Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907)
by Pablo Picasso. MoMA, New York.
The first Cubist-style painting,
and a key work of avant-garde art.
Revolutionary Abstract Art
In fine art, the term Cubism describes the revolutionary style of painting invented by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) in Paris, during the period 1907-12. Their Cubist methods - initially influenced by the geometric motifs in the landscape compositions of the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne - radically redefined the nature and scope of fine art painting and, to a lesser extent, sculpture, as previously practised, and heralded entirely new ways of representing reality. To this extent, Cubism marks the end of the Renaissance-dominated era, and the beginning of modern art.
In addition to Braque and Picasso, other famous artists who were closely associated with the movement include the painters Juan Gris (1887-1927), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Andre Lhote (1885-1962), Roger de La Fresnaye (1885-1925), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), Francis Picabia (1879-1953), the versatile artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), and the sculptors Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964). (See Cubist Painters, and 20th Century Sculptors.) Cubism was the starting point for, or an essential element in, a number of other modern art movements, including Futurism (1909-14), Orphism (1910-13), Vorticism (1914-15), Russian Constructivism, (c.1919-1932), and Dada (1916-1924).
OF VISUAL ART
After three decades of Impressionist-inspired art, culminating in the Fauvist colourist movement (of which, incidentally, Braque had been a member), Picasso began to worry that this type of painting was a dead-end with less and less potential for intellectual exploration. In this frame of mind, and recently exposed to African tribal art whilst in Spain, he began painting Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907, MoMA, New York), his ground-breaking masterpiece, whose flat splintered planes replaced traditional linear perspective and rounded volumes thereby signalling his break with the naturalistic traditions of Western art. At the same time, Georges Braque, a former student at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, had just been overwhelmed by the 1907 Exhibition of Cezanne's paintings at the Parisian Salon d'Automne and the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. The pair then met in October 1907, and over the next two years developed what became known as Cubism - a completely new method of depicting the visual world.
The Origin of the Term 'Cubism'
In the summer of 1908, while staying at L'Estaque near Marseilles, Braque painted a series of landscapes which were shown later that year at a Gallery in Paris owned by the art dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler. When reviewing this exhibition, the famous art critic Louis Vauxcelles commented on Braque's way of reducing everything - sights, figures and houses - to geometric outlines, to cubes. The following year, Vauxcelles used the expression 'bizarreries cubiques' (cubic excentricities) - a phrase allegedly first used by Henri Matisse - and by 1911 the term "Cubism" had entered the English language. The description is quite apt for the blocklike forms in some of Braques early landscapes, and in a few similiar works by Picasso painted at Horta del Ebro in Spain, though not for their later Cubist pictures in which the forms are broken down into facets rather than cubes. The term was taken up by two practising Cubists, Gleizes and Metzinger in their influential 1912 book Du Cubisme.
First off, its very difficult to appreciate Cubism without examining its paintings. A good start is to compare early Cubist still-lifes with traditional still life from (say) the Baroque or Dutch Realist schools. If nothing else, you will appreciate the radical nature of Cubism compared to traditional Western art. Note also that Cubism was not a single style of painting: analytical Cubism is completely different from the later synthetic Cubism. The former is all about structure - how the picture should depict the object being painted; the latter is exclusively concerned with the surface of the picture, and what may be incorporated within it. One final word of advice: don't be put off by its strangeness. Cubism is symbolic, challenging and full of ideas, but it's not a terribly pretty form of visual art.
Ever since the Renaissance, if not before, artists painted pictures from a single fixed viewpoint, as if they were taking a photograph. The illusion of background depth was created using standard conventions of linear perspective (eg. objects were shown smaller as they receded) and by painting figures and objects with rounded shaded surfaces to convey a 3-D effect. In addition, the scene or object was painted at a particular moment in time.
In contrast, Braque and Picasso thought that the full significance of an object could only be captured by showing it from multiple points of view and at different times. So, they abandoned the idea of a single fixed viewpoint and instead used a multiplicity of viewpoints. The object was then reassembled out of fragments of these different views, rather like a complex jigsaw puzzle. In this way, many different views of an object were simultanously depicted in the same picture. In a sense, it's like taking 5 different photographs (at different times) of the same object, then cutting them up and reassembling them in an overlapping manner on a flat surface.
Such fragmentation and rearrangement of form meant that a painting could now be regarded less as a kind of window on the world and more as a physical object on which a subjective response to the world is created. As far as artistic technique was concerned, Cubism showed how a sense of solidity and pictorial structure could be created without traditional perspective or modelling.
Thus the Cubist style focused on the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, and rejected the traditional conventions and techniques of linear perspective, chiaroscuro (use of shading to show light and shadow) and the traditional idea of imitating nature. Instead of creating natural-looking 3-D objects, Cubist painters offered a brand new set of images reassembled from 2-D fragments which showed the objects from several sides simultaneously. If Fauvists and Impressionists strove to express their personal sensation of a particular object or scene, Cubists sought to depict the intellectual idea or form of an object, and its relationship to others.
