A Brief History of Cubism

Cubism is an artistic movement started in early 20th century. The movement was principally pioneered by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) and Georges Braque (French, 1882–1963) in Paris between 1907 to 1914. The cubist painters rejected the conventional notion of copying the traditional perspective of the subject. They were not compelled to copy form, color, texture and space, instead they employed geometric forms in depiction of subjects.

The term “Cubism” derived from a comment made by the French art critic Louis Vauxcelles. Louis Vauzcelles described Braque’s work Houses at L’Estaque which he had painted at L’Estaque in emulation of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) in 1908 as being composed of “cubes”.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque first met in 1905, but in 1907 Braque was first acquainted with Picasso’s groundbreaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso himself. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Brothel of Avignon) is considered to be the first cubist painting and was heavily influenced by African tribal art that Picasso had first seen in May or June, 1907 at ethnographic museum in the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris. In this adaption of Primitivism and abandonment of perspective, Picasso made a fundamental departure from traditional European paintings. It was one of the reasons why Picasso was hesitant to display the work to the public, and as a result, the proto-cubist masterpiece went unseen until 1916. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is widely considered to be the seminal in the early development of Modern Art as well.

Braque was intrigued by Picasso’s initial work on cubism and moved away from his Fauvist style of painting which incorporated the use of bright, expressive color. His first cubist work was his 1908 painting Large Nude. The painting was influenced by Paul Cézanne’s techniques as well. The masterpiece was quite shocking to many viewers. One writer described the nude’s breasts as “water pitchers” and described the stomach as a “balloon”. Some refereed the painting as “monstrous”.

However, after Braque’s 1908 painting, began the first era of Cubism. It is also known as the era of Analytic Cubism (1910-1912). During this time Picasso and Braque so abstracted their works that they were alleviated to a series of overlapping planes and facets mostly in near-monochromatic browns, grays, or blacks. Their favorite subject became still life and letters, musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers, playing card and the human face and figure.

By 1912 cubism was revolutionized. Picasso and Braque had begun to incorporate words, textures and patterns in their paintings. They swept away the last vestiges of three-dimensional space (illusionism) that still remained in their “high” Analytic work. So in an attempt to classify these changes in experiments historians divided cubism in two separate era. And this second era was Synthetic Cubism – initiated by the papiers collés – a type of collage and collaging technique in which large pieces of neutral or colored paper are often cut out in the desired shape or else sometimes bear a graphic element that clarifies the association.

Even though Picasso and Braque are credited to pioneer of Cubism, the movement were further developed by many other artists. Namely, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Roger de La Fresnaye and many others. World war 1 effectively confined cubism for some times. Artists like Lhote, de la Fresnaye, Léger and even Braque himself were called up for duty. Roger de La Fresnaye was discharged in 1917 for tuberculosis and passed away in 1925.

Picasso continued to inject more realism in his paintings. And as a result cubism later reappeared in some of his works (The Three Musicians (1921) and The Weeping Woman (1937)). Braque’s works were considered to be less rigid in the abstractions of the subjects. Though Cubism never regained its place, its vast influence was continued in art movements like Futurism, Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism, and others. Many literary works were influenced as well. The concept initiated by Cubism also had far-reaching consequences for Dada and Surrealism as well as photography, graphic design and architecture.

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