Cubism was a short-lived Modern art movement from around 1908 – 1922, which has had an enduring impact on artists and painting styles.
Cubist painters re-examined and challenged the concept that art should copy nature, and also challenged the traditional techniques of perspective, modeling and foreshortening.
In cubist works the artists combined a large range of viewpoints (multiple perspectives) in one picture and broke down the natural forms of subjects into geometric shapes.
This style of painting was largely influenced by Paul Cezanne, following a commemorative exhibition of his work in Paris in 1907. In particular, the exhibition demonstrated Cezanne’s
- use of geometric shapes,
- build-up of small brushstrokes,
- flattened perspective, and
- way of viewing his subject from shifting positions.
You’ll also see that early cubist works contained similar colours to many works by Cezanne, that is beige, creams, greys, black, greens and browns.
Another key influence was African art, with its vibrant expressive qualities and simplification of forms as planes or facets. A number of cubist artists purchased African tribal masks, which were common and cheap in Paris curio shops. However, they were not interested in the true religious or social symbolism of these cultural objects, but valued them for their expressive style. Similarly, artists were also influenced by Iberian sculpture.
The birth of Cubism is attributed to Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, who collaborated closely for some years from 1907, after being introduced by Art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who promoted Cubism from its inception. They were joined by a number of other artists from about 1910, including Fernand Léger, Sonia Delauney, Robert de la Fresnaye, Juan Gris, Jean Metzinger, Robert Delaunay, Marie Laurencin, and Marie Vorobieff (Marevna).
In 1908, Henri Matisse labelled Braque’s work “les petites cubes,” leading the critic Louis Vauxcelles to coin the term Cubism.
Cubism is generally divided into two stages;
Analytical Cubism – the early phase of cubism (from about 1908-12) is chiefly characterised by the pronounced use of geometric shapes, fragmentation, multiple viewpoints and monochromatic use of colour.
Paintings produced at this time were often more detailed than later cubist works, with images often gathered tightly toward the centre of the painting, growing sparser toward the edges. Although figures and objects were dissected or “analysed” into a multitude of small facets, these were then reassembled, after a fashion, to evoke those same figures or objects.
Synthetic cubism refers to the later cubist works (from about 1912-1922) in which the artists synthesised or combined forms, creating three new art techniques.
Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso – The beginnings of Cubism
The two artists began working together in 1909, spending much time together talking about, as much as painting, this new style of art. It is clear that they were enjoying experimenting with geometry, perspective, and representing three dimensions in a two dimensional space (the canvas). They wanted to introduce the idea of ‘relativity’ – how the artist perceives and selects elements from the subject, fusing both their observations and memories into the one concentrated image. To do this they spent some time considering the way that people actually see.
They felt that when you look at an object your eye scans it, stopping to register certain details before moving on to the next point of interest, and so on. A viewer can also change their viewpoint in relation to an object by looking at it from above, below or from the side. As a result they proposed that ‘seeing’ an object is the sum of many different viewpoints, and your memory of an object is constructed from many angles depending on your line of sight and your movement. For Braque and Picasso the whole idea of space was reconfigured: the front, back and sides of the subject become interchangeable elements in the design of the work.
They began to fracture (break up) the objects they were painting into a large number of sharp-angled shapes, known as facets, all painted from different perspectives. During 1909 – 1911 their multi perspectives became more radical. The facets were drawn from different angles, and often appeared to overlap. The result could be somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle, with the pieces deliberately mixed up, so that they viewer has some clues as to what they were seeing, but could interpret different sections of an artwork differently.
Both Braque and Picasso helped the viewer with their interpretation by generally using traditional and neutral subjects (often musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers, playing cards, and the human face and figure), but often a line or shape could be seen to perhaps be several different things, or facing in different directions.
Because the artists deliberately wanted to avoid the expressive nature of colour, they used a monochromatic palette (ochre, beige, black, and white). Often their work was so similar when they painted side by side it was difficult to tell who was the artist.
Braque and Picasso painted together until the first World War commenced in 1914. During the war Braque suffered a serious head wound and after he returned home his work became less angular and featured subtle muted colours and a more realistic interpretation of nature. At the same time, Picasso was also moving in new directions.
If you would like to know more about Cubism, or any other style of Modern Art, visit my website, Introduction to Modern European Art.