It has become conventional to ask of Picasso’s early work how he came to invent Cubism, the style fundamental to the course of 20th-century aesthetics. Its influence can be seen in abstraction (Mondrian’s gridded panels), Surrealism and Expressionism; in the readymade and in Dada’s exploitation of industrial raw materials (John Heartfield’s political photomontages would have been impossible without collage); and even Abstract Expressionism (as Clement Greenberg argued, the little pockets of ‘depth’ that pucker the surfaces of Cubist paintings presage the hills and crannies in paintings by de Kooning and Pollock). Early commentaries on the movement focused on the notion of the fourth dimension as the vital element in Picasso’s sweeping reconception of the experience of reality; the argument was that in showing successive sides of an object as though the viewer were circumnavigating it, Cubist paintings represented time as well as space. (This fascination with temporality was pursued by the Futurists, who wanted the viewer swept up into the cacophony and whirlwind of the modern city.)
This emphasis on time was soon set aside by Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, whose elegant The Rise of Cubism (1920) provided a formal reading of Picasso’s gradual dismantling of the components of representation: first colour and then volume. Taking up where Kahnweiler left off, Greenberg sketched out the way in which Picasso drew more and more volume from the pictorial field, achieving a flatness and opacity of the literal surface that anticipated collage (Picasso, Braque and Gris would also call attention to the picture surface by stencilling letters onto it in the manner of sign-writers).
After Greenberg, it became routine to parse Picasso’s work from this period as a march towards flatness. Leo Steinberg was the first to challenge this in his 1972 essay ‘The Philosophical Brothel’, a painstaking reading of Picasso’s earliest major painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), based on the more than fifty preparatory drawings for the picture. Steinberg shows that the image flattens as the drawings progress and as Picasso searches for a way to press its contents, and their sexual innuendo, on the viewer. He urges us to feel, empathically, Picasso’s concomitant struggle against this collapse in volume: ‘No terms taken from other art – whether from antecedent paintings or from Picasso’s own subsequent Cubism – describe the drama of so much depth under stress. This is an interior space in compression, like the inside of pleated bellows, like the feel of an inhabited pocket, a contracting sheath heated by the massed human presence.’
Formal analyses have been displaced over the last few decades by an approach based on historical literalism, as scholars have busied themselves reading the newsprint accounts pasted into Picasso’s collages of the Balkan War of 1912-13, for example, and using them as a basis for speculation about his political convictions. Thus a battlefield report of slaughter and the outbreak of typhoid glued to a still life featuring a SUZE bottle is taken as evidence that Picasso was campaigning against France’s involvement in a war being fought mainly for the enrichment of the military-industrial complex. More recently, a wave of semiological analysis has tried to restore a sense of Picasso’s formal intelligence, arguing that his use of newsprint, wallpaper and other materials succeeded in constructing visual meanings – or experiences for the viewer – such as ‘sunlight’, ‘depth’ and ‘opacity’, but in such a way that the materials function as signs for these experiences and not representations of them.
Entering an overwhelmingly crowded field, Pepe Karmel’s Picasso and the Invention of Cubism stakes its claim to independence in two ways: its use of empiricist philosophies of perception to inform the Cubist separation of perceptual data into visual and tactile registers; and its vituperation of recent semiological analyses of the movement. (I should mention at this point that I am the author of a study of Picasso-and-the-invention-of-Cubism and of essays fundamental to this semiological approach.) The book is lucid, if elephantine in the pace of its exposition. Slowly but surely taking us through Picasso’s dismantling of traditional representation in the years following the Demoiselles d’Avignon and the struggle for a new pictorial syntax in the early 1910s, Karmel touches the usual bases: the adoption of tiny, canted planes to depict objects of vision (the broken, tilted shards of ‘debris’ in Ma Jolie) and then the installation of the Cubist grid, the scaffold that reiterates the picture’s rectilinear format as well as providing a coherent framework in which the shards of the image itself can be organised and thereby ‘unified’. This grid admits line into the Cubist field, but only as an element dissociated from the volumetric, tactile implications of the tilted, shallow planes. It’s the need to account for this feature of Cubism – the separation of linear shape from three-dimensional volume – that leads Karmel to insist on the importance of Lockean empiricism to a proper understanding of Cubism. According to Locke, there are no patterns of spatial arrangement ‘hard-wired’ into the brain. Instead, visual data have to be acquired piecemeal, then connected through a process of association to tactile information, gathered just as slowly. In Karmel’s hands, however, this idea is not – and perhaps never could be – used to explain why Picasso and Braque would reduce ‘everything, places and figures and houses, to geometrical schemes, to cubes’ (as one contemporary critic complained). Empiricism leaves the central aspect of Cubism as mysterious as when Karmel came to it.
