Art Dictionary

Cubism

Georges Braque,

Georges Braque, "La Roche-Guyon", 1909, detail
Musée d'Art Moderne Lille Métropole, Villeneuve d'Ascq

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This art movement, which was especially strong in early twentieth-century France, formed the beginning of abstract and non-objected-related art: Cubism.

»When we started painting Cubist pictures, we hadn´t the slightest intention of creating the style of painting that came to be known as Cubism. Instead we wanted to express what it was that moved us.« Pablo Picasso

»It seemed almost as if we were two mountain climbers hanging from a single rope.« Georges Braque

A picture of five naked prostitutes marks the beginning of Cubism as a movement. Two of them are monstrously deformed, two others stare out at the viewer from a flattened, angular pictorial space. When Picasso was working on his famous painting Les Desmoiselles d´Avignon between 1906 and 1907, he wasn´t interested in instilling sympathy for social outsiders, like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, or in moralizing like Georges Rouault. He was primarily concerned with purely artistic problems.

By systematically developing Paul Cézanne´s basic idea of an architecturally constructed, non-illusionistic picture, he reduced human anatomy to rhombi and triangles, thereby rejecting the reproduction of naturalistic proportions. Picasso´s models were the archaic sculptures of his Iberian homeland, and the paintings of El Greco and Paul Gaugain. He found confirmation for his approach in the carvings of African folk art, which had recently been discovered by European painters.

In late 1908, Picasso met Georges Braque through the poet Guillaume Appollinaire; the two men were almost exactly the same age. A close collaboration developed from this meeting, which would last for years, and which for a time, between 1911 and 1912, went so far that the two artists allowed their individual personalities to be absorbed in the common research of Cubist representational techniques, painting almost identical pictures and refusing to sign them.

In the autumn of 1908, Braque mounted an exhibition of his works in the gallery of David-Henry Kahnweiler. Writing for the journal Gil Blas, the critic Louis Vauxcelles spoke in passing of »petits cubes« (little cubes). At another point he used the description »bizarreries cubiques« (bizarre cubist constructions), thereby unwittingly creating the label for the new, leading stylistic movement.

Between 1909 and 1912, Cubism developed from its beginnings into what became known as its Analytical period. Although they continued to paint representationally, the Cubists no longer reproduced the appearance of an object, but aimed at painting the »thing in itself,« as the sum of all its possible appearances. Thus the objects were no longer depicted naturalistically from a given and therefore limited position, but from several possible points of view at the same time. This juxtaposition of several different perspectives was arranged on the canvas in different facets. At the same time, form and space were amalgamated into each other. Color also lost its traditional significance; the palette was limited to brown, grey, and blue tones.

From 1911 onwards, typographical signs began appearing in the works, and later newspaper cuttings, visiting cards, pieces of material, glass, and sand were added. Papier collé had been invented. These fragments of reality did away once and for all with the remnants of illusionistic space; and with them, color made its reappearance in these pictures. It was now though no longer subordinate to objects, and no longer needed to imitate anything, but had become part of a new materiality. This created the preconditions for Synthetic Cubism. Here it was no longer a question of representing the objects of perception, but rather of creating new objects: the picture had gained a new degree of autonomy.

Though Picasso and Braque remained crucial to the full development of Synthetic Cubism, they were no longer the only ones involved. The most important figures at this point were Fernand Léger and Juan Gris. Léger took Cézanne at his word, combining in his Cubist phase cylinders, spheres, and cones to create quasi-analytical spatial images. Gris started out from abstraction in order to arrive at reality. He painted almost exclusively still lifes. Picasso, Braque, and Gris also influenced Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, who published the first book on the new style under the title Du Cubisme. Sonia and Robert Delaunay developed Cubism further, crossing the boundaries of abstraction with their rhythmic and dynamic Orphic color harmonies.

Cubism took issue with the very boundaries of art, and marked the transition from objective to abstract painting. It gave the impetus for the whole of European avant-garde art before 1914. People like Marcel Duchamp, inventor of the Readymades, and the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, both started out as Cubists. Lionel Feininger developed the movement further. It had a direct influence on the Italian Futurists, the Expressionsts of the Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke groups in Germany, and the Russian Cubo-Futurists. Cubism in the narrow sense of the term ended with the beginning of the First World War; but the artistic attempt to come to terms with it continued throughout the whole of the twentieth century—from Dada, through Pop Art, to Postmodernism.

05.11.2008 Monika Wolz

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