Back to Du "Cubisme" index
Back to Introduction index


(a) The terms as used by D.H.Kahnweiler 

I am suggesting, then, that Kahnweiler's book does not present an idea of Cubism that is very different from that of Gleizes and Metzinger and, in particular, that it does not, as one might have expected, provide us with an insight into the practise of Picasso and Braque as distinct from that of Gleizes and Metzinger. Picasso and Braque were notoriously reluctant to share their secrets with anyone and there is little reason to think they made an exception of Kahnweiler. The painter who did share his secrets with Kahnweiler was Gris, and Gris was closer to Metzinger than he was to Picasso or Braque. 

Returning to the two currents of thought I have identified in On "Cubism" - the recognition that the strength of a painting derives from characteristics that are purely plastic in nature, and the effort to find new ways of representing the object - Kahnweiler, like Gleizes and Metzinger, gives voice to both positions when, in The Rise of Cubism, he tries to sum up the achievement of Picasso and Braque: 

'What did they want? On the one hand to find once again the unity of the work of art but on the other to give the greatest quantity of information on the object represented.' (pp.42-3) 

But the whole emphasis of his interest is on the way in which the object is represented, not on the purely plastic qualities - the means by which 'the unity of the work of art' can be achieved. There is almost nothing in Kahnweiler that reflects the purely plastic considerations of Gleizes and Metzinger, either in On "Cubism" or elsewhere. 

Kahnweiler continues: 

'This period of Cubism - which can be said to come to an end around 1914 - one can justifiably call its analytical period.' 

Talking of the work of the period after 1914 he says: 

'The ways of Picasso and Braque could easily be criticised as synthetic Cubism right up to those late years when Picasso runs off into totally different spheres' (p.45. 'Les voies de Picasso et de Braque peuvent très bien être taxées de cubisme synthétique, jusqu'à ces années tardives où Picasso s'évade vers des sphères totalement différentes.' The word 'taxé' suggests disapproval) 

(b) Alfred Barr and Daniel Robbins 

The terms 'analytical' and 'synthetic' - also, of course, evocative of Kant - were to have a great future in the historiography of Cubism. Their role has been discussed by Daniel Robbins. They were used by Alfred Barr in his Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) to describe separate and successive phases of the history of Cubism, and since then this distinction, which Barr uses with a comparatively light touch, became hardened into an absurd meaningless dogma into which all the painters of the period were expected to fit. As Robbins puts it: 

'The most glaring of these [flaws in the system] ... was that the Cubist artists did not march in lock step across the same evolutionary phases of development, that the artists Metzinger, Le Fauconnier, Gleizes, Delaunay, and Léger - precisely those who were labelled "cubists" during the Salon des Indépendants of 1911 - did not fit comfortably into the categories of analytical and synthetic, which had been formulated without serious consideration of their work ...the stages of development proposed in the Barr system ... excluded them from full participation in the Cubist movement, or else relegated them to minor, satellite roles.' (27)

27   Robbins: Historiography, p.282.

He also likens it, rather prettily, to Cinderella's slipper into which the big feet of the ugly sisters (Gleizes and Metzinger) could not fit. 

Robbins suggests that Kahnweiler, with his 'Kantian' orientation, is at the origin of the use these terms, even if he uses them very differently from Barr. He suggests that Juan Gris, when he uses them in 1924 (in reply to an Inquiry launched by G.Janneau (28)) probably derived them from Kahnweiler. It is, however, much more likely that Kahnweiler in 1914/15 derived them from Gris or from other painters. Indeed Kahnweiler himself says as much in his book Juan Gris

'That is what has since been called - and I think it was Gris who was the first to give it the name - 'analytical cubism' (p.203) 

28   Bulletin de la Vie Artistique, 6th year, no.1, 1st January 1925, pp.15-17. Reprinted in Kahnweiler: Juan Gris, pp. 357-9: 'now that yesterday's analysis has been transformed into synthesis by the expression of the relations between the objects themselves ...'

(c) The terms as used by Gleizes and Metzinger 

The terms were very much commonplaces of the time and can be found in different contexts in the texts republished here. Gauguin called his art 'synthetism'. Both Neo-Impressionism (breaking the colour into its component parts) and Cubism (breaking the form into its component parts) could be interpreted as essentially arts of analysis. The connection between Impressionism and Cubism as arts of analysis is drawn by Metzinger in Cubist Technique

'Although the aesthetic adventure of Impressionism ended in failure it did show us that colour gains in expressive power when, instead of simply applying it to the canvas, we place side by side small patches of the basic elements of each of the tones we use.  It is the same analytical spirit that is guiding us, but the general context has changed. It is no longer by vibrations of the sun that the world about us is formed, but rather by vibrations of the mind.' 

