Cubism painting and the cubism movement are pioneering developments of twentieth-century art. The movement is one of the best-known artistic styles and lasted from approximately 1900-1920.
This brief introduction answers some of the most commonly asked questions about this iconic style. From defining Cubism and its distinct phases to key founders and their most famous paintings, here’s everything you need to know.
In the simplest terms, cubist art refers to art that breaks natural forms into geometric shapes, which helps provide many different perspectives and ways of looking at art and the objects it represents.
The cubism art movement was developed in the early 1900s and attempted to present objects simultaneously from multiple angles.
This revolutionary style changed the way people thought about art and painting forever. It mostly involved painting and inspired sculpture, collage, architecture, poetry, and music.
The cubism art movement progressed in three main phases: Cezanian Cubism, Analytic Cubism, and Synthetic Cubism. While each style of cubist art remained faithful to the movement’s overarching approach, each had defining characteristics.
Here’s a summary of each style.
Two artists, Pablo Picasso and George Braque, founded and developed Cubism. They believed painters shouldn’t just focus on realistic views of subjects and decorative art. Instead, they wanted to show every single part of a whole subject.
Inspired by a wide array of art forms, these two artists transformed approaches to painting. Inspirations included African masks (with geometric forms and overstated features), Egyptian painting (often showing more than one moment in time), and developments in abstract art.
In turn, the astoundingly creative artwork of both Picasso and Braque influenced a generation of later artists.
Pablo Picasso was the most famous cubist painter. As a relatively unknown Spanish artist living in France, he experimented with various theories and ideas.
Picasso’s early work was highly figurative and representational in style. However, this changed after he met Henri Matisse. The Fauvist paintings of this slightly older artist motivated Picasso’s radical art. It commenced an artistic rivalry that culminated in the transformation of modern European art.
Picasso’s Cubism started around 1907. Picasso created some of the most famous cubism paintings during his lengthy career. In addition, he drove the movement forward both artistically and intellectually.
Following the upheavals of World War One, Picasso abandoned a strictly cubist aesthetic. He instead focused on Neo-Classical approaches in the late 1910s and 1920s that allowed a “return to order.”
The three artists most famous for Cubism are Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Juan Gris. Here’s a brief introduction to each artist and some of their most iconic creations.
Pablo Picasso’s cubist art began with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. Despite the initial poor critical reaction, Picasso devoted himself to this innovative approach. He pioneered Cubism alongside his friend George Braque.
Both artists often used monochrome neutral color palettes (although Picasso soon moved to brighter colors). They analyzed objects and people alike, exemplified in works such as Girl with Mandolin (1910).
Picasso’s cubist art developed throughout the 1910s. He sometimes used cut paper fragments in his paintings (often newspaper and wallpaper), instigating the first example of collage in western art.
His paintings of 1915-1917 (such as Man with a Pipe) consist of highly geometric and minimal compositions, often featuring pipes, guitars, or glasses. Coined shortly after, the term “Crystal Cubism” defined these complex and beautiful artworks.
As well as a vital role in the development of Cubism, George Braque also instigated the Fauvist approach. Between 1908 and 1912, he frequently collaborated with Pablo Picasso. As a result, their cubist paintings were often almost identical.
Despite the similarity in their approach, Picasso’s fame quickly eclipsed that of George Braque. Braque’s work was often quieter and more heavily influenced by Paul Cezanne.
Braque's early bucolic paintings, such as Houses Estaque (1908), illustrate the similarity.
This painting represents Braque’s technique of reducing architecture to elementary geometry. He shaded objects, so they looked simultaneously flat and 3-D. These investigations into simultaneous perspectives (and movement in time) also developed into intriguing later works such as Bird Passing through a Cloud (1957).
Juan Gris paintings are among Cubism’s most distinctive creations. Like Picasso, Juan Gris was a Spanish artist who lived and worked in France for much of his life. Moving to Paris in 1906, he initially worked on humorous magazine illustrations.
Gris began painting seriously in 1911 and immediately adopted a cubist style. Indeed, he coined the term Analytical Cubism. Gris' technique during this period is evident in his Portrait of Picasso (1912) and unusual landscapes such as Landscape with Houses at Ceret (1913).
Moving quickly to a synthetic style, Gris believed in the importance of mathematics in painting. As a result, he frequently adopted grid structures, broken apart with triangular and diagonal forms.
Like Picasso, Braque, and Gris, other famous Cubist artists include Fernand Leger, Paul Klee, Jean Metzinger, and Albert Gleizes.
Fernand Leger paintings, such as Three Women or Le Grand Dejeuner (1921), represent the later cubist approach. The women’s bodies consist of spheres and sharply angled forms, making them seem part-machine, part-human.
Indeed, the careful shading is heavily reminiscent of metal, and the women gaze unswervingly at the viewer. In addition, the slanted, dazzling floor patterns further evoke a strongly cubist approach to broken perspective and space.
Paul Klee paintings, such as Senecio (1922) and Castle and Sun (1928), also demonstrate the fascinating development of later cubism artworks. Both paintings show cubist flat planes of color re-combining with figurative and symbolic approaches.
Nonetheless, the bright geometric forms and strong lines still focus on analyzing and breaking-up views and objects into multiple abstracted shapes and viewpoints.
The most famous Cubist painting is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907, which is known as the first Cubist painting.
French Art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term "bizarreries cubiques in 1908, and it was only then that the cubism movement received its name.
Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon over nine months. Picasso referenced famous bather paintings inspired by Africa and Spain’s “primitive” art, including Ingres’ Turkish Bath (1862) and Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905-6).
The painting wasn’t well-received by critics and the art public, however. Many were shocked by Picasso’s abstract presentation of women’s naked bodies. Speaking of the women’s fragmented faces, even George Braque commented it was like Picasso “gave us oil to drink to spit fire.”
As well as paintings, many cubist artists (including Picasso) created cubist sculptures. Architects utilized its principles to construct buildings, and poets experimented with breaking apart traditional forms of the written word.
Consequently, the most famous “piece” of Cubism is arguably Woman’s Head (Fernande) by Pablo Picasso. Created in 1909, this piece of cubist art depicted his lover, Fernande Olivier. It’s a striking creation initially formed from clay and later cast in Bronze, with Picasso’s explicit permission.
Like cubist paintings, the sculpture consists of various planes and uses simple geometric forms. As well as a famous object, it’s also an example of the enormous diversity of cubist artwork.
The sculpture aims at presenting multiple aspects of the woman simultaneously. Even viewed from a single perspective, it appears to shift in shape and meaning, just like a natural person moving through time and place.
If you love the energy and dynamism of cubism painting, explore our extensive collection of fine art reproductions.
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