Cubism, movement in modern art, especially in painting, invented by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and French artist Georges Braque in 1907 and 1908. Although the look of cubism and the ideas behind it evolved over time, cubism retained certain general characteristics throughout. Cubist paintings create an ambiguous sense of space through geometric shapes that flatten and simplify form, spatial planes that are broken into fragments, and forms that overlap and penetrate one another. Art historians generally consider cubism to have been the most influential art movement of the first half of the 20th century.
The exact date of cubism's first appearance in art has been the subject of heated debate among art historians. Some see its onset in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), a painting of women composed of jagged shapes, flattened figures, and forms borrowed from African masks.
Other historians feel that the influence of French artist Paul Cézanne on the work of Picasso and Braque provided the primary catalyst for the new movement. Before his death in 1906, Cézanne increasingly simplified and flattened forms. In addition, Cézanne began to use what art historians have called passage, a device in which one physical object is allowed to penetrate another physical object. In a painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902-1904, Philadelphia Museum of Art), for example, Cézanne left the outer contour of the mountain unfinished so that at intervals no clear boundary separates the sky from the mountain. This innovation - allowing air and rock to merge and interpenetrate - became especially important to the cubists for two reasons. First, passage defied the laws of physical experience. Second, it encouraged artists to view paintings as having an internal logic - or integrity - that functions independently of, or even contrary to, physical experience.
Profoundly influenced by these late Cézanne paintings, Picasso and Braque executed a series of landscapes in 1908 that were very close to Cézanne's, both in their color scheme (dark greens and light browns) and in their drastic simplification of form into geometric shapes. In Braque's Houses at L'Estaque (1908, Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland) and in Picasso's Houses on the Hill, at Horta de Ebro (1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York), houses have a three-dimensional, cubic quality. It was upon seeing these paintings that French art critic Louis Vauxelles coined the term cubism.
In these early cubist paintings, Picasso and Braque introduced other devices that undermine the illusion of space. For example, they abandoned conventional perspective: Buildings, instead of appearing one behind the other, appear one on top of the other. Moreover, in Houses at Horta, Picasso not only reduced the houses into cubic shapes but also transformed the background in the same manner. By treating earth and sky in the same way, Picasso made the canvas appear more unified, but in the process he also introduced ambiguity - by no longer differentiating what is solid from what is void.
The first cubist paintings also stood out because they avoided using a consistent light source, unlike paintings that seek to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. In some parts of cubist paintings, light appears to cast shadows from the left; in others, from the right, the top, or the bottom. In addition, planes intersect in ways that leave the spectator guessing whether angles are concave or convex. A delight in confusing the spectator is a regular feature of cubism.
ANALYTICAL AND SYNTHETIC CUBISM: PICASSO AND BRAQUE
Art historians generally divide Picasso and Braque's early cubism into two phases. Analytical cubism, the earlier phase, continued until 1912. It was followed by synthetic cubism, which lasted through 1915. Analytical cubism fragments the physical world into intersecting geometric planes and interpenetrating volumes. Synthetic cubism, by contrast, synthesizes (combines) abstract shapes to represent objects in a new way.
Analytical Cubism: By 1910, when Picasso painted his Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia), the language of cubism had become flatter and more consistent, but also more ambiguous. In this work, Picasso fragmented a human figure into a series of transparent geometric planes that intersect at a variety of angles. But none of these planes give the illusion of three-dimensionality - that is, of volume as in a cube. By this stage in analytical cubism, it had become progressively evident that there were no cubes in cubism. In fact, Picasso seemed to be dismantling the idea of three-dimensional form altogether, not only by fragmentation, but also by his use of Cézanne's passage technique. With Portrait of Ambroise Vollard Picasso merged figure and environment, solid and void, background and foreground. The resulting composition is visually consistent but does not appear to conform to the physical laws of nature.
On the basis of analytical cubism's fragmented, intersecting planes, many people have argued that the underlying intention of cubist artists was to depict an object or human figure from multiple perspectives. For example, the mouth of a bottle might be shown from the top, with the rest of the bottle shown in profile. But this is only one aspect of cubism and does not account for much of its appearance. A more persuasive interpretation is that cubism aimed to invent a new visual language that had its own internal logic and consistency, one that did not attempt to imitate nature directly. The cubists never intended to depict nature accurately, whether from one point of view or many. After all, Picasso and Braque intentionally limited their color scheme to dark browns and grays, an approach that could only have resulted from a radical departure from nature.
Synthetic Cubism: A technique called collage, invented by Picasso, initiated the second phase of cubism in 1912. Collage, from the French word coller meaning "to glue," involved pasting a piece of paper or other material to the surface of a painting. In his Still Life with Chair Caning (1912, Musée Picasso, Paris, France), Picasso included a piece of oil cloth printed to look like chair caning. This was a radical act, for nobody had ever before put anything but paint on a painting. Just as important, oil cloth was a material that had had no previous connection with art. Its inclusion implied that art could be created with scissors and glue as well as with brushes and paint. Both Picasso and Braque began to include bits of newspaper, wallpaper, or advertising in their paintings. Collage opened the door for any object or material, however ordinary, to be included within (and possibly even to replace) a work of art.
Reinforcing this tendency to merge art with outside elements was the inclusion in Still-life with Chair Caning of the painted letters JOU, a reference to the beginning of the word journal (French for "newspaper") or possibly to the word jouer (French for "to play"). Picasso, after all, was playing with forms. In this work, Picasso combined several visual languages (such as paint, oil cloth, and newsprint) with a verbal language (the lettering).
Instead of working toward a consistent, unified surface as analytical cubism had done, synthetic cubism tended toward multiplicity by combining a variety of styles, surfaces, and visual languages into one painting. In Braque's Clarinet (1913, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), for instance, the artist combined representational drawing with abstract shapes to suggest a still life. Some forms are flat, whereas others, though simplified, appear three-dimensional and cast shadows. Synthetic cubism routinely combined abstract and representational forms, as well as a variety of textures: wood grain, sand, printed matter, and so on. Sometimes these different textures were incorporated by means of collage; other times the artist simply painted an area to look like another surface, such as wood.
The later work of Picasso and Braque underwent numerous stylistic changes, but a great deal of it continued to show the influence of cubism. However, the ways that they used cubism no longer fit neatly into the strictly defined categories of analytical or synthetic cubism.
Many artists took up cubism, but in ways and with intentions different from those that motivated Picasso and Braque. Picasso and Braque were reluctant to explain their work verbally, but French artists Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes wrote a cubist manifesto in 1912. That same year Metzinger and Gleizes helped found a group called Section d'Or (Golden Section) to exhibit and promote the work of cubists. Spanish-born French painter Juan Gris pursued his own version of cubism in works such as Breakfast (1915, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris). The geometric fragmentation, mixture of drawing styles, and use of lettering in this painting are clearly cubist, but each individual plane remains distinct, without the interpenetration or transparency characteristic of Picasso's or Braque's cubism. In the painting L'Artillerie (1911, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), French painter Roger de la Fresnaye used geometric simplification not to suggest ambiguity or to play with forms, but to make a patriotic statement on French military prowess. American painter Lyonel Feininger, in Franciscan Church (1924, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany), used cubism to suggest religious feeling, an almost supernatural sanctity evoked by a church facade.
Other artists, such as French painter Fernand Léger, pushed cubism in a direction that Braque and Picasso had refused to go - toward pure abstraction. In Contrast of Forms (1913, Guggenheim Museum, New York) Léger used the language of geometry to achieve a thoroughly abstract painting. And although Léger's painted forms are abstract, their metallic quality suggests a celebration of modern industry. This approach was at odds with that of Picasso and Braque, which was more introspective and contemplative, focused on the life of the artist's studio.
Many other artists were profoundly affected by cubism, but their use of the cubist language so differed from that of Picasso and Braque in appearance and intent that they eventually founded separate art movements. Among the movements most pointedly marked by cubism were Italian futurism, English vorticism, and Russian rayonism, all variations on cubist fragmentation. The Russian suprematism and constructivism movements, as well as the Dutch movement known as De Stijl, took the geometric fragmentation of cubism to a level of total abstraction similar to that of Léger. Cubism had a strong influence on many members of the German expressionism movement, who used its forms to express more personal, emotional meanings. The dada movement, with its provocative approach to mixing words with pictures and art with nonart, could not have existed without the cubist invention of collage. The surrealism movement of the 1920s and 1930s was indebted to cubism through its use of intentionally ambiguous imagery. And the abstract expressionism movement of the 1940s and 1950s owed to cubism its insistence on the flatness of the picture plane.
Although cubism was mainly a movement in painting, it also had a marked impact on modern sculpture. Those who translated the language of cubism into solid sculptural form include French sculptors Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Laurens, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Ukrainian sculptors Alexander Archipenko and Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné.