Cubism (1907-1914)

Cubism was a new approach to representing reality invented in around 1907–08 by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. They brought different views of subjects together in the same picture, resulting in paintings that appear fragmented and abstracted

Pablo Picasso, weeping woman, 1937

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Cubism was one of the most influential styles of the twentieth century. It is generally agreed to have begun around 1907 with Picasso’s celebrated painting Demoiselles D’Avignon which included elements of cubist style. The name ‘cubism’ seems to have derived from a comment made by the critic Louis Vauxcelles who, on seeing some of Georges Braque’s paintings exhibited in Paris in 1908, described them as reducing everything to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes’.

What inspired cubism?

Jean Metzinger, Portrait of Madame Metzinger, 1911

Cubism was partly influenced by the late work of artist Paul Cézanne in which he can be seen to be painting things from slightly different points of view. Pablo Picasso was also inspired by African tribal masks which are highly stylised, or non-naturalistic, but nevertheless present a vivid human image. ‘A head’, said Picasso, ‘is a matter of eyes, nose, mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like’.

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Analytical cubism

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1910

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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. Analytical Cubist paintings by both artists show the breaking down, or analysis, of form. 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 suited to the presentation of complex, multiple views of the object, which was reduced to overlapping opaque and transparent planes. Forms are generally compact and dense in the centre of an Analytical Cubist painting, growing larger as they diffuse toward the edges of the canvas, as in Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1909–10).

Synthetic cubism

Pablo Picasso, Still life chair caning, 1912

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Around 1912, the styles of Picasso and Braque were becoming predictable. Their images had grown so similar that their paintings of this period are often difficult to tell apart. Their work was increasingly abstract and less recognizable as the subject of their titles. In an attempt to revitalise the style and pull it back from total abstraction, Picasso began to glue printed images from the ‘real world’ onto the surface of his still lifes. His painting ‘Still Life with Chair Caning’ was the first example of this ‘collage’ technique and it opened the door for himself and other artists to the second phase of the Cubist style: Synthetic Cubism. Influenced by the introduction of bold and simple collage shapes, Synthetic Cubism moved away from the unified monochrome surfaces of Analytic Cubism to a more direct, colorful and decorative style. Although synthetic cubist images appear more abstract in their use of simplified forms, the other elements of their composition are applied quite traditionally.

Cubism in sculpture

Cubist sculpture developed in parallel to Cubist painting. During the autumn of 1909 Picasso sculpted Head of a Woman (Fernande) with positive features depicted by negative space and vice versa. Joseph Csaky, after Archipenko, was the first sculptor in Paris to join the Cubists, with whom he exhibited from 1911 onwards. They were followed by Raymond Duchamp-Villon and then in 1914 by Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Laurens and Ossip Zadkine.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a woman, 1909

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Indeed, Cubist construction was as influential as any pictorial Cubist innovation. It was the stimulus behind the proto-Constructivist work of both Naum Gabo and Vladimir Tatlin and thus the starting-point for the entire constructive tendency in 20th-century modernist sculpture.

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