Picasso and the Advent of Cubism

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), perhaps the most famous and gifted artist ever to grace the world stage, was a child prodigy instructed in drawing and painting by his father from the age of seven. From childhood, he embodied artistic genius and worked along a highly accelerated trajectory, ultimately changing the accepted face of art at a very young age. He produced works that drastically altered existing artistic traditions, and did so with a seeming effortlessness, despite many years of poverty and hardship.

In 1910, Picasso produced an interesting addition to his existing charcoal oeuvre: Standing Female Nude, a smaller work that helped pave the way for the advent of Analytic Cubism. When first shown in America, the piece created a stir because of its highly abstract nature: the human form is almost lost in a construction of ladder-like steps and harsh lines. A mere gesture of the subject’s natural curves remains; her arm is reduced to an almost illusory ribbon, and her basic shape, once identified, is transformed, doubled, and syncopated. The woman appears through a cage-like structure, the most essential aspects of her form crossed out; and yet she seems to move freely and fluidly, coiled and ready to jump or take flight. With this drawing, Picasso succeeded in creating the impression of mechanized movement while almost totally obscuring his subject. 


Standing Female Nude - Pablo Picasso (1910, Charcoal on paper)

Picasso uses charcoal here to its broadest range and capability, employing hatching, deep lines, elegant shading and distinct areas of light and shadow. The piece is architectural to the highest degree, and forces the viewer to actively work to distinguish the subject. Along the way, it is up to us to make pivotal observations, judgments, and decisions. In order to understand the piece, one must continue to look; and the longer one looks, the more information one receives. Despite the hard, metallic feel of the composition, there is an inherent softness, and certain facets resemble the ocean, or open water. Upon examination, one can perceive reversals, mirroring, and compositional changes with set reference points.

Audiences of the time may not have been entirely ready for such an avant-garde piece, but any shock they felt was soon superseded by outrage at Marcel Duchamp’s radical insistence upon a wholly intellectual (rather than visual) participation in art. This freed Picasso to experiment without bounds.

Take a moment to sit with Standing Female Nude. What kind of movement do you see? Do you notice aspects of the composition not mentioned here? As you continue to look, what changes? Even stripped of colour and form, the work contains an infinite number of distinct elements to notice and absorb over time.

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