Assembly Required Part 1: Cubism, Mrs. Dalloway and writing about wine

The great advantage of a painting is that its expression is contained within the frame of a simultaneous whole. When the viewer lays eyes on a painting, they are met with the entire composition of a moment both captured and interpreted by the artist. Thus, with all visual elements presented at once, it falls on the viewer to do the internal work of perceiving. But even as internal as this process may be, it is nonetheless constituted by a constant negotiation with the external, through the painting itself as well as the signs and symbols extracted from the world by the mind. It is in this tension between internal thought and external material, caught within the prospect of simultaneity, where the cubist work thrives.

Far from the illusion of three dimensional objects represented on a two dimensional surface, as in classical painting, cubist paintings consist of fragmented objects shown from multiple perspectives and with overlapping planes, forcing the viewer to mentally reconstruct the image.  By doing so, the cubist painter acknowledges that activity of the mind which “fills in” the unseen sides of an object to conceive of it as actually existing in 3 dimensional space. This is not only undermining the idea of absolute truth in “visual fact” by revealing a perceptual gap between the object and the viewer, it is also revealing the mind itself.


Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, Marcel Duchamp, 1912
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. , Marcel Duchamp, 1912


Pablo Picasso once said, ” I paint forms as I think of them, not as I see them.” This can be seen in the way his paintings construct an object by analysing its form, presenting it in abstract shapes shown from different angles which converge but never seem to resolve into a complete whole. The object is rendered elusive and uncertain, in turn, shifting the focus from the object itself to the process involved in perceiving and conceptualising it.


Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso, 1910
Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso, 1910


Re-intellectualising the aesthetic art object as such echoed the ethos of that period, as pointed out in the book Modern Art,

“Being composite, an image represented in this fashion conformed to the new, scientific knowledge that human perception derives not from a single, all-encompassing glance but from a succession of ‘takes’, from experience stored in the memory, and from the intellect’s capacity to conceptualise form.”

Furthermore, the traditional role of iconographic representation in classical painting is replaced by a new, obscure way of thinking in art. In Translating Painting: Virginia Woolf and the Cubist Aesthetic, Emily Donaldson asserts that,

“Unlike the Renaissance ideal- to which Cubism is often contrasted- where the subject is perceived as an integral whole which can be mimetically reproduced on canvas, in Cubism the subject is assumed to be unknowable in any purely objective sense of the word. It is the role of the artist to convey his/her limited sense of reality while acknowledging the impossibility of ever doing so completely.”

Through providing unrestricted access to all angles of the object simultaneously, cubism mirrors the process of perception while, in a way, also distorting the object being perceived and postponing the moment of grasping it entirely. In this sense, a painting no longer provides concrete, familiar symbols of the world we live in, it reveals a certain indeterminacy in the way we perceive those symbols.

If classical painting was concerned with, what Roger Fry referred to as, “imitating life”, than cubist art was concerned with providing “an equivalent for life” in which the internal and the external are not easily reconciled into a unified and coherent “real”.


Mrs, Dalloway book cover, Virginia Woolf, Collins Classics

In a much similar way, Virgina Woolf constructs her protagonist in the novel Mrs. Dalloway, in what is termed Verbal Cubism. 

Virginia Woolf, 1902
Virginia Woolf, 1902, photo by George Charles Beresford

Like a cubist painter, Woolf gives the reader unrestricted access to all angles of her subject, Clarissa Dalloway, through the character’s internal thoughts, the thoughts of others, her relationship with the people around her, and an overlapping of her past, present and future life. Departing from the traditional linear narrative, Mrs. Dalloway is a collage of fragmented moments, colliding characters and seemingly disconnected streams of consciousness with no real beginning nor end, all taking place in one city, on one day,  in one woman’s life.


