Most people have heard of Cubism and probably even have a fair idea of what a Cubist painting looks like. But aside from understanding that it has something to do with modern art, the public has generally underappreciated the extent of Cubism’s revolutionary transformation of the Western tradition in art—which is to say the specific canon that evolved in Europe over a 500-year period starting in the 15th century.
Cubism’s emergence in the early 1900s signaled a seismic break with artistic tenets that had held sway since the revival of Greco-Roman art during the Renaissance. While those conventions had been under assault for much of the 19th century, Cubism delivered the final blow, paving the way for the avant-garde movements that followed.
What Was Cubism?
As a style Cubism was relatively short-lived, cresting after about 10 years as its lessons were absorbed or supplanted. Sculpture played a part, but Cubism was largely concerned with painting, and more specifically with undoing a paradigm that, as noted earlier, was based on a rediscovery of classical aesthetics that had been lost for a millennium after the fall of Rome.
Spanning what became known as the Old Master period, this resurrected form of painting was true to nature, combining geometrical perspective or its atmospheric variant (which evoked the sense of distance disappearing in a haze) and chiaroscuro (i.e., modeling with gradations of light) to give form and space the illusion of three-dimensionality. Concomitantly, the widespread adoption of oil paint, along with glazes and varnishes, allowed light to penetrate through layers of color while keeping the evidence of brushwork to a minimum.
The result was a tightly rendered surface that heightened the semblance of reality. Taken together, these elements opened a metaphorical window through which a scene could be fixed in perpetuity, making painting the main instrument for visually recording existence until the invention of photography.
Being able to make sense of what you were seeing was essential to the artistic template that came out of the Renaissance, and while subsequent developments (Mannerism, the Baroque, Rococo) tested its limits, none abandoned this core idea. This was the case even for 19th-century Impressionism: A Monet haystack, for instance, still resembled a haystack.
But Cubism threw the baby out with the bathwater. It collapsed figure and ground into planar configurations occupying the same compositional strata, eliminating the perception of depth. Objects were depicted from different angles simultaneously, often in shifting patterns meant to suggest the movement of the eye over and around a subject. Rather than rendering something from a particular vantage point in static terms, Cubism evoked the kinesthetics of seeing.
Post-Impressionism and Cézanne
While Cubism may have fired the starting gun on 20th-century art, it also represented the endgame for issues that had consumed painters during the 19th century, particularly in its final decades. For 75 years or so, French painting had been moving away from the strictures of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, which had codified rules for painting and sculpture based on the Old Master model. Bit by bit, its shibboleths were discarded, steadily eroding the Academie’s institutional power.
Most significantly, history painting, which the Academie privileged above all other genres, was discarded in favor of formerly second- and third-ranked categories such as portraiture, landscape and still life, with the last assuming an especially prominent place in Cubism. Painting modern life, as the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire put it, supplanted the exaltations of church, state and classical mythology which comprised the core of Academic painting.
The move toward Cubism began roughly around 1880 with the emergence of the Post-Impressionists, a group that included now-iconic names such as Seurat, Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne. While their work varied greatly in temperament and theme, they all pushed the boundaries of facture, as the handling of paint is called.
Georges Seurat created what was arguably the most stunning innovation in this respect by breaking down color into its optically constituent parts, using small dabs of pigment. Labeled pointillism, Seurat’s technique had a decisive impact on how a painting is read.
On close inspection, his subjects seemed to dissolve into a flurry of dots, only to resolve in full once the viewer stepped back, much the way that halftone screens do in mechanical reproduction. While overt evidence of brushwork was a hallmark of Impressionism, Seurat’s methods went much further in loosening the bonds between representation and paint application.
Others in Seurat’s cohort followed suit in varying ways, none more radically than Paul Cézanne. If one could compare Seurat’s brush to an atomizer, Cezanne’s was more like a chisel chipping away at a flattened picture plane with sharp, faceted paint strokes veering off in multiple directions. The result was almost abstract, though Cézanne generally framed a scene within a single point of view. Still, one can see the seeds of Cubism in his jagged, overlapping marks.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Completed during the summer of 1907, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon represents the ur-painting for both Cubism and modern art. While Picasso’s reputation for misogyny and sexual predation has led to a reappraisal of his legacy, Les Demoiselles has stood the test of time as a watershed work in art history.
Arguably Picasso’s masterpiece had two birthplaces: his studio, of course, but also the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, in Paris. There on a visit while beginning work on Les Demoiselles, Picasso saw a group of tribal masks that had been expropriated from France’s colonies in Africa. Seeing them proved to have an enormous impact on a composition that turned out quite differently from the one the artist had planned to paint.
