Excuse me, but what is Cubism?

My favorite question in last week’s lecture has been on my mind for years, but this is not the case with my students. For them Cubism is just plain… well they don’t really know. It’s hard to care about Les Demoiselles or any of the eccentric, monochromatic spawn from Picasso and Braque’s analytical experiment. Appreciating Cubism is like appreciating the word cotyledon. I learned cotyledon in middle school science- a concrete explosion of life in a little bean is how I like to think of this word, and so is Cubism. Even this is a difficult analogy for a teenage brain. So how did I explain Cubism?

States of Mind II: The Farewells, 1911 by Umberto Boccioni,

I should have written it down, but as all my lectures this year, this was an explosive, extemporaneous performance after hours of reading. Although it is technically a Futurist work, I started with Boccioni’s State of Mind Series. Centering on the concept of farewells at train stations, it is a very poignant piece for me after years of travel back home to Italy where one of my aunts or uncles has always been there to greet me at whatever chosen depot. One uncle put it very well at a family reunion dinner, “You are the one who descends from the clouds suddenly, and everything is as it was when you left– almost.”

States of Mind: Those Who Go, 1911 by Umberto Boccioni

The train scene is easy to discern for most people. Clouds of steam, the number on the train, the chimney on top and some kind of mess of moving humans on the side. What isn’t so easy to recognize is Those Who Go and Those Who Stay. And this is where I thought it would all be clear after my poignant self reference. There are three Nancys standing ready to leap into a train where I would be neither the American Nancy nor the Italian Nensi, but someone in between and not quite herself. Hence the three disembodied heads floating in a storm of oblique lines.

States of Mind: Those Who Stay, 1911 by Umberto Boccioni

My family would stay behind, as always, waiting like vertical columns on a Greek Temple or a grove of tightly planted trees. Sad to see me go as they floated into some blurred landscape. But then a student raised her hand, “Excuse me, but what is Cubism?” I stopped as I realized that they still could not understand IT. So what is IT?

Man with a Guitar, 1912 by Georges Braque

So we looked at Man with a Guitar by Braque and I talked about how to play an accordion. I have never played an accordion. With all the buttons, the keys, the bellows and the noise I wanted them to imagine it was a human trying to be and play the instrument all at once. You became a creature that was a combination of sound, movement, and concrete objects moving and interacting at once in space. Cubism takes the act of playing an instrument– a multi-sensory experience, chews it up intellectually and spits it back out on the canvas. It can be a confusing experience for someone to look at the result. As my uncle said, just as before–almost.

We went on after my impassioned, elephantine impression of an accordion in play to discuss other works, and their brows were a little less furrowed. After class, a mother who likes to attend my lectures said, “Thank you. We almost like Cubism now.” Today I am sitting down to collect this experience before I leap into refining my thoughts on Dada and Surrealism for tomorrow’s class. What will they do when or if I show them the many works of Marie-Thérèse Walter??? And the Bride Stripped Bare is really going to be a doozy. I’ll do my best.

Leave a Reply