A Cubist Glimpse

Juan Gris, The Fruit Bowl

Juan Gris, The Fruit Bowl

I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it.
—Frank O’Hara

The poet Pierre Reverdy is reputed to have said, “From 1910 to 1914 I learned the cubist lesson.” I’ve yet to find out what lesson he felt he learned, but he certainly spent a lot of time among Cubist painters. Each of the poems in his collection Au Soleil du plafond refers to a still life by Juan Gris, one of which, Compotier (The Fruit Bowl), is on display in the current exhibition of Cubist works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A lot of ink has been spilled on Cubism in visual art and plenty more on its application to the other arts. I’m skeptical about whether its principles translate to poetry or music, except in a broad conceptual sense, but I’m curious to know more. For now, as I depart the internet (more or less) for the coming holiday, here’s a Cubist glimpse. “The Cubist style,” according to one description,

emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, rejecting the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, modeling, and chiaroscuro and refuting time-honoured theories of art as the imitation of nature. Cubist painters were not bound to copying form, texture, colour, and space; instead, they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects, whose several sides were seen simultaneously.

Mary Ann Caws, in her introduction to a collection of Pierre Reverdy’s poems, wrote that his “early poems earned him the reputation of being a cubist poet,” and the collection’s poems, taken together, “constitute a kind of cubist still life, perceptible from many angles at once.”

While, in A Note on Pierre Reverdy, John Ashbery didn’t refer to Reverdy’s work as Cubist, he did write this:

Reverdy’s poetry avoids the disciplines of Surrealist poetry and is the richer for it. He is not afraid to experiment with language and syntax, and it is often difficult to determine whether a particular line belongs with the preceding sentence or the one following it. The lines drift across the page as overheard human speech drifts across our hearing: fragments of conversation, dismembered advertising slogans or warning signs in the Métro appear and remain preserved in the rock crystal of the poem. [John Ashbery, Selected Prose, p. 21]

I like Ashbery’s formulation, and I like that he stays away from the label of Cubism. Certainly, in the poem that relates to the Gris painting shown here, the angle of vision isn’t stable—that hand is moving. But is it Cubist? I don’t know. I sense the movement of the poem more as drifting consciousness than of “fragmented objects” seen simultaneously from several sides. The text, or so it seems to me, can’t escape its temporal nature in the way a painting can. But what do I know?

Here’s the poem, in French and English:

Une main, vers les fruits dressés, s’avance et, timidement, comme une abeille, les survole. Le cercle où se glissent les doigts est tendu dessous comme un piège – puis reprennent leur vol, laissant au fond du plat une cicatrice vermeille. Une goutte de sang, de miel au bout des ongles. Entre la lumière et les dents, la trame du désir tisse la coupe aux lèvres.

A hand reaches toward the arrangement of fruit and, like a bee, hovers over it. The circle where the fingers glide is drawn tight as a trap—then they resume their flight, leaving at the bottom of the dish a bright red scar. A drop of blood, of honey, on the fingertips. Between light and teeth, the web of desire weaves the bowlful of lips.

Listening List

“Cubist” compositions by Igor Stravinsky

Here, too, the appellation Cubism seems to me to fall apart in the face of the temporal nature of music; but again, what do I know? Just for amusement, Richard Anthony Leonard, commenting mid-20th century on these and other Stravinsky pieces, had an oh-so-slightly different view:

These works, according to the composer, were “in the style of the eighteenth-century viewed from the standpoint of to-day.” The view could not have been very good, for often the results were an odd mixture of old counterpoint and new atonality. [Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia, 1954 edition, p. 532]

On Spotify

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920 version)  (program notes here)

Stripping the term “symphonies” of its Classical-era associations, Stravinsky here invokes the word’s root meaning, “sounding together.” To this end, Stravinsky rapidly juxtaposes blocks of sound, each with its own instrumental, rhythmic, and temporal identity. The effect is a kind of disjointed, collage-like form, whose visual corollary can be found in the Cubist canvases of his friend and collaborator Pablo Picasso. [citation]

Octet for Wind Instruments (1922-23, rev.1952) (program notes here)

Claims for the Octet as Cubist have been made as well. Whether and the extent to which such claims are useful is for another day. For now, here’s Stravinsky on the subject of the Octet:

My Octet is a musical object. This object has a form and that form is influenced by the musical matter of which it is composed. My Octet is not an emotive work, but a musical composition that is based on objective elements that are sufficient in themselves. I have excluded all nuances between the forte and the piano. Form, in my music, derives from counterpoint as the only means through which the attention of the composer is concentrated on purely musical questions. This sort of music has no other aim than to be sufficient in itself. In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems, and nothing else, neither the literary nor the picturesque, can be of any interest in music.

On YouTube

Symphonies of Wind Instruments 

Octet for Wind Instruments 

Bonus Track

Frank O’Hara reading Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul from Lunch Poems


Credits: The photo credit for the image at the head of the text is the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. A link to the online exhibit may be found here.  The O’Hara poem from which the quotation at the head of the post is taken may be found here. The sources for the remaining quotations used may be found at the links indicated in the text. The lack of knowledge about all subjects addressed in this post is entirely my own.


