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In 1908, the art critic Louis Vauxcelles described how painters like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were representing objects in "geometric outlines" and reducing everything "to cubes". Though Vauxcelles did not intend his description of flat, cube-shaped figures as complimentary of their artistic endeavours, he did coin the name of the twentieth century's most influential art movements. 

Related articles: The art of the Century in 26 powerful movements - What are the main Art Styles? - Art History Timeline

What is Cubism?

Cubism, the avant-garde art movement, emerged in Paris in the early 20th century.  Inspired by Paul Cezanne's geometrical abstraction in works such as Bibemus Quarry from 1895, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque began producing fragmented and abstracted paintings around 1907. 

As the critic Jacques Rivière explained, Picasso and Braque wanted to represent objects "as they are" not "as they see them". Indeed, Picasso described his approach to painting in the early 1900s, stating “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them". The artist painted objects in their entirety as imagined from all angles.

Picasso and Braque reduced objects to flat, fragmented planes, layered together to show different perspectives of the same object at the same time—like a flattened cube. Cubist artists no longer painted a vase or a bowl of fruit as they saw it with their eyes, but they painted and represented every side of the object simultaneously. 

Representing different planes of reality simultaneously and painting subjects from different views at once was a revolutionary approach to art.

 

Pablo Picasso, Les demoiselles d'avignon, 1907 © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

Did Picasso start cubism?

One of Picasso's most important and influential artworks, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, is considered a proto-cubist artwork.

When he painted and exhibited the work in 1907, it was considered revolutionary. As John Berger explained, "all his friends who saw it in [Picasso’s] studio were at first shocked by it.". For Berger, the subject matter (prostitutes in a brothel) and the use of flattened forms and a lack of perspective were radical and "meant to shock". 

Consequently, art historians argued that this work by Picasso did indeed start cubism as a movement. 

What inspired the cubist style?

In his later work, Paul Cézanne experimented with painting scenes from slightly different points of view, which influenced Picasso and Braque.

The style was considered revolutionary in its rejection of traditional perspective and the belief that art should imitate nature. Cubist painters were not bound to copy form, texture, colour, and space. Instead, they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects.

Art historians have assessed the cubist movement within the history of art and divided the works into two distinct periods— the first period is considered analytical cubism and includes pieces made between 1908–12. 

What is analytical cubism?

The first stage of this new art movement is now considered the “analytical” phase of the cubist movement. 

Picasso and Braque painted flat planes in this period to represent multiple sides of the same object. This approach saw them analyze their subjects by breaking things down into smaller structures. Both artists used a muted color palette at this time to focus on form rather than ornamentation. 

These paintings are fragmented and offer multiple viewpoints of the same subject and play with overlapping planes, as in, for example, Picasso's 1909 artwork Seated Woman

Synthetic cubism explained

What is synthetic cubism, then? Simple shapes and vivid colors mark the latter stage of the cubist movement, from 1912 to 1914. 

Consider the difference between the complexity of viewpoints in Picasso's Seated Woman and the composition of Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper. The former provides a far deeper perspective with its use of multifaceted viewpoints. In the latter, Picasso adopts simple shapes, lively colors and a flattened out picture plane. 

Not only is the composition entirely flat, but Picasso includes collage elements to add texture to the work. 

In his series of guitar paintings, Picasso incorporated other collage elements, including scraps of wallpaper, pins, string, and packaging. The inclusion of these everyday fragments broke with traditional two-dimensional art practices. The use of everyday materials in high art was a radical gesture that presaged the readymade works of the Dadaists.

Indeed, the integration of collage and fragments from real life would go on to influence modern art and artists in the twentieth century.  

The works from the synthetic cubist period explain why critics have come to consider cubism to be a precursor to postmodernism. 

Is cubism modern or post-modern?

Some critics have argued that cubism was so revolutionary that it marked the nascent stage of postmodernism. Yet art historians such as Michael Austin argue that "cubism marks the beginning of non-figuration in art"So, is cubism modern or postmodern?

Chronologically speaking, cubism emerged in the modern period. Postmodern art is more commonly associated with art and society from the 1960s and on. 

But perhaps we can revise history somewhat. We can define postmodernism as the flattening of high and low art. Picasso's use of everyday objects (newspapers, for example) in his artworks suggests he was adopting "postmodern" strategies ahead of his time. Indeed, as Art Historian Michael Austin argues, Picasso and Braque were always "in front of the future".

