The 100 #50 – Text in Art – the Beginnings …

Ma Jolie. Pablo Picasso. 1911. Oil on canvas. 39 3/8 x 25 3/4 in.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

At this halfway point in my ‘The 100’ series I travel backwards in time to honour Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Georges Braque (French, 1882-1963) and Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887–1927). These artists were the first to incorporate text into painting and collage in the modern era – a huge leap forward in their time in how materials were used in art – and for the viewing public and critics a shocking  juxtaposition of text mixed with painting. The text didn’t yet contain a message, it was simply incorporated as part of the materials of the painting, (Ma Jolie was reputedly Picasso’s nickname for his lover at the time, Marcelle Humbert).

The Cubists began to use text in the years 1911/12/13. In their visual explorations, Picasso, Braque and Gris began to insert collage elements into their paintings. Their introduction of collage included found objects, drawings and stenciled lettering.

Still Life with Chair Caning by Picasso. 1912. Collage of oil, oilcloth and pasted paper simulating chair caning on canvas. Musee Picasso, Paris, France.

In my explorations of text and art, either Ma Jolie or Still Life with Chair Caning, also by Picasso, could be claimed to be the first western painting using text. Although Ma Jolie is an earlier work the incorporated words might be considered simply the title of the painting, (although even writing the title on the painting was iconoclastic at the time).

Still Life with Chair Caning incorporates the word “Jou” which refers to the French newspaper of the time, Le Journal. I consider this text as an intricate part of the painting rather than a possible title so am inclined to choose ‘Chair Caning’ as the first western painting that incorporates text.

Pedestal Table by Braque. 1913. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 25 x 36 inches. Kunstmuseum, Basel.

Georges Braque worked  closely with Picasso and at times their paintings were so alike it was hard to distinguish between them. The two were so close that Picasso took to calling Braque, “ma femme” or “my wife,” and described their relationship as being “Like mountain climbers roped together.”

Woman with Guitar by Braque. 1913. 130 x 73 cm. Oil and charcoal.

In 1911, Braque and Picasso started to introduce letters and words into their compositions, first as stencils, then rendered freehand. Cubist works began to fill up with texts derived from newspaper mastheads, bottle labels and the typography of musical scores.

A few months after the appearance of these painted verbal signs came the collages, in which actual pieces of newsprint, real labels, and advertisements, calling cards, tickets and various other extraneous elements, such as wallpaper, sandpaper and cigarette butts, were glued to the surface of the canvas or paper.

Guitar “Program statue d’epouvante” by Braque. 1913. Collage, gouache, charcoal.

Rather than seeing these texts as things to be read, Braque said he intended them to serve a purely formal purpose, as compositional devices or spatial figures that draw attention to textuality as flat graphic marks.

Breakfast by Juan Gris. 1914. 31″x 23″. Gouache, oil and crayon on cut and pasted printed paper on canvas. MOMA. New York.





Juan Gris also used text. His Breakfast, like Picasso, used a partial ‘La Journal’ along with a clever incorporation of his name. Also the tobacco packet is painted and drawn in photographically realistic trompe l’oeil, but its label is real. Thus, while aspects of domestic comfort are captured in this image, Gris also raises many subjective and objective questions about how reality is perceived.

Landscape with Posters by Picasso. 1912.

A distinctive feature of visual art in the twentieth century is its use of language. Words had appeared in paintings and sculptures since classical times, but their use was generally restricted to a few specific functions. From an early date inscriptions served religious purposes, identifying the protagonists in a biblical scene or referring to a relevant biblical text. Artists’ signatures identified the person responsible for a work, and dates were included to specify when a work was completed.

In the early twentieth century, however, some artists began using language in their works for very different reasons. Over time this practice spread, as words and even sentences became more conspicuous in a number of artists’ work. In some cases, in mid to late twentieth century art, language became more important than images, and for some artists words replaced images altogether.

In Tom Wolfe’s critique of art criticism and modern art, The Painted Word (published 1975), Wolfe concludes his thesis by writing about conceptual art,  “…there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representation objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes. …Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until… it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory!… Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision… late twentieth-century Modern Art was about to fulfill its destiny, which was: to become nothing less than Literature pure and simple”.

Soda by Braque. 1912. 14″ diameter. Oil on canvas.

The introduction of language into art for new purposes is a symptom of the increasingly conceptual nature of visual art during the twentieth century. The increasing acceptance of the use of language became an independent factor fueling the conceptual orientation of art, for the possibility of using language appealed to many young artists with conceptual goals:

The Bottle of Suze by Picasso. 1912. 25 x 19″. Pasted papers, gouache, charcoal.

