The allusive “Cubism” took its turn to dominate the early twentieth century with its unconventional visually abstract style and founding artists Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) and Georges Braque (French, 1882-1963). To unravel the mysteries of a Cubist painting, the viewer must abandon the expectation of realistic three-dimensional presentation, of an obvious perspective of depth and distance through realist forms and figures and, rather, delve into the celebration of the two-dimensional nature of a canvas. To do this, Cubism breaks up objects into geometric shapes and vantage points, with the artist carefully selecting which shapes from which angle or perspective to fit together and where—a puzzle of sorts—forcing the viewer to confront new experiences in modern art.
What began as a misfit of an art form isn’t without complexity. To understand all that the Cubist movement sings of, let’s look at Marcel Duchamp’s (French-American, 1887-1968) eminent Nude Descending Down A Staircase, No. 2 (1912). At first glance, it appears to comprise of fragmented beige hues and dark shadows dominating the canvas. Upon closer inspection, you see this beige mass spreading from the top left-hand corner to the bottom right-hand corner with the remaining corners relatively empty. Slowly, your eyes adjust to the demarcations making up a human figure, whose sex is left ambiguous, being repeated one after the other. The individual shapes begin to tell the story of movement—the “descending” movement of a body down a staircase, with Cubism employed to depict a lapse in time through its lagging and layered effect. It’s as if the painting captures a period of time in slow motion and in frames, from one step of the figure’s to its next. This is done with considerable sleight and careful detail: the dotted curves in the middle of the painting to suggest downwards movement, the arcs running across the figure’s legs. Braque’s Violin and Jug (1910) exhibits a similar, but relatively more simple and still, style. This geometrically crafted and multidimensional approach is known as Analytical Cubism, whereby a sense or impression of an object or figure is evoked, rather than explicitly illustrated.
Synthetic Cubism came afterwards, ultimately giving way to the papier collé technique. This refers to a type of collage where layered and pasted papers resemble more of a drawing than a painting. Hearkening back to what makes Cubism essentially distinct from naturalistic or realistic works, these collaged pieces take up the role of fragments that form an overall fractured-looking image, giving it its more abstract look. The shape of each piece alludes to the object the artist tries to depict in the shape it’s cut out in. This is exemplified in the first collage to bless modern art, Picasso’s experimental Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), with his breakdown of pictorial language into bits and pieces. His more vibrant Still Life with Guitar (1942) lies in stark contrast, pregnant with clear and solid colours. Even so, both remain beautifully abstract and intrinsically Cubistic.
Meandering through Europe and the Americas, the Cubist movement has reached Pakistan. It has not only reached, but is burgeoning, greatly credited to the works of our country’s esteemed Cubism-enthused artists—Shakir Ali, Zainul Abedin and Mansoor Rahi.
Imbibing the canon of Cubism into his works, Shakir Ali (1916-1975) undoubtedly established an formidable presence of the genre in Pakistan. Coming from his studies from the West to Lahore, he brought with him these foreign ideas that invigorated Pakistan’s art scene. Ali’s still life paintings execute a Braque-like touch; his Still Life with Scroll uses the traditional breakup of independently coloured geometric shapes to highlight the contours and angles, such as those of the vase. Employing a harsh but deft use of thick dark lines and a juxtaposition of bold colours pronounces these divisions.
East Pakistan’s Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) was a pioneer of modern art in the country, combining the traditions of feminine sketches with the dark outlines and fragmentation of a classic Cubism piece. Poise is a painting of a Bengali woman whose figures seems to emulate the “contrapposto” pose popular in Greek art. This pose is relaxed, leisurely and sensual—similar to the artistic presentation of South Asian women. Here, Cubism works to exaggerate particular features; her leg is elongated with a long rectangular piece, drawing the viewer’s eye up and down her body. The pieces making up her face and arms are smaller, a contrast perfectly capturing the femininity exuding from the woman’s leg in this example.
Mansoor Rahi (1939) can’t be mentioned without attaching to him the title of one of Pakistan’s most notable abstractionist painters. Influenced heavily by the works of Abedin, Rahi’s The Thinker, too, brings to life Cubism within human form with overlapping planes and his generous use of arcs and contours to shape the man’s body. More interestingly, Rahi’s part in the Cubist movement in Pakistan draws attention to how expertly light and shadow can be played around with. In The Thinker, each puzzle piece is a particular tinge on the spectrum of light and dark, characteristic of Analytical Cubism in its threading together of various angles. His face, hands and the centre of his chest a lighter, leading the viewer’s eye to them. Whilst the hands are brought forward, the rest of the body is pushed back in shadow, subduing it into a contemplative state.
The Cubist movement isn’t simply an artistic trend in Pakistan, limiting its expression to sized shapes and demarcations. Crusading Cubism is neither completely obtuse nor entirely reductionist, but revolutionary in being able to visually narrate stories through its smaller parts. Cubism lives on to hone the viewer’s attention towards both microcosmic details and macrocosmic impacts of Cubist artwork, to find coherence in seemingly incoherent things.