During the early twentieth century, cubism emerged as a highly influential visual art style that left a lasting impact. Originating in Paris between 1907 and 1914, this technique was conceived by the artistic duo of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Cubism revolutionized the representation of reality by introducing a fresh and innovative approach.
When we discovered cubism, we did not have the aim of discovering cubism. We only wanted to express what was in us.
Cubism is believed to have started around 1907 with Picasso’s renowned artwork, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which exhibited early elements of the cubist style. The term “cubism” came about when critic Louis Vauxcelles saw Braque’s paintings and remarked that they reduced everything to “geometric outlines, to cubes.”
Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas. 96 in × 92 in (243.9 cm × 233.7 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Cubism revolutionized art by offering boundless opportunities to depict visual reality. It served as a catalyst for numerous abstract styles that followed: dadaism, surrealism, futurism, suprematism, and many others. The artists fragmented objects and figures into distinct areas (planes), showcasing multiple viewpoints simultaneously, suggesting a three-dimensional form. Moreover, they intentionally emphasized the two-dimensional nature of the canvas instead of striving for the illusion of depth. This marked a transformative departure from the long-standing European tradition of portraying real space from a fixed viewpoint using techniques like linear perspective, which had dominated since the Renaissance era.
Jean Metzinger. Tea Time, 1911. Oil on cardboard. 29.8 in × 27.6 in (75.9 cm × 70.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.
Cubism unfolded in two distinct phases: the initial analytical cubism and the subsequent synthetic cubism. Analytical cubism prevailed during 1908-1912, presenting artworks with a stringent aesthetic. These pieces featured interwoven planes and lines, predominantly in subdued tones of blacks, greys, and ochres.
Georges Braque. Houses at l’Estaque, 1908. Oil on canvas. 15.9 in × 12.7 in (40.5 cm × 32.5 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Bern.
Pablo Picasso. Girl with a Mandolin, 1910. Oil on canvas. 39.5 in × 29 in (100.3 cm × 73.6 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
On the other hand, synthetic cubism represents the later phase, generally spanning from approximately 1912 to 1914. This stage introduced simpler shapes and more vibrant colors. In addition, synthetic cubist works often incorporated real elements, such as collaged newspapers, rope, or wallpaper. The integration of actual objects directly into artworks introduced one of the most pivotal concepts in modern art.
Roger de La Fresnaye. The Conquest of the Air, 1913. 92.9 in × 77 in (235.9 × 195.6 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Pablo Picasso. Guitar, 1913. Cut-and-pasted newspaper, wallpaper, paper, ink, chalk, charcoal, and pencil on colored paper. 26.13 in × 19.5 in (66.4 cm × 49.6 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Juan Gris. The Sunblind, 1914. Gouache, paper, chalk and charcoal on canvas. 36.2 in × 28.3 in (92 cm × 72.5 cm). Tate Modern, London.
Cubism’s impact on aesthetics, approach, and form was astronomical, redefining the possibilities of artistic medium and showcasing the innovative and subversive power of anachronism, perspective, and abstraction.
Salvador Dalí. Cubist Self-Portrait, 1923. Oil and collage on paperboard glued to wood. 40.9 in × 29.5 in (104 cm × 75 cm). Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Words of wisdom
“Art is meant to disturb. Science reassures.” —Georges Braque
“A true artist is not one who is inspired but one who inspires others.” —Salvador Dalí
“We have art so that we shall not die of reality.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“Art is never finished. Only abandoned.” —Leonardo da Vinci