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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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Cubism and who were its main proponents?
Cubism is an avant-garde art movement that emerged in the early 20th century, characterized by fragmented objects and multiple viewpoints combined into a single composition. Pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism challenged traditional perspectives of art by representing subjects in abstract forms. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cubism had a profound impact on the direction of modern art, influencing numerous artists and leading to related movements like Futurism and Constructivism.
How did Cubism change the course of art history?
Cubism revolutionized art history by breaking away from the Renaissance tradition of perspective and introducing a new visual language. It allowed artists to depict subjects from multiple angles simultaneously, thus creating a more abstract representation. The Tate Gallery notes that Cubism's influence extended beyond painting, affecting sculpture, literature, and architecture, and it laid the groundwork for later abstract movements, including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism.
What are the key characteristics of Cubist artwork?
Cubist artwork is distinguished by its use of geometric shapes, interlocking planes, and a monochromatic color palette. Artists often deconstructed objects into their basic geometric components and reassembled them on a flat canvas, disregarding traditional perspective. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum explains that this approach results in a fragmented, multi-faceted depiction of reality, where background and object interpenetrate and the three-dimensional space is reinterpreted on the two-dimensional surface.
Are there different phases of Cubism, and if so, what are they?
Yes, Cubism is typically divided into two phases: Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism. Analytic Cubism (1907-1912) is the earlier phase, where artists analyzed and broke down forms into basic geometric components. Synthetic Cubism (1912 onwards) introduced new elements like collage, using newspaper clippings, and other materials to create compositions, as noted by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This phase was more colorful and less abstract, emphasizing the combination of different textures and surfaces.
How did Cubism influence other artistic disciplines?
Cubism's influence extended beyond painting, profoundly affecting sculpture, with artists like Alexander Archipenko and Jacques Lipchitz creating fragmented, multi-perspective works. In literature, writers such as Gertrude Stein incorporated Cubist techniques into their writing, experimenting with narrative structure and perspective. In architecture, the movement inspired the use of geometric forms and the integration of multiple viewpoints. The impact of Cubism can also be seen in the development of modern design and typography, where the emphasis on simplicity and geometric forms took root.