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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Several researchers have explored this subject. Here I will be referring to, or quoting work from Rudolf Arnheim, John Berger, Jacob Bronowski, David Hockney, Alfred Yarbus, Arne Glimcher, Bernice Rose, Natasha Staller and others…


There is an interesting confluence of innovation, invention, and discovery during the first decade of the 20th Century. In the context of the first major publication by Sigmund Freud (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900), the first voice-radio broadcast (Fessenden 1900), the Theory of Quantised Energy (Planck, 1900), the first consumer camera (Kodak Brownie, 1900), first trans-Atlantic radio-telegraph (Marconi, 1901), first hand-drawn animation (Emil Cohl, 1904) the publication of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905), and short films by George Albert Smith, George Melies, Lumiere Brothers, Charles Tait, Robert Paul and many others, Pablo Picasso paints Les Demoiselle d’Avignon (1907), and Picasso and Braque begin to explore simultaneous perspective in their Cubist period (1907-1913).

This article looks at this extraordinary art movement, the possible influence of early films on Picasso and Braque, the issues of perspective, point-of-view and what recent research has revealed about how we see – how we make internal images in our mind (and how we make images on paper) – tells us about the Cubist approach.

Picasso’s studies and drawings for Demoiselles are powerful, revolutionary works in themselves and indicate his fascination with the kind of primitive, ethnographical art on display at the Paris Trocadero that year (Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro,1907)


Picasso: Drawing for Demoiselle d’Avignon, 1907

But the Demoiselles itself was so revolutionary that Picasso’s friend begged him not to exhibit it, fearing it would destroy his reputation. This large (2.3×2.4 metres) oil painting remained out of the public eye for 20 years. It was the central work in the MOMA Cubist Exhibition of 1937. It is reckoned by some to be the first Cubist painting, and it is certainly the direct antecedent of Cubism, but for many others the Cubist movement (initially just Picasso and George Braque) begins with the Braque painting House at L’Estaque in 1908.

Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

Which in turn was probably influenced by Paul Cezanne’s later work (such as his Mont Sanite-Victoire of 1904).

Georges Braque: Houses at L’Estaque 1908

The Orthodoxy of Vanishing-Point Perspective

Let’s start with the examination and representation of reality by means of vanishing-point perspective, an analytical image-making process that dates back to the Renaissance, and the discovery of the Book of Optics, (written by the Arabian scientist Alhazen in 1021, translated into Italian (around 1350) by the artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. The architect Filippo Brunelleschi devised a mirror-projection to test his perspective drawings:

“The first Baptistery panel was constructed with a hole drilled through the centric vanishing point. Curiously, Brunelleschi intended that it only be observed by the viewer holding the unpainted back of the picture against his/her eye with one hand, and a mirror in the other hand facing and reflecting the painted side. In other words, Brunelleschi wanted his new perspective “realism” to be tested not by comparing the painted image to the actual Baptistery but to its reflection in a mirror according to the Euclidean laws of geometric optics. This feat showed artists for the first time how they might paint their images, no longer merely as flat two-dimensional shapes, but looking more like three-dimensional volumes just as mirrors reflect them. Unfortunately, both panels have since been lost.” wikipedia


The kind of mirror apparatus described by Brunelleschi in his notebooks…

Filippo Brunelleschi: perspective drawing of Santo Spirito c1428

Renaissance artists began to explore the ‘conical vision’ of vanishing point perspective, and, as these prints by Durer and others show, they investigated mechanical and optical devices to improve their perspective drawings.


Alberti: Della Pittura 1435

In Della Pittura (1435) , his treatise on perspective, Alberti devised a geometrical basis for perspective, and proposed replacing Brunelleschi’s mirror with a gridded window – the scene could then be transcribed onto gridded paper…

Durer: Perspective Projection: Pictures for Geometry 1532

Durer: Perspective Projection: Pictures for Geometry 1532

Carlo Crivelli: The Annunciation with Saint Emidius 1486

Mastering the art of single-vanishing point perspective is the first step in discovering the geometrical basis of why things that are further away look smaller to us than things which are close. However, this is not a realistic method – as we look from side to side and up and down, we become aware that several vanishing points are required. Lines drawn parallel to the picture-plane (in the Crivelli – such as the architraves where the peacock stands) also must obey the logic of their vanishing point – and so it is with the verticals…

Drawing large objects that are close requires the artist to consolidate different points of view into a single image – even ‘ordinary’ drawing is not mechanical…

Alfred L. Yarbus: Saccadic eye-tracks viewing a portrait (1965)

