Sunday, May 26, 2013

Picasso’s 1911 Accordionist: Some Related Thoughts

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

In July of 1911, Picasso went to the French Pyrenees town of Céret, and there waited somewhat impatiently for Braque to arrive so they could continue annihilating traditional notions of artistic representation. We can thank noted art historians - Roland Penrose, Douglas Cooper, John Golding - for amalgamating anecdotal material on Picasso and Braque’s cubist collaboration. Braque said he and Picasso were “mountaineers roped together,” and Picasso called Braque “his wife.” Picasso’s assertion that for a while their work was so similar they were unable to distinguish by whom it was made is rhetorically enshrined. It was John Richardson who mined correspondence to offer the enlightening commentary that in Céret Picasso acquired a monkey whose testicles he admired. The animal had “two noble balls,” Picasso told Apollinaire in a letter.

For many, Picasso’s 1907 Les Demoiselles marks the beginning of cubism, although I make the case for his 1906 Portrait of Gertrude Stein, but it requires a close look at the interlocking planes and angularity in that rotund figure’s facial features to accept this as plausible. What is irrefutable is that the paintings Picasso and Braque created while working in Céret, Picasso’s 1911 Accordionist and 1911 Landscape at Céret, and Braque’s 1911-12 Le Portugaise and 1911 Rooftops, Céret, represent cubism at its most perfect moment. Their innovative practice was to disassemble pictorial form by means of fragmentation, faceting, planarity, angularity, atonal coloring, and unexpected translucence, the result being masterpieces of analytic cubism that revolutionized art. Picasso’s seminal Accordionist is included in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Picasso Black and White exhibition, and is the inspiration for this essay.

Pablo Picasso, Accordionist, Céret, summer 1911, oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In his multi-volume biography, John Richardson cites Golding on Picasso and Braque’s accomplishments at Céret:
nothing would excel the feat they brought off at Céret, when the two of them pooled their prodigious resources - their very different skills and powers of invention and imagination. As Golding says, it was “a moment of poise and equilibrium.”
Like Richardson, David Sylvester had profound appreciation for the work completed by the two artists at Céret and assigned “unassailable authority” to the early cubist paintings, but not without making a catty remark about Richardson. Sylvester said Richardson understood the extent to which the artists inspired each other, but insufficiently grasped their mysterious intellectual bond. In the process of subverting six centuries of European painting, Sylvester wrote, Picasso and Braque “achieved a perfect combination of intellectual curiosity and instinctive response as they worked away as if under a spell.” “The mystery isn’t quite evoked by Richardson,” he continued, “but perhaps it is impossible for a book to be both a thorough biography and an altogether satisfying critical study.” Did Sylvester hiss at Richardson because Richardson is a better writer?

Let me recommend art historian Robert Rosenblum’s writings on early cubism. He offers a fine encapsulation of the era’s stylistic developments, and is particularly helpful with the distinctions between analytic and synthetic cubism. Rosenblum’s is an intellectually elevated, multi-disciplined approach to early cubism, as illustrated below.
In so creating a many-leveled world of dismemberment and discontinuity, Picasso and Braque are paralleled in the other arts. For example, their almost exact contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, demonstrates a new approach to musical structure that might well be called “Cubist.” Often his melodic line-– especially in “Le Sacre du printemps” (1912 13) - is splintered into fragmentary motifs by rhythmic patterns as jagged and shifting as the angular planes of Cubist painting and equally destructive of a traditional sense of fluid sequence. Similarly, Stravinsky’s experiments in polytonality, as in “Petrouchka” (1911), where two different tonalities (C and F# major in the most often cited example) are sounded simultaneously, provide close analogies to the multiple images of Cubism, which destroy the possibility of an absolute reading of the work of art. In literature as well, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (both born within a year of Picasso and Braque) were to introduce “Cubist” techniques in novels like “Ulysses” (composed between 1914 and 1921) and “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925). In both these works the narrative sequence is limited in time to the events of one day; and, as in a Cubist painting, these events are recomposed in a complexity of multiple experiences and interpretations that evoke the simultaneous and contradictory fabric of reality itself. [Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and 20th Century Art]
Art historian Jack Flam would agree with Rosenblum that cubism’s fragmentation, ambiguity and indeterminacy evoke the nature of reality. In his opinion the cubists were aiming for “truth” underlying visual experience. Flam spoke of Braque’s “conscious mysticism.”

Let’s end with Joyce. In his book of annotations and essays written to help readers understand Joyce’s complex allusions, Stuart Gilbert points out another example of Joyce’s cubistic fragmentation. Speaking through his character Stephen Dedalus in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Joyce shares his aesthetic vision: “What I call the rhythm of beauty is the first formal aesthetic relation of part to part in any aesthetic whole or of an aesthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the aesthetic whole of which it is a part.” How interesting that Gertrude Stein, whose sandals Apollinaire called “Delphic,” said in her biography that Picasso named Braque and James Joyce as “the two incomprehensibles.”

Picasso Black and White, which includes Accordionist, is open through Sunday, May 27, at the MFAH.



  1. Thank you, Robert, for bringing these interpretations together. Not sure about the "truth" being an aim of visual experience by these two giants.

    1. Harvey--Thank Virginia Billeaud Anderson. She wrote this piece.