What is Cubism?
Cubism describes a revolutionary style of visual art invented by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 20th century. Drawing on a diversity of influences, from African tribal masks to the late works of Paul Cézanne, the two painters pioneered a radical departure from European conventions of spatial and figural representation. Linear perspective, dominant in Western art from the Renaissance onwards, was dispensed with; instead, arrangements of volumes and planes were used to highlight the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Rather than presenting realistic renderings of objects and figures, Cubist paintings use simplified forms and contrasting vantage points to create fragmented and abstracted compositions. The innovations of Picasso and Braque were adopted and further developed by a host of other artists, the so-called Salon Cubists, whose public exhibitions at the Salon des Indépendents and Salon d’Automne in Paris were largely responsible for introducing the Cubist vernacular to the general public.
Cubism Characteristics and Style
In Cubist painting, objects and figures are broken down into distinct planes and reassembled into abstracted forms. Rather than creating the illusion of depth, these dynamic arrangements merge foreground and background to emphasise the flatness of the artist’s canvas. In general, Cubism can be understood as developing in two distinct phases: Analytical and Synthetic. In Analytical Cubism, objects are systematically dissected, with multiple viewpoints presented in interweaving planes. Confined to a muted palette of blacks, grey and ochres, these paintings represent the austere, cerebral starting point of Cubist experimentation. Synthetic Cubism, by contrast, features simpler shapes, brighter colours, and a variety of textures and patterns, including collages that incorporate non-art materials such as newspaper. These later works dispense altogether with allusions to three-dimensional space.
Legacy of Cubism
Perhaps the most influential artistic movement of the 20th century, Cubism represented a fundamental reimagining of Western artistic conventions. The canvas, no longer a window onto a faithfully reflected world, became the picture plane, freed from external constraints. The innovations of Picasso, Braque and others paved the way for numerous later styles including Constructivism, Futurism, Suprematism and De Stijl. Cubism’s formal concepts were also foundational to Dada and Surrealism; in particular, Synthetic Cubism’s inclusion of real and found objects became one of the most important and far-reaching ideas in Modern art.
Beyond the realm of the visual arts, the Cubist influence can be seen in the architecture of Le Corbusier, the literary works of Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner, and the poetry of Pierre Reverdy.
Timeline & History of Cubism
- 1907Picasso, drawing on the influence of Cézanne as well as African totems and Iberian sculpture, paints Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. The groundbreaking painting is generally recognised as the first proto-Cubist work.
(left) Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, 1907. © The Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2020.
- 1908Critic Louis Vauxcelles coins the term Cubism after viewing an exhibition of Georges Braque’s paintings in Paris.
(left) Jules Chéret, Portrait of Louis Vauxcelles, 1927
- 1911The first organised group exhibition of the Salon Cubists takes place at the Salon des Indépendents, bringing Cubism to the attention of the general public.
(left) Henri Le Fauconnier, Abundance, 1910, one of the works displayed at the 1911 Salon des Indépendents
- 1912Salon Cubists mount the Salon de la Section d’Or, displaying over 200 works and gaining more widespread recognition; critic Guillaume Apollinaire coins the term Orphism to describe the transition from Cubism toward pure abstraction.
(left) Special issue dedicated to the exhibition La Section d'Or, first year, n ° 1, October 9, 1912
- 1912Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger publish Du “Cubisme”, the first major text on Cubism.
(left) The French version of the cover of the book Du "Cubisme", 1912, by Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, Eugène Figuière Éditeurs
- 1912Picasso and Braque create numerous papiers collés, marking their departure from Analytic Cubism and the beginning of Synthetic Cubism. They will continue in this style until 1914.
(left) Georges Braque, Still Life with Tenora, 1913. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Braque, Georges (1882-1963) © ARS, NY.
- 1914The First World War breaks out, disrupting the rapid-fire period of Cubist experimentation. Many artists, including Braque, enlist; the German-born Kahnweiler is forced into exile. However, Cubist tendencies persist well into the 1920s.
(left) Georges Braque as soldier in the trenches during the First World War
Who Are the Cubists?
The Cubists can be broadly grouped into two major camps: the “Gallery Cubists” and the “Salon Cubists”. Picasso and Braque, the “Gallery Cubists,” exhibited almost exclusively with the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler from 1907–14, and were in fact prohibited from participating in the public salons. Freed from commercial concerns, the two artists collaborated closely during this period to pioneer the Cubist style.
The “Salon Cubists”, by contrast, exhibited their works at the salons and were thus the public face of the nascent Cubist movement. This group includes Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Juan Grís, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Roger de la Fresnaye, Henri Le Fauconnier and František Kupka.
While Cubism is primarily associated with painting, there were several important sculptors working in the Cubist style, including Alexander Archipenko, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Lipchitz.
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