Cubism was a completely new, nonimitative style of
painting and sculpture that was cofounded by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1908 and survived
in its purest form until the mid-1920s. Cubism had an impact on art in general that extended far
beyond the existence of the painting style itself; it paved the way for other art revolutions, such
as Dada and surrealism, and was seminal to much of abstract art. It also fostered newer modes of art,
such as Orphism and futurism, and even affected the formal structure of styles whose origins had
predated cubism, such as expressionism.
Picasso and Braque found the precedents and initial
concepts for cubism in two art sources. One was primitive art -- African tribal masks, Iberian
sculpture, and Egyptian bas-reliefs. The other influence was the work of Paul Cézanne,
especially his late still lifes and landscapes. Cézanne had introduced a new geometrization
of forms as well as new spatial relationships that finally broke with the Renaissance traditions of
perspective. In 1907, Picasso synthesized these two sources in his seminal painting Les Demoiselles
d'Avignon (1906-07; Museum of Modern Art, New York). Braque, one of the few artists to see and
understand Picasso's painting at the time, immediately transformed his style from a Fauvist (see
Fauvism) to an early cubist idiom. In March 1909 the French critic Louis Vauxcelles, reviewing the
Salon des Indépendants, referred disparagingly to Braque's style as one that "reduces everything
to little cubes" -- hence, cubism.
Cubism developed from the early phase of 1908-09 to
the more complex and systematic style of 1910-12, known as analytic cubism, implying intense analysis
of all elements in a painting. It consisted of facets, or cubes, arranged in superimposed, transparent
planes with clearly defined edges that established mass, space, and the implication of movement. During
this period, Picasso and Braque employed a palette of muted greens, grays, browns, and ochers. Despite
this radical method of painting, the subject matter consisted of traditional landscapes, portraits, and
still lifes. Fragments of the faces, guitars, or wineglasses that were the subject of these works can
be detected through the shifting facets or contours.
When Picasso and Braque invented collages and
papiers colles in 1912, they initiated the study of color and light within a cubist oil painting,
a stage known as synthetic cubism (1912-14). The introduction of bright color resulted in the further
flattening of space and the elaboration of the picture surface with such decorative devices as the
stippling technique derived from pointillism. Broken brush strokes, tone and shadow, and distance between
denser planes introduced light. Synthetic cubism is the result of the desire to create or describe visual
reality without resorting to illusionistic painting. The artist does this by synthesizing the object,
even to the point of including real components of it in a collage, thus creating a new, separate reality
By 1910 other painters had joined the cubist movement,
including Juan Gris, Fernand Leger, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Metzinger. Others, such as Robert Delaunay,
Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro, Amedee Ozenfant, moved through cubism into exceptionally personal styles. The
individual styles of Marc Chagall and Piet Mondrian were somewhat affected by cubism, although neither
was a cubist. The cubist fragmentation of form was employed by the Italian futurists, who found it useful
in their concept of dynamic motion. Cubism was introduced to the United States with the Armory Show of
1913. Notable American cubists included Max Weber and Stuart Davis. In 1909, Picasso began to create a
cubist sculpture. Other sculptors who followed in the cubist idiom were Aleksandr Archipenko, Henri
Laurens, and Jacques Lipchitz.
A cubist painting of 1910 had the appearance of the
box-kite construction of an early airplane or the steel-frame of a skyscraper. The dissolving,
overlapping shapes of these paintings have suggested that the objects were seen from multiple viewpoints
at the same time. Picasso and Braque, however, denied the notion of multiple viewpoints; they explained
that the cubist structure was developed as a means of providing all the essential information regarding
a three-dimensional object within a two-dimensional canvas. Nevertheless, one finds in cubist art an
implication of the mechanical and scientific achievements of this century.
E. M. Plunkett, Art Historian.
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, ©1997.
Bibliography: Alfred Barr, Cubism and Abstract Art (1974);
John Golding, Cubism: A History and Analysis, 3d ed. (1988);
G. Perry, et al., Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early 20th Century (1993);
Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth Century Art (1976);
William Rubin, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism (1993).
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