the schematization and reduction in naturalism, we can still easily connect visually with the painting. We discern the features of his face: the closed eyes (we are informed that he closed his eyes during commercial negotiations), the strong nose and nostrils, the severe straight lip.
Whilst there are still ripples of conventional portrait painting here, the Cubist technique is strikingly employed to convey divided glimpses and hints of different expression or aspects of the person. These aspects of Vollard are reflected back at the viewer in a fragmented form to suggest the multiple realities of his presence.
The portraits of the other two dealers are more relentlessly geometric (but still very fine works) as the dominance of form and structure move towards analytic Cubism.
Picasso’s wonderfully harmonious Guitarist from this period can be seen in the Pompidou Centre Paris.
When later works became more conceptual, and less accessible (see Woman Sitting in an Armchair in the Pompidou Centre from 1910), Picasso and Braque changed again. In order to lessen the danger of Cubism becoming abstract or simply self-indulgent, both painters started to play with fragments of stencilled text.
Cubism broke the visual experience into fragments as though the object was observed through a crystal or reflected in a shattered mirror. Now bits and pieces of words and phrases complement the deconstruction of linear communication from painter and work to observer.
Playing with Cubist clues
Now we have to participate, reconstruct, interact and even play more; the observer has to become a sort of artist recomposing visual and printed clues.
In Picasso’s Still Life on a Piano Cort, (Berggruen Museum, Berlin), the elements of the musical instrument itself and hints of the partition are complemented by the word CORT on the top left of the painting. This may be a reference to a famous pianist of the time, Cortot and also helps to allude to the experience of music the picture conveys.
Picasso’s Violin, Glasses, Pipe, and Anchor (National Gallery, Prague) from 1912 is a condensed Cubist postcard from the seaside town of Le Havre, (Braque’s home town), again with typographic allusions to nearby places and events.
His Still Life with Chair Caning, (Picasso Museum, Paris) from 1912 is considered the first collage. Picasso takes a piece of ready made work, in this case a piece of oilcloth with a design on it representing the lattice work on a reed chair, and introduces it into the painted space by sticking it onto the canvas.
He surrounds the oval shape of the painting with some rope which you can almost feel on your fingers. More banal objects are invoked, a pipe (was Picasso thinking of retiring?) a newspaper, a lemon, a scallop.
‘Jou’ printed on the centre left could be taken as the French ‘jouer’ meaning to play. The chair invites us to sit down, relax and allow our imagination to play whilst considering what is representation in art.
This work opens the way to collage. That was to fully develop in another studio on the other side of town in Montparnasse.
Picasso moves away from Montmartre
In the autumn of 1912 Picasso left this studio and Montmartre and Fernande Olivier and moved on.
You now retrace your steps towards Place Pigalle and bear left into the square. With your back to the fountain you will now see our two next points of interest: points 3 and 4 which are situated on the south side of Place Pigalle.
All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2), (3), (4).
All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :
(1)Paul Cézanne artist QS:P170,Q35548, Nature morte au Chérubin, par Paul Cézanne, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2)Paul Cézanne artist QS:P170,Q35548, Le panier de pommes, par Paul Cézanne, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(3)Paul Cézanne artist QS:P170,Q35548, Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, by Paul Cézanne, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(4)Paul Cézanne artist QS:P170,Q35548, L'Estaque aux toits rouges, par Paul Cézanne, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons