Cubism was one of the most influential visual art styles of the early twentieth century. It was created by Pablo Piccaso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1907 and 1914. The French art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term Cubism after seeing the landscapes that Braque had painted in 1908. The work itself was highly abstracted and he called the geometric forms in the work “cubes”. It drew influences from many non-Western sources like African art and Primitivism, which is an art style that draws heavily on idealizing or emulating the “primitive” experience. Beginning around the 19th century, the influx of tribal arts of Africa, Oceania and Native Americans into Europe offered artists a new visual vocabulary to explore. Primitive art’s use of simpler shapes and more abstract figures differ significantly from traditional styles of European representation and it’s easy to see how the Cubists drew on these styles in their work. The stylization and distortion of Picasso’s ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon painted in 1907 came heavily inspired by African Art, for example, and served as one of the leading paintings of the Cubist movement.
The Cubist painters rejected the concept that art should somehow copy nature, or that an artists aim was to represent their subject matter as beautifully as possible. They wanted instead to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas and in that, rejected traditional techniques of perspective, modelling and foreshortening. They reduced their subject matter into flat, geometric forms, fracturing them then realigning them on a shallow, relief-like space. They often also used multiple and contradictory viewpoints. By breaking down objects and figures into distinct areas, or planes, the artist’s intention was to show these varying viewpoints at the same time to suggest three-dimensional form. This often resulted more in an emphasis on the flat surface than it did with creating the illusion of depth, but it did serve the Cubists well. Cubism was partly influenced by the late work of artist Paul Cezanne, in which he can be seen to be painting things from slightly different points of view. Picasso was also inspired by African tribal masks which are highly stylized and somewhat unrealistic, with strong, bold forms and lines.
Cubism was highly influential and presented a very new reality in paintings. It was also divided up into two distinct eras. The movement’s development from 1910 to 1912 is often referred to as Analytical Cubism. During this period, the work of Picasso and Braque became so similar that their paintings were almost indistinguishable. The mode of Analytical paintings shows how the form was broken down and analyzed by both artists. They simplified their colour schemes to a nearly monochromatic scale in order not to distract the viewer from the primary goal, which was the structure of form itself. The monochromatic colour scheme suited the complexity of the subject, which had now been reduced to overlapping opaque and transparent planes. Forms are usually quite compact and dense in the middle of an Analytical painting, getting bigger as they move toward the edges of the canvas. In their work from this period, Picasso and Braque frequently combined representational designs with letters; their favourite designs were made with musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers and the human face and figure.
Interest in this subject matter continued after 1912, during the phase generally known as Synthetic Cubism. Artworks in this phase aimed to emphasize the combination or synthesis of forms in the painting. Colour played a strong role in these works and shapes that remain fragmented and flat are larger and more decorative. This was in comparison to areas where smooth and rough surfaces would be contrasted with one another. Materials like newspaper and tobacco wrappers are pasted on the canvas in combination with painted areas. This technique, known as collage, further emphasized the differences in texture and, at the same time, asked the question of what is real and what is an illusion.
While Picasso and Braque are credited with creating this new visual language, it was adopted and further developed by many painters, from Marcel Duchamp to Jean Metzinger. Though primarily associated with painting, Cubism also had a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture and architecture. Cubism opened up almost infinite new possibilities on how the real world could be represented and was the starting point for many later abstract styles.
Picasso once said, “A head is a matter of eyes, nose and mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like.” And this particularly emphasizes his lack of interest in showing things as they are, but how they could be, which is easily the most important aspect of abstract art.