Cubist art emerged within the first decade of the twentieth century, pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. It began as an experimental art form which questioned the way in which we perceive objects, and how we come to understand them. The Cubism movement, like many other movements of this period in history, turned its back on the traditional ideas of painting which had been instilled since the Renaissance.
Defining Cubist Art
Cubist art can be viewed as a playful conversation with art, both in its position in society and its methods for depicting reality. In this conversation, Cubism asks the viewer to think, not merely to respond to the sensuousness of color and line that we might find in, say, an impressionist painting. In fact, on the first viewing of a Braque or a Picasso during their Cubist years, the puzzled viewer is struck by their monochromatic, disorderly, compositions.
Although the Cubism movement was relatively short-lived, they would play an integral part in the history of modernist art. Cubist art became an influence on many other art movements, such as De Stijl and Expressionism, in its search for representation through abstraction. To understand Cubist art, and to answer the question of ‘what is Cubism?’ we need to delve into art history and the modernist concern with finding an art form that accurately displayed modernity.
The Formation Of The Cubism Movement
Since the Renaissance, western European painting had become preoccupied with how to create a rational, three-dimensional, image on a flat, two-dimensional, surface; towards naturalism and away from abstraction. There were, of course, a multiplicity of methods for doing so, and debates over what subject should be depicted, but the fact remained that artists needed to create an illusion of space for the viewer. This illusion of space formed the viewpoint at which a viewer could understand the painting.
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Naturalism would hold the reigns of painting until the late nineteenth century when artists began to question the artificiality of painting. Painters such as Édouard Manet had begun to paint in a style we now see as an early form of Impressionist painting; Vincent van Gogh transformed what he saw into how it affected him, emotionally. These artists were experimenting and trying to understand how we perceive the world: is it through an impression of a scene, or how we feel about a scene? A further question would be asked by Paul Cézanne: how do we paint an object when it is continually changing as we move around it? Objects don’t come at us from one perspective but from many.
It was Paul Cézanne who would start this project of understanding how to render objects from multiple perspectives. Naturalism, then, was artificial and false to life; it rendered objects from one point of view at one point in time. The Cubism movement was looking for a new visual language that would accurately express reality.
The Foundational Years
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906) is not only one of the most influential artworks of the twentieth century but the beginning of the Cubism movement. It is abrupt, jarring, composed of shards, and there is no space for the viewer to look into. The figures are deformed and abstracted, reminding us of the flat surface on which the painting is created. However, it would be Georges Braque and his homage paintings to Cézanne which would formulate the central ideas of early, also called analytical, Cubist art.
Braque’s paintings of the area of L’Estaque from 1908 showed houses and trees stripped to their bare forms – the shapes that make up the object – in a chaotic way. The space is condensed and the light source questionable. Braque wanted to do away with the illusionism of painting and confront the viewer with what a painting was; a two-dimensional canvas of signs. Meeting Picasso, they set out to experiment with this idea through the genre of still-life.
They wanted to question the illusionism of painting and how an artist can depict what they see – for that is the fundamental question for an artist – without freezing a moment in time. What the still-life afforded was a way to experiment with deconstructing objects, constricting space, and showing multiple viewpoints. Analytical Cubist art would become an art of conception rather than perception. It was an intellectual idea about how we come to understand the objects around us.
What we find, then, in Analytical Cubism is a chaotic canvas of forms signifying objects. The title of the painting will give some clue as to what we should be looking for. For example, in Braque’s Mandora, we can clearly see the soundhole and strings of the mandora, but the strings constantly shift as though we are moving as we look at them. The canvas is built up of many surfaces, arbitrarily shaded to give the viewer no insight as to where the light source is; the forms in the painting are elided, creating an effect of a shifting gaze through time. This painting is playing with the illusion of painting whilst undermining that illusion.
The Later Years
The Cubism movement would be transformed in 1912 when Georges Braque decided to stick a piece of oil cloth onto his painting. This was the beginning of Synthetic Cubism. Synthetic Cubist art afforded Picasso and Braque a further dimension in playing with the notion of art. The late period of Analytical Cubist art had integrated the use of stenciled letters on the canvas to remind the viewer of its flatness, but now the use of papier collé afforded an incongruous tension on the canvas which disrupted the realm of fine art.
Braque’s use of the oil cloth in his composition signaled the collapse of ‘fine art.’ The oil cloth was mechanically made and mass-produced, therefore requiring no artistic skill. In fact, Braque was implicitly saying that fine art was a thing of the past; a truly modern statement. The skill to paint naturally was defunct now that one could stick on a cheap piece of material that looked real; in Braque’s case, it was an oil cloth that looked like wood grain.
The use of collage in Synthetic Cubist art was remarkable in the way it created tension on the canvas. By placing a real object on the canvas next to sketched forms, it was playing with the notion of illusionism and reality. This ambiguity was drawing attention to the falsity of traditional painting and pointing towards the epistemological difference between art and representation. By making use of a ‘low’ art form, collage, Braque and Picasso challenged fine art in its power of representing reality.
The Cubist Salon
Although Braque and Picasso are seen to be the pioneers of the Cubism movement, they were out of the public eye, creating pieces for private patronage. However, other artists such as Jean Metzinger, Fernand Leger and Robert Delaunay were cultivating a style in the Cubist manner. These artists were members of a group called Section D’Or and were the leading painters in making the public aware of Cubist art.
These Cubist artists differed from Braque and Picasso in several ways. They painted larger canvases with grander themes as their subject; city landscapes, portraiture, and spiritual affectations were all subjects for the Salon Cubists. We can see in their work an occupation with modernity and creating a new form of art for their time. They were also much more philosophically inclined, taking ideas from the influential, and contemporary, philosopher Henri Bergson with his idea of Duree; all life exists in a unity of memory and vision.
This group offered perhaps a more logical approach to Cubist art, whereas Braque and Picasso focused on playing with art and its tradition whilst making stylistic innovations. The painters of Section D’or were concerned with how an individual sees reality in the experience of modernity, and they were concerned with drawing the public’s attention towards this experience.
Cubist Art And The Twentieth Century
Braque and Picasso’s demonstration of Cubist art would have a lasting effect on modernist art. Their exploration into formal expression led them to question cultural assumptions about art and reality, a technique that would be picked up by Dadaism and Surrealism. They probed the cultural difference between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, creating a synthesis that would open doors to new creative explorations.
After the first World War, there was a call for a return to order in painting; the chaos and destruction of so many lives prompted a revision of art; using it to examine culture, not to scrutinize reality – although this, on the whole, would not be successful from stopping the calamity of the years leading up to the Second World War.
This did not mean a loss of recognition for the Cubist experimentation. By the end of the First World War, Cubist art had established itself as a new visual language of modernity, becoming itself, a fine art. The chaotic canvases were now an applicable method for expression. In 1937, when the Nazi forces bombed the town of Guernica, the horror prompted Picasso to paint his own rendition of the events to raise awareness of the destruction. He also, of course, used the Cubist method to express that reality; for what was destruction but the pulverizing of people, buildings, and the landscape into scattered shards?