by: D. J. Lingelbach


Perhaps the most influential art style of its time, cubism was very popular in the early 20th century.  The style’s most significant artists were the Frenchman Georges Braque and the Spaniard Pablo Picasso.  Simply put, cubism takes a subject, breaks it into many geometric shapes and fragments, and overlaps these fragments.  The overlaps are done in such an abstract way that depicts the subject from many random angles.

Self Portrait Pablo Picasso painting                             

Pablo Picasso                                                                                                                                                                Georges Braque


       Although it was these two artists who were the most prominent in the cubism art style, it is widely believed that the movement began with French artist Paul Cezanne.  In Cezanne’s latter years, his work became marked by two distinct traits.  First, Cezanne’s paintings depicted objects as they would be seen if they were viewed at different angles.  For example, one portion of an object may be larger than the rest of the object.  Also, along the same thought, some objects would defy the laws of physics.  Second, Cezanne began to paint landscapes as though all things in nature could be represented by certain geometric shapes.  These two ideas combined can be seen in one of Paul Cezanne’s final works, Mont Sainte-Victoire.  Notice how the mountain blends with the sky and how there is really no one perspective.  Instead of having depth, the landscape is painted in such a way that it appears flat. 

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cézanne

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne


       Picasso and Braque took Cezanne’s idea of using geometric shapes to represent everything and his idea to exclude perspective in their early cubist works.  For example, in Picasso’s Houses on the Hill, at Horta de Ebro, there is no perspective.  The houses, which are all cubes, appear to be stacked on one another instead of being one behind the other.  Also, like Cezanne’s work, the mountains in the background, the houses in the foreground, and the sky all appear to be blended together at the top of the picture.  Picasso would influence Braque to work with him on the development of cubism around the year 1908.  It was after one of Braque’s paintings that the art critic Louis Vauxcelles, a Frenchman, described the work as being “full of cubes.”  Although Picasso and Braque never really had a hand in naming their new art, the “cubes” remark stuck and the art form became known as cubism.

Houses on the Hill, at Horta de Ebro by Pablo Picasso


       Generally, cubism is viewed as having gone through two phases.  The first one, which lasted in populatrity until about 1912, is known as Analytic Cubism.  In this style of cubism, the artist takes the subject and analyzes, or breaks it down, into smaller parts.  Each of these parts would be a geometric shape—a cylinder, cone, sphere, et cetera.  Then, these three-dimensional shapes would be shown on a two-dimensional canvas.  Another goal of analytic cubism was to show multiple viewpoints of one subject, even through the two-dimensional medium of a canvas.  For example, a cubist may paint a pumpkin from the top viewpoint.  However, in the same picture, a viewpoint from the front of the pumpkin may also be shown.  In Picasso’s Portrait of Ambrose Vollard, notice the flattening and the multiple perspectives that Picasso attempted to produce.  There is no clear depth, and there are also a variety of intersecting angles displayed.  Some historians argue that one of the goals of the analytic cubists was to create a new way of seeing objects.  The cubists were not at all bound by the physical laws of nature.  An additional note about analytic cubism is its lack of color.  Cubists, like Braque and Picasso, tried to limit the color in their paintings to monochromatic colors like gray, blue, white, and black.

Portrait of Ambrose Vollard by Pablo Picasso


       From the time analytic cubism’s popularity began to fade—around the year 1912—until about the end of the cubism era—about 1920—synthetic cubism was the popular style for artists.  Synthetic cubism started when Pablo Picasso invented a new technique that the painting world had never seen before—the collage.  Collage comes from the French word, which means “to glue.”  This technique came about when Picasso pasted a piece of cloth onto his painting Still Life with Chair Canning.  As simple as this may seem, it was a revolutionary act in the art world at the time.  Never in the history of art had something extra (like newspaper or cloth) been added to a painting.  Paintings had always been made of just paint.  However, it was not the collage that set synthetic cubism apart from analytic cubism.

Still Life with chair Canning by Pablo Picasso


       Instead, the biggest difference between analytic cubism and synthetic cubism can be deduced by looking at the meanings of “analytic” and “synthesis.”  To analyze means to break something down into smaller parts.  That is, in fact, what analytic cubism is (see above).  To synthesize means to bring smaller parts together.  This is what synthetic cubism does.  Instead of allowing parts of a subject to exist separately, a synthetic cubism artist will bring many aspects together and blend the parts.  For example, in Georges Braque’s Still Life with Tenora (formerly known as The Clarinet), one can see a variety of textures in this one painting.  The main attraction in the work is a drawing, but there is also a wood texture and what appears to be a newspaper clipping.

Still Life with Tenora (The Clarinet) by Georges Braque


       One important note is that the last thing that cubists worried about was conventions.  They did not look to conform to any rules of art.  This may explain why, in Picasso and Braque’s later paintings, that there were elements of both analytic and synthetic cubism.  Although Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque are often talked about as the two most prominent cubists, there were also other artists who practiced cubism.  Artists such as the Frenchmen Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes wrote a cubism manifesto that discussed the ideas of cubism.  Other artists also took up varying forms of cubism using different ideas.  Some, like Juan Gris, used the idea of incorporating many geometric shapes.  However, Gris did not go as far as Picasso and Braque’s cubism because he refrained from blending the geometric planes.  Others, like Fernand Leger took the abstractionism found in Picasso and Braque’s painting to a whole new level.

Fernand Léger, Contrast of Forms

Contrast of Forms by Fernand Leger




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