Cubism vs. Illusionism : A Mini-Analysis of Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, oil on oil-cloth over canvas edged with rope, 29 x 37 cm (Musée Picasso)

In the early 1900s, a revolutionary avant-garde art movement called Cubism was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Cubism served to dismantle the notion of illusionism, not only in the way in which figures and elements were broken down and reconstructed, but in the way it challenged the pre-established idea of how paintings offer a window through which we view our reality. Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning exemplifies many of the features of cubism’s innovations.

Previously, artists devoted much time and energy into developing techniques in order to create images from a single vantage point and moment in time, such as linear perspective. Picasso, however, defies these concepts by offering many views of the elements in this artwork, such as the way he has disconfigured the pipe and the wine glass and illustrated their components from varying angles. By doing this, Picasso, in a genius way, creates different levels of reality by capturing the illusion of time in a still life painting, which almost makes no sense, at least until one considers how we actually experience the world around us — each moment fleeting and from a different, even if slight, perspective.

Picasso also shatters the concept of the three-dimensional aspect of linear perspective and further plays with the intention of creating different levels of reality by pasting an industrially-created chair cane replication directly onto his canvas, a collage technique he borrowed from Braque. Although this image, alongside elements that have very intentionally been rendered in paint to appear flat, yet, by his use of shadow, almost inexplicably at the same time voluminous, is clearly two-dimensional, Picasso creates the illusion that this is what we can conceive to be the chair that is tucked under the cafe table that serves as the base for this still life painting. By implementing this clever approach, Picasso creates new ways of experiencing the dimensions of both physicality and actuality.

In his use of this collage technique, Picasso also took a bold step by confronting ideas surrounding craft versus art. In Still Life with Chair Caning, he presents the question of whether images or elements of a piece not rendered by the artist’s hand reduces the quality of the artwork. In doing so, he demonstrates that perhaps art is more about philosophical exploration than it is about attempting to create a convincing replica of the limited reality we experience in only snapshots of time and space.

art historian. writer.

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