Pablo Picasso, Villa la Californie, Canne, 1957 - René Burri
Pablo Picasso, Villa la Californie, Canne, 1957 - René Burri

Gombrich Explains Picasso

The best-selling art historian on why critics were wrong to consider cubism 'an insult to their intelligence'

Get the bunting out, Modernists. Today, 25 October, is the 134th anniversary of Pablo Picasso's birth. It has been a good year for the late, great artist, with a well-received  Metropolitan Museum Cubism exhibition, and an equally acclaimed new Picasso sculpture exhibition at MoMA.

In her review of the MoMA show, the NY Times' Roberta Smith characterised the artist as "a magician, a magpie genius, a comedic entertainer and a tinkerer with superb reflexes"; while the Met classed Cubism as ”the most influential art movement of the early twentieth century.” High praise. Yet how should we understand his brilliance and influence? Let’s turn to the great art historian E.H. Gombrich, who describes the Picasso's Cubism as a reaction against formal, figurative art.


Nude in an Armchair (1909) by Pablo Picasso. From The Met's Cubism exhibition. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“Picasso was the son of a drawing master, and had been something of an infant prodigy in the Barcelona Art School,” writes Gombrich in the most popular art book ever, The Story of Art. “At the age of nineteen he came to Paris, where he painted subjects that would have pleased the Expressionists: beggars, outcasts, strollers and circus people.  But he evidently found no satisfaction in this, and began to study primitive art, to which Gauguin and perhaps also Matisse had drawn attention. We can imagine what he learned from these works: he learned how it is possible to build up an image of a face or an object out of a few very simple elements. This was something different from the simplification of the visual impression which the earlier artists had practiced. They had reduced the forms of nature to a flat pattern. Perhaps there were means of avoiding that flatness, of building up the picture of simple objects, yet retaining a sense of solidity and depth? 


Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) Glass of Absinthe. Paris, spring 1914. Painted bronze with absinthe spoon. 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 3 3/8” (21.6 x 16.4 x 8.5 cm), diameter at base 2 ½” (6.4 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Louise Reinhardt Smith. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“It was this problem which led Picasso back to Cézanne. In one of his letters to a young painter, Cézanne had advised him to look at nature in terms of spheres, cones and cylinders. He presumably meant that he should always keep these basic solid shapes in mind when organizing his pictures. But Picasso and his friends decided to take this advice literally. I suppose they reasoned somewhat like this: ‘We have long given up claiming that we represent things as they appear to our eyes. That was a will-o’-the-wisp which it is useless to pursue. We do not want to fix on the canvas the imaginary impression of a fleeting moment. Let us follow Cézanne’s example, and build up the picture of our motifs as solidly and enduringly as we can. 


Trees at L'Estaque (1908) by Georges Braque. From The Met's Cubism exhibition. he Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

“Of course, there is one drawback in this method of building up the image of an object, of which the originators of Cubism were very well aware. It can be done only with more or less familiar forms. Those who look at the picture must know what a violin looks like to be able to relate the various fragments in the picture to each other. This is the reason why Cubist painters usually chose familiar motifs – guitars, bottles, fruit bowls, or occasionally a human figure – where we can easily pick our way through the paintings and understand the relationship of these various parts. Not all people enjoy this game, and there is no reason why they should. But there is every reason why they should not misunderstand the artists’ purpose. Critics considered it an insult to their intelligence to be expected to believe that a violin ‘looks like that’. But there never was any question of an insult. If anything the artist paid them a compliment. He assumed that they knew what a violin looked like, and that they did not come to his pictures to receive this elementary information. He invited them to share with him in this sophisticated game of building up the idea of a tangible solid object out of the few flat fragments on his canvas.”

For further insight into how Gombrich saw an earlier, equally disruptive artist read this extract on Turner. For a richer insight into art history, buy a copy of The Story of Art here.