And to add a further postmodern twist: in recent years, these paintings have taken on a new life as immersive art experiences, lending a further postmodern revision of cubist art movement. 

Now, let's look at some of the most influential cubist artworks and perhaps some lesser-known paintings that define cubism — especially those of women cubist artists who are often written out of the history of the movement yet who played a key role in its development. 

9 famous (and not so famous) cubist artworks

1. Les demoiselles d'avignon, 1907

Radical, controversial and highly influential. Picasso's painting of a brothel depicts five naked women in a highly compact space. The figures' faces are flattened planes, and two wear African face masks. Painted in 1907, the flattened picture plane and lack of perspective mark this large-scale oil painting as one of the first cubist paintings ever made. 

2. Jean Metzinger, La Femme au Cheval, Woman with a horse, 1911–12

This highly abstracted work depicts a woman riding a horse and represents multiple planes of the subject simultaneously. The artist flattened out his subject revealing multiple facets and views—we can see various sides of the women's body, and the vase in the lower-left corner. 

 

Jean Metzinger, La Femme au Cheval (Woman with a Horse),  1911-12, Statens Museum for Kunst.

 

3. Georges Braque, Houses at L’Estaque

Braque's work inspired the term we now associate with this movement. 

Louis Vauxcelles pejoratively described his contemporaries' use of "little cubes" and coined the term we use today. Braque's painting uses square and cylinder-shaped forms to represent nature—a highly effective approach that inspired the broader cubist movement. 

 

Georges Braque, Houses at l'Estaque, 1908, Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art

 

4. Francis Picabia, Dances at the Spring, 1912*

This highly abstracted Cubist painting was exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in 1912 and depicted a couple dancing. Picabia adopts the deep reds and blues associated with Picasso's oeuvre and successfully conveys the movement of the dancers. 

*cover image

5. Fernand Léger, Nude Model in the Studio (Le modèle nu dans l'atelier), 1912–13

Leger painted geometric bodily forms to create this dynamic work. The critic Louis Vauxcelles mocked Leger's cubist artworks describing his stylized paintings not as cubism but rather as “tubism”.

 

Fernand Léger, Nude Model in the Studio (Le modèle nu dans l'atelier), 1912–13, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection.

 

6. Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913 

Picasso's 1913 work represents the painter's transition from analytical cubism to synthetic cubism. The use of collage and ink on paper (and fragments of a newspaper) exemplifies how cubist artists began to incorporate objects to represent space on a flat surface. 

 

Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913. Tate Collection.

 

7. Aleksandra Ekster, Cubist Nude, 1912

Perhaps one of the lesser-known cubist artists of the period is the Russian-Ukrainian artist Aleksandra Ekster. The avant-garde woman painter lived and worked in Paris in the 1910s and exhibited alongside Picasso, Braque and other famous cubist artists. Ekster exhibited her work at the Salon des Indépendants exhibitions in Paris in 1914. She incorporated elements of cubist abstraction and futurist dynamism in her paintings of the period. 

 

Aleksandra Ekster, Cubist Nude, 1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

 

8. Juan Gris, ​​Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1912

Having only arrived in Paris in 1906 at the start of the new movement in 1906, Juan Gris played a key role in the development of Cubism—most notably analytic cubism. In this work, he pays homage to Picasso, depicting the artist in fresh blues and greys with a palette in his hand dotted with red, yellow, black and blue. He separates the sitter from the background by contracting sharp geometric forms in the background with more organic planes in the foreground. Gris exhibited this painting at the  Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1912.

 

Juan Gris, Juan Gris, ​​Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1912, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, US

 

9. Lyubov Popova, Portrait of a Philosopher, 1915

The Russian avant-garde painter Popova arrived in Paris in 1914 and went on to develop a hybrid style of cubism known as cubo-futurism. Mixing elements of cubist fragmentation with the influences of an Italian futurist dynamism, Popova adopted a geometric, tubular style that resonated with the “tubist” works of Fernand Leger.  The artist would later go on to work across various other modern art movements including suprematism and constructivism. 

 

Lyubov Popova, Portrait of a Philosopher (Artist's brother, Pavel Sergeyevich Popov), 1915

 

Cover image: Francis Picabia, Dances at the Spring, 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950

 

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