Cubism was the creation of two artists – Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso – who worked closely together between 1908-1914.  Inspired by the shifting planes and ambiguous spatial relations of Cézanne’s paintings, Cubism represented a deeply intellectual analysis of form and space, and the invention of an entirely new way of seeing.

Analytic Cubism
The first phase of Cubism is called “Analytic Cubism.”  It involved a complete re-analysis of how we “see,” and how we represent what we see on canvas.  According to the “old way” of painting, objects were arranged on an imaginary picture-stage in relation to a fixed viewpoint in time and space, using such familiar devices as chiaroscuro, foreshortening, and linear perspective.  The Cubists wanted to break free from this old-fashioned, static way of seeing and invent a new way of representing experience as unfolding over time and through space.  Rather than represent things as a fixed object in space (say a cup), the Cubists fragmented three-dimensional forms into their two-dimensional components (remember Cézanne?) and rearranged them on the canvas (so we would see our cup from the top, the side, and maybe even the bottom all at once).  The object is no longer seen from a fixed position in time and space, but is rather seen from multiple viewpoints.

Cubism therefore destroyed once and for all the Renaissance conception of the painting as a “window.”   After Cubism, painting was conceived as a flat surface upon which the artist arranges elements. The resulting picture is a mosaic of shifting and fragmented planes, as if the subject were being viewed in a fractured mirror.

Braque and Picasso:  Pioneering Cubism 

Cubism as 4-dimensional Art (A&E) 

Pablo Picasso, The Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907
Museum of Modern Art
Pablo Picasso, Study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, pencil and pastel (Basel Kunstmuseum)

Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon is reputed to be the first Cubist painting, but it is first and foremost an expressionist work.  Painted as a direct response to Matisse’s Joy of Life, which Picasso saw at the home of Gertrude Stein, the picture depicts five women who brazenly flaunt themselves in front of the viewer.  Picasso originally intended the picture to be a brothel scene (the title refers to Avignon Street, a red light district in Barcelona).  In an early drawing he included a sailor and a medical student holding a skull, a likely allusion to the threat of venereal disease.  In the finished work, Picasso eliminated the male customers, and placed his figures on the foreground picture plane so that we become the “customers” in this sordid brothel scene.

While Matisse’s Joy of Life used warm pastel colors and soft flowing forms to express the theme of innocent pleasure, Picasso’s forms are angular and sharp, more threatening than inviting.  The colors are cool, rather than warm, and the women’s expressions are threatening rather than inviting.  The crowded composition spills outward towards the viewer, rather than receding into depth, resulting in a confrontational kind of space that permits no entry. The figures are “in your face” leaving no room for escape.

The Cubist elements of the picture include the simplification of forms into flat geometrical shapes, and the way the forms are fragmented and rearranged.  Multiple perspectives are used in the rendering of the center female’s face, and solids and voids become ambiguous.  It is as if the scene was exploded and rearranged from the resulting fragments and shards.

To make his figures seem even more threatening and “savage,” Picasso based the figures on the right on African Tribal masks he had seen at an ethnographic museum in Paris.  Picasso’s interest “primitive” art derived from the mysterious power he associated with African tribal masks, but he was equally attracted to the formal qualities.

Detail of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon compared with Mouya mask from Pende tribe, Africa
Detail of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon compared with Mouya mask from Pende tribe, Africa

Pioneers in abstraction, African tribal artists were not constrained by the conventions of western illusionism; they used abstract shapes and forms to invent new realities, rather than recreate visible appearances from observation.

Picasso’s Demliselles d’Avignon, Smarthistory 

Georges Braque, Houses at L’Estaque, 1908
Kunstmuseum Bern

One of his first Cubist paintings, this work by Georges Braque was directly influenced by Cézanne.  Like Cézanne’s Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque, this picture portrays a group of houses nestled amongst trees.  The houses have been abstracted into simple cubes, but they also seem to be breaking apart, like an unfolding cardboard box.  This essentially describes the analytic process of Cubism:  three-dimensional forms are analyzed into their component parts, broken apart, and then rearranged on the canvas.  Rather than seeing the houses from a single, fixed point of view, we see them from multiple and shifting perspectives.