Les Demoiselles is set in a bordello on a street in Barcelona’s red-light district where Picasso once had a studio. It depicts five female nudes who are actually prostitutes parading their bodies for the inspection of male customers. In his original studies, Picasso had included two such men, both sailors, though one was also described as a medical student in his notes. After his tour of the Trocadéro, however, these characters were elided, and the faces of three of the women were altered to resemble the African masks Picasso had encountered.
Les Demoiselles’s color scheme comprised blues borrowed from Picasso’s Blue Period as well as pinks taken from his Rose Period playbooks. His paint handling owed an obvious debt to Cézanne’s, but more importantly, he extrapolated the latter’s brushwork into triangular and rhomboid configurations that defined both figure and ground. Gone was any sense of perspective: A still life atop a table heaves into view as a flat plane at the bottom of the image; a masked woman at the lower right has her back turned to the viewer while her head twists around to face out from the picture.
Seen from today’s perspective, Les Demoiselles is a one-two punch of male gaze and white colonial droit du seigneur, though Picasso certainly didn’t see it that way, and neither did the art-viewing public of the time, though they did consider Les Demoiselles’s primitivism a slap in the face of pictorial decorum.
Picasso, Braque, and the birth of Cubism
The same year Picasso painted Les Demoiselles, he met Georges Braque, and together the two spent the next four years elaborating on the tropes in Picasso’s breakthrough to launch the Analytic phase of Cubism, as it was dubbed.
Braque was one of the first people to see Les Demoiselles, and he later remarked that he’d found it disturbing. Nevertheless, he committed himself to Cubism to such an extent that his canvases became nearly indistinguishable from Picasso’s. Indeed, their collaboration was so close (agreeing, for example, that a painting by one artist wouldn’t be considered finished until the other signed off on it) that Braque compared it to being like a pair of “mountain-climbers roped together.”
Braque was also indirectly responsible for the Cubist moniker. Just prior to meeting Picasso, Braque was painting landscapes heavily influenced by Cézanne, which he presented at two shows in 1908 and 1909. The same critic saw both exhibits and used references to cubes to describe Braque efforts, calling them “cubic oddities” in one instance, though the term Cubism wasn’t properly coined until 1911.
More significantly, however, Braque invented collage, pasting bits of newsprint and wallpaper onto his canvases. A kind of meta-commentary on the trompe l’oeil genre, this simple gesture proved to have a profound effect on 20th-centruy art—more so than even Cubism itself—by narrowing the gap between art and life and instigating the plethora of appropriative strategies to come.
Synthetic Cubism and Beyond
Picasso and Braque started to develop Synthetic Cubism around 1912–13, as both artists decided that they had exhausted Analytic Cubism’s potential. While the average viewer would be hard-pressed to tell these two approaches apart, they did diverge, most significantly in the use of color.
For Analytic Cubism, the two mountain climbers had limited their palettes largely to subdued browns, grays, and blues, as both at this point were more interested in reeducating the eye than in pleasing it. In a sense, Synthetic Cubism represented a recognition that the Analytic variety had done its job and its arguments no longer needed to be hammered home. Brighter colors were reintroduced, textures were added (with collage playing a part), and compositions became flatter and less busy.
At the same time, other artists were taking up Cubism, including Robert Delaunay, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude Descending a Staircase was derided as an “explosion in a shingle factory” by the press, causing a sensation at the 1913 Armory Show in New York.
Cubism, Orphism, and Purism
As word of Cubism spread, it began to spark numerous spinoffs that aspired to surpass it. This was the age of “-isms” in which each new style required a theoretical manifesto to differentiate it from the rest. For instant, Orphism, so christened by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, pushed into a kind of lyrical abstraction that was meant to unite color and sensation; its adherents included Czech artist František Kupka as well as Delaunay and his wife, Sonia. Purism, whose practitioners basically consisted of its cofounders, Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant, insisted that objects be depicted as forms stripped of all detail.
Although Cubism began the deconstruction of painting that would characterize much of 20th-century art, De Stijl (The Style) took things even further by breaking down the practice to its constituent elements. Founded in 1917 in Holland, De Stijl included architecture and design as part of its purview along with painting.
The group included Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Rietveld and J. J. P. Oud, but its most famous member was undoubtedly Piet Mondrian, whose Cubist period, spurred by a stay in Paris, lasted from 1912–1917. It laid the groundwork for his better-known compositions comprising intersecting black lines and blocks of red, yellow, and blue.
In 1909 the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published the “Manifesto of Futurism” in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, calling for new kind of art that celebrated the revolutionary furor and breakneck technological pace of 20th-century life, going so far as to embrace violence to achieve it where necessary. (Marinetti’s writings enthusiastically included eliminationist rhetoric such as his description of war as “the world’s only hygiene,” meaning that it was vital to the health of a nation; the trenches proved him wrong).
