This sample art history essay explores cubism. This art form is an abstract modern art that was pioneered in the early part of the 20th century by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. The style is distinguished by its representation of people and objects in multidimensional form. In a typical Cubist work, the dimensions of the face and head are rendered as clusters of odd, angular shapes with multiple vanishing points.
Spearheaded by Picasso’s innovative 1907 canvas, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Cubism quickly grew into a movement that encompassed a new wave of French and Spanish painters like Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Juan Gris. Cubism ultimately spread across Europe and influenced a succession of avant-garde art movements, including Surrealism, Dada, and De Stijl.
Stylistic origins of cubism
At the turn of the 1900s, interest in tribal art from around the globe had grown considerably in the European art community. The influence of works imported from African, Polynesian, and Native American tribes was making its mark on a wave of young French painters, including Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. The latter befriended Picasso in 1906, and the two inspired one another with ideas drawn from the bold, simple ethnic works that had captured their fascination. By the following year, Picasso’s work entered a phase that is often described as proto–Cubism.
Starting around 1905, artists throughout Western Europe and Russia were in competition to develop new modes of painting unlike anything seen before. Late 19th century innovations such as Impressionism and Symbolism had radically altered the manner in which images were portrayed on canvas. Techniques such as double viewpoint and angular subject matter — respectively drawn from the two movements — would prove influential on Cubism.
Exerting perhaps the biggest influence on Cubism was the work of French Post–Impressionist, Paul Cézanne (1839—1906), whose later paintings like Mont Sainte-Victoire and Château Noir (1904—05) and The Bathers (1898—1905) depict body parts and object details in circular, rectangular, and triangular forms. Cubists would take this aesthetic several steps further by reducing all contents to angular and circular shapes across flattened planes in which the fronts, sides, tops, and bottoms of subjects are viewed simultaneously.
Pioneers of cubism
Pablo Picasso: Father of cubism
The development of Picasso’s Cubist style was an outgrowth of his African–influenced phase of 1907—09. It was during this time that his fascination with African sculpture and masks inspired an increased use of simplistic linear shapes in his depiction of subjects and backgrounds. Whereas the people portrayed in paintings of his Blue and Rose periods consisted of Modernist but recognizably human bodies and faces, newer works like Dryad and Trois Femmes (both 1908) presented subjects — seemingly etched on wood or stone — with mask–like facial features and simple extremities that often lack fingers or toes. However, the painting that historians often cite as the world’s first Cubist work of art is Picasso’s 1907 canvas, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
In Demoiselles, five naked prostitutes writhe amidst a backdrop of white drapery. Unlike classical Byzantine art with its rounded soft edges, he bodies are depicted with pointed, angular shapes along the breasts, limbs, and facial features. Though widely cited as the first Cubist painting:
Art critic and historian Douglas Cooper (1911—1984) challenged this notion, stating that the “disruptive, expressionist element [in Demoiselles is] contrary to the spirit of Cubism, which looked at the world in a detached, realistic spirit.”
However, the critic did acknowledge that the 1907 canvas marked “the birth of a new pictorial idiom, because in it Picasso violently overturned established conventions and because all that followed grew out of it” (Cooper).
Following Demoiselles, Picasso entered his period of analytic Cubism, as exemplified in the following works:
- 1909—10, Figure dans un Fauteuil (Seated Nude, Femme Nue assise)
- 1910, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier)
- 1910, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler
- 1911, Still Life with a Bottle of Rum
- 1911, The Poet (Le poète)
Georges Braque: Picasso’s protege
Previously a purveyor of Fauvism, Braque’s turn toward Cubism grew from his interest in geometric forms and the variable effects of light–enhancement on dimension: an approach that first took shape in his 1908 canvas Houses at l’Estaque. In 1909, he formed a working relationship with Picasso, whereupon the two developed a style that utilized polygons and simultaneous perspective to render subjects in an angular, abstract manner that marked a radical break from Post–Impressionism and nearly a polar opposite of the religious and mythological themes of the Renaissance period. Famous canvasses from this period include the following:
- 1909, Still Life with Metronome (Still Life with Mandola and Metronome)
- 1909, La Roche-Guyon, le château (The Castle at Roche-Guyon)
- 1909—10, Pitcher and Violin
- 1909—10, La guitare (Mandora, La Mandore)
- 1911, Nature Morte (The Pedestal Table)
Fernand Léger: Adding a new touch to cubism
As with most early Cubists, Léger developed an interest in geometry as a painterly device at the 1907 Salon d’Automne, where he was struck by the Cézanne works on display in a retrospective exhibit. This prompted him to eschew Claude Monet’s impressionism style for the intricately shaped mélanges of the following canvases:
- 1910, Nudes in the forest (Nus dans la forêt)
- 1911—12, Les Fumeurs (The Smokers)
- 1912, La Femme en Bleu (Woman in Blue)
- 1912—13, Nude Model in the Studio (Le modèle nu dans l’atelier)
- 1916, Soldier with a pipe (Le Soldat à la Pipe)
Jean Metzinger: Combining mosaic with cubism
Known already for his colorful, mosaic–like divisionist paintings, Metzinger began experimenting with fractured forms after his exposure to Cézanne’s work. Ensconced in the burgeoning Cubist movement by 1910, Metzinger provoked some of the sharpest reactions at the following year’s Salon des Indépendants and d’Automne exhibits with his deconstruction of the human form into multiple, jagged perspectives on the canvases, Deux Nus (Two Nudes) and Le goûter (Tea Time). Further contributions to the Cubist canon include the following:
- 1911—12, Nature morte (Compotier et cruche décorée de cerfs)
- 1912, Femme à l’Éventail (Woman with a Fan)
- 1912—13, L’Oiseau bleu, (The Blue Bird)
- 1913, La Femme à l’Éventail (Woman with a Fan)
- 1913, Le Fumeur (Man with Pipe)
Albert Gleizes: Cubist academic
With feet planted simultaneously in the fields of art and theory, Gleizes published the first significant book on Cubism with the 1912 Du “Cubisme.”The year prior, he soared to infamy at the Salon des Indépendants with one of the genre’s most arresting early works: Le Chemin, Paysage à Meudon. Noted for his jumbled, panoramic panoplies, Gleizes’ other canvases in the Cubist vein include the following:
- 1911, Portrait de Jacques Nayral — Premiered at the Salon d’Automne, the artist described the subject’s face as “clearly demarcated surfaces that made up a passionate interplay of facets” (Gleizes).
- 1912, Les Baigneuses (The Bathers)
- 1913, L’Homme au Hamac (Man in a Hammock)
- 1914, Paysage Cubiste (Cubist Landscape)
- 1914—15, Portrait of an Army Doctor (Portrait d’un médecin militaire)
Robert Delaunay: The heretic of cubism
Working closely with Metzinger in the years immediately prior to Cubism, Delaunay produced a similar array of mosaic–like Divisionist works before switching to a busier, geometric style in 1910. Emphasizing the impact of light and color on perspective, and hinting at the influence of Neoclassical and Realist styles, many of his works are deconstructed montages of the Parisian cityscape, in which the Eiffel Tower often serves as the focal point. Acknowledging his preference for color within an often dark–hued genre, the artist referred to himself as “the heretic of Cubism” (Delaunay). His famous works within the style include the following:
- 1910—12, La Ville de Paris
- 1911—12, Window on the City No. 3
- 1913, L’Équipe de Cardiff (two)
Henri Le Fauconnier: Community artist
With a longstanding interest in thickened lines and simplified forms, Le Fauconnier was essentially a proto–Cubist before finding himself swept up in the movement’s first wave. His studio served as a meeting ground for likeminded artists, including Delaunay, Gleizes, Léger, and Metzinger. Nonetheless, his preference for softer edges — as displayed in the following two paintings — set him apart from the jagged work of his contemporaries.
- 1910—11, L’Abondance (Abundance)
- 1912, Les Montagnards attaqués par des ours (Mountaineers Attacked by Bears)
Juan Gris: Influence on modern photography
A relative latecomer to the movement, Gris’ arrival coincided with a stylistic shift dubbed “Crystal Cubism,” which steered away from the mistier, more convoluted elements of the genre’s earlier works and placed greater emphasis on flat planes, jagged shapes, and bright colors. Gris’ influence is apparent in much of modern art and photography.
- 1912, Portrait of Picasso
- 1913, Violin and Checkerboard
- 1915, Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux (Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth)
- 1916, Newspaper and Fruit Dish
- 1919, Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin
Cubism and the 1911 Salon des Indépendants
The term “Cubism” was first used at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, where the movement made its inaugural show of strength. The exhibit featured paintings by Delaunay, Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, Léger, and Metzinger, as well as newcomer Marie Laurencin, all of whose works were exploring unprecedented levels of abstractness and angularity. Unrepresented at the exhibit were the works of Picasso and Braque, both of whom had achieved individual renown by this time. The term was used derogatorily among attendees, who were mostly taken aback by the jagged, geometric forms depicted in the artwork on display at the March 18—May 1 exhibit.
Of the works featured, Gleizes’ Le Chemin, Paysage à Meudon (1911) was one of the most bewildering to the naked eye. Though the painting’s mélange of polygons are hard at first to identify as anything more than random shapes, closer inspection reveals a man walking along a path just to the left of the lower center. He’s dwarfed by the jumble of tall trees, hill dimensions, and building eaves that surround him from a distance; all of which are jaggedly rendered with assortments of gray, green, and brownish hues.
Shocking works of art
Also making its debut in Room 41 was Metzinger’s 1910—11 canvas Deux Nus, in which two naked women stand face to face in an undetermined setting. The subjects are rendered through an assortment of long, short, and wide polygons that blend at certain edges with the background. The curvature of the feminine form is abstracted with the use of jagged, flat surfaces tiled at various angles; this effect serves to emphasize the definition of shoulders, calves, and breasts. This was the most shocking display of art since Donatello’s portrayal of a nude David.
Despite the frosty reception of these and similar works presented, the movement found a champion in art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who began using the term “Cubism” in a positive light. The show of strength at the five–week exhibit was orchestrated by the five artists, who snuck onto the Indépendants committee in order to secure a collective display in the same room. In prior exhibits, artists had simply been grouped alphabetically.
1911 Salon d’Automne’s continued controversy
Further controversies ensued at the 1911 Salon d’Automne, which took place at the Grand Palais in Paris between October 1 and November 8 of that year. This exhibit featured further works by Delaunay, Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, Léger, and Metzinger. The paintings of these five were spread across several rooms alongside the art of contemporaries André Lhote, Francis Picabia, and sculptor Alexander Archipenko, all of whom were now exploring Cubist themes and motifs.
Causing a major stir at the Palais was Metzinger’s Le goûter (1911), which depicts a seated woman holding up a spoon over a cup of coffee. The subject is rendered as a jumble of spheres, rectangles, and cones, each of which compose various body parts. The cup and saucer are split in half to reveal two angles: a side view on the left and a 45–degree overhead view on the right. The woman’s face consists of back–tilted blocks that frame her eyebrows and punctuate her forehead. The sphere that forms her revealed left breast is brought to the fore with a rested triangle, the outer point of which is used to signify the nipple. Most confusing are the square shapes of the chair, which cut into the spheres that represent her left shoulder.
According to Arthur I. Miller:
Le goûter was intended “as a representation of the fourth dimension,” which the art historian describes as “straight forward multiple viewing, as if the artist were moving around his subject” (Miller).
As with Indépendants, the critics who attended the exhibit had a field day in the press. Over a decade later:
Gleizes noted the irony of how “critics would begin by saying: there is no need to devote much space to the Cubists, who are utterly without importance,” but then devote the majority of d’Automne–related column space to the five artists who represented the movement (Gleizes).
However, following the 1912 Salon des Indépendants, the movement found another prominent champion in critic Olivier–Hourcade, who credited the likes of Metzinger, Delaunay, and Gleizes for:
“The creation of a school of painting,” which the critic described as “‘French’ and absolutely independent,” (Joyeux–Prunel).
Legacy and Influence of Cubism
Cubism became more popular after 1912 as the style entered its Crystal Cubist phase, which was typified by the bolder, simpler, more colorful 1913—16 works of Picasso and Gris. The style would influence many prominent artists of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, including the Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró and American Modernist Stuart Davis. As stated by art historian John Berger, one cannot “exaggerate the importance of Cubism,” because the style marked “a revolution in the visual arts as great as that which took place in the early Renaissance” (Berger).
Berger, John. The Success and Failure of Picasso. Penguin Books, Ltd: London, 1965. 73. Print.
Cooper, Douglas. The Cubist Epoch. 1971. Phaidon Press: London, 1995. 24. Print.
Delaunay, Robert. “First Notebook of 1939.”The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Viking Press: New York, 1978. Print.
Gleizes, Albert. Souvenirs: le Cubisme, 1908-1914. 1957. Association des Amis d’Albert Gleizes: Ampuis, 1997. Print.
Gleizes, Albert. The Epic, From Immobile Form to Mobile Form. 1925. Trans. Peter Brooke. Association des Amis d’Albert Gleizes: Ampuis, 1995. Print.
Joyeux–Prunel, Béatrice. “The Art of Measure: The Salon d’Automne Exhibition (1903-1914), the Avant-Garde, its Foreigners and the French Nation.” Histoire & Mesure (Vol. XXII). Éditions de l’EHESS: Paris, 2007. 145—182. Print.
Miller, Arthur I. Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc. Basic Books: New York, 2001. 167—168. Print.
Stamberg, Susan. “In 1913, A New York Armory Filled With Art Stunned The Nation.” 2013. Fine Art. NPR. 7 July, 2016. Web. http://www.npr.org/2013/11/11/243732924/in-1913-a-new-york-armory-filled-with-art-stunned-the-nation.