Georges Braque, Houses at L’Estaque (Highlights of the Kunstmuseum Bern Collection) 

Georges Braque, The Portuguese, 1911
Kunstmuseum, Basel

As Braque and Picasso continued their experiments with Cubism, their pictures became increasingly flat, and they also became herder to read!  This painting depicts a Portuguese guitar player.  We can just make out his cartoonish profile, and other telltale signs such as the circle with lines through it, indicating the guitar.  The picture resembles a scene reflected in a shattered mirror, or the way the scene might appear if we were zooming around it at high speed – and this was the intention.  Rather than depicting the world from a fixed and static viewpoint, the Cubists endeavored to incorporate the dimension of time by incorporating multiple perspectives simultaneously.

David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, c. 1985Photocollage
David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, c. 1985

This work by the contemporary British artists David Hockney can help us understand the basic principles of Cubism.  Between 1982 and 1987 Hockney produced a series of photo collages which he calls “joiners.”  The works consists of photographs taken from a variety of different viewpoints, and arranged together to form an image that incoporates the element of time:

“Hockney’s works have strong links with Cubism, in that his motivation for producing them was to introduce three artistic elements which a single photograph cannot have, namely layered time, space and narrative. The first two of these are central Cubist themes. Hockney points out that a single photo expresses a single instant, and so cannot represent time or narrative . . . “Cubism was total-vision: it was about two eyes and the way we see things. Photography had the flaw of being one-eyed… My joke was that all ordinary photographs are taken by a one-eyed frozen man!” 

Cubist Collage
The Cubists also invented a new approach to art called “collage” (French for “paste-up”).  In 1912 Braque and Picasso began pasting bits of paper, news clippings, piece of oilcloth, and other elements to their pictures.  This use of everyday material (some might even call it “garbage”) challenged the distinction between “high art” and everyday life, and it also reinforced the new conception of the picture plane as a flat table top on which objects are arranged, rather than a window or stage, in which objects and figures are arranged in space.

1913 l Guitar, Glass, and Bottle by Pablo Picasso (MOMA)

Picasso Posse:  Collage and Papier Collé (Philadelphia Museum of Art) 

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912
Musée Picasso, Paris

In this collage, Picasso treats the oval canvas as a literal table top, upon which he assembled a collection of items.  A piece of manufactured oilcloth simulating chair caning is pasted on the surface, suggesting we are seeing the chair through a glass tabletop.  To frame the picture, Picasso attached a piece of rope that simulates the carved edge of the table.  Finally, Picasso has assembled on the table a glass, a knife, and a newspaper (indicated by the letters “JOU” — a fragment of a newspaper masthead).  The oilcloth, rope and letters serve a kind of double duty:  they remain themselves (oil cloth, rope and letters), while also “standing for” something else (table top, table edge, chair, and newspaper).

Picasso was exploring how to “represent” something without creating a “picture” of it.  He used objects and signs that “stand for” the thing, rather than representing it illusionistically.

Picasso Still Life with Chair Caning, Smarthistory 

Georges Braque, Still Life with Tenora, 1913Museum of Modern Art
Georges Braque, Still Life with Tenora, 1913
Museum of Modern Art

In this collage, Braque arranges a variety of items on table.  The tenora (a musical instrument similar to a clarinet) is rendered in charcoal, with a simple outline, and a little bit of shading.  This gives us the general shape of the instrument, but not its texture.  Braque suggests this aspect of the object by pasting a piece of brown paper with simulated wood grain.  Finally, the sound of the instrument is suggested by the pasted piece of newspaper, which contains the word “Echo.”  Braque’s collage illustrates the wonderful playfulness of Cubism, and how these artists strove to “think outside the box” by exploring the different ways an object can be represented.

Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Suze, 1912Kemper Art Museum
Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Suze, 1912
Kemper Art Museum

This collage depicts an oval café table cluttered with a bottle of Suze, a glass, and the day’s news.  A piece of wallpaper suggests the background wall, so background and foreground are collