In 1907, Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Cue the rise of Cubism.
The simplified block-forms and primitive characteristics of the style had been influenced by his studies during the previous year of Iberian, Oceanic and African sculpture, a study which brought us our first piece of the Cubist movement.
After seeing this painting in Picasso’s studio, an artist named Georges Braque spent the summer of 1908 painting landscapes with an aim in mind to reduce the image to a basic geometric structure, a structure in which the cube was paramount. When the two friends returned to Paris, they began thinking more about the formulation of structure, and hence a movement was formed.
The name “Cubism” came from the critic Louis Vauxcelle in his review in Gil Blas on 14 November 1908 of a Braque exhibition at the Galerie Kahnweiler, in which he commented upon their use of “bizarreries cubiques”.
Cubists analysed form, stripping back complex forms to their basic values. They were heavily influenced by Paul Cézanne, who famously said that all nature was based on the sphere, the cone and the cylinder. What he wanted to do was to create an intellectual experience with the visual method he would create from nature, where he wanted to reflect the “harmonic background” of nature in his work. This background was the intricate structure he noticed behind life – an arrangement of shapes, proportion and rhythm to which the human intellect could respond. It was an equation between the perception of the eye and the mathematical pattern derived in the artist’s observant mind.
The Cubists moved away from Cézanne’s depictions of nature and towards what Picasso called an “intellectual game.” This game was revolutionary: they rejected the commonly accepted criteria of structure, established since the Renaissance, in an attempt to portray what was beyond the visible. The movement can be divided into three stages: Cubism influenced by Cézanne (1907-9); Analytical Cubism (1902-12), which began using multiple viewpoints, muted colours and the fracturing of subjects into geometric forms; and Synthetic Cubism (1912-14) which initiated collage and the use of pasted paper, with a much stronger range of colours.
With Picasso and Braque, it wasn’t just about the paint. They reused materials such as wood, wallpaper, sheet music, playing cards and metal to create their work. Through the influence of Cézanne, they spent some time depicting people and landscapes, before moving on to their still lifes orientated upon the life of the cafe. The images now became focussed upon music, bottles, glasses, newspapers, bistro tables, and instruments. The lines denote the features, as do signs such as simulated objects and lettering. The subject of the painting is presented from every angle, creating more geometrical planes and a broken, fractured effect. There is no defined light source in these paintings – shades of light and dark are produced by the forms rather than reflecting them.
Colour began as muted as they used ochre, earthy-green, grey, and monochrome in the Analytical Cubist period, but then lost such definition. In using wallpaper and other prints during the Synthetic Cubist phase, colour became reinstated.
As well as Picasso and Braque, Piet Mondrian, Louis Marcoussis, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris are just a few of the names to look out for.
The creations of the Cubists can be heralded as having paved the way for the whole of modern art as we know it. No one could say that Picasso was just going around in circles.