Tangled Up in Cubism


A major function of art can be regarded as an extension of the function of the brain, namely, to seek knowledge. Indeed, it was an unacknowledged attempt to mimic the perceptual abilities of the brain that lead Georges Braque, cofounder of Cubism art, to eliminate the point of view in his paintings (Zeki 51).  In Cubism artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstract form. Instead of depicting an object from a singular viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in greater context (Metzinger 651-652). Georges Braque’s oil and canvas painting “Violin and Candlestick” exemplifies the dynamic and energetic qualities of Cubism. Braque’s work depicts a violin, candlestick and other unrecognizable objects clustered around the center of the painting in a grid-like armature. The still life has been fractured and painted from multiple angles.

During the mid 1970s, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was heavily inspired by Cubism art and how an image could be depicted from multiple viewpoints. In 1974 he wrote ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ much in the style of Cubism; a song that could be taken as a whole, yet, could also be heard from multiple viewpoints. Both painting and song use many viewpoints to present a fragmented, dynamic and energetic body of work that both challenges and intrigues its audience.

George Braque painted ‘Violin and Candlestick’ in the spring of 1910. He desired to create an illusion in the viewer’s mind to move around freely within the painting. To achieve this effect, Braque painted a still life image of the violin (and other objects). Rather than simply paint what he saw from his own perspective, though, he painted his subject from multiple simultaneous perspectives. Here, the pictorial space is nearly flat, viewpoints (as well as light sources) are multiplied, contours are broken, volumes are often transparent, and facets are turned into illogical simultaneous views (Trachtman 44). All at once, the viewer sees different sections of the violin – some of these fragments are from opposite angles. Braque described this technique as “a way of getting closer to his subjects.” Not all of the objects are identifiable and the painting leaves room for interpretation and the imagination. Braque painted ‘Violin and Candlestick’ in earthen tones (shades of brown and grey) purposely allowing no distinction between subject and background.  By doing this, he gives the work an ambiguous sense of place. The geometry of the painting gives it an overall tone of energy, yet there is a calm sense of organization in the chaos. Prior to Braque, this style of art was not seen. Cubism directly challenged the observer to work hard to make sense of the image, and to be in a constant state of adjustment in order to fully grasp the snippets of meaning that it contains (Judkins 10).

‘Tangled up in Blue’ is an acoustic folk-rock song from Bob Dylan’s 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. The song’s tone is gentle, reminiscent and sad, yet simultaneously full of energy. Dylan writes and sings of a love affair that spans both time and distance. The song consists of seven stanzas and the theme of abandonment runs throughout its length of five-and-a-half minutes. The narrator sings of abandoning a car, dead end jobs and multiple affairs (that may or may not be with the same woman). Despite the song’s sad tone, there is optimism in the lyrics which is further punctuated by an elated harmonica solo. Dylan has recorded a number of different live and studio versions of the song and in most versions, he is playing mid-tempo.

To achieve his goal of writing a song that resembled a Cubist painting, Dylan experimented with lyrics that defied both time and space. The song was written interweaving both first and third person perspectives. The first three verses describe a “he” and “she” and their on-again/off-again love affair. In the fourth verse, the narrator enters the story, becoming involved with the woman. But in the sixth verse, “he” has returned, though the narrator now remains present. Keeping much in theme with the song, the relationship – now a triangle (the narrator lives with them on ‘Montague Street’) – once again crumbles. Of special note, is the 1975 Blood on the Tracks album version of the song is performed entirely in first person point of view, while his original recording (not officially released until 1991), as well as subsequent live versions all use mixed perspectives. Dylan has stated that his live version (Real Live 1984) – mixing both first and third person – is how he always heard the song in his head (Shelton 168).

Much in the same way that Dylan uses different perspectives, he also plays with time. ‘Tangled up in Blue’ in written in both the present and past tense. In a 1985 interview, Dylan said he wrote ‘Tangled up in Blue’ in a way “So that the story took place in the present and the past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it, or you see it altogether. I wanted that song to be like a painting” (Crowe 17).

‘Violin and Candlestick’ and ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ are two works of art in two different mediums, separated by nearly 65 years. Both share the most defining quality of Cubism; multiple viewpoints. Braque presents his painting of the violin in a fractured form. The viewer sees the object, all at once, from multiple angles. He transformed volumes in the still life to accommodate their multiple surfaces on a flat plane, thereby allowing the viewer to see more of the form than would be possible from a single vantage point (SFMOMA n.d.). In one view, we can see both the front and back of the instrument, which would be impossible if we were to view the violin in three-dimensional form.

In the same way that Braque presents opposite viewpoints of ‘Violin and Candlestick’ so, too, does Dylan with his song. He sings of heading out to the East Coast, yet abandons the car ‘out west.’ He ends the song trying to get back to the woman he loves, even though they have split up, “both agreeing it was best.” The singer is both attracted to and repelled by the impossibility of the relationship; it’s what motivates him to keep moving forward and yet keep longing to go back. Even the simple declaration of the line, “The only thing I knew how to do/ Was to keep on keeping on” is a contradiction. Moving on is what this speaker knows best how to do, and the song identifies keeping on, in this sense, with the great, irresistible impulse of narrative. Keeping on, in the other sense, is not moving on at all, and can be abjectly painful as the singer is doomed to repeat his mistakes (Gezari 480). Each of the seven stanzas that make up the song are only fractions that when taken together, tell a story.

Braque paints in the style of Cubism – a genre he pioneered with Picasso – to bring action to a still life. He fragments and fractures the image to add dynamism to otherwise stationary objects. This is achieved by breaking down the picture and rearranging the fractions in a geometrically compelling way. Dylan’s lyrics, too, bring dynamic movement to his song. Motion plays a key role in ‘Tangled Up in Blue:’ driving, drifting, walking away and heading for another joint. The narrator is in constant motion, even admitting towards the end of the song that he’s still on the road. The lyrics are supplemented by Dylan’s strumming of his rhythm guitar, which further gives the song movement.

Both artist and singer use color to center their creation. Braque uses earthly shades to help establish a calm tone in contrast to the painting’s sharp geometry. He mostly uses grays, browns and black. At the center of the piece, however, he uses light blue. This gives the painting a clear focal point. In his song, he eschews the use of a chorus, yet ends all seven stanzas with the lyric ‘Tangled up in Blue.” This becomes the song’s focal point. Blue is a color often referenced in songs to denote sadness (in fact, an entire genre of music is called the Blues). Yet, in paintings, the color blue often denotes calmness and serenity. Dylan had become an avid art fan in the late 1960s. By 1974, he was attending art classes in New York City, learning to paint. Much like the light shade of blue that can be found in the center of ‘Violin and Candlestick,’ so too can blue be found at the center of Dylan’s song.

Finally, both painting and song were deliberately created to be challenging and provoke thought. Though ‘Violin and Candlestick’ was not his first work in the genre, before Braque, the world had never seen anything like Cubism. He does not use the fixed positions determined by the Renaissance perspective in this work of art. Instead, “planes, here are in a state of constant flux, shifting their locations according to a changing context” (Rosenblum 40). The viewer must actively analyze the painting and piece the work back together in their mind. When critically listening to Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ one must analyze the seven stanzas and piece the story together. Critics are divided on whether the ‘she’ that is mentioned throughout the song is one woman or if each stanza represents a different love interest (Ruhlmann n.d.).

Both Braque and Dylan use multiple viewpoints to break down the traditional perspective space. Both painting and song use structure to contain their subjects; while Braque uses geometric cubes, Dylan employs seven stanzas consisting of thirteen lines each. The use of color in both painting and song help establish an overall tone of fractured calm. The nearly monochromatic earthy shades of brown and gray provide a stark contrast to the pronounced angles in Braque’s painting, while the light shade of blue near the center establishes the focal point. Dylan’s repetition of the line “Tangled up in blue” throughout the song provides its focal point. The use of right angles gives movement to the otherwise still life in Braque’s work, while Dylan’s lyrics are filled with images of motion. Both artist and songwriter have created fractured, abstract masterpieces that lends to analysis and thought. ‘Violin and Candlestick’ and ‘Tangled up in Blue’ invite one to perceive them from simultaneous multiple viewpoints; most of all, one’s own individual perspective. Perhaps, then, the final word belongs to Dylan, when he sings “We always did feel the same/We just saw it from a different point of view.”






Crowe, Cameron. Biograph. New York: 1985

Judkins, W. Fluctuant Representation in Symbolic Cubism. New York, NY: Garland. 1976. Print

Metzinger, Jean.  Note sur la peinture. Paris, October–November 1910. Print.

Rosenblum, R. Cubism and 20th Century Art. London, U.K: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Print.

Ruhlmann, William. Allmusic.com. Rovi Corp. Web. n.d. 2013.

Shelton, Robert. No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. New York: Beech Tree               Books, 1986. Print.

SFMOMA.org. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Web. n.d. 2013.

Trachtman, Paul. “When Cubism met the decorative arts in France.” Smithsonian. 27.4                  (1996). Print.

Zeki, Semir. “Artistic Creativity And The Brain.” Science 293.527 (2001): 51. Print.

Gezari, Janet. “Bob Dylan And The Tone Behind The Language.” Southwest Review 86.4 (2001): 480. Print.

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