Cubism in Art History


Picasso cubist piece

Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS) of New York / Used with Permission

Cubism began as an idea and then it became a style. Based on Paul Cézanne's three main ingredients—geometricity, simultaneity (multiple views) and passage—Cubism tried to describe, in visual terms, the concept of the Fourth Dimension.

Cubism is a kind of Realism. It is a conceptual approach to realism in art, which aims to depict the world as it is and not as it seems. This was the "idea." For example, pick up any ordinary cup. Chances are the mouth of the cup is round. Close your eyes and imagine the cup. The mouth is round. It is always round—whether you are looking at the cup or remembering the cup. To depict the mouth as an oval is a falsehood, a mere device to create an optical illusion. The mouth of a glass is not an oval; it is a circle. This circular form is its truth, its reality. The representation of a cup as a circle attached to the outline of its profile view communicates its concrete reality. In this respect, Cubism can be considered realism, in a conceptual, rather than perceptional way.

A good example can be found in Pablo Picasso's Still Life with Compote and Glass (1914-15), where we see the circular mouth of the glass attached to its distinctive fluted goblet shape. The area that connects two different planes (top and side) to one another is passage. The simultaneous views of the glass (top and side) is simultaneity. The emphasis on clear outlines and geometric forms is geometricity. To know an object from different points of view takes time because you move the object around in space or you move around the object in space. Therefore, to depict multiple views (simultaneity) implies the Fourth Dimension (time).

Two Groups of Cubists

There were two groups of Cubists during the height of the movement, 1909 to 1914. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) are known as the "Gallery Cubists" because they exhibited under contract with Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler's gallery.

Henri Le Fauconnier (1881–1946), Jean Metzinger (1883–1956), Albert Gleizes (1881–1953), Fernand Léger (1881–1955), Robert Delaunay (1885–1941), Juan Gris (1887–1927), Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876–1918), Jacques Villon (1875–1963) and Robert de la Fresnaye (1885–1925) are know as the "Salon Cubists" because they exhibited in exhibitions supported by public funds (salons)

Start of Cubism

Textbooks often cite Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) as the first Cubist painting. This belief may be true because the work displays the three essential ingredients in Cubism: geometricity, simultaneity, and passage. But Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was not shown publicly until 1916. Therefore, its influence was limited.

Other art historians argue that Georges Braque's series of L'Estaque landscapes executed in 1908 were the first Cubist paintings. The art critic Louis Vauxcelles called these pictures nothing but little "cubes." Legend has it that Vauxcelles parroted Henri Matisse (1869–1954), who presided over the jury of1908 Salon d'Automne, where Braque first submitted his L'Estaque paintings. Vauxcelles' assessment stuck and went viral, just like his critical swipe at Matisse and his fellow Fauves. Therefore, we might say that Braque's work inspired the word Cubism in terms of a recognizable style, but Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon launched the principles of Cubism through its ideas.

Length of the Cubism Movement

There are four periods of Cubism:

Although the height of the Cubism period occurred before World War I, several artists continued the Synthetic Cubists' style or adopted a personal variation of it. Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) demonstrates the influence of Synthetic Cubism in his painting (a.k.a. Dressing Room), 1952.

Key Characteristics of Cubism

  • Geometricity, a simplification of figures and objects into geometrical components and planes that may or may not add up to the whole figure or object known in the natural world.
  • Approximation of the Fourth Dimension.
  • Conceptual, instead of perceptual, reality.
  • Distortion and deformation of known figures and forms in the natural world.
  • The overlapping and interpenetration of planes.
  • Simultaneity or multiple views, different points of view made visible on one plane.

Suggested Reading

  • Antiff, Mark and Patricia Leighten. The Cubism Reader. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Antliff, Mark and Patricia Leighten. Cubism and Culture. New York and London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
  • Cottington, David. Cubism in the Shadow of War: The Avant-Garde and Politics in France 1905-1914. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Cottington, David. Cubism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Cottington, David. Cubism and its Histories. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004
  • Cox, Neil. Cubism. London: Phaidon, 2000.
  • Golding, John. Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907-1914. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1959; rev. 1988.
  • Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Karmel, Pepe. Picasso and the Invention of Cubism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Rosenblum, Robert. Cubism and the Twentieth Century. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1976; original 1959.
  • Rubin, William. Picasso and Braque: Pioneers of Cubism. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989.
  • Salmon, André. La Jeune Peinture française, in André Salmon on Modern Art. Translated by Beth S. Gersh-Nesic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Staller, Natasha. A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Culture and the Creation of Cubism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.
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Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Cubism in Art History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2023, April 5). Cubism in Art History. Retrieved from Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Cubism in Art History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).