MASHUP – Picasso/Braque @ the VAG








Once upon a time, in 2011, my greenhorn days on WP, I wrote a post asking, definitively, who was the first 20th century artist to use text in their painting and which painting was it?

I rarely ask such detailed and mundane questions anymore but five years ago I was much closer to my academic past and my art historian’s hair splitting curiosity. Now, the only questions I ask are related to the quality of tequila, missing socks, mermaids and mortality.

I was reminded of the mentioned 2011 post as I stood in front of Picasso’s Still Life with Bottle and Glass at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s spring exhibition MASHUP. I was also entranced as I always am when I manage to place myself before the work of a master.

Although photos were allowed the light was so weak around Picasso and Braque that I have replaced my dark photos with quality images of the same works, from Google Images. Seems like cheating somehow, to use images not my own, and you miss the mood and the gorgeous ancient frame around the Picasso, but you will need to imagine.

This is the VAG write-up for the Picasso piece:

Still life 1913


figaro picasso

In my 2011 post I settled on Still Life with Chair Caning, a Picasso painting from 1912 as the first painting with text. I understand now that Braque was probably the first of the two to use text, but more in the medium of printing.




Art dealer and print enthusiast Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler commissioned Georges Braque to execute the large intaglio print Fox in 1911, at the same time that he asked Pablo Picasso to make a print using the same size plate. Cubism was a radical new style being created by these two artists as a collaborative effort, and this style is evident in Fox, a café still life in which Braque used the drypoint technique to fragment the forms by means of short, spontaneous, staccato lines and cross-hatchings. Textual components such as the word “FOX” make reference to an English-style bar frequented by the Cubist poets and painters, while “Old Tom Gin” refers to the central motif of the still life, a bottle of gin. (

To stay in context I continue to choose Still Life with Chair Caning, but this time because it is entirely a true 1912 MASHUP!

chair caning

The 100 #59 – Overflow IV…

Overflow 1On my way back from the dentist, located on Vancouver’s north shore, I came across this sculpture. And just when I thought I had exhausted all textual art in this city…

Overflow 2This stainless steel sculpture, titled: OVERFLOW IV is by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa and dated 2007.

Overflow 3I am showing three different angles and really enjoyed the see-through quality of the work – it was solidly present and yet it also tended to disappear or integrate with the sky, buildings, trees and traffic around it. I couldn’t detect any hidden messages in the letters, they are just letters although they also form the outer surface of a seated human figure.

I wondered how much of our perceived reality of ourselves and of the world consists of words (which consist of letters). Mostly we label things with words and symbols and move on. It is maybe only the artist and the poet who see beyond labels.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. – Paul Valery

To define a thing is to substitute the definition for the thing itself. – Georges Braque

Zen is the madman yelling, “If you wanta tell me that the stars are not words, then stop calling them stars!” – Jack Kerouac

‘The 100′ series was initiated by my 100th Post in April 2012. As text and images are the essence of my blog I will post 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.

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

Card Project – Day 1- Confusion

A set of small cards – 2.5″ x 3.5″ – made by me for a friend – one a day, with a quote on the reverse.  Day 1 – medium: Collage.


To define a thing is to substitute the definition for the thing itself.                Georges Braque