Three Musicians, Pablo Picasso, 1921
Three Musicians, Pablo Picasso, 1921


What is geometrical form in painting becomes grammatical in literature through the use of a paratactic syntax loosely knit together with semi-colons, commas and full stops, through which the reader discovers the intermingling characters’ fears, desires, and internal struggles. Like the converging of abstract shapes, these internal struggles are constantly being interrupted, and in turn transformed, by the external world, building a web of tension and giving a certain sense of structure, however ambiguous and unresolved it may be.

In addition, Woolf uses a repetition of phrases and images throughout the novel at different times and in slightly different ways, rendering the words and images at once familiar and estranged, and mirroring the cubist technique of repeated forms shown from multiple angles.

Beyond the structure of the novel, one can see in its content a clear influence of the cubist aesthetic in the importance given to all that is perceived and felt simultaneously in a single moment. In this way, Woolf gives precedence to the mind, through emotion and intellect, over material realism. As pointed out by Corie Dias in Pieces of Virginia: Post Impressionism and Cubism in the Works of Virginia Woolf,

Woolf emphasises the fact that the mind does not work in a linear way, and that life cannot be reproduced through description and fact. She argues for a kind of verbal cubism, where every angle of thought and mind is taken into consideration.”

She goes on to quote Woolf’s words in her essay Modern Fiction, 

“Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this.’ Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions- trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, as an incessant shower of innumerable atoms…”

Oxford Street, London in the 1930's
Oxford Street, London in the 1930’s


The novel contains a series of scenes depicting ordinary events, not through the events themselves, but rather the “myriad of impressions” experienced in the mind of the characters. This shift in focus from the  external events to the internal experience of the mind parallels the cubist’s analysis of an object, while the heightened sense of the moment likens Woolf’s work to that of painting. Allen McLaurin states,

“The achievement of the sense of the ‘moment’, of the instantaneous effect of the picture is clearly one of Virginia Woolf’s aims.”

The inherent tension between the external and the internal comes full circle in Clarissa’s fragmented sense of self that the reader witnesses as she “plunges”,  “cuts”, and “slices like a knife” through the moments of her day and reflections of the past. Just as the cubist object never resolves into a complete whole, Clarrisa struggles to sustain an integrated and coherent idea of her identity. At one moment she is dispersed, feeling herself as part of everything and everywhere, at another she imagines herself whole, “pointed; dartlike; definite”, like a diamond.

On the point, Dondaldson writes,

“Clarissa’s loss of integrated self mirrors the loss of a reliable process of signification in the world in a context where traditional symbols loose potency.”

She asserts that this loss can be seen as a sign of the times in post World War I Europe leading up to World War II, when war, government, nationalism, monarchy and religion where all being radically re-thought. This sentiment was certainly echoed in the cubist movement as they searched for new modes of representation in art.


Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937
Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937


In such a time, far from reinforcing the illusion of solid, coherent truths, the cubist movement embraced the ambiguous nature of the real and asked how artistic form could enhance and enrich our perception of the world. Furthermore, by requiring the viewer or the reader to assemble the work themselves in order to make sense of it, the artist and the writer are asking one to participate in the endeavour by embracing the multitude of perspectives that co-exist simultaneously.

What cubist painters did in transforming the way we look at things and think about paintings, Virginia Woolf did for the way we read things and think about literature, both offering a new perspective on our perceptive potential and our very ability to express  what we perceive. This was achieved by focusing on the crucial moment when external material collides with internal process, simultaneously exposing and rupturing the distance  between the two through the senses.

If this can be done with images and words, why not with taste and smell? How can Verbal Cubism be applied to writing about wine in a way that shifts the focus from a linear narrative of classified terms about the wine in question, to the mind at work in perceiving that wine from as many angles as possible?

In Part 2 I will explore writing about 3 different wines in this way. Stay tuned!


Sources: Pieces of Virginia: Post Impressionism and Cubism in the Works of Virginia Woolf, Corie Dias; Translating Painting: Virginia Woolf and the Cubist Aesthetic, Emily Donaldson, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf


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