Barr associates the transition from analytical to synthetic with the introduction of the papier collé and sees it as more or less accomplished in the work of Picasso and Braque in 1913. In the passage we have quoted from The Rise of Cubism, however, Kahnweiler treats the whole work of Picasso and Braque until 1914 as 'analytical' and he seems to regard Picasso's wartime 'synthetic' Cubism as something of a deviation. He seems to be defining Cubism as, in its nature, 'analytical'. Analysis good; synthesis bad. 

Metzinger too defends the idea of analysis against the critics' desire for a synthetic art in the 1913 essay when he says: 

'In art, the terms 'analysis' and 'synthesis' are, generally, used in a very superficial way. That is why certain aesthetic theorists like to accuse the young artists of cultivating an analytical art when, those critics think, painting should be synthetic in nature. They seem to be confusing goals with means. The Cubist effort is to create analytical signs that will be suitable for expressing synthetic ideas. I think that is the way painters have always acted. After all, we cannot paint without searching out relations, and does not the search for relations imply analysis?' 

But in a letter to Gleizes written in 1916, he says: 

'Someone from whom I feel ever more distant is Juan Gris. I admire him but I cannot understand why he wears himself out with decomposing objects. Myself, I am advancing towards synthetic unity and I don't analyse any more. I take from things what seems to me to have meaning and be most suitable to express my thought. I want to be direct, like Voltaire. No more metaphors. Ah those stuffed tomatoes of all the St-Pol-Roux of painting.' (29)

29   [Jean] Metzi[nger], Paris, à [Albert Gleizes, Barcelone], 26/7/1916. St-Pol-Roux (1861-1940), pseudonym of Paul-Pierre Roux, poet based in Brittany, known for his sometimes rather excessively exuberant imagery.

In his essay on Metzinger in 1911, Gleizes says: 

'the uproar it [Cubism] has unleashed was to be foreseen, for how could anyone think that sniffer dogs chasing after an easily recognisable formula could lightly abandon the confusion and license in which easy success can be found for a method that is tight and a product of the will, wholly internal, wholly constructive, wholly a synthesis, and merciless to any attempts at a hasty realisation.' 

and in his Modern Painting, published in 1917: 

'Beside Picasso's art, which is all a matter of sensibility, these works [of the 'Salon Cubists'] appear as thoroughly willed, massive, restrained. Lightheartedness and humour in the first, a solemnity reaching the level of the dramatic in the others; an art of analysis on the one hand; an art that is going towards synthesis on the other.' 

For Gleizes, then, and, more ambiguously, Metzinger, the analytical is seen as a phase to be got over; the end of the research is synthesis. Synthesis good; analysis bad. At this time, then, the distinction between 'analytical' and 'synthetic' Cubism could be seen not as two successive phases of the history of Cubism as presented by Barr but as two parallel schools - Picasso and Braque and possibly Metzinger on the one hand (analysis), the 'Salon' or 'Puteaux' Cubists on the other (synthesis). 

(d)  'Synthetic Cubism' and the 'total image' 

We may imagine that Kahnweiler's hostility to synthesis is related to his hostility to the 'synthetism' of Gauguin and his followers, especially Paul Sérusier. This is a theme he develops at some length in his book on Gris. Essentially he sees their synthetism as a merely decorative art without real intellectual content, ultimately destined to collapse into mere abstraction. When Kahnweiler evokes the plastic qualities of the painting this has nothing to do, he wants us to understand, with anything that might please the eye. What interests him are the plastic properties of the object to be represented not those of the picture plane. The flatness of the picture plane is stressed as a problem to be overcome not an opportunity to be siezed. There is nothing of the 'jouissance' or 'saveur' which recur in the writings of Metzinger and Gleizes, especially Gleizes. 

By the 1940s, when he wrote his book on Gris, however, Kahnweiler was reconciled to the analytical/synthetic model more or less as Barr presents it, as two successive phases in the work of Picasso and Braque, the transition from the one to the other being marked by the appearance of the papier collé. (30) The distinction he draws now is that while analytical Cubism was still a struggle with an external model in particular circumstances in a particular light, synthetic Cubism was an art that was entirely 'conceptual' (p.223). The particular guitar in a particular light has vanished to be replaced by a guitar which is entirely the artist's own invention: 

'Gris decidely gives up presenting the spectator with a host of pieces of information, the fruits of empirical observations on the objects he wants to show him. He gives him a synthesis of it, which is to say he gathers what he knows into a single meaningful form - in a unique emblem.' (p.221)

30   There is already a modification in his position in the essay on Gris published in 1929. This is discussed in Christopher Green's essay in Juan Gris, p. 51.

