Early Cinema, Proto-Cubism
By Bradley Pitts
“While almost every aspect of [Pablo Picasso’s and George Braque’s] lives have been scrutinized — their friends, lovers, favorite drugs, hangouts, hat sizes and nicknames … — one mutual fascination has been largely overlooked: Both men were crazy about the movies.”
– Randy Kennedy, ‘When Picasso and Braque Went to the Movies’
Although a direct, causal relationship between early cinema and Cubism hasn’t been proven, and would be too simplistic to expect, the histories and parallels between the two movements are clearly discernable. By the time the first proto-Cubist painting, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was painted in 1907, cinema had gone through its initial fits and starts and purpose-built cinemas were starting to appear in the United States, Britain, and France. Living in Paris, the two founders of Cubism, Pablo Picasso and George Braque, were known fans of the cinema (as well as other “low culture” pastimes of their day) and were witnesses to the revolutionary social environment well documented in histories of Modernism. Given that movies became one of the most popular art forms at the turn of the century, how might cinema have influenced and challenged Picasso’s and Braque’s work in the studio?
The current ubiquity of the moving image makes it hard to imagine the dawn of this medium and the experience of its early viewers. Prior to motion picture film, two dimensional images were static, such as painting and photography, or performed, for example “magic lantern”, “shadow play”, and “color organ” presentations. Film produced the first autonomous, moving, two-dimensional image.
The revolution of film was not just technical. In addition to seeing aspects of the everyday they had never seen before, audiences were watching space and time being manipulated in ways not possible in the physical world. The significance of technical revolution was the perceptual revolution it wrought.
Early film cameras (c. 1890) were fixed to a tripod, producing static shots. Much like painting, they recreated the optical illusion of perspective, adding to this the dimension of time through movement. Given these stationary cameras and the fact that these films were made from one-shot, the experience of watching films in these early days was much like watching theater: the audience observed actors on a virtual stage. These films were windows onto a moving, virtual world, but the window itself was still static.
In 1896, the year Picasso saw his first film at the age of 15, the Lumiere brothers shot a scene from the back of a moving train, introducing the technique of the moving camera. Suddenly, much like the experience of being on an actual train, spectators were simultaneously sitting still, while moving through a landscape. And by 1898 Robert W. Paul (UK) built the first rotating camera for taking panning shots. And in that same year, Paul created one of the first films to feature more than one shot.
In the year 1900 advances in film technique were rapid including:
George Albert Smith’s (UK) development of the reverse motion technique, reversing time and the relationship between cause and effect.
Robert W. Paul’s and Hepworth’s development of high speed and slow motion, turning time itself into a malleable medium.
George Albert Smith’s and James Williamson’s (UK) pioneering of action across successive shots, establishing the continuity of action through multiple perspectives.
James Williamson‘s development of the first “reverse angle” cut, uniting perspectives that were literally 180 degrees apart from one another.
G.A Smith’s development of subjective (first-person) and objective point-of-view shots.
1906 saw the first first multi-reel, “feature-length” film, which was developed in Australia, and by 1907, the same year Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, movie theaters were being opened in the United States, Britain, and France.
This brief history of film reveals how the film-grammar we take for granted today had to be invented step by step. Each new development opened up new possibilities for the burgeoning film industry, but more importantly they opened up new ways of perceiving, never before possible. The world, time, and space had never been seen this way before.
At the same time, Modernism was questioning the assumptions of academic painting and discovering its own new visual vocabulary. In addition to the social and visual upheaval happening on the streets of Paris, George Braque and Pablo Picasso were confronted with a new medium that within a single frame, within a single work, encompassed time, multiple points of view, leaps across large distances, and even time reversals. It was also drawing large audiences and quickly becoming a major pastime. It’s hard to imagine that these to image-based media did not affect each other. To take one example, the development of multi-shot films is of particular interest with regards to Cubism. With the introduction of this technique, multiple perspectives were combined within the frame of a single film: multiple perspectives within one work. In this way, in relation to cinema, Cubism might be described as a multi-shot scene collaged into one frame.
Given their desire to push into new visual frontieres, it seems likely that Picasso and Braque, as young painters of the avant-garde, felt challenged by the new possibilities of film and sought ways to respond within the medium of painting. In an era in which painting was being reconsidered, it’s hard to imagine that these painters wouldn’t have taken inspiration from film’s ability to encompass an experience more dynamic than the classical “window” of academic painting. As artists who were engaged in the mainstream culture of their day, this must have affected their thinking. Unfortunately, hard documentation of this relationship between Cubism and early cinema, in the form letters or other writings by the artists for example, hasn’t been found. But the paintings themselves and their visual resonance with the experience of watching early cinema provide a compelling link between the two visual media. And just because the artists didn’t write about it doesn’t mean they weren’t influenced by cinema.
Glimcher, Arne, “Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies,” 2008.
de Vries, Tjitte, “The genesis of cinematography distinguishes two dates: in 1888 the technology became available and from 1900 onwards film language developed,” Photohistorical Magazine of the Photographic Society of the Netherlands, 1995.
Kennedy, Randy, “When Picasso and Braque Went to the Movies,” New York Times, April 15, 2007.
Steinberg, Leo, “The Philosophical Brothel,” October 44 (Spring 1988): 7-74.