At the start, Marinetti’s movement was a literary one, though artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Fortunato Depero, Gino Severini, Giacomo Balla, and Luigi Russolo were quickly drawn into his circle. In their initial attempts to translate Marinetti’s precepts into painting, however, they struggled to find a visual language that would do justice to his ideas. For example, Balla and Boccioni limned their earliest canvases in the style of an Italian variant of Post-Impressionism known as Divisionism, which was indebted to Seurat.
On a visit to Paris in 1911, though, Severini made first contact with Cubism, which was immediately adapted and transformed by the Futurists. As norm-shattering as Cubism was, it still relied on relatively staid genre scenes for subject matter.
By contrast, the Futurists instilled qualities such as speed, sound, and motion into their art by introducing images of cars, trains, and warfare, energizing Cubism’s overlapping structure in ways beyond anything that Picasso or Braque had imagined. The Futurists’ palette was also explosively colorful compared with Cubism’s.
Although Marinetti dreamed of instigating a political revolution through Futurism, the Russian avant-garde got caught up in a real one after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Movements like Constructivism (more on this later) were officially harnessed to further the aims of the people’s Soviet, but prior to World War I and the revolution that followed, Russian artists started out by synthesizing Cubism and Futurism into a style of their own, which, naturally enough, was dubbed Cubo-Futurism.
As its name suggests, Cubo-Futurism combined Picasso and Braque’s deconstruction of form with Marinetti’s call to infuse art with the anarchic spirit of the Machine Age. But more significantly, it Russified them: Themes were derived from peasant life and Orthodox Christianity, reflecting deep attachment to the Motherland and belief in a national soul.
Interestingly, this spiritual element, missing from Cubo-Futurism’s French and Italian antecedents, moved the Russian avant-garde decisively toward pure abstraction as it looked for ways to represent these metaphysical issues in equivalent terms. Also unique to Cubo-Futurism was the involvement of women artists besides the more familiar male names such as Kazimir Malevich and Mikhail Larionov—a list that includes Natalia Goncharova, Lyubov Popova, and Olga Rozanova, among others.
Another movement that borrowed equally from Cubism and Futurism was Vorticism, which emerged in London at the start of World War I. Its chief instigator was the writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, as was the poet Ezra Pound.
Vorticism was a much a literary phenomenon as it was an artistic one, and in both respects, had been formulated to shock the conservative sensibilities of Edwardian England; indeed, the short-lived Vorticist journal, Blast, pretty much laid out its intentions in its title. Aesthetically, Vorticism leaned into a kind of proto- hard-edged abstractionism characterized by centrifugal compositions that mirrored Europe’s descent into the madness of war. In addition to Lewis himself, other Vorticist artists included two foreign sculptors—the American Jacob Epstein and the Frenchman Henri Gaudier-Brzeska—as well as the British painter, David Bromberg.
Cubism and Sculpture
As mentioned above, sculpture in Cubism took something of back seat to painting. Still, thanks once again to Picasso, it would prove to be just as consequential for 20th-century art. Interestingly, Picasso had no formal education as a sculptor; this ultimately proved to be a benefit, since he was liberated from any preconceived notions about working three-dimensionally and learned by doing. Within five years of completing Les Demoiselles he fashioned Guitar (1912), a piece that did for sculpture what his earlier achievement had done for painting.
Made of cardboard, twine, and wire, Guitar was pasted and strung together as a series of flat shapes that rendered its subject whole even as it appeared to be coming apart at the seams. A translation of Cubist collage into physical space, Guitar wasn’t wrested from a solid mass of material; it was put together like a building, marking a tectonic shift in how sculpture is made. It directly inspired the Russian Constructivist movement, for example, after the movement’s founder, Vladimir Tatlin, paid a visit to Picasso’s studio in 1913 and saw Guitar; grasping the implications of Picasso’s accomplishment, Tatlin returned home and produced Corner Counter-Relief (1914), a far more abstract variation on Picasso’s technique fashioned from copper and wood.
Another Picasso sculpture with far-ranging effects was Glass of Absinthe (1914), which was more conventional than Guitar because it was solidly cast in bronze. But Picasso carried out a coup de théâtre by affixing to the sculpture an actual absinthe spoon—the flat, slotted utensil used to pour the liquor over a lump of sugar—as a final touch. This gesture wound up introducing a whole new sculptural genre of found-object assemblage.
By the end of World War I, individual artists such as Malevich and Piet Mondrian took the inferences of Cubism to their logical extreme with forays into nonobjective art. At the same time, the onslaught of ever-evolving styles including Dada, Expressionism, and Surrealism began to crowd out Cubism in the public mind. Picasso himself looked for alternatives in his work, which ranged from Neo-Classicism to Surrealism, though by then his reputation was such that it scarcely mattered how he painted.
In the end, one could say that Cubism had been abbreviated by its own success, occupying a short span between the 19th and 20th centuries that connected one long art-historical road to another.