Cubism was one of the most ambitious and daring episodes in the history of Western visual art. While not the first time painting engaged with mechanical reproduction of images, Cubism represented the first instance of a serious involvement of the plastic arts with the new technology of motion. Filled with incident and event, alive with fantasy and paradox, Cubism’s radical relationship with the new art of cinema is open to infinite investigation. From the moment moving figures burst onto the screen, astonishing the first spectators, the representation of the human body—the traditional subject of the aesthetic—became dependent upon the traditional arts engaging with this new art of technology.
If Edison invented the motion picture, it was the cinematograph, introduced to the Parisian public in 1895 by the Lumiere Brothers, that recorded, developed, and projected moving images onto a screen, so that film could be seen by many people at one time, so produced the “movies” as we know them. Socializing viewing, this apparatus was the greatest machine ever invented to record fact and produce fantasy, the most remarkable of a range of remarkable new devices for reproducing images. As the old century closed, the movies promised the “annihilation of time and space” and eventually revolutionized beholders’ experience of the world.
Among the very first patrons of the nascent cinema in Europe were the painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. In 1896, Picasso (in Barcelona) had attended the first showings of the new wonder; he was fifteen years old and an instant cinephile. Braque (in France) had also attended cinema from early on. As the new century moved in, a ubiquitous film culture developed. In France, cinema was declared part of the national patrimony by 1907. When Braque and Picasso met in Paris that year they were both already deeply engrossed in the city’s established cinema culture. Together the two artists realized that any new structure of vision (which was their mutual ambition) depended upon engaging movement, as proposed by cinema. Film’s sense of unrestricted possibility, its syntax of radical juxtaposition fostering freedom from spatial and temporal constraints so as to rearrange events at will—all these made cinema an irresistible challenge to painting.
The two artists set out to capture the effects of cinema and its apparatus in painting. What they saw and felt in the cinema was the world seen through intermediaries: a lens, a light that projected a series of still images captured in little rectangular cells fed mechanically through the “gate” of the projector. The sensation of movement depended upon mechanical “interruption” by a swinging arm, causing the alternation of image/blank/image,etc; film could be run through this mechanism at variable speeds—now fast, now slow. Once inside the cinema, watching the effects of this simple trick transported spectators to a world apart. They entered a machinated space, a world of movement seen only in the dark. Viewers gave themselves to this world of hallucinogenic images traveling on a beam of light, and intersecting, moving at different speeds within specific segments of time, rapidly alternating, overtaking one another, and morphing from one thing to another in the blink of an eye. The apparatus for filming movies, developing and projecting movies—the Cinematograph—was itself the first star of the Cinema—but likewise of Cubist painting. Cinema’s image imposed upon living figures fostered a new race of part automata and part human figures for Cubism—Mechanomorphs—who are caught in action in the paintings in repeated acts of self-creation.
The paintings of 1907 through 1914, beginning with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, tell the story of what, singly and together, Picasso and Braque made of this phenomenon. They used cinema as a catalytic agent—a deus ex machine—to shake the conventions of representation down to their foundations and restart them. Each painting became an opportunity to invent and to elaborate on a whole new set of formal strategies and technical operations that embodied a changed world view. For cubism was not a style so much as an aesthetic revolution, a “shock in the dark,” each painting a performance that instigated a profound change of artistic form, indeed the first new ocular form in 500 years of mankind’s vision of itself.