Freshmen Really Can Write

Picasso's "Ma Jolie." (Click to get to image's host site, MoMA.)

A couple of weeks ago, I lectured on Picasso and Cubism in a team-taught course for Hofstra Honors College freshmen in which I am one of 14 professors. The students in my two discussion groups also took a field trip to the Museum of Modern Art to see Picasso’s seminal Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and other Cubist works by him. For a short paper, I asked students to persuade an imaginary “Uncle Fred”—who’s hostile to modern art but nevertheless accompanies them to a modern art museum—that Picasso’s paintings are worthwhile art. I supplied “Uncle Fred’s” questions; the students wrote the responses.

With previous papers, I had my students make multiple revisions until they satisfied all my editorial comments—which started off thorough and brutal and tapered off as the papers got better. I encourage students to write in plain English and avoid what I call “SAT English”—prose full of unnecessarily complex sentences and big words that they think professors want.

The following Picasso paper (with only a few minor changes made by me) was written by a freshman physics major. I consider it a fine example of what students can do when pushed in the right way to write well.

                             Picasso Essay, by Daniel Alanko   

Recently, my Uncle Fred and I took a trip to the Super Ultimate Museum of Modern Art. To try to help him better understand Cubism and modern art, which he dislikes in general, I took him to the Picasso Cubism gallery. Below are some of his questions, with my responses.

Uncle Fred: Why should I look at this ugly art? I want art that’s beautiful.

Dan: Well, Uncle Fred, this art isn’t exactly “ugly.” Since the Renaissance, Western society has considered the most realistic art to be the most beautiful. However, over time, art changes. While realism or “naturalism” may still be the most aesthetically pleasing to the eye, it has, in a way, grown unnecessary. Over the centuries, artists have painted people, landscapes, and nature. Everything has been expressed in realism, so why continue to do it? Furthermore, with the invention of cameras, people can capture scenes with perfection. In the early 1900s, to painters like Picasso, realism just seemed rather obsolete. Picasso’s ability to paint realistically was highly developed by a very young age, but as he grew, he strove to make his painting transcend reality; the result is what you see here in paintings like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Ma Jolie. Picasso didn’t want his pictures to be confined by conventional methods of creation. Cubist painters attempted to extend the boundaries of painting and the two-dimensional flat surface and create a sense of simultaneity and passion.

The art lacks beauty because it transcends what we think of as beautiful. Our minds are trained to move towards beautiful art (perhaps because it requires no deeper thought); we know what a painting ought to look like. When we see a painting that doesn’t fit into this rubric of realism, we get a little bit uncomfortable, but in reality a painting need not be beautiful to have significance.

Uncle Fred: Even after you explain it to me, I still can’t completely see what’s going on in an Analytic Cubist picture such as Ma Jolie. Why did Picasso make it so hard for me to figure it out?

Dan: Picasso once said, “I do not read English, an English book is a blank book to me. This does not mean that the English language does not exist” (Pablo Picasso, statement, 1923, page 2). Something akin to this occurs when those who don’t understand the school of Cubism attempt to think about it.

The painting isn’t so much about “figuring out” at all; it’s about how the painting interacts with the viewer. You like physics, right Uncle Fred? Well, in the early 1900s, Einstein developed his theory of general relativity. This theory hit the general population with perplexity; mass and energy were essentially interchangeable, yet they were always thought two different things. If mass and energy could be transformed into each other, what kinds of absolute boundaries actually exist in the world, or the universe?  There is no direct evidence that Picasso knew of this theory, but a spirit of boundary breaking in early 20th-century society helped inspire Cubism. E=MC2 was to physics as Analytic Cubism was to art.

Consider this: In a “regular” painting, there are two contrasting depth elements: stuff, and not stuff (background). In Ma Jolie, try to distinguish between the two normal separations in a painting, stuff and not stuff, mass and void. It’s simple enough in a realist painting, but in Ma Jolie, it’s incredibly difficult. Just as it was no longer true in physics to separate energy and mass, the Analytic Cubist movement made separating and contrasting depths within paintings no longer achievable. All of the lines and shading come together in Ma Jolie to create a sense of uncertainty. The picture transcends the reality of normal paintings, providing multiple perspectives, movements, and dimensions.

Uncle Fred: The colors in the Analytic Cubist paintings are so dull. Why aren’t they brighter?

Dan: The colors are not bright because they don’t need to be, and in some cases, shouldn’t be. Picasso and his fellow Cubist painter friend Braque moved away from earlier painters who used vibrant colors in their paintings. Picasso made the figures in his paintings with feeling through the textures and multiple perspectives he weaved into the canvas with his brush. I recently read an essay on Cubism by John Golding; in it he says that to Picasso “colour seemed secondary to the sculptural properties of his subjects” (Golding 57). The significance of a painting such as Ma Jolie or Man With a Guitar comes from its manipulation of depth and perspective, not from its vibrant usage of color. Braque was famous for taking the empty space in the back of a painting and bringing it forward toward the observer. This sensation is partially created by the lack of bright color. Bright colors would disturb this effect, diminishing it and with it the painting’s optical influence on the viewer.

Uncle Fred: I like the Synthetic Cubist pictures better than the Analytic Cubist ones. But they still seem like something a good fifth-grade student could do. What makes them better than that?

Dan: I think you like this type of Cubism better because it’s slightly more familiar in form. It may look as though any good fifth-grade student could do this, but in actuality, these Synthetic Cubist paintings are much more complex than that. Just as in painting realism, the act of synthesizing a piece of art takes skill and perspective. Three Musicians, for example, is a Synthetic Cubist work. Though the picture is an oil painting, it gives the illusion that it is made out of cut paper through overlapping two-dimensional shapes. Let’s see a fifth-grader do that.

With well-defined shapes, we can obtain some degree of visual certainty from the picture. However, this certainty is limited to the perspective of the man-made picture itself, and not the natural world. In the same way that nature provided the meaning for realism, the artist himself constructed the meaning for a Synthetic Cubist picture. The genius in creating a piece of art like Picasso’s Three Musicians comes from the derivation of its significance; it comes from Picasso himself, and not from nature. Picasso once said, “Strangeness was what we wanted to make people think about because we were quite aware that our world was becoming very strange and not exactly reassuring” (Golding 63). We are used to thinking about art in relation to natural things, but in Synthetic Cubism, our perception of what is natural simply doesn’t apply. Synthetic Cubism strikes us as real entities, but the angles and shapes clearly separate the pictures from nature.

Uncle Fred: You’re telling me that this painting called Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) is actually about realism? Explain that to me one more time.

Dan: Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning was the first example of a “collage.” A collage attempts to take parts and assemble, by gluing them onto a flat surface, in such a way that they create a new whole. For this piece, Picasso pasted an oilcloth right onto the canvas, along with a rope along the outside acting as a frame. This painting is indeed about realism. Although Picasso didn’t make the oilcloth and rope, they are solid objects from the real world. Using these and other objects, as well as paint, Picasso was able to fashion together a picture that very much suggests real life, although the collage is more like subjective reality based on the artist’s portrayal. In this modified realism, rope can become a frame, and oilcloth can become a table. While all of the elements fit together to make a somewhat coherent picture (unlike Analytic Cubism), each element is defined only when it is placed into the whole. In this way, Still Life With Chair Caning represents realism, but a kind of subjective realism.


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