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Cubism at the Tate Gallery

Updated on June 13, 2013

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When I visited the Tate Gallery in the past, I would follow the crowds and briefly stop at each painting trying to understand what I was looking at. Each time I went, the gallery would have so many fantastic pieces of art on display, I would feel overwhelmed by it all. I never used to go with the intension to learn anything and I never understood the work that went into what I was seeing. I just enjoyed looking at the art. These visits were before I had a real passion for art, before I wanted to actually learn anything from a gallery experience. Surprisingly, I would never leave feeling inspired or with the knowledge that I had actually understood anything.

My recent visit was different, this time I went prepared. I went with the sole purpose of looking at Cubism, hoping to learn something new about this movement. This gave me the chance to focus on one subject and learn from the gallery without being distracted by all the other art in the building. I believe this is the best way to learn from a gallery.

I discovered that The Tate provides the perfect lesson for understanding Cubism. The Gallery has works of Cubism on display that were painted by the movement’s two main creators.

I knew about Picasso and how he was instrumental in the discovery of cubism but it was thanks to The Tate that I learned about Pablo Picasso’s good friend, colleague and joint discoverer of Cubism, ‘Georges Braque’. Seeing his beautiful works, which are so important to the Cubism movement has inspired me and given me a better understanding of Cubism.

Georges Braque was born in France in 1882. His early works were impressionist paintings which he successfully exhibited. His style eventually evolved as he was becoming more interested in geometry and simultaneous perspectives. By the beginning of 1909 Braque began to work closely with Pablo Picasso who had a similar approach to painting. The invention of Cubism was a joint effort between Braque and Picasso.

I have picked two of Braque’s paintings to try to understand Cubism. I wanted to study these paintings and learn why Cubism was such a profound discovery. By choosing two paintings I could explore and compare the styles, techniques and similarities and realise what these strange looking, sometimes illegible paintings meant, what they were showing.


Pablo Picasso


By Georges braque
By Georges braque

The fifth floor at Tate Modern is called STATES OF FLUX and all of the Cubism is in room two. There are many amazing works of Cubism on display in this large white room. The first piece of Cubism that really caught my eye was a piece by Georges Braque called ‘Bottle and Fishes.’

As I approached the piece I thought it looked like a Picasso. This was the first painting I had seen by Georges Braque and I was immediately fascinated. A standing bottle can be made out on the left hand side of the painting, which tells me that this is a still-life. The colours do not correspond with their colours in reality and apart from the bottle, only fish heads are legible, but this does not matter, this is an amazing piece of art.

The background seems to be blended with the foreground giving the impression, almost like, the objects and everything else in the painting are as one. With the absence of a horizon on the left and the bottle neck being blended in with the background it gives the painting a smooth, one entity feeling. The only way to distinguish the foreground and the background is the horizon line on the right of the painting. This is the edge of the table or whatever the objects are standing on. A Bottle and Fishes would not normally be considered very interesting items to paint, but I believe Braque has chosen objects without any meaning to demonstrate that everyday objects can be just as interesting in this new reality.

It is characteristic for most Cubist still-lifes that they combine only a few objects. Sometimes these reveal something about the habits of the artists, such as Braque’s picture Bottle and Fishes which creates associations with living conditions on the Mediterranean.”

This painting is an excellent example of Cubism. It shows Cubism has no boundaries, no restrictions for what can be shown. Cubism gives the artist the power to create a new composition from the old, turning an everyday mundane boring object into something thought provoking. It gives the artist the power to transform reality by turning it upside down or inside out, into frontal views, views from above, below or from the sides and all this at once if desired, showing multiple viewpoints in one composition. Cubism brings the 3D world onto a 2D platform in an intellectual way without having to follow the rules of perspective


Georges Braque


By Georges Braque
By Georges Braque

The second Cubism painting I picked by Georges Braque was called ‘Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a mantelpiece’. This piece was even more ambiguous than the first, possibly because there is more objects to paint. The more viewpoints available to a Cubism artist, I believe, would result in a more intricate design as there is more to show the viewer. He only used two main subdued colours because Braque believed that bright colours would distract the viewer from the paintings structure. Like the first painting, the background is blended and interlined with the paintings content. This could be considered a consequence of cubism because if you paint an object from so many different viewpoints, the background would change just as much as the object itself so they become part of the same thing.

The clarinet lies in the centre behind a bottle of rum with the letters RHU, the first three letters of the French word for Rum. In this painting Braque is using music as his theme, throughout, he has painted in music clefs and in the bottom right there is what looks like the end of the mantelpiece. Also, the word Valse can be read just below the centre which means Waltz. So I believe Braque was trying to show a fun scene with music and dancing.

As well as painting the objects in the title, Braque is trying to create an atmosphere. He wanted to evoke feelings into the viewer with his music and dancing references. This adds another dimension to the painting and enables us to view it from yet another angle.

When we experience the world around us we ‘see’ it in many different ways; some, such as our visual sense, our sense of hearing and touch, are obvious. Others are less apparent: smell and taste, past knowledge and experience.


Georges Braque

Georges Braque’s Cubism works have been so important to the art world. Together with Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris they managed to completely change the rules of painting. They discovered a style of painting that not only involved the viewer and his thoughts but also revealed a way to paint that showed so much more to the viewer. They agreed with Paul Cezanne’s belief that perspective was not important. In fact, they considered perspective to be a hindrance because it restricted their creativity. With the introduction of photography towards the end of the 19th century, there was no longer a need for real looking paintings anymore as a photograph could be taken instead. So, the cubists abandoned perspective and started to paint how they wanted to, without rules they had previously followed. They wanted to show that an object looked different from different angles. Unfortunately, they knew that they could not show that while showing the way the object looked in real life in the same painting. They eventually decided they would show how an object looked from different angles and not concentrate how the object looked from one particular viewpoint. So, if a cubist wanted to paint a house for example, it would be shown as simply a cube and a triangle. This was to become a profound discovery and was called ANALYTIC CUBISM.

They say that God see’s everything. If so, I wonder if I was to look through his eyes, maybe I’ll see a Cubist world.

When I first saw Georges Braque’s work in The Tate Modern I would never have known that I would learn so much about Cubism while researching two of his paintings. I now stand by my earlier statement that the best way to learn from a gallery is to go with the intension of looking at one particular style, painter or movement. This enabled me to concentrate fully on my subject and learn so much about Cubism. This would not have been possible if I went unprepared not knowing what I wanted to learn about because there is so much to learn from a galley, most pieces in the Tate have a history and a story behind them.

By Richard Reeve (SITE HERO)

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    • RosWebbART profile image

      Ros Webb 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      Great hub ; love the Tate!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Excellent Hub - I too am an admirer of Braque from way back. Thanks for highlighting this important artist.

      Love and peace



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