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What is Cubism?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 23, 2024
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Cubism is artistic movement that spanned from 1907 to 1914, and which featured the abandonment of traditional rules on perspective in favor of flattened, geometric representations of objects and people. Strongly influenced by African culture, it originated in Paris, France largely as a response to the increasing modernity of the industrial world. Experts usually consider it to be the first real shift toward abstract art, separating it into an early and late phase. Even though it didn't last very long, the ideas and techniques developed during this period were incredibly influential on future artists, including those who are working today. Faceted nudes, guitars and still lifes in muted colors are featured in many paintings of the period.

Underlying Philosophy

The latter part of the 1800s and first years of the 1900s saw dramatic increases in technology and industrialization. Artists came to believe that the previous or traditional methods of expression were no longer enough to capture the world and society accurately, and they wanted a fresh approach. They reevaluated how people perceive and determined that everything people see is really a series of constantly shifting perspectives. As a result, major leaders in the art world began trying to break down objects into their basic shapes and colors as seen from different angles, reorganizing the pieces to represent the items in a more complete way.

Main Characteristics

Given the fact that cubist artists wanted to capture many vantage points at the same time, paintings associated with this movement generally are characterized by geometric, fractured forms, muted, depthless colors and unspecified edges. Many use basic Euclidean geometric solids: pyramid, cube, sphere, cylinder and cone. Some critics, such as Louis Vauxcelles (1870 – 1943), initially rejected these "simplistic" depictions — in fact, Vauxcelles meant to insult the techniques when he described a painting by Georges Brache (1882 – 1963) as being "full of little cubes."

Early Influences

Experts generally credit Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906) as laying the groundwork for cubism. He was one of the first artists to toss away the traditional rules of perspective and depth, believing that art and reality were distinct and that flattening objects on canvas or paper made perfect sense as a result. This became the heart of the movement, which Guillame Apollinaire described in 1912 as "the art of painting original arrangements composed of elements taken from conceived rather than perceived reality." Pablo Picasso (1887 – 1927) and Georges Braque ran with Cézanne's ideas, developing paintings that made the concepts much more popular. Other artists began picking up cubist techniques by 1910.

Pointillism, Fauvism and traditional folk sculpture from Africa also provided momentum for cubism. Europeans were importing African figures, such as nude figurines and masks, to study ethnology, but Picasso and Braque valued these items from an artistic view. They were drawn to the way masks were abstracted and dramatized faces. Also, Africans used natural materials, such as wood, that inspired other artists to use earth tone colors of browns and greens. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) often is regarded as having African influences, and many consider it to be one of the first great works of the period.

Phases

This movement went through two distinct phases. The first stage, Analytic Cubism, lasted from 1907 to 1912, and is characterized by polygonal structural constituents, neutral organic colors and human figures. In general, even though the images artists produced during this time were much more conceptual or sense-based, people who viewed the works typically could still figure out what the subject of the art was supposed to be. Color schemes were fairly limited so that the individual pieces making up the scene looked a little more cohesive.

By 1912, individuals involved in the cubist movement were struggling to come up with new ideas. Their solution was to move even further toward the abstract, and it became more and more difficult to discern what the works of art were supposed to show. With artists no longer really trying to make it clear what objects they were painting, the need for unification became less important, and the door opened for the use of much brighter colors as a result. Painters also shifted to a collage type of style, incorporating materials such as sand, newspaper lettering and cigar wrappers. People referred to this latter half of the period, which lasted until 1914, as Synthetic Cubism.

Important Artists

Along with Picasso and Braque, Juan Gris (1887 – 1927) was a major player in cubism — due to the way he further refined the new methods on perspective and color, some people even refer to him as cubism's "third musketeer." Other important painters are Roger de la Fresnaye, Fernand Leger, Louis Marcoussis and Francis Picabia. Henri Le Fauconnier, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes are also of note.

Effect on Future Art

Although this was a relatively short-lived movement, it effected most art that followed it, and it still is influencing contemporary artists today. Most experts consider it to be the first truly modern, abstract style, paving the way for Surrealism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Orphism and other more contemporary schools of thought. Its influences reach beyond painting and drawing and can be seen in other areas such as sculpting.

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Discussion Comments

By anon349940 — On Sep 30, 2013

At school, I'm learning about Mondrian. He was fascinated with Cubism, so the term stuck.

By anon141756 — On Jan 11, 2011

This is a challenging style of art, but since it's all weird, most people dismiss it as an easy challenge. -

-Oasis

By anon140932 — On Jan 09, 2011

I'm doing cubism at school and i hate it! probably because i don't know much about it but now i know a lot more, thanks to your website!

By anon128897 — On Nov 21, 2010

THIS really helped me in my research for school. thank you S. Mithra & L. S. Wynn for your help! your names are in the bibliography. thank you for your help.

By anon127157 — On Nov 15, 2010

Cubism is like 'the breaking down of shapes' and using cubes in your artwork. I'm still finding it difficult to know the proper definition of it cause I have an Art exam tomorrow.

By anon116684 — On Oct 07, 2010

i love this website. it has showed me many different perspectives on art and how it can contain a massive amount of emotion in the one masterpiece.

By anon116680 — On Oct 07, 2010

cubism is taking a picture and putting in all the different points of view, just like in life, and it doesn't have to look perfect, or be perfect, but once art is done, it is beautiful in it's own unique way.

By anon87402 — On May 30, 2010

I am doing a project on cubism and i find it hard.

By anon79087 — On Apr 21, 2010

I'm studying cubism in school, it's a very interesting topic and also a very unique one for one to express himself as with only one object you can show it in multiple kind of drawings. Wow! amazing!

By anon69439 — On Mar 08, 2010

This is tricky. My homework is quite hard at the moment. How are we going to be able to describe cubism?

By anon52853 — On Nov 17, 2009

Cubism is an interesting art that l really cherish and like. The key concept underlying Cubism is that the essence of an object can only be captured by showing it from multiple points of view simultaneously.

By anon41692 — On Aug 16, 2009

i myself find cubism to be a unique and brilliant form of art, but trying to explain what cubism is on paper i am finding dificult. i'm a year 12 art student and my theory piece is on cubism, explaining what cubism is and were it orginated. anyone care to lend a hand?

By anon36675 — On Jul 14, 2009

OMG this website is the *bomb*!!

By anon28404 — On Mar 16, 2009

cubism is the most interesting art subject i have ever worked on. it is superb. go cubism. the pictures r so hidden.

By anon24157 — On Jan 08, 2009

I am learning about cubism at school and it is really interesting to look at an also very hard to do!! You try doing it and you will see how much time and effort you have to put in it to get it looking good.

By anon23849 — On Jan 03, 2009

yeah... many people said that coz they r not art students or people who with art minds... i feel so sad about them

By heva148 — On Oct 05, 2008

i think you should not mock artwork until you have tried to do it yourself because i am sure that you will find it difficult as well as a three year old would and then it wouldnt be as well as the professionals.

By anon18332 — On Sep 20, 2008

I agree with you about cubism, but I think that some pieces of 'Art' could be done by three year olds and some people still won't see a difference.

By osmosis — On Mar 31, 2008

Although many people dismiss cubism as "Oh, my three-year old could do that" it is actually a very challenging style of art.

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