Part 2: research point 2 and Reading 3

RP2 Explore early cubist works of Picasso and Braque. What were the influences on Cubism, how did Cubism represent the 3D quality of objects, what similarities are there in this to non-western approaches?

About a year ago, I did a Coursera course led by Corey D’Augustine of MoMA. It was about modern art – what it is and how to understand it. One of D’Augustine’s talents, in addition to excellent communication skills, is an ability to demonstrate the painting techniques of a variety of artists and one of these was Picasso’s cubism. While he paints, he teaches and the message comes across with the words intrinsically connected to the visuals. This is the video:

The impetus behind cubism appears to have been a dissatisfaction with earlier attempts to paint an illusion of three dimensions, calling it ‘trickery’, and driving then towards what was seen as a more honest approach. This was the amalgamation of different planes of perspective so that the viewer in effect is exposed to all aspects of the object in the painting simultaneously. D’Augustino demonstrates walking round his still life assembly and painting each aspect as he sees it into the same flat surface, suggesting that the advent of photography may have contributed to a more cerebral approach to painting once a documentary approach had become less relevant.

From the Tate site: “In around 1907 two artists living in Paris called Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed a revolutionary new style of painting which transformed everyday objects, landscapes, and people into geometric shapes. In 1908 art critic Louis Vauxcelles, saw some landscape paintings by Georges Braque … in an exhibition in Paris, and described them as ‘bizarreries cubiques’ which translates as ‘cubist oddities’ – and the term cubism was coined.All about cubism – Look Closer | Tate Accessed 24 May 2021.

Intriguingly, the effort to challenge the ‘trickery’ of earlier approaches to the representation of solidity gives rise to a flat image into which it’s impossible to imagine walking.

How is this similar to some non-western approaches? Chinese art comes immediately to mind because the unusual perspectives which create a kind of a list of elements, one beneath the other in a vertical aspect. I would liken this to Chinese text – pictograms travelling downwards in lines rather than left to right (or right to left in some cultures). The image as a whole is flat in the same way as are the cubist works.

Red Interior – Matisse. How is he challenging conventions of western perspective? How does this impact on me as viewer? Matisse seems to have taken a leaf from the Chinese book of painting, essentially listing the contents of the room with no real foreground/middleground/background perspective. Even the open door, which might have provided a spatial anchor, is disrupted by the red paint, itself ruptured by zigzags of black or perhaps blue in a pattern continuous with the walls and floors it represents. I’m not at all taken with it, it appears to my eye to be raw, flat, and rather meaningless.

R3: Tender Buttons – Gertrude Stein. How does her use of language resonate with the visual work of the Cubists? Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein: Experiment in Cubist Poetry, or Literary Prank? ( Gertrude Stein – Wikipedia

From what I’ve read of Gertrude Stein, I’d say she was probably not above taking a dig at the pretentious, mostly male, literati, and the female glitterati in attendance. I think this series of poems is a ‘cut it up and write it down as it falls’ exercise that gave her an opportunity to observe literary tailors, expert in fashioning fantasy clothing, cut invisible cloth for their naked Emperors. When it comes to subjectivity, you can only fool those who are both willing to be fooled and simultaneously afraid of being out of step.

Stein spent some time working with William James, an eminent psychologist whose bent was pragmatism and empiricism. With Carl Lang, he was the originator of the James-Lang theory of emotion which put body functions above cognition in the experience of feelings: “The theory holds that emotion is the mind’s perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James’s oft-cited example, it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run; we see a bear and run; consequently, we fear the bear. Our mind’s perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc. is the emotion.” Stein would have been steeped in this kind of thinking and, given that she is also reputed to have been extremely bright, likely to have found her way round a good many psychological ideas current at the time. I doubt she was a woman to miss a trick when it came to pulling the psychological wool over the subjectivity of the literary community.

Asked to give a lecture to a group of Baltimore women in 1899, Stein gave a controversial speech titled “The Value of College Education for Women”, undoubtedly designed to provoke the largely middle-class audience. In the lecture Stein maintained:

“average middle class woman [supported by] some male relative, a husband or father or brother,…[is] not worth her keep economically considered. [This economic dependence caused her to become] oversexed…adapting herself to the abnormal sex desire of the male…and becoming a creature that should have been first a human being and then a woman into one that is a woman first and always.”

Rudacille, Deborah. “Baltimore Blues”Style Magazine. Archived from the original on May 28, 2012. Retrieved October 17,2012.


That said, I can see why Cubism may have been a good place to park these poems, not least the fact that her home appears to have been “an amazing museum of their baffling output.” (unattributed review, Chicago Tribune,1914). She was steeped in it both as an output and also as a social milieu. So are these prose poems?

According to the definition posted by the Poetry Foundation, a prose poem is “[a] prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry[.]“, so I thought I’d have a look at a couple of Stein’s to see if I could identify these elements. But after scrutinising several I found, as with most puzzles, I needed a key; some other component that would help decode them. Was that the context? Stein’s conversations or ideas that a contemporary – or perhaps someone who knew her well – would recognise perhaps?

Granted, I’m not a literary theorist of any sort but, beyond strangeness of language that would not be out of place in an early Pink Floyd album, I’m struggling to see anything other than stream of consciousness (if it’s even that) syntactically sound, grammatically correct, randomness. The sentences are structurally coherent but make no sense; to whit, “A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt colour and an arrangement in a system to pointing.” (Stein, c 1914). If there are metaphors and symbols here, I am missing them by a wide mark. Pryor, on the other hand, in an online lesson for, suggests that, “Stein forces her readers to reexamine their associations and preconceptions about buttons and all other common, everyday objects. The experimental nature of Stein’s collection is also apparent in the syntax Stein uses. Her poems are full of rhythm and sound. Stein uses odd syntax that sometimes does not make logical sense, but she is always aware of the sound of her poems.”

Maybe this is true but actually I’d like to think Stein was much more wicked and witty than that. In fact, according to her Wikipedia page, “[i]n 1934, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner interpreted Stein’s difficult poem Tender Buttons as an example of normal motor automatism. In a letter Stein wrote during the 1930s, she explained that she never accepted the theory of automatic writing: “[T]here can be automatic movements, but not automatic writing. Writing for the normal person is too complicated an activity to be indulged in automatically.” Buttons was deliberate and I strongly suspect it was a firework tossed into the pretension of the largely male literary community and nothing to do with Cubism at all beyond the zeitgeist.

All About Cubism. Unattributed undated article via The Tate. [online] Available at All about cubism – Look Closer | Tate. Accessed 24 May 2021.

A.S. Byatt interview, Cultural Exchange with Mark Lawson re Matisse’s Red Studio.

Chicago Tribune, 1914. In Tender Buttons: by Gertrude Stein: experiment in Cubist poetry or literary prank? Literary Ladies Guide. [online] Available at Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein: Experiment in Cubist Poetry, or Literary Prank? (

Prose Poem definition. The Poetry Foundation (undated). [online] Available at Prose poem | Poetry Foundation

Stein, G. c 1914. A carafe, that is a blind glass. In Tender Buttons. Copy dated 2015 via Gutenberg eBooks.

Pryor, M. (undated). An introduction to Tender Buttons. lesson transcript. [online] Available at Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein: Analysis & Concept – Video & Lesson Transcript | Accessed 24 May 2021.

B.F. Skinner quote: Wikipedia. [online] Available at Gertrude Stein – Wikipedia. Accessed 24 May 2021.

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