Perhaps this is because Karmel assents to the ‘empiricist insistence on the primacy of the optical’ over the tactile; Locke held that we can never perceive depth directly but only by combining visual perception with past and present sensations of other kinds. Karmel accounts for the progressive flattening and compression of Cubist space by appealing to the influence of earlier examples – Impressionism was one – of such optical ascendancy. But, as Steinberg showed, Cubism arose from Picasso and Braque’s urgent need to add the experience of volume to the compressed space of their paintings. Karmel has nothing to say about the origin of this need or how it expresses itself in their works, even though for many this is the crux. He is able to see that, in the breakthrough paintings, ‘the facets were now prised apart and rearranged into overlapping planes, instead of meeting edge to edge. The figure itself, as well as its setting, was now structured around a series of advancing planes. Sculptural mass was transformed into sculptural volume.’ But he doesn’t appreciate something other scholars have thought important, that Picasso’s recourse to ‘sculptural volume’ seems to have been triggered by portraits of his friends and lovers and thus, perhaps, by his distress at the realisation that – as Karmel has it – ‘even if we think we see three-dimensional figures and objects, these images are not the result of direct perception but are constructed from a combination of past and present sensations.’ What could it be like for an artist, especially one as fluent as Picasso, to think that his work was not ‘the result of direct perception’?
Karmel turns his attention to semiological analysis when he comes to consider the collages of the early 1910s. No one reading his introduction to the basics of structural linguistics and the analyses of Yve-Alain Bois (or myself) could possibly understand what led us to take this detour through the semiotic. Karmel’s own understanding is debilitated by his decision to use Picasso’s drawings as the basis of his study, for drawing’s current washes it ceaselessly against the shores of figurative representation (or, in semio-speak, ‘iconicity’). Bois’s analysis was triggered at the time of MoMA’s 1984 exhibition ‘Primitivism’ and 20th-Century Art by his disgust with discussions about the way primitive art affected the history of Modernism. He believes that Picasso’s originality lay in his break with an imitative connection to the primitive (borrowing the shape of a nose, the protrusion of the belly-button, the deformations of the torso and so on) in order to invent a structural one. Picasso was inspired by a Grebo mask he owned and understood that it set up a play of oppositions: the cylindrical projections of eyes, for example, were given meaning by their contrast with the flatness of the facial plane.
It was Saussure who stressed that opposition was the fundamental mechanism of the sign. Signs needn’t look like what they represent (such signs are called icons), nor need they be caused by it (‘indexes’, such as smoke from a fire); instead, they are place-holders in a system in which they are associated with their opposites, forming what Structuralism calls a paradigm (male/female, black/white, S/Z etc). Karmel, displaying a paradoxical desire to join the semiological fashion even while he disparages it, adopts the oxymoron ‘synecdochic sign’ to refer to details, like a watch-fob or a moustache, that make it possible to identify enigmatic upheavals of shard-like planes as ‘suit coat’ or ‘face’. Pierre Daix, a prominent Picasso scholar, lends credence to this idea when he reports Picasso’s aversion to abstraction and his insistence on using ‘a few small signs, like the eyes, that make the things spill over into a non-abstract universe’. For the structural linguist, however, signs are never synecdochic; they are oppositional in the same way that the eye-sockets and cranium of the Grebo mask were oppositional for Picasso. The semiological reading of collage focuses on the sign as a means of getting at visual meaning without directly illustrating it. In my own work, I have drawn attention to the way in which Picasso gave the ƒ-holes of the violins in his still lifes wildly differing sizes in order to call up the idea of foreshortening – the telescoping or compression of a form as it swivels perpendicular to one’s plane of vision – in order to inscribe ‘depth’ on the collage surface. Another example is Picasso’s use of the texture of newsprint’s syncopated pattern of black and white to code ‘air’ and ‘light’ (here there is a comparison with Seurat’s Pointillist use of colour dots to render sunlight). That he would want his viewers actually to read these columns of type seems absurd, given the formal and semiotic role they play. Karmel’s recourse to the ‘synecdochic sign’ robs these devices of their abstraction by continually marking the various elements with their supposed ‘identity’. Thus, he writes that the ‘ƒ-shaped sound-holes evoke the larger configuration of a violin. One troubling aspect of these composite signs is their incompleteness. Certain details of the motif are described with precision, while others must be guessed at.’ But it is drawing that ‘describes with precision’; the use of coded signs is always a system of implication.
Karmel not only misunderstands the basic lesson of structuralism, but also scants the historical evidence set out by those he seems to consider his adversaries. Bois supports his structural reading by reproducing a photograph Picasso took of his studio wall, in which we can see a little sculpture of a guitar, drawn directly from the Grebo mask, positioned in the midst of his earliest collages as if it were the maternal origin from which they all sprang. That Karmel cannot (or will not) acknowledge the power of this argument attests to his lack of scholarly decorum or courtesy, a fault all too common at present.