In this paper I address Picasso’s period of apparent stylistic pluralism. Beginning in 1915 and into the ‘20s, the artist’s focus seemed to turn away from the formal elements of Cubism he himself had developed and he began to incorporate aspects other historical styles such as mannerism, neoclassicism and neo-impressionism and alongside his Cubist forms. Picasso’s 1919 show in Paris, his first in thirteen years, shocked and bewildered even his supporters. They leapt to label him a counterfeiter, a pasticheur. Even now, Picasso’s seemingly spontaneous reversion to earlier historical styles continues to perplex and provoke, especially as it is invoked in a larger discussion of style as a concept.
I begin with Meyer Schapiro’s 1956 essay “Style,” in which he takes issue with organic models of stylistic analysis which lead to a mythologizing of certain “great” artists, whose work represents the “high point” of a style. Schapiro ultimately puts out a call for a flexible model of style that allows for the integration of the inner content of art with its formal expression. I bring in several writers who attempt this approach to Picasso’s stylistic pluralism. Rosalind Krauss, for example, sets out to deflate the mythologizing of Picasso by offering a psychoanalytic explanation. Arnold Hauser takes a social approach, arguing that this period reflected Picasso’s “[protest] against the cult of originality.” These authors, however, do not sufficiently consider Picasso’s stylistic pluralism in a discussion of
style-as-method, and overlook a crucial driving force behind this apparent shift in focus.
I then address the writing of George Kubler, who also took up Schapiro’s cry for an expanded definition of style. Kubler argues in his 1962 book The Shape of Time, however, that in the expansion necessary to to encompass the shifting of these qualities with the passage of time, the fraught term itself would disappear from view. Yet, over 10 years later, in a 1977 paper titled Towards a Reductive Theory of Visual Style, Kubler presents an analysis of style as a “manifold of six dimensions,” including for his readers a hexagonal
diagram with corresponding components as pairs across opposite faces. This seeming about-face is conspicuous, this argument not for an expanded definition of style but for the rigidity of this model, outlined as a geometric form. I argue that Kubler and Picasso are engaged in a similar project: demonstrating via hyperbole the insufficiencies of a defined concept of “style.” The bulk of my paper will be a test of the applicability of Kubler’s model on several works by Picasso during his period of stylistic pluralism. Even if Kubler’s intention was rhetorical, these “Kublerian analyses” reveal Picasso not as a traitor to Cubism, but to be pushing back against the notion that Cubism is a “style” at all by blatantly and sometimes humorously undermining its constant forms. Further, by distorting and decontextualizing historical styles, Picasso mocks the myth of the “great artist” and his own identity as “innovator,” while interrogating how the definition of “style” inflects the practice of art history.