The Eye is not a camera

By the 1950s and 1960s the Russian scientist Alfred Yarbus had made us all aware of how human vision differed from the mechanical single-vanishing point perspective and split-second capture of the camera. Artists have always understood that the process of drawing is temporal – it involves exploring the subject by means of looking, carefully transcribing lines onto paper, assessing and correcting, and gradually constructing the drawing over time. Hockney calls this process eyeballing (careful visual study) and groping (working with the pencil to gradually evolve a satisfactory representation). The camera catches an image in a few seconds or a few thousaands of a second. The artist constructs an image over a much longer period of time, as if aware of the saccadic eye-movements recorded by Yarbus. (David Hockney: Secret Knowledge. 2001)

The human eye perceives reality in a way quite different from the way that a camera captures a scene. All aspects of a photograph – every pixel – is mechanically recorded from the scene. The photographer uses viewfinder cropping, light and shadow,  (chiaroscuro), or sharpness and blur, to focus our attention upon the subject, but the image is captured all-at-once, while the artist may be looking (eyeballing) and drawing (groping) for hours to create a drawing. The artist is using both eyes, interpolating the three-dimensional form of the subject. The artist is moving his head – and his eyes –  to examine each element in the scene. The resulting drawing is then necessarily a composite of views – a simultaneous perspective, a composition achieved by the interaction of the subject, the artist’s perception (and his knowledge and memory), and the skill of his hands with the drawing tools at his disposal.

Here’s one example: here is a reproduction of Alfred Yarbus’ record of eye movements while studying a picture of a girl’s face. The jittery line drawing on the right shows how frantic our eye movements are, even when we believe we are taking in an object ‘at a glance.’

“. . .in reality my eyes are never still. Every third of second they jolt or ‘saccade’ moving my gaze from one part of an object to another. My single ‘glance’ is a multitude of little fixations, not unlike the twitching of an insect’s antennae, or a mouse’s whiskers. . .”

John Henderson et al: The effects of semantic consistency on eye movements during complex scene viewing 1999

“Eye movements were recorded while participants viewed line-drawing pictures of natural scenes in preparation for a memory test (Experiment 1) or to find a target object (Experiment 2). Initial saccades in a scene were not controlled by semantic information in the visual periphery, although fixation densities and fixation durations were affected by semantic consistency. The results are compared with earlier eye-tracking studies, and a qualitative model of eye movement control in scene perception is discussed in which initial saccades in a scene are controlled by visual but not semantic analysis. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2010 APA, all rights reserved)”

Then there are other recent psycho-neurological studies (including Manfred Zimmerman Human Physiology 1989, and Tor Norretranders: The User Illusion 1991)), that show that of all the 10 million bits/second that we perceive unconsciously, actually only 40 bits/second are consciously apprehended. Our Consciousness works by throwing away vast amounts of data – in Norretranders words we operate by using exformation rather than information. The camera records all the incoming data. An artist selectively chooses the data most meaningful to them. So drawing is an activity that is conditioned by the artists memory, their intellectual and emotional state, and of course by their physical skills.

The moments of Cubism

The momentous realisation, by Picasso and Braque (during 1907-1913), that they could explore how we see and what we see (and how we record this process in drawings and images) in our saccadic-scanning, multiple/simultaneous perspective perception of reality was the Modernist’s challenge to the idea that the photograph was an accurate model of our visual perception – that photographs were somehow more truthful than paintings…

Braque: Fruitdish and Glass 1912 – Papier Colle and charcoal

After Cubism, Photographs could be seen for what they were: a monoscopic reproduction of a single fraction of a moment of reality.

“The Cubist’s created a system by which they could reveal visually the interlocking of phenomena. And thus they created in art the possibility of revealing processes instead of static states of being. Cubism is an art entirely concerned with interaction: the interaction between different aspects;  the interaction between structure and movement; the interaction between solids and the spaces around them; the interaction between the unambiguous signs made on the surface of the picture, and the changing reality they stand in for.

What the Cubists mean by structure, space, signs, process, is quite different from what nuclear physicists mean. But the difference between the Cubist vision of reality and that of a great seventeenth century Dutch master like Vermeer is very similar to the the difference between the modern physicist’s view and Newton’s – similar not only in degree but in emphasis.

Such parallism between different branches of culture is rare in history. It is probably confined to those periods which immediately precede a revolution. To emphasise once more the remarkable convergence of new factors which produced this poarallism in the period between 1900 and 1914, let us, for one moment, consider the film.


The film is the art form of the first half of our century….Artistically, the film is the medium which, by its nature, can accommodate most easily a simultaniety of viewpoints, and demonstrate most clearly the indivisibility of events.”

John Berger: The Success and Failure of Picasso Penguin Books 1965 p69-70

John Berger and Jacob Bronowski have independently observed that Cubism emerged in the period immediately following the publication of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905). This important paper challenged the established Newtonian position that there is a fixed frame of reference for the measurement of celestial events. Einstein proposed that in mechanics and electromagnetism only relative motion is important and that there is no absolute frame of reference…

What Berger and Bronowski were hinting at is that Cubism – the realisation in image-making that the Renaissance single vanishing-point perspective (Newton’s, ‘frame of reference’) no longer had an exclusive claim to representing reality – appeared at the same historical moment as Relativity – an interesting coincidence at least!

