Cubism is an artistic movement, created by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, which employs geometric shapes in depictions of human and other forms. Over time, the geometric touches grew so intense that they sometimes overtook the represented forms, creating a more pure level of visual abstraction. Though the movement’s most potent era was in the early 20th Century, the ideas and techniques of Cubism influenced many creative disciplines and continue to inform experimental work.
THE FIRST ERA OF CUBISM
Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque first met in 1905, but it wasn’t until 1907 that Picasso showed Braque what is considered the first Cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This portrait of five prostitutes draws heavy influence from African tribal art, which Picasso had recently been exposed to at the Palais du Trocadéro, a Paris ethnographic museum.
Breaking nearly every rule of traditional Western painting, the work was such a huge leap from his previous blue and pink periods, which were far more representational and emotional. Picasso was hesitant to display the work to the public, and it went unseen until 1916.
Braque, who painted in the Fauvist movement, was both repelled and intrigued by the painting. Picasso worked with him privately on the implications of the piece, developing together the Cubist form. Braque is the only artist to ever collaborate with Picasso, and over a period of two years, they spent every evening together, with neither artist pronouncing a finished work until agreed on by the other.
Braque’s response to Picasso’s initial work was his 1908 painting Large Nude, noted for incorporating the techniques of Paul Cézanne as a sobering influence. Thus began the first era of Cubism, known as Analytical Cubism, which was defined by depictions of a subject from multiple vantage points at once, creating a fractured, multi-dimensional effect expressed through a limited palette of colors.
The term Cubism was first used by French critic Louis Vauxcelles in 1908 to describe Braque’s landscape paintings. Painter Henri Matisse had previously described them to Vauxcelles as looking comprised of cubes. The term wasn’t widely used until the press adopted it to describe the style in 1911.
In 1909, Picasso and Braque redirected their focus from humans to objects to keep Cubism fresh, as with Braque’s Violin and Palette.
OTHERS JOIN THE CUBIST MOVEMENT
Wider exposure brought others to the movement. Polish artist Louis Marcossis discovered Braque’s work in 1910, and his Cubist paintings are considered to have more of a human quality and lighter touch than the works of others.
Spanish artist Juan Gris remained on the fringes of the movement until 1911. He distinguished himself by refusing to make the abstraction of the object more essential than the object itself. Gris died in 1927, and Cubism represents a significant portion of his life’s work.
French painter Fernand Léger was initially influenced by Paul Cézanne and upon meeting Cubist practitioners embraced the form in 1911, focusing on architectural subjects.
Marcel Duchamp flirted with Cubism beginning in 1910 but was often considered at odds with it. His famous 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), reflects the influence but features a figure in motion. Typically in Cubist works, the viewer is more placed in motion, since the perspective presented on canvas are multiple planes, as if the artist is moving around the subject and capturing all views in one image.
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THE SECOND ERA OF CUBISM
By 1912, Picasso and Braque had begun to incorporate words in the paintings, which evolved into the collage elements that dominate the second era of Cubism, known as Synthetic Cubism. This phase was also marked by the flattening of the subjects and brightening of colors.
Braque further experimented with collage, leading to his creation of the papier collé technique, seen in 1912’s Fruit Dish and Glass, a concoction of wallpaper placed within the gouache. The introduction of collage broadened the form’s color palette further.
Sculptors also explored Cubist forms. Russian artist Alexander Archipenko first publicly showed in 1910 alongside other Cubists, while Lithuanian refugee Jacques Lipchitz entered the scene in 1914.
An offshoot movement designated Orphic Cubism centered on the Puteaux Group collective. Formed in 1913 by French painter Jacques Villon and his brother, sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon (both brothers to Marcel Duchamp), this branch embraced even brighter hues and augmented abstraction.
Robert Delaunay is considered a primary representation of this wing, sharing similar architectural interests as Leger, which he applied multiple times to Cubist depictions of the Eiffel Tower and other notable Parisian structures.
Other members Roger de la Fresnaye and Andre Lhote viewed Cubism, not as a subversion from the norm but instead a way to return order and stability to their work, and found inspiration in Georges Seurat. De la Fresnaye’s best-known painting, 1913’s The Conquest of the Air, is a Cubist self-portrait of he and his brother in a hot air balloon.
CUBISM: WORLD WAR I AND BEYOND
World War I effectively halted Cubism as an organized movement, with a number of artists, including Braque, Lhote, de la Fresnaye and Léger, getting called up for duty. De la Fresnaye was discharged in 1917 due to tuberculosis. He never fully recovered, attempting to continue art-making but dying in 1925.
By 1917, Picasso returned his practice of injecting more realism into his paintings, though his refusal to be pinned down meant Cubism reappeared in some works over the years, such as The Three Musicians (1921) and The Weeping Woman (1937), a response to the Spanish Civil War.
Braque continued his experimentation. His further work featured elements of Cubism, though noted for less rigidity in the abstractions of the subjects and using colors that don’t reflect the reality of the still life.
Though Cubism never regained its place as an organized force in the art world, its vast influence has continued in art movements like Futurism, Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism, and others.
Cubism influenced other forms as well; in literature, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner; in music, Igor Stravinsky; in photography Paul Strand, Aleksandr Rodchenko and László Moholy-Nagy; in film Hans Richter and Fritz Lang; as well as graphic design and scenic design.
Cubism. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Tudor History of Painting in 1000 Color Reproductions. Robert Maillard, Editor.
The Story of Painting. Sister Wendy Beckett and Patricia Wright.
Art in Time: A World History of Styles and Movements. Phaidon.
Cubism: A New Vision. Ninón Rodríguez, Miami Dade College.