Cubism Shattered Convention to Alter the Course of Art History
In 1907, a young French painter named Georges Braque visited Pablo Picasso’s studio in Montmartre, Paris. What he saw upon entering the space would have a profound and lasting impact on him—and on the entire history of Western art.
There, Braque first laid eyes on the Spanish artist’s latest painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a monumental canvas depicting five aggressively angular nude women with mask-like faces, standing in a shallow space. Every surface in the painting—bodies, furniture, even walls—is composed of fractured, geometric planes, almost as if looking into a smashed mirror. “This is the beginning of Cubism,” Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, an art dealer who worked with Picasso and Braque, later wrote in his 1920 book The Rise of Cubism (Der Weg zum Kubismus), “the first upsurge, a desperate titanic clash with all of the problems [of painting] at once.”
In his analysis, Kahnweiler zeroed in on one of the most perplexing aspects of the composition. A table featuring a bowl of fruit at the center of the painting is tilted dramatically upward, giving the viewer a skewed perspective. One has the sensation of looking down upon the table, while simultaneously looking directly ahead at the women in the room. Picasso also provides the viewer with concurrent views of the crouching woman’s back and front; as her body faces one way, her head is turned impossibly to look confrontationally at the viewer. Gone was any vestige of realistic representation or perspective. Gone was the female nude as a submissive, demure object for consumption.
At the time, Braque had been painting in the radically colorful style of the Fauvists. But Picasso’s painting, with its dynamic, off-kilter, and convention-exploding perspective and form, quickly turned Braque in a new direction. He soon began work on a series of landscapes in which the picture plane was similarly fractured into pieces. He exhibited the work at Kahnweiler’s Paris gallery in November 1908, earning a caustic review from the notoriously outspoken art critic Louis Vauxcelles in the literary periodical Gil Blas. “[Braque] has contempt for form,” Vauxcelles wrote, and “reduces everything—places and figures and houses—to geometrical patterns, to cubes.” Vauxcelles’s review is widely credited as the first use of the term “cubes” to describe this style, which eventually led to the movement’s name: Cubism.
Picasso and Braque would go on to experiment with the style in every genre: figural works, landscapes, and still lifes, and it would ultimately be viewed as one of—if not the—most influential artistic movements of the 20th century. Indeed, many understand Cubism as the beginning of a new page in Western art history—when the illusionistic representation of objects and figures in space gave way to pure abstraction.
What is Cubism?
Cubism underwent several stylistic shifts, but at its core, the artists associated with the movement distilled forms down to their essential elements. Although neither Picasso nor Braque ever explicitly linked Cubism to any theoretical texts or artistic precedents, both artists were fascinated by semiotics, politics, and theories of visual perception, as well as the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé and the work of many of their artistic predecessors and contemporaries, especially Paul Cézanne, as well as Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
Cubism began in two-dimensional media—primarily drawing and painting—and later grew to encompass collage and sculpture. The first phase of Cubism, sometimes referred to as “Analytic Cubism” (from 1908 through 1912), was deeply indebted to the work of the modernist master Cézanne, famous for his compositions of Mont Sainte-Victoire, which portray a mountain view as a patchwork of discrete brushstrokes. Like Cézanne, Picasso and Braque rejected prevailing approaches to the representation of mass, space, and volume, emphasizing instead the flatness of the canvas itself.
By 1910, Cubism had evolved to become even further abstracted. Forms were represented by overlapping planes of geometric shapes, rendered primarily in grays, browns, and blacks, and were now nearly impossible to identify. Take Braque’s 1910 painting Violin and Candlestick, for instance, in which the candle is discernible from little more than a circle at the center of the canvas—an abstract stand-in for the halo of light it emits. Picasso and Braque reduced objects to their most basic characteristics: A guitar is represented by its headstock and tuning pegs, while a newspaper is recognizable only through the distinctive font of the masthead.
By 1912, any reference to three-dimensional space was eliminated as both artists began to create mixed-media collages, called papiers collés, incorporating drawing, painting, and mass-produced materials—such as pre-printed oilcloth, newspaper fragments, cigarette packages, and labels from bottles of liquor. This period of Cubism is often referred to as “Synthetic Cubism,” referring to the artists’ synthesis of a variety of materials. In Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), one of Picasso’s best-known Synthetic Cubist works, he painted a still life over an industrially produced sheet of oilcloth, printed with a pattern of chair caning. An actual piece of rope stretches around the edges of the canvas. In this work, Picasso challenges the primacy of painting and drawing—considered “high” art—over mass-produced materials.
The icons of Cubism
Picasso and Braque were close friends and intense rivals. Although little correspondence between the two artists survives, Picasso once described their relationship to the French painter, critic, and author Françoise Gilot: “Almost every evening, either I went to Braque’s studio or Braque came to mine. Each of us had to see what the other had done during the day,” he recounted. “We criticized each other’s work. A canvas wasn’t finished unless both of us felt it was.” This close collaboration led to works with such great visual and stylistic similarity that it became nearly impossible to attribute authorship to many of them.
Adding to this puzzle of authorship, many Cubist works are not signed on the front, perhaps because a signature would interfere with their formal construction, as well as add a personalized note to its composition. In a 1935 essay published in the literary journal Transition, Braque recalled: “Picasso and I were engaged in what we felt was a search for the anonymous personality. We were inclined to efface our own personalities in order to find originality.”
Picasso and Braque’s artistic partnership came to an end when Braque enlisted with the French Army in 1914, though their working relationship remains one of the most celebrated in art history. But there were others who had touched and shaped the movement, drawn to the radical new style that the two had pioneered. In 1911, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Henri Le Fauconnier, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, and Marie Laurencin, who moved in separate but overlapping circles with Picasso and Braque, exhibited a controversial group of works at the Salon des Indépendants, an annual independent art exhibition that took place in Paris. (Robert Delaunay’s wife, Sonia Delaunay, also made an important contribution to the movement, though she didn’t exhibit at the 1911 salon.)
The group had been meeting informally for several years in Puteaux, an area in the western suburbs of Paris, and in Montparnasse, a neighborhood on the left bank of the Seine, along with Marcel Duchamp, his brothers Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon, Juan Gris, Alexander Archipenko, and Roger de la Fresnaye. This group is sometimes referred to as the “Puteaux Group” or the “Salon Cubists,” due to their interest in exhibiting in organized exhibitions. They also worked in a Cubist style, though they sought a broader definition of Cubism than the narrow stylistic constraints of the work produced by Picasso and Braque.
Inspired by color theory, mathematics, and philosophy, the Salon Cubists often incorporated bright hues into their compositions, infusing their works with a greater sense of movement. Metzinger’s Danseuse au café (Dancer in a Café) (1912), for instance, features two arcs of color—one yellow, one blue—that appear in the upper left corner of the canvas, giving the impression of flashing lights, while a pair of disembodied, clasped hands underscores Metzinger’s efforts to portray the density, movement, and excitement of the crowd as they applaud the end of the performance.
The famous salon of 1911 was not well-received, but it sent shockwaves through the art world and amplified the work Picasso and Braque had been doing over the previous four years, extending their influence far beyond Paris.
Why does Cubism matter?
Begun in 1907 with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Cubism would come to an end in 1914, at the onset of World War I. Despite its brevity, the movement’s innovations had lasting implications for nearly every avant-garde movement of the 20th century, including Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism, and De Stijl.
The Cubists’ rejection of traditional means of representing space and volume, and their stylistic innovations in reducing objects to their essential geometric forms, laid the foundation for everything that was to come. Their use of collage and the juxtaposition of mass-produced materials with the “high” art of painting and drawing had a profound impact on Dada and Surrealism. Such challenges to the hierarchy of the arts led to the rise of the “readymade” and raised essential theoretical questions about the role of the artist, issues still being grappled with today.
Header image: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.