(What is remarkable in all this, is of course the stable consensual perception of reality that emerges from these fleeting, flitting, staccato eye-tracking scans. – but more on this some other time).

Richard Gregory’s detailed description of the theories pertaining to perception of movement have hardly been improved in the 50 years or so since they were published (Gregory: Eye and Brain – The Psychology of Seeing 1966):

“We have seen that there are two neural systems for signalling movement, the image/retina and the eye/head systems – and it seems that during normal eye movements, these cancel each other out to give stability to the visual world…” (p95)

“The Cubists use, among other devices, the superposition of objects that render each other transparent and the fading out of objects into the neutral ground of the picture. The psychological effect becomes evident if we remember that the same means are used in motion pictures to represent discontinuity of space. If the scene shifts from the living room to the hotel lobby, the room will fade out into spacelessness – that is, for a moment pictorial space gives way to the physical surface of the screen, after which the opposite process introduces the new space of the lobby. Or, in a lap dissolve, both scenes appear for a moment as overlaying each other, thereby indicating their spatial independence to the eye. But whereas in the conventional film story, fade and dissolve represent only leaps within homogeneous and orderly space, experimental films and modern paintings use them for their attempts to obtain an integration of discordant orders.:”

Rudolf Arnheim: Art and Visual Perception. 1954 (p291)

Anton Guilio Bragaglia: Polyophysiognomical portrait of Boccioni, 1913

The Bragaglia brothers pioneered Futurist Photography, using multiple exposures, long exposures, super-imposition during printing, and other techniques to express their idea of the algebra of movement – an attempt to capture motion, and to liberate the photograph from the strictures of simply the realistic recording of reality. In effect the Bragaglias were introducing movement through time into the photographic image, following Muybridge and Marey in the 1880s and 1890s.

more to come….- a picture essay on Cubism, Photography and Film

Anton Giulio Bragaglia: Fotodinamismo Futurista 1912

Anton Giulio Bragaglia: Still from Thais (1916)

Georges Braque: Woman with Guitar 1913

Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies [Arne Glimcher, 2008]

Narrated by none other than Martin Scorsese and featuring interviews with scholars and artists alike, the film doggedly makes the case that moving images exerted a profound influence over the formal development of Cubism, inspiring Picasso and Braque’s invention of a new kind of pictorial space in which, like cinema, reality is viewed from multiple angles at once.

“Adding fuel to the Picasso frenzy is Arne Glimcher’s documentary Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies, a short but incisive look at how two of art history’s most prominent figures were influenced by the revolutionary medium of cinema. Narrated by none other than Martin Scorsese and featuring interviews with scholars and artists alike, the film doggedly makes the case that moving images exerted a profound influence over the formal development of Cubism, inspiring Picasso and Braque’s invention of a new kind of pictorial space in which, like cinema, reality is viewed from multiple angles at once.”

An interview with Arne Glimcher and Bernice Rose on Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism.

“By 1912 there are 200 cinema palaces in Paris, and film is the sensation of the moment.”

Arne Glimcher

“In 1895 Picasso was at the first showing in Barcelona of Lumiere Bros films at the Salon Naplolean” Bernice Rose.


The film makes the case that Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907} was inspired by the serpentine dance of Loïe Fuller.

Brassai: Gorillas – wife in her Loie Fuller dance at Place d’Italie

Braque Harbour in Normandy 1909 + high contrast monochrome

Dancing Girls at the Moulin Rouge c1910

In the belle epoque, this juxtaposition of flickering lights, rapid movement, swirling dresses, and rhythmic dance moved from the music hall stage to the cinema palace…

Ilsa Bing: can-can dancers at the Moulin Rouge 1931

Brassai: Bal des Quatr’arts 1931

Mirrors, Plate Glass, Shop Windows – all the reflections found in the modern city were new visual phenomena to be explored by artists and photographers fascinated by new perspectives, new symmetries, new juxtapositions and superpositions, and by new ways of situating subjects in context.

Dawley, Kent, Miller: A Christmas Carol 1910 (still: Marley’s Ghost)

Double or multiple exposures (achieved in camera by rewinding and re-exposing the neg, or in processing, by over-printing the positive), provided another source of perspectival juxtaposition or simultaneous perspective.

