Primarily developed and espoused by Pablo Picasso, this style has had an impact upon artists for well over a century.
In order to appreciate this influence, it is important to examine the principles behind Cubism as well as the relationship between this movement and Picasso himself.
We will address both of these concepts while also examining a handful of other styles that are directly linked to this unique style of art. Let us begin by examining the specific techniques behind Cubism as a whole before moving on.
Cubism Defined: Redefining Art in Relation to Nature
As the name hints, Cubism involves the use of geometric shapes and patterns to represent a specific form. However, we need to make a point to emphasise that cubes were only a portion of this concept. Nearly any geometric angle could be employed to achieve the desired result.
It can be argued that Cubism was a direct response to the rather traditionalist styles associated with the latter half of the 19th century (and in particular, some of the works associated with Victorian painters). As Sabine Rewald from the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains (1):
"The Cubist painters rejected the inherited concept that art should copy nature, or that they should adopt the traditional techniques of perspective, modelling, and foreshortening."
To put this another way, they hoped to literally embrace the two-dimensional aspect of the canvas. This was done by breaking a picture down into its geometric components; almost as if reducing its essence to a series of lines and angles.
In order to achieve more depth, many artists such as Picasso would paint these cubes and shapes from multiple perspectives. This would draw the eye of the viewer to specific portions and hopefully, influence his or her impression of the painting as a whole.
A Brief History of the Cubist Movement
Many contemporary scholars have broken the Cubist movement down into two discrete periods. These are known as Early Cubist (1907-1908) and High Cubism (1909-1914).
As Pablo Picasso is often considered to be the father of Cubism, it only stands to reason that his paintings were present from an early stage.
The majority of historians believe that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) represents the first famous venture into this field (often termed as "Proto Cubism").
Other Picasso works during this time such as Reservoir at Horta de Ebro clearly reflect the Cubist style. By 1911, many contemporaries stated that Picasso was the official founder of Cubism. However, this has since been disputed. There are others who exhibited an equally important influence during this formative time. A handful include:
- Alexander Archipenko
- Ossip Zadkine
- Diego Rivera
- Maria Blanchard
It should still be stressed that Picasso is nonetheless considered to the the pioneering figure within this formative time.
There is a considerable amount of debate in regards to which factors separate the Early Cubist period from the High Cubist period.
Some claim that public recognition played an important role. There is indeed some credence to this, as masses were first exposed to Cubism when works were displayed within the salons of Paris.
Two notable examples here are the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne when paintings were displayed during the spring of 1911. It is also unsurprising that Cubism initially perplexed its viewers. One contemporary critic of the time noted (2):
"What do they mean? Have those responsible for them taken leave of their senses? Is it art or madness? Who knows?"
Regardless of the confusion, it was already clear that Cubism would feature as a prominent driving force behind many artists of the time.
Having said this, the emergence of High Cubism (from 1909 onward) represented a significant transformation.
While public awareness partially defined this paradigm shift, the major difference in regards to artistic approaches include the departure from discernable images to those which were much more abstract in their nature.
This was sometimes informally referred to as the "hermetic" period of Cubism. One famous example produced by Picasso during this time was Three Musicians.
The Emergence of Late Cubism
Late Cubism is generally defined as the period between 1914 and 1921. Most feel that the abstract approach gained more prevalence during this epoch.
Large overlapping planes and an overall "flat" appearance dramatically differed from the shaded two-dimensional renderings that were first espoused by Picasso.
Another interesting (albeit slightly disturbing) trend during this time was the emergence of what is now referred to as Crystal Cubism.
This was said to be a direct psychological reaction to the horrors of the First World War as well as a proclivity to reflect a more conservative approach to the Cubist movement.
Some actually claimed that the movement had effectively died by this time period. However, the works of Picasso as well as other artists such as Stuart Davis and Ben Nicholson seemed to contradict this point.
It is nonetheless a fact that Late Cubism seems to have ended sometime around 1924 although there would be later attempts (on occasion) to revive the form.
The Works of Picasso During the Cubist Period
One of the most interesting aspects of Pablo Picasso as a painter is the fact that he embraced very eclectic styles during his long and varied career.
He first began to paint with a Cubist approach immediately following years influenced by African scenes. As mentioned previously, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was the first display of such a novel approach.
This was thought of as "Analytic Cubism", as he broke down an image into is core components and then reassembled them based off of angular interpretations. Spheres, cylinders, rectangles and cubes were all involved during this process. This is also the primary reason why his early Cubist interpretations still reflected a fair amount of realism. Ma Jolie (1911) is another illustration of this practice coming to life.
Another interesting aspect of Picasso during this time is that he tended to focus less upon the human form when compared to his earlier works. On the contrary, he painted common objects such as a pipe or a bottle and transformed them into what can only be called truly unique images.