18 thoughts on “A Cubist Glimpse

  1. David Damant

    I might suggest a fundamental reason for cubism, and for other dramatic new developments in art at that time. By the end of the nineteenth century art had become what Sorokin calls “sensate” – realistic, or impressionistic, and in any case not focussed on any fundamental idea. Easy and self indulgent ( like The Lost Chord in music). But then we became dissatisfied with this view of the world – where was the Idea ( again a Sorokin word )? And where to look? Hence the artists began to strive for a new vision, experimenting with new avenues. Picasso – in many senses the embodiment of this trend – said that when he was young he painted like Raphael ( Blue Boy etc). Then he struck out, searching for a new Idea, or ideas. Cubism was one of the tracks down which artists went, producing no doubt pictures with their own value, but fundamentally groping for a new view of the world

    In 1946 Muninings, the President of the Royal Academy, referred to Picasso as a charlatan. Even now there are people who do not understand the point and dismiss all abstract art ( and cannot listen to Shostakovitch). But I think that a new consensus may be emerging, a view of the world very different from the sensate. Less restful, but coherent.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David D: An interesting perspective, and worthy of a post of its own. Related, I think, to what you describe in the visual arts, in music, the search for new ideas at that time seemed often to have been centered on a break from the Romantic (the sensate), owing much to the loss of faith in values that held sway prior to the Great War. It’s unfortunate that music history often tends to focus primarily on Schoenberg’s dodecaphony as “the” new way of ordering the musical world. As in the visual arts, composers broke with past tradition in a myriad of significant, and lasting, ways. (Stravinsky’s is a fascinating one about which I want to know more.) Today, I’d say the avenues of exploration open to composers are far more wide-ranging, without either a need for consensus or a requirement that, to be valid, an approach must be either/or.

  2. Friko

    How did you light on Cubism and Reverdy?
    Is there no end to your studies? Solitary or in common with like-minded people, your path is a wonderful meander.

    Not long ago there was a ‘cubist poetry’ meme in blogland. I actually had to ask what cubist poetry is.
    Not that I got a very enlightening answer.

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. I know you will spend the time fruitfully.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: In answer to your question, only because the Gris painting pointed the way. I knew of Reverdy from O’Hara and Ashbery, but I had no idea of Reverdy’s collaboration with Gris. So, once again, I come up against the knowledge that it would take several lifetimes to discover what so many already know! As for “cubist” poetry, I’m not sure an enlightening answer is to be had. I think it’s a stretch to impose cubism as a descriptor for poetry–or music. What I think may be more appropriate to say is that Cubism, as with other efforts to break from representation in art to abstraction, offered profound inspiration to poets and composers to find their own paths away from the past. Whatever I can glean or not, it’s fascinating to follow these trails of crumbs and see where they might lead.

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    I don’t understand the ‘Symphonies of Wind Instruments’ but love it, don’t understand the O’Hara poem–don’t understand a lot of his poems–but love his poetry anyway, and I like the Gris painting very much, but don’t think it requires any kind of explanation. It seems doubtful that any of these things have anything in common, but then what do I know? I know that it’s fun to put things together, to cut and paste, to look at this thing next to that thing, to watch contrasts, see sparks, notice acts of melding. Art feeds on this kind of play, and I am always going about combining things (in my mind) that have no business being together. Is that Cubism? I don’t know, and don’t really care. But I have never once looked at a Cubist painting and had the impression that I was seeing something from multiple angles. Not once. To my eye that description is out of sync with the experience of seeing the paintings. I think the Cubist painters ‘broke recognizable images up into pieces’, so to speak, because they were interested in the surface plane of the picture. They were on the way to pure abstraction, but not there yet, probably because the history of classical European painting was so huge on their backs.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Observations you’ve made previously about Cubism and about the picture plane were much on my mind as I viewed this exhibit. “I know that it’s fun to put things together, to cut and paste, to look at this thing next to that thing, to watch contrasts, see sparks, notice acts of melding” resonates with me. What I may have enjoyed most in viewing the exhibit was further discovery of the cross-fertilization among the arts that existed at that time (though of course not only at that time), which is entirely different, of course, from equating the approaches taken in one art to those in another. (Labels are always approximate and limited, anyway, but to ascribe “cubism” to other than the visual arts seems particularly unhelpful, at least to me.) I was also struck by your last point. “They were on the way to pure abstraction, but not there yet, probably because the history of classical European painting was so huge on their backs.” The history of classical European music was certainly “huge on their backs” for composers of that period, too, and I suspect for poets as well. An extraordinary period of time for the arts.

  4. David N

    Never come across Reverdy before. I agree, cubism as applied to music is about as useful as architecture – music by its nature can hardly be flat-surfaced. I think of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind instruments as collage-like, putting ideas alongside each other rather than joining them. Prokofiev’s technique is often that – and of course Eisenstein was the master of filmic collage. I did once refer to Prokofiev’s appropriation of Tchaikovsky’s Bluebird for the flute in Peter and the Wolf as a cubist version. it introduces chromaticism and harmonic sideslip to make the source more ‘modern’.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I think my first introduction to Reverdy came, via ModPo, from lines in another Frank O’Hara poem: “My heart is in my/pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.” I loved the idea of that. (A wonderful ModPo pal, T. de Los Reyes, used the phrase to engage course-mates in a discussion of the poems they had in their pockets. That was fun.) “Collage-like” makes much more sense to me, too, than cubist to describe Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments–for one, collage elements can exist, or at least I think so, in time (alongside each other, in music) as well as in space (as in a visual collage). I thought of Berio’s Sinfonia in this regard, too. I had no idea that Prokofiev’s flute in Peter and the Wolf was an appropriation of Tchaikovsky’s Bluebird, so see, you’ve now laid down yet another trail of delicious crumbs for me to follow (whenever am I going to finish even the first volume of the Transylvania Trilogy, at this rate?). Intriguing that you’d describe the Prokofiev flute as cubist, though, from what you say, it seems you may have been speaking n the looser sense of breaking out of traditional composition/narrative onto a new (“modern”) path. I think that has to be what Reverdy meant when he said he’d learned the cubist lesson–finding ways, to use (probably misappropriate) Mark’s phrase, to throw off the traditions “so huge on their backs.”

      1. David N

        That’s a copyright observation of mine (play both passages side by side and you’ll hear the resemblance – both are at the same D major pitch for flute). What I was thinking of was the way Prokofiev chromaticised the bird so that I could see sharper, more mannerist angles, and that I thought of as ‘cubist’.

        I blush to say that the Banffy sits on the shelves so far untouched; if I move the three volumes into a more prominent place I should remember to pick them up.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: I do hear a resemblance, though I doubt I would have come to it on my own (but then that’s exactly what makes it a “copyright observation,” isn’t it). Of course I feel inclined to go scurrying after bird-flute examples in D-Major, but I will, I will, resist that particular needle-in-a-haystack impulse for now. I have today finished v. 1 of Banffy. A good read, but it’s clear one has to read all three volumes of the trilogy to get the full picture (I suppose that goes without saying . . .). I’ve put Kaputt on my reading wish list, too, though I’ve got a stack of books ahead of it. Right now I’m reading Peter Vergo’s The Music of Painting, which is so far quite interesting. Enjoyable to settle in and read, and with several inches of snow on the ground here so far today, and I think more to come, it’s a good thing (between times, we’ve finally come up to our turn with Borgen season 3 from the library, so we are well and truly set with great viewing for several days).

          For anyone who happens by and wants to try their ears on a listen for to David’s “copyright observation” of “Prokofiev’s appropriation of Tchaikovsky’s Bluebird for the flute in Peter and the Wolf,” here’s a link to the two selections on Spotify: http://open.spotify.com/user/prufrocksdilemma/playlist/3WuokFl1jwVDRiZSXrYn8s.

  5. Steve Schwartzman

    I can’t help wondering if Gris, whose name means ‘grey’, was subconsciously influenced to use grey in his paintings. And could Reverdy, whose name means ‘turned green again’, have been influenced in some way by that color in his poetry?

    When, in another life, I took college courses on French poetry, one of the books that served as a text was volume 4 (The 20th Century) of The Penguin Book of French Verse. I just pulled out my agèd copy and looked over the poems by Reverdy that the editor chose. I couldn’t remember a single one—which is not the case for most of the other poets included in the book.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Steve, that is a beauty, and yet another poet and poem wholly new to me. I found what seems to be a decent translation here http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/89/3#!/20586344. “They baptized the stars without thinking/That they didn’t have need of names . . .” What a beautiful sentiment, and how beautifully expressed. Not to mention that the poem is timely my way, as I sit by the fire, looking at the too-early snow . . .

  6. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    husband and I had a long discussion about Cubism in poetry. In Germany one might find traces of it in Expressionismus – around 1910 – 1920 – where motifs were reduced, perspective dissolved. Jacob van Hoddis with “End of the World” might be an example – though: as I said: the poems are only reminiscent of Cubism.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: I remember a past exchange we had on the Expressionist poets (about Trakl, I think). End of the World is an interesting poem–the poem and poet are both new to me. I like your formulation, “motifs were reduced, perspective dissolved.” I find it far more understandable than efforts to put poetry in the Cubist box–though I do very much enjoy learning of cross-fertilization among the arts, which certainly was present here. Would have loved to be a fly on the wall for your discussion–well, a fly who could understand German well enough to comprehend!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Bente: So nice to hear from you, as always. What you’ve written sets me wondering about artistic movements at the time in Norway. Perhaps one day (if you haven’t already), you’ll give us a glimpse of that. I remember so well the outdoor art exhibition about which you posted, so in tune with the landscape in which it was placed!

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