What is Cubism? The Influence and Principles of a Modern Movement

Cubism_Hero Featured image: Albert Gleizes, 1910, La Femme aux Phlox (Woman with Phlox) via Wikimedia Commons

Cubism’s arrival in the early twentieth century forever changed the course of art by introducing a new mode for painterly abstraction. The fact that it arose during one of the most dynamic eras of art, though, can make it difficult to untangle the aims of Cubism and its influence.

In this article we’ll uncover the principles of Cubism, explore the artists who embodied them, and trace the threads of their influence into the work of other artists in an overarching look at the modern movement’s far-reaching influence. 

What is Cubism?

Cubism sought to explore new ways to depict space and form within a picture plane. Fracturing the formal elements of their compositions into planes or facets, Cubist artists then worked to reassemble these separate shards into multifaceted surfaces to experiment in combining multiple perspectives at once.

The goal of Cubism was to question how we view the painterly surface and the illusions it can convey. It was derived in part in response against the tightly controlled styles of painting that had dominated studios for previous generations. The Cubists, admittedly, were not the first group of artists to push back on tradition; in many ways, the Cubists stood on the shoulders of the prior generations of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists by building on play with color, form, and brushstroke.  What set Cubism apart, though, was the movement’s continued exploration that carried the conversation of art into the abstract realm.

Braque, Picasso and the Origins of Cubism

The name of Cubism stuck after a critical review by Louis Vauxcelles of a 1908 exhibition at the Parisian Gallery of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. There, Vauxcelles viewed new paintings by Georges Braque, like Trees at L’Estaque (1908), works that Vauxcelles described as depicting formal elements reduced to elemental “cubes.” Thanks to this critique, this exhibition was hailed by later experts as the first Cubist exhibition, but the ideas of Cubism actually took root earlier in the work of Pablo Picasso.

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Georges Braque, 1908, Maisons et arbre (Houses at l’Estaque), oil on canvas (image via Wikipedia Commons).

In 1907, Picasso created the revolutionary work entitled Demoiselles d’Avignon that broke with conventions of perspectival space and figural representation. In this painting, flattened forms give way to an indiscernible compositional depth, as if all is happening on the painting’s very surface. The female figures themselves are constructed by intersecting planes of color and culminate with stylized, mask-like faces that allude to Picasso’s fascination with artistic traditions outside Europe. 

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Pablo Picasso, 1907, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, oil on canvas (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Demoiselles was not exhibited until 1916 – years after Vauxcelles’ 1907 critique that gave Cubism its name – and, at that point, it was widely panned for its avant-garde aesthetic. Despite this initial rejection, Demoiselles proved foundational to Cubism and set Picasso and his colleagues on a fascinating path of artistic innovation.

Different Types of Cubism

The Cubism movement can be divided into two subcategories – Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism – to better understand the style’s development over time. 

Analytic Cubism

At the outset, Cubism emphasized the breaking down of form, which is why these early works earned the name of Analytic Cubism. In this early phase, this compositional deconstruction was followed by reassembly of these fractured elements into an array of intersecting and overlapping planes. At the same time, many of these compositions relied upon muted, earthen-toned colors that allowed the focus to fall ultimately on form itself.

Synthetic Cubism

By 1912 this breaking down of form was increasingly complemented by building up the compositional surface, thereby marking the arrival of Synthetic Cubism. In this phase innovators like Picasso simplified forms while also adding new media in their work to quite literally build up the surface of their compositions. This novel collaging of elements allowed the artists of Synthetic Cubism to continue their study of form while also introducing the practice of bringing new materials into the realm of art.

Famous Cubist Artists

Cubism enjoyed the attention of numerous artists over the twentieth century, but here are a few of the most essential to know:

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Though he died before Picasso even painted Demoiselles, Paul Cézanne was nevertheless an influential figure in the advent of Cubism as his pioneering art served as an ideological link between the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century. Intrigued by the way we perceive the world around us, Cézanne was known to experiment with various perspectives in his work. He also aimed to simplify compositional elements to rudimentary forms. This approach can be seen in landscapes like The Bay of Marseilles, View from L’Estaque (1885), where Cézanne simplified the skyline in the foreground into a series of rectangular planes thereby providing an imposed geometry to contrast with the atmospheric, organic shore scenes in the distance. 

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Paul Cézanne, 1885, The Bay of Marseilles, View from L’Estaque (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

No discussion of Cubism would be complete with the consideration of Pablo Picasso, whose art contributed to the rise of the field. From the days of Demoiselles, Picasso rapidly progressed in his art to a total deconstruction of figures, as seen in works like Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910). He also spearheaded the style of Synthetic Cubism in slightly later works such as Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), where he can be credited with a groundbreaking use of collaged materials borrowed from unexpected sources. 

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Pablo Picasso, 1910, Portrait of Daniel Henry Kahnweiler (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Georges Braque (1882-1963)

Equally influential in the rise of Cubism was Picasso’s colleague Georges Braque. Braque began his career working closely with the Fauves and sought in paintings like Landscape at L’Estaque (1906) to illuminate their world with bold, unexpected color. Braque was so inspired by the potential of Cubism, though, that he transformed his approach entirely. As a testament to this transformation, when he returned to views of Houses at l’Estaque in 1908 his style had shifted entirely into the realm of Cubism.

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Georges Braque, 1906, Landscape at L’Estaque (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Reach of Cubism

While Picasso and Braque are probably the two artists most closely associated with Cubism, many others developed a fascination with the Cubist aesthetic and incorporated it into their work.

Fernand Léger (1881-1951)

Figures like Fernand Léger, for example, tempered their interest in abstraction with a burgeoning fascination with Cubism to create a unique blend of artistic ideals. So original was this blend that his works, like Soldier with a Pipe (1916) earned the name of “Tubism” for his preference for cylindrical geometric elements throughout his paintings.

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Fernand Léger, Soldier with a Pipe, 1916 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

Meanwhile, famed Dadaist Marcel Duchamp also dabbled in Cubism. His 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, so closely ascribes to Cubist conventions that one would be forgiven in assuming it was a work by Braque or Picasso instead. 

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Marcel Duchamp, 1912, Nude Descending a Staircase (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Salvador Dalì

The same could be said of iconic Surrealist Salvador Dalì, whose Cubist Self-Portrait (1923) reflects a fantastic blend of his characteristic precision juxtaposed against the dynamism of the fractured surface. 

Beyond Painting

Making Cubism even more exhilarating is the interactions with and influence had across art forms. From the writings of Gertrude Stein (a close associate of Picasso) to the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau, Cubist ideals echoed across these artist’s works.

Mastering the Cubist Art Movement

In the century since it emerged, the ideas of Cubism have been adopted by many to result in a wide variety of works that might be grouped under the movement’s auspices. Accordingly, understanding the origins of the movement can help us navigate these evolutions as artists borrowed elements of the style over time and better appreciate the importance of Cubist art.

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