Louis Feuillade: Judex 1916

Even in early movies, deep-focus cinematography provided other juxtapositions of scale and perspective…


Monca, Rigadin, Peintre Cubiste, 1913 – the satire

Other short films presented satires and spoofs of the idea of filmic cubism…

Pablo Picasso: cubist costumes for Diaghilev’s Parade 1917 – the reality

Nicole Vedres, Images de Cinema Francais, Paris, Les Editions de Chene, 1945

Zecca, Le Portrait Vivant, 1904

And these were the kind of short films that Picasso and Braque saw every Friday night in the cine palaces of Montmartre…

Louis Feuillade: La Nativite 1910

Just to bring us back to perspective, Giorgio de Chirico paintings between c1911-1917 presaged the 1920s Expressionist Film, and most interestingly synthesised several perspective views and projections into each painted scene, mixing vanishing points, isometric and axonometric projections into fleeting images…like stills from movies yet to be made.

Dziga Vertov: The Man With A Movie Camera 1929

Of course, the apotheosis of ‘cubist film’ is Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929). Vertov’s inspirational 68 minute silent film explores a day in the life of the cameraman as he explores Odessa and other Soviet cities, illustrating the new USSR through a montage of shots and sequences. During the making of Man With A Movie Camera Vertov evolved a technique of ‘non-linear’ narrative previously explored by the artist Fernand Leger and film-maker Dudley Murphy in their experimental film Ballet Mecanique five years earlier in 1924. This kind of narrative involved shooting lots of shots and sequences, then editing them into a loose visual narrative with assistant editor Yelizaveta Svilova, who had previously worked on short films in the Kino Pravda (Cinema-Truth) series,  and One Sixth of the World (1926) ( – a feature-length documentary (‘a poetic travelogue’ – Wurm) also directed by Vertov, which some critics have described as ‘the perfect documentary’. Again it is a montage of shots counterpointing the lives of the bourgeoisie and workers, factories, dance halls, tearooms, mills, foundries, dancers, building sites, Jazzbands, native villages, (etc) all punctuated with massive cyrillic typography inter-titles declaiming капитал (CAPITAL!) ‘ON THE BRINK OF HISTORICAL DOWNFALL’ and other Soviet slogans and descriptors.

Vertov comments “A Sixth Part of the World is more than a film, than what we have got used to understanding by the word ‘film.’ Whether it is a newsreel, a comedy, an artistic hit-film, A Sixth Part of the World is somewhere beyond the boundaries of these definitions; it is already the next stage after the concept of ‘cinema’ itself … Our slogan is: All citizens of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics from 10 to 100 years old must see this work. By the tenth anniversary of October there must not be a single Tungus who has not seen A Sixth Part of the World

(from the introductory essay by Barbara Wurm in the DVD booklet – Editions Filmmuseum 2009)

1928_Dziga Vertov: One Sixth of the World

“According to Vertov, the film anticipates the coming of sound films by using a constant “word-radio-theme” in the intertitles.” (Barbara Wurm). In many ways – bold, explosive and expressive typography flashed on the screen – Vertov’s developing style of film-making has much in common with the kind of motion-graphic essays mixing film, graphics, images, motion typography etc that were explored using Flash and other authoring applications from the mid-1990s onwards. This is also an example of the synaesthetic quest that repeatedly appears throughout the Modernist period – from Kandinsky’s colour-sound equation (1910), to Scriabin’s Prometheus colour-music poem (1915), and on to the work of Moholy Nagy (Lichtspiele 1922), Vladimir Baranoff’s Optophonetic Disc (1924), this theme iterates through into the 21st Century.. (for example, see Golan Levin’s Messa di Voce 2003 and other pieces).

The multiple-perspectives and variety of points-of-view, rapidly intercut, of Vertov’s revolutionary films illustrate the central point we are making here – that cinema – the medium itself, regardless of content, creates a kind of simultaneous perspective – a roving, restless and inquisitive eye that is the ‘new vision’ of the 20th Century.

David Hockney A Bigger Picture – 18 screen video

David Hockney has repeatedly returned to the exploration of cubist ideas and perception. His successive explorations of multiple simultaneous perspective, visual attention and saccadic-scanning in his Joiner photographs (from 1980s), his experiments with non-perspective drawings, his revelations of the use of camera obscura and other perspective-aids in Secret Knowledge (Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters, 2001) and now (2010-2012) his multi-screen, multi-camera videos, his video Bigger Picture. The impact of these 9-screen and 18-screen videos is very interesting. They have a visceral visual impact, driving the viewer’s attention to the saccadic scanning of our visual apparatus. The slightly different lensing, cropping and time-code imbue each frame of motion video with a degree of difference from the other frames such as to be a significant attractor for our attention. Our saccadic scanning of these screens – look at this, look at this, look at this…echoes and replicates our normally unconscious saccadic scene-scanning, forcing us to a realisation that ‘the Cubists were Right!’. We SEE more.

Hockney’s Bigger Picture multi-screen videos included in this C4 video-clip: