Understanding Cubism

Woman With A Mandoin

Girl With A Mandolin, 1910

Adapted from a presentation on 10/23/13

Much research has gone into this idea of the connection between Stein’s obscure writing style and Picasso’s Cubism. Picasso and Stein were good friends most of their lives, so it makes sense that they would influence each other somewhat, or at least have similar views on the art object. I think it’s helpful to look at Gertrude Stein’s writing and Pablo Picasso’s cubist paintings in tandem in order to gain a greater understanding of both.

While many modernist writers were experimenting with new forms, Gertrude Stein was experimenting in more abstract terms. While reading Picasso  (which is one of her less abstract books) you probably noticed long sentences, odd use of punctuation, and repetition that seems to draw out the present tense. These are a few of Stein’s hallmarks that come at you with more force in her other books.

Stein and Picasso were close friends most of their lives and looking at their works in tandem is one way to demystify Stein’s writing style and Cubism. As Stein says herself in Picasso, “I was alone at this time in understanding him, perhaps because I was expressing the same thing in literature” (Picasso 16). She meant this literally.

Stein had a few styles of writing, two of which are grouped into “prose” and “poetry.” Cubism also had two styles: Analytic and Synthetic. Analytic cubism, developed by Picasso and Georges Braque, lasted for only about two years—from 1910-1912— and is characterized by flat colors and repetitive shapes to form a subject. Scale and perspective are pretty much nonexistent, because the viewer was meant to see all the angles at once. What we see is some semblance of a subject that is flat and distorted.

Synthetic cubism, which was much more decorative and colorful, began in 1912 and lasted much longer. For this presentation, I’m just going to discuss analytic cubism in relation to Stein’s work, because we can also find traces of this in her book Picasso. From this vantage point, we can later come to our own conclusions about Synthetic Cubism and Stein’s poetry with some ease.

Gertrude Stein did not use question marks, as you may have noticed in Picasso. She says: “A question is a question, anybody can know that a question is a question and so why add to it the question mark when it is already there when the question is already in the writing” (Lectures in America 215). Without question marks or things like quotations (which she also does not use), the reader is forced engage with Stein’s writing and read sentences deliberately. Just like Stein’s lack of punctuation forces her reader to be more active, so does Cubism force the viewer to take a more active role in viewing the painting.

In refusing to represent a face as we think we all see it, Picasso also takes away commas and question marks for us. Rather than a classically depicted subject, we are forced to engage with the painting and see it for what it is (painting) as we must engage with Stein’s writing and see it for what it is (words). Stein says of Picasso and Braque: “They were really cubism, that is to say a thing that existed in itself without the aid of association or emotion”  (Picasso 38). Both Picasso and Stein attempted to remove the signifier and upend the traditional ways we were taught to read and understand art.

In The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language and Cubism, Randa Dubnick argues that Stein (just like Picasso), “was interested in the essential reality of her subject. She eliminated narrative and physical description to achieve a perception of the “bottom nature” of a person” (Dubnick 26). By reducing her use of nouns and adjectives, Stein tries to eliminate traditional signifiers from her writing and get to the core of language itself.

In The Making of Americans, Stein’s novel that traces the histories of two families in her obscure prosaic style for about 1000 pages, you get a vague portrayal of subject matter. This work is full of repetition, long sentences, and syntactical play. Stein is clearly more fascinated by the building blocks of language than with its signifiers (nouns and adjectives, and even pronouns). At least in her earlier work, she does not like to use words that recreate common images we already have in our minds.

Similarly, Picasso was playing with this idea of subject and how it is traditionally represented in painting. As Stein says of Picasso, his “tomato was not everybody’s tomato, not at all and his effort was not to express in his way the things seen as everyone sees them, but to express the thing as he was seeing it” (Picasso, 17). Both artists showed us that there was not just one way of looking or expressing the traditional subject.

It’s important to note that it’s much easier to be abstract with lines, shapes and paint than it is with words. Words inevitably draw up associations no matter how hard you may try to remove them from their meanings: “Of course, words can’t be divorced from heir meanings. Each word (signifier) calls up a mental image or idea (signified)” (Dubnick 37). You could make an argument that painting presents this same problem. With works by artists such as Rothko and Pollock, no matter how abstract the lines or color combinations, they often conjure up what may be some kind of emotion or “inner tone,” to borrow from William James, or Benjamin’s “aura.” Nevertheless, the Cubists were never completely abstract, nor was Stein’s writing.


Analytic Cubism and Stein’s Prose: In comparing the two, note that 1.) Both are harder to “read” than a classic painting or a paragraph with lots of nouns. The subject isn’t laid out for us. 2.) Both include a subject that takes active participation in infer from what you’re presented with 3.) Both are “flat” in the sense that there are minimal descriptors. Rather than just paint a portrait of a man, Picasso limits himself to dark colors and a collage of shapes. 4.) In both we need to relax from trying to “figure it out” and just see the portraits for what they are: lines and shapes on a canvas, and lines and shapes on a piece of paper.


Portrait of Henry Kahnweiler, 1910

Excerpt from The Making of Americans (1911)

As I could be saying there are some living to be ones being good for living, there are some living to be ones making themselves and others good for living, there are some living because they are certain that there is some good to some one in their being living, there are some living certain that each one has some good in living, there are some living needing to be certain that sometime some one will be a good one (700).

Synthetic Cubism and Stein’s Poetry: In comparing these later works below, note 1.) The respective nouns, colors and shapes, which create a more obvious, albeit abstract subject. 2.) Conventional description of the subject is abandoned, but there is still an obvious “subject” 3.) Conventional titles play with readers and viewers interpretations and expectations 4.) An interest in the sensory.

Picasso_Guitar_Sheet_Music_and_Wine_Glass_1912 - Copy

 Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass, 1912

Excerpts from Tender Buttons, 1914


A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.


Elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless reckless rats, this is this.

A change, a final change includes potatoes. This is no authority for the abuse of cheese. What language can instruct any fellow.

A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.

A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly.