The hostility which arose against cubism would be enough to prove that it was indeed a revolution: the vocabulary, the syntax, the meaning and even the space of painting were questioned. ‘Everything is recognisable, and yet misguiding…’ says Beckett. Continuous research led to an entirely new conception and vision of the act of painting and of its purpose. Cezanne’s famous laconic piece of advice to Emile Bernard in 1904, can be considered as the starting point. ‘Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone, everything in proper perspective…’. Even if the Aix master appears as the initial reference, ‘Cezannism ‘ will soon be questioned, overtaken and renewed, both in content and in spirit, by two young painters: Braque and Picasso.
The word “cubism” will at first be used in derision to describe a series of pictures painted by Braque at L’Estaque in 1908; then, by extension, it will refer to a number of artists who, by diverting the new course, will adopt only the geometrization of the surface, grouped together under the sign of the ‘Section d’Or’. Braque and Picasso’s cubism – and only theirs – determined the first great plastic revolution of the 20th century. It was to be exploited by the cubists.
In 1906, the Louvre exhibits Iberian sculptures from the Osuna and Cerro de los Santos excavations which reveal to Picasso the primitive art of his own country, and at the same time the Gauguin retrospective in the Salon d’Automne underlines the “barbarian” primitivist influences in the work of the Atuana exile. In Gosol, a small Catalan village, during the summer, Picasso creates violently schematic figures in which he replaces the face by a mask – that is how he concludes the portrait of Gertrude Stein. In the spring of the same year, he had met Matisse, also fascinated by African art, known then as “Negro art”.
Cezanne dies on the 23rd October, 1906, Braque studies his teachings on constructive and simplifactory harmony at L’Estaque where he worked a great deal; he remains there until February. He says later on that ‘he applied himself to submitting’ his own paintings ‘to the influence of light, atmosphere, the effect of rain which revived colour…’ of the Aix master. His watercolours, exhibited at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, in June 1907, and in the Salon d’Automne retrospective, will have a great impact on young artists.
During these extraordinarily eventful and productive first years of the century, two main trends emerge in the research and preoccupations of the young painters: on the one hand Cezanne’s construction and apprehension of space, colour and light, and on the other, the expressive violence of the Negro, Oceanic or Egyptian primitives. Iberian for Picasso, who begins in March 1907 his first studies for the composition that will become, after several variations, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In the Salon des Independants where Braque shows some of his Cezannian paintings from L’Estaque, Picasso sees Matisse’s Blue Nude, a primitivist, hedonistic vision which causes a scandal because of its distortions and crude colours – pink and blue – and Derain’s Bathers in which the volumes are sharply and strikingly cut out with hard schematic lines.
Thus without any form of premeditation, the various elements which lead up to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are laid out. Using a Cezannian construction of figures in space, and stimulated by the revelation Derain’s Bathers, Picasso attempts to surpass them, to go further, by an even more geometrization of volumes which, making use of Gauguin’s primitivism, will lead to a radicalisation of set influences; his figures, thanks to the painter’s exceptional visual memory, tend to merge with Iberian heads, African masks, with the Oceanian and Polynesian tribal art shown in the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero; the impact of this exhibition will cause Picasso to reshape the second half of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, without altering the first half. “I wondered whether I should start all over again. But then I said no to myself: ‘No they’ll understand what I intended to do…’”, declares Picasso, more sure of himself than his future public.