He is at pains, though, to stress that this is not an advance into any formalist abstraction and that it is a continuation of, not a break with, the concerns of the analytical Cubism that had gone before: 

'Gris can invent new emblems to write 'table', 'guitar' or indeed 'violin', but it was his firm intention to incorporate scrupulously into those emblems his whole knowledge of the plastic qualities of the solid that was being represented. There was no question of renouncing the researches that had led to analytical Cubism, simply of condensing, in a single sign, the many enumerations that had been made previously. It was all very well Gris being sure [Gris avait beau être certain] that this sign constituted the total figuration which remained his unchangeable end. Only the example of Mallarmé could give him the absolute assurance that others shared this conviction, that the spectators would find the integral object that he intended to represent, transported however on a higher plane: "idea gay [rieuse] or lofty".' (p.226. The quotation is from Mallarmé) 

But what is the 'total figuration' [figuration totale] if it is not Metzinger's 'total image' of 1910? And the whole passage is indeed reminiscent of Metzinger's letter to Gleizes nearly thirty years earlier, in 1916, reproaching Gris for not doing much what Kahnweiler praises him for doing, also in 1916. And Metzinger also says: 

'No, painting is a language, which has its syntax and laws. That one shakes this armature up to give more force or liveliness to the expression is not only a right, it is a duty, but one must never lose sight of the End. But the End is neither the subject not the object nor even the picture, the end is the idea ...  Le Douanier was a simple man but he is closer to Mind [l'Esprit] than Cézanne or Renoir! Le Douanier did not have big things to say, but he painted to express things and not just to give us ocular - I was going to say culinary - delights. My dear Gleizes, whether you like it or not, you are a cerebral, and intellectual, and I am sure you're not going to try to salvage the old boat of "Painting for its own sake"' 

Kahnweiler's description of what Gris was doing in 1916 resembles what Metzinger said he and his friends were doing in 1910 and it marks not really a qualitative change (from analytic to synthetic) but rather a continuation of the same effort, a difference in intensity rather than in substance. The whole interest is concentrated on 'the integral object ... transported however on a higher plane.' But what is that 'higher plane', given that Kahnweiler does not appear to have any religious leanings? Talking of Gris' synthetic Cubism he briefly invokes Plato (p.228). But he quickly changes the subject, as well he might, since the notion that Gris is giving us the Platonic idea of a guitar is as absurd as the notion that he is giving us the Kantian thing-in-itself.  For Kahnweiler, the higher plane is 'poetic' in a sense argued for by Mallarmé. It is a mysterious effect generated in the mind by the object and I would suggest that it is not a million miles removed from what Metzinger is referring to with his 'Mind' or 'idea'. 

Kahnweiler insists that the object which generates this poetic effect, this idea, should itself be indifferent (and by 1916, Metzinger, Severini and Diego Rivera as well as Gris were all concentrating their attention on still lifes). This poetic effect generated by the transformation of an everyday object into art will reappear when we come to consider Marcel Duchamp and his relation to On "Cubism". Duchamp's development was independent of Kahnweiler but they both have this much in common - they both represent ideas which we can associate with Metzinger, but stripped of the painterly, plastic qualities on which Metzinger, in spite of his strictures to Gleizes, continued to insist. And which remained throughout the central preoccupation of Gleizes himself. 

(e)  Gleizes' view of the phases of Cubism 

Robbins presents Barr's analytical/synthetic model as the first serious attempt to account for the evolution of Cubism in time. There was, however, already in existence another - in my view much more satisfactory - model and it is surprising that Robbins, of all people, did not draw attention to it. In the 1920s, Gleizes, seeing Cubism as a struggle to understand the nature of form, divides it into three phases. In the first, the emphasis is, as we have seen, on the solid, three dimensional, sculptural qualities of form. In the second, the form - still identified with the object to be represented - is examined from different angles and reassembled on the canvas. Since the illusion of a third dimension is still present, the conventional single point perspective is replaced by a 'multiple perspective'. In the third, the painters reconcile themselves to the essentially flat nature of the picture space which itself embodies the possibility of a new, dynamic, purely pictorial (though not necessarily non-representational) concept of form. It is this insistence on the flatness of the picture space that is most characteristic of the research both Kahnweiler and Barr identify as 'synthetic'. 

The argument is best expressed in his comments on the illustrations in Cubism (1928). This really lies outside the scope of the present study which is centred on On "Cubism" and related texts and therefore almost exclusively on Gleizes' second phase of Cubism - multiple perspective. An English translation of the 1928 Cubism with the illustrations is available on my website at shows convincingly that all the major artists - Picasso and Braque included - passed through all three phases, that they all did indeed 'march in lock step across the same evolutionary phases of development ...'