This is also considered to be the height of his Cubist period. A handful of noteworthy examples which fall into this category include:
- Guitariste (1910-1911)
- Still Life with a Bottle of Rum (1911)
- Violon (1911-1912)
- L'anis del mono (1916)
These are all in direct contrast with earlier works when he focused heavily upon the organic nature of the human form.
Paintings including Woman with a Mustard Pot (1910) and Girl with a Mandolin (1910) illustrate a clear departure. When compared with his later works, it is quite clear to appreciate the differences. The only somewhat notable exception can be seen in Guernica.
Although there are obvious influences of other styles, there is no doubt that Cubism can be seen within some portions of the painting (particularly on the right-hand side of the image).
Associated Movements Influenced or Related to Cubism
Many feel that Cubism was the single most influential factor within the artistic world of the early 20th century and beyond.
Perhaps the most interesting (and well-known) example can be seen in the bold angles and striking lines espoused by Art Deco creations.
This only stands to reason, as the Art Deco movement followed immediately after (and in some senses simultaneously with) the Cubist movement. A handful of other styles which can directly trace their roots to Cubism include:
- De Stijl
For example, Futurism took a more "industrial" approach to art; highlighting emotions such as speed and youth within its style. Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin by Gino Severini is one of the best representations of this trend. While there is no doubt that Futurism is a movement of its own accord, few can argue that Cubism did not play an important role. Two-dimensional shading, the use of geometric figures and an abstract flavour all serve to partially define Futurism as a whole.
In the same respect, Constructivism can also claim to have a history influenced by Cubism. Although primarily associated with Russian artists such as Vladimir Tatlin, its bold lines and clearly strong shapes are also attributed to the Cubist movement. We should also point out that this very same philosophy was utilised within the world of architecture throughout the Soviet Union immediately following the revolution of 1917. As should be expected, Constructivism eventually evolved into its own unique form of art.
The De Stijl movement is sometimes referred to as Neoplasticism. The use of abstract shapes, primary colours and angles all tend to define this style. Notable artists include Theo van Doseburg and Gerrit Rietveld. Unlike Constructivism, De Stijl works mainly focused upon paintings and even pieces of furniture. It is said that this style also influenced the overall Art Deco movement of the time.
Finally, Suprematism needs to be mentioned. The basic tenet of this style is a focus upon the bare nature of geometric forms. One notable example is and Black Square (1915) by painter Kazimir Malevich. The use of striking lines and a unique sense of balance are two aspects often associated with Suprematism.
Potential Criticisms of Cubism as an Art Form
It is a well-known fact that Picasso endured his fair share of criticism over the years. Some contend that the Cubist period espoused by Picasso represented very little in terms of depth or dimension. As others have pointed out, the Cubist movement was one defined by colour and shape, but not of dimension to any extent. Some felt that this would somewhat hamper the overall experience of the viewer and lead to a sense of separation.
Others felt that some of the shapes that Picasso (and other Cubists) used were completely unfamiliar to the human psyche.
In other words, there was no basis for their interpretation within a three-dimensional universe. Of course, this was assuming that the observer would be unable to extrapolate between the abstract and the real.
Some believe that the Cubist movement should be termed a "revolution" due to the fact that it represented such a departure from previous styles and that it influenced countless styles since its birth.
The Overall Intentions of Cubism
One aspect of Cubism which has allowed it to be somewhat different when compared to other artistic styles is that its exact motivating factors are still somewhat hard to define. Whereas paintings such as Juan Gris tended to display decidedly human forms, later works were entirely abstract in their nature.
Still, the principle of reductionism hardly serves to encapsulate the overall intention of Cubism. While it is true that Picasso chose to analyse traditional images and recreate them in an entirely unique way, it can be surmised that the human element of psychology played just as much of a role as a reductionist standpoint.
One has to wonder whether or not this "revolution" from previous Victorian styles was somewhat influenced by the technological progression witnessed in the first two decades of the 20th century.
Whether referring to the emergence of the modern car or the creation of weapons of mass destruction for the first time in history, it is a plausible observation that Cubism was a means for the artist to interpret the world through an entirely new lens of the mind's eye.
Ultimately, the dissection of human perception was certainly achieved through the use of Cubism. The tones and angles employed left striking impressions upon countless artists and there is absolutely no doubt that these very same flavours have influenced art well into the present day.
Although the argument that Pablo Picasso was the father of Cubism is valid, he was by no means the only individual to propel its presence into the public world. It is an undeniable fact that Cubist tones still impact contemporary art and its salient presence is not expected to vanish anytime soon.
Picasso and Cubism as a Whole
Many scholarly articles observe that Pablo Picasso was only a single part of the entire Cubist movement as a whole. However, this would be akin to believing that the mother of a child has little importance to its development after she has given birth.
Pablo Picasso has rightly been given the title of the father of Cubism and this is a deserved role. As his work continues to resonate over the decades, the overall impact that Cubism has had upon our modern society is simply undeniable.