Summary of Cubism
Cubism developed in the aftermath of Pablo Picasso's shocking 1907 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in a period of rapid experimentation between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Drawing upon Paul Cezanne’s emphasis on the underlying architecture of form, these artists used multiple vantage points to fracture images into geometric forms. Rather than modelled forms in an illusionistic space, figures were depicted as dynamic arrangements of volumes and planes where background and foreground merged. The movement was one of the most groundbreaking of the early-20th century as it challenged Renaissance depictions of space, leading almost directly to experiments with non-representation by many different artists. Artists working in the Cubist style went on to incorporate elements of collage and popular culture into their paintings and to experiment with sculpture.
A number of artists adopted Picasso and Braque's geometric faceting of objects and space including Fernand Léger and Juan Gris, along with others that formed a group known as the Salon Cubists.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The artists abandoned perspective, which had been used to depict space since the Renaissance, and they also turned away from the realistic modeling of figures.
- Cubists explored open form, piercing figures and objects by letting the space flow through them, blending background into foreground, and showing objects from various angles. Some historians have argued that these innovations represent a response to the changing experience of space, movement, and time in the modern world. This first phase of the movement was called Analytic Cubism.
- In the second phase of Cubism, Synthetic Cubism practicioners explored the use of non-art materials as abstract signs. Their use of newspaper would lead later historians to argue that, instead of being concerned above all with form, the artists were also acutely aware of current events, particularly World War I.
- Cubism paved the way for non-representational art by putting new emphasis on the unity between a depicted scene and the surface of the canvas. These experiments would be taken up by the likes of Piet Mondrian, who continued to explore their use of the grid, abstract system of signs, and shallow space.
Overview of Cubism
From 1907 to 1914 Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso worked so closely together, they dressed alike and joked that they were like the Wright brothers who invented the airplane - Picasso even called Braque "Wilbourg." Braque said, "The things that Picasso and I said to one another during those years will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them anymore. It was like being roped together on a mountain," as the two spearheaded the development of the movement.
Important Art and Artists of Cubism
Picasso's painting was shocking even to his closest artist friends both for its content and for its formal experimentation. The subject matter of nude women was not in itself unusual, but the fact that Picasso painted the women as prostitutes in aggressively sexual postures was novel. Their blatant sexuality was heightened by Picasso's influence from non-Western art that is most evident in the faces of three of the women, which are rendered as mask-like, suggesting that their sexuality is not just aggressive, but also primitive. The unusual formal elements of the painting were also part of its shock value. Picasso abandoned the Renaissance illusion of three-dimensionality, instead presenting a radically flattened picture plane that is broken up into geometric shards. For instance, the body of the standing woman in the center is composed of angles and sharp edges. Both the cloth wrapped around her lower body and her body itself are given the same amount of attention as the negative space around them as if all are in the foreground and all are equally important.
The painting was widely thought to be immoral when it was finally exhibited in public in 1916. Braque is one of the few artists who studied it intently in 1907, leading directly to his later collaboration with Picasso. Because it predicted some of the characteristics of Cubism, Les Demoiselles is considered proto or pre-Cubist.
In this painting, Braque shows the influence of Picasso's Les Demoiselles of the previous year and the work of Paul Cézanne. From Cézanne, he adapted the uni-directional, uniform brushwork, and flat spacing, while from Picasso he took the radical simplification of form and use of geometric shapes to define objects. There is, for example, no horizon line and no use of traditional shading to add depth to objects, so that the houses and the landscape all seem to overlap and to occupy the foreground of the picture plane. As a whole, this work made obvious his allegiance to Picasso's experiments and led to their collaboration.
By 1909, Picasso and Braque were collaborating, painting largely interior scenes that included references to music, such as musical instruments or sheet music. In this early example of Analytic Cubism, Braque was experimenting further with shallow spacing by reducing the color palette to neutral browns and grays that further flatten out the space. The piece is also indicative of Braque's attempts to show the same item from different points of view. Some shading is used to create an impression of bas-relief with the various geometric shapes seeming to overlap slightly. Musical instruments such as guitars, violins, and clarinets show up frequently in Cubist paintings, particularly in the works of Braque who trained as a musician. By relying on such repeated subject matter, the works also encourage the viewer to concentrate on the stylistic innovations of Cubism rather than on the specificity of the subject matter.
Useful Resources on Cubism
- 278k viewsCubism: General OverviewThe quick basics
- 8k viewsPicasso and Braque's Cubist Experiment: "Like mountain climbers roped together"?Lecture by conservators Claire Barry and Bart Devolde
- 24k viewsPicasso Posse: Picasso and Braque: Inventing CubismPhiladelphia Museum's Michael Taylor discusses Georges Braque's Violin and Newspaper (1912-1913)
- 29k viewsPablo Picasso - Cubism and moreHighlighted works from whole career, but emphasis on Cubism
- 21k viewsGeorges Braque and the Cubist Still Life (1928-1945)From exhibition by Washington University in St. Louis
- 6k viewsJuan Gris - Still Life with Checked Tablecloth (1915)Leonard A. Lauder gifts the amazing work and it is discussed by experts
- 29k viewsFernand Leger - Contrast of Forms (1913)MoMA's Ann Temkin discusses Braque discovering his own style
- 5k viewsRobert Delauney - Red Eiffel Tower (1911-12)
- 7k viewsPicasso Posse: The Mona Lisa of CubismSalon Cubists recreated by Philadelphia Museum
- 2k viewsPicasso and Braque Symposium: Vision and Touch in Early CubismOn how cues to visual and tactile experience are deliberately 'confused' in Cubist painting by art historian Christine Poggi
- 4k viewsPicasso and Braque Symposium: The Different Facets of Analytic CubismBy art historian Lisa Florman
- The Cubist Painters (Documents of Twentieth-Century Art)Our PickBy Guillaume Apollinaire
- Cubism A&I (Art and Ideas)By Neil Cox
- Picasso and the Invention of CubismOur PickBy Mr. Pepe Karmel
- A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914By Mark Antliff, Patricia Leighten
- Cubism: Colour Library (Phaidon Colour Library)By Philip Cooper
- Architecture and Cubism (Centre Canadien d'Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture)By Eve Blau
- Picasso, Braque, and Early Film in CubismBy Tom Gunning
- Review of "Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914" at MoMABy Tyler Green / ARTINFO.com / March 23, 2011
- Art in Review; 'Inheriting Cubism'By Ken Johnson / The New York Times / December 7, 2001
- Picasso and Braque, Brothers in CubismOur PickBy Michael Brenson / The New York Times / September 22, 1989
- Art: The Apprenticeship Of Stuart Davis as a CubistBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / November 27, 1987