Cubism had two identities, a public and a private. The style was jointly evolved by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque on the basis of observations derived from Cezanne, and also, to some extent, from ethnographical primitivism such as that investigated by Picasso during his African art period. It made its public debut with Braque's one-man exhibition organized by Kahnweiler in November 1908. But after this both he and Picasso more or less went to ground, and the Cubist banner was upheld by others - the so-called "salon-Cubists - including Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Leger, Henri Le Fauconnier, and Jean Metzinger at the Salon des Independeants in 1911.
In 1912, a group of Cubists calling themselves the Section d'Or, with Delaunay at their head, exhibited at the Galerie La Boetie. When he reviewed this show, the art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) coined the term 'Orphism', applying it to Delaunay in particular. The first published statement of Cubist theory was Du Cubisme, by Metzinger and Gleizes, published in 1912; this was followed by Apollinaire's Les Peintres Cubistes, published in 1913. The year 1913 also witnessed the famous Armory Show, held in Feb/March on Lexington Avenue, Manhattan, New York, in which Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (no 2) (1912) was the controversial, even scandalous, attraction. (The work was later bought by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
Around the beginning of 1912, Picasso and Braque switched from the Analytic Cubism with which they started, to Synthetic Cubism - a new more decorative and surface-oriented style created using new techniques such as collage and papier colles. The incorporation of everyday detritus into their paintings can be seen as the beginning of Junk Art. At this point, they were joined in their explorations by Juan Gris.
Cubism was an art-style with attitude! It was iconoclastic, challenging, intellectual. It focused on ideas rather than pretty pictures. But it captured the spirit of the age - the age of challenging French musicians Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Erik Satie (1866-1925) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and analytical Cubism in particular corresponded with the ideas of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), whose concept of simultaneity stated that the past overlaps with the present, which itself flows into the future. Meanwhile, fine art was at something of a crossroads. Impressionism was yesterday's fashion, the Belle Epoque of Parisian poster art was over, Toulouse-Lautrec was dead, Art Nouveau was in decline, and even colourful Fauvism was running out of steam. At the same time, the political temperature was rising across Europe, exposing horrific possibilities of war and chaos. In its assault on the old certainties of Renaissance art, Cubism mirrored the calls for change in many other disciplines, as well as the world at large.
Cubist sculpture, like Constructivism, was too radical to become an integral part of the artistic mainstream. Even so, Cubist ideas were also absorbed and adapted by those working in other disciplines such as abstract sculpture, as well as architecture and applied art. Cubist sculpture developed from collage and papier colle, and fed into assemblage. The new techniques not only liberated sculptors to employ new subject matter, but also prompted them to think of sculptures as built, not just modelled, objects. The mathematical and architectural qualities found in Gris's work were very influential here, as seen in the work of Archipenko and Ossip Zadkine, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Henri Laurens, the Lithuanian Jacques Lipchitz, the Hungarian-born French sculptor Joseph Csaky (1888-1971), and the Czech sculptors Emil Filla (1882-1953) and Otto Gutfreund (1889-1927).
Henri Laurens (1885-1954)
Cubist theories of design were taken up enthusiastically in Czechoslovakia by artists, sculptors, designers and architects, who translated the characteristics of Cubist painting (simplified geometric forms, contrasts of light and dark, prism-like facets, angular lines) into architecture and decorative art, including furniture, jewellery art, tableware, ceramics and landscaping. Prominent were the members of the Group of Plastic Artists, which was founded in 1911 by Filla to focus on Cubism. The group was active in Prague until 1914 and included sculptors Filla and Gutfreund, as well as architects and designers Pavel Janak, Josef Gocar (1880-1945), Josef Chochol (1880-1956), Vlastislav Hofman (1884-1964) and Otokar Novotny. Gutfreund published influential articles in the group's monthly journal.
The House of the Black Madonna (1911-12), a department store designed by Gocar, was the first piece of Cubist architecture to be built. The Grand Cafe Orient situated on the first floor, complete with a Cubist interior and Cubist light fixtures, rapidly became a meeting place for the avant-garde until its closure in the mid-1920s. The building is now part of the Czech Museum of Fine Arts and houses the Czech Cubism Museum, which was opened in 1994, containing a permanent exhibition of Cubist paintings, furniture, sculptures and porcelain. The Czech Cubism Museum also contains an exhibition of collages by the Czech artist and poet Jiri Kolar, who was also active in France. His ideas later introduced collage to a wider context. Paris may have been the site of the birth of Cubism, but it was in Prague that its possibilities were explored most fully, as a whole way of life.
Ultimately Cubism is less important in its own right - as an artistic style - and more important as an indicator of what is possible in fine art. It extended the boundaries of art to include alternatives to traditional single point perspective; it demonstrated that fine art could be made out of anything, even scraps of rubbish; and it raised important questions about the nature of reality in art. It was one of the most important movements associated with the Ecole de Paris, and made significant contributions to avant garde art in the early 20th century. In particular, Cubism had a widespread and persistent influence on a wide variety of painting movements, including: Italian Futurism (c.1909-14); French Orphism (c.1910-13), English Vorticism (c.1913-19), Russian Rayonism (c.1912-15), and Constructivism (c.1914-25), the Dutch design group De Stijl (1917-31) as well as American styles such as Synchromism (c.1913-18) and Precisionism (1920s). Its anti-art elements stimulated the emergence of Dada in 1916, and Surrealism in 1924.
Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956)
Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925)
For more about modern abstract art, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.