One of the most influential art movements of the twentieth century is Cubism. It marked a major turning point in the whole evolution of modern art and still remains a key source of inspiration for many artists today.
This highly influential visual arts style was created in Paris by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, between 1907 and 1914.
It is credited for having paved the way for the pure Abstraction that dominated Western art for the next 50 years. Furthermore, it inspired other later movements including Futurism, Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism.
The pioneers Picasso and Braque were later joined by Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Jean Metzinger, Henri Le Fauconnier…
Some earlier works of post-impressionist Paul Cézanne, representing three-dimensional forms are credited as being primary influences that led to Cubism.
The French art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term Cubism after seeing what Braque painted in 1908 emulating Cézanne. “Le Viaduc de L’Estaque” is one of those landscapes.
Vauxcelles called the geometric forms in the highly abstracted works “cubes.” The volumes of the houses, cylindrical forms of trees and the tan-and-green colour scheme are reminiscent of Paul Cézanne.
It was, however, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted by Picasso in 1907, that presaged the new style. Here, the forms of five female nudes become fractured, angular shapes. Perspective is rendered through colour, with the warm reddish-browns advancing and the cool blues receding.
Other influences on early Cubism have been linked to Primitivism and non-Western art.
In Cubist work up to 1910, the subject of a picture was usually discernible. During Analytic Cubism (1910– 12), Picasso and Braque so abstracted their works that they were reduced to just a series of overlapping planes and facets mostly in near-monochromatic browns, grays, or blacks.
The Cubist painters rejected the inherited concept that art should copy nature, or that they should adopt the traditional techniques of perspective, modelling and foreshortening.
They dismantled traditional forms in order to emphasise the two-dimensional picture plane. They reduced and fractured objects into geometric forms and then realigned these within a shallow, relief-like space. They also used multiple or contrasting vantage points.
By taking these measures, they destroyed traditional “illusionism” in painting.
Unlike Picasso and Braque, whose Cubist works were practically monochromatic, Juan Gris was known for painting with bright harmonious colours in daring, novel combinations in the manner of his friend Matisse.
The Spaniard Juan Gris painted in the style of Analytical Cubism, a term he himself later coined. After 1913 he began his transition to Synthetic Cubism, with extensive use of papier collé or collage.
Picasso and Braque introduced the collage as an important new modern art form.
Its origins can be traced back hundreds of years, but this technique made a dramatic reappearance as an art form of novelty.
They used fragments of mass-produced popular culture into pictures, thereby changing the very definition of art.
Another key artist in the Cubist movement is Fernand Léger. In 1911 the committee of the Salon des Indépendants placed together the painters identified as ‘Cubists’. Fernand Léger, along with Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Le Fauconnier and Robert Delaunay were responsible for revealing this new style to the general public for the first time as an organised group.
The Cubist style emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, rejecting the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, modeling, and chiaroscuro and refuting time-honoured theories that art should imitate nature.
Cubist painters were not bound to copying form, texture, colour, and space. Instead, they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects.
The movement’s development from 1910 to 1912 is often referred to as Analytical Cubism. During this period, the work of Picasso and Braque became so similar that their paintings are almost indistinguishable.
They both favoured right-angle and straight-line construction, though occasionally some areas of their paintings appear sculptural, as in Picasso’s Girl with a Mandolin (1910).
They simplified their colour schemes to a nearly monochromatic scale in order not to distract the viewer from the artist’s primary interest—the structure of form itself. The monochromatic colour scheme was mainly with hues of tan, brown, gray, cream, green and blue.
They suited to represent complex, multiple views of the object, which was reduced to overlapping opaque and transparent planes. These appear to move beyond the surface of the canvas rather than to recede in depth.
Forms are generally compact and dense in the centre, growing larger as they diffuse toward the edges of the canvas, as in Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1909–10).
In their work from this period, Picasso and Braque frequently combined representational motifs with letters; their favourite motifs were musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers and the human face and figure.
Interest in this subject matter continued after 1912, during the phase generally identified as Synthetic Cubism.
Here artists emphasise the combination of forms in the picture. Colour assumes a strong role. Shapes, while remaining fragmented and flat, are larger and more decorative. Smooth and rough surfaces may be contrasted with one another. Foreign materials, such as newspapers or tobacco wrappers, are pasted on the canvas in combination with painted areas.
This collage technique further emphasises the differences in texture and poses the question of what is reality and what is illusion.
“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”Pablo Picasso
Leonard Lauder (Estee Lauder’s son) was a philanthropist and cosmetics billionaire, who selectively acquired masterpieces to comprise the most valuable collection of Cubist Art in a private hands. Lauder, promised to give his entire collection, (over 80 paintings) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 2014 the museum presented “Cubism: The Leonard Lauder Collection” which featured paintings, collages, drawings, and sculptures by the main Cubist artists.
Though primarily associated with painting, Cubism also exerted a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture, architecture and music.
The major Cubist sculptors were Alexander Archipenko, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and Jacques Lipchitz.
The adoption of the Cubist aesthetic by Swiss architect Le Corbusier is reflected in the shapes of the houses he designed in the 1920s.
In music, the composer Igor Stravinsky credited Cubism for having an impact on his work.
Rejecting the constraints of Realism, Abstract artists sought to explore the worlds of their imagination, freedom of expression, and follow their desire to unleash spontaneity through their chosen medium.
Over the years many artists, theorists, historians and critics have expressed their different views. After all, painters have “abstracted” from the world around them since prehistoric times.
Artists, art critics and historians have entered many different sides of discussion, debate and contradictory opinions about Abstract art over decades.
Cubism, the most influential art movement, still resonates today. It destroyed traditional illusionism in painting and radically changed the way we see the world.