In La Bouteille de Suze, Picasso used cut fragments of newsprint, wallpaper, and construction paper, as well as gouache and charcoal, to suggest a liquor bottle with a label and, on the left, a glass and an ashtray with cigarette and smoke. These abstract, fragmented elements all appear to rest on a blue table in front of a wall with diamond-patterned wallpaper and newsprint. Serving as a formal element, the newsprint also suggests the popular Parisian café activity of reading the paper while smoking and drinking. The texts add a political and social dimension to the image: they juxtapose newspaper articles referring to horrific events from the First Balkan war with stories of Parisian frivolity.

The Bullfighter by Juan Gris. 1913. 92 x 60 cm. Oil on canvas.

If we acknowledge that these various texts are in some way voices, then who exactly can be said to be speaking? Do the often multiple fragments of newsprint, the headlines, denser areas of type and advertisements add up, perhaps to a cacophony of voices, to raucous arguments, heated debates, or intimate conversations taking place in a café or studio?




Credits: Language in Visual Art by David W. Galenson

Wikipedia and Google Images.

The 100′ series was initiated by my 100th Post in April 2012. As text and images are the essence of my blog my intention is to present 100 pieces of textual art from historical and contemporary artists and from my own hand. To view the series to date click on ‘The 100’ in my Category Menu

28 thoughts on “The 100 #50 – Text in Art – the Beginnings …

  1. Wow. Great post and trip back in time. This post set of a bell clanging wildly – maybe even you can hear it *ding! ding! ding! ding!*

    I’ve always been drawn to the cubists and surrealists – but I never made the connection with their use of text with my interest in decaying text until you pulled it all together for me here. Thanks for one of life’s “a-ha” moments.

    Have a great weekend John. 🙂


    1. I hear the bells and they are ringing for your Ah Ha moment – am happy for that. Enjoy the weekend yourself Terry and I’m sure it will result in more mind-blowing posts from you…


    1. Guess you mean Picasso – I’ve seen many of his ceramics in southern France – incredible pieces, however they didn’t fit the present theme of my posts – thanks for commenting…


  2. When you get to your goal – 100 – I think you should consider turning this project into a book. Look into the self publishing offered, I think Amazon has it.
    You’ve offered so much fantastic information in just 50, I can’t imagine how much more you have in store. Great stuff. Just sayin’


  3. This is a yummy post…it’s like a rich dessert, absolutely full of flavour! Thank you for doing the research required to put this together so that artists with an investment in such technique and thought, can benefit! I love what you are doing! I think that it would be an interesting ‘in-the-hand’ book…so, don’t dismiss this idea yet. However, don’t think about it as the end result OR you MAY lose your original intention and write differently.


    1. Wise words as always from you Kathleen – thank you. I really enjoy the research on all of this series and learn so much. It is a wonderful bonus to know that others also find meaning and interest in these posts…


  4. Hi Clinock! It’s been a while since I viewed your site. I’ve been very occupied lately in my life and have had difficulty publishing the three sites that I’ve created; but now, I’m more free and I’ll be coming by more often. I’ve appreciated Picasso, and have often been moved by his work, but I’ve not always liked it. His work is truly genius. I didn’t know that he and Braque were so close – great bit of information. I also appreciate painting and text together, but again…I sometimes struggle with that marriage; the text seems to take from the painting. Appreciate your work, Clinock.


    1. Thank you for your kind words G. Three sites, good grief! how do you do it? I have trouble keeping up with one. Are your other two sites mentioned on your blog? I do appreciate you taking the time to visit so many of my posts and commenting and I think I’ve answered all. Life doesn’t always cooperate with blogging schedules – this happens to us all and guess which has priority. I look forward to seeing some stunning photos of autumn in Kelowna – cheers, John


        1. Checked out your other sites G. Enjoyed the simplicity of Yzed. Have seen many of the photos already in your photo blog and to be honest lacked the patience tonight to read through your journalist site – but kudos to you for all of your wide spread efforts. Unhappily Mexico is not in the cards for me this winter – financial commitments elsewhere will place an extra strain on my limited income and will mean that my annual visit to sunnier climes must be postponed…


  5. Your analysis makes interesting reading John and opens up a fresher view (as always)! The idea of text as another way of making marks and another compositional element seems to fit my preconceived idea, but I can see now that this was only one part of it.


    1. Thank you Philippa for your comment. The continued exploration of text based art into the present day is a reflection of the daring of these early pioneers. I had to honour them at some point in my ‘The 100″ series. It takes the likes of Picasso and Braque to break the mold and offer new directions…


  6. Very interesting article John, especially having recently seen the Picasso exhibition which included a number of Cubist paintings as well as constructions/collages. I also hadn’t known Braque and P. were so close and have a sense now more fully developed of how they were integrating daily life into innovative work. I really love how they accomplished this in a tactile way. Thanks a lot for writing this. I found the Tom Wolfe book some time ago and must say I appreciated thoroughly his ‘indictment’ of the contemporary practice of elevating the artist statement above the actual art. I wonder if, in a way, the Cubist ‘gang’ was the last gasp, so to speak, of the pre-plastic art world: “Here it is, summed up and broken down, look carefully, because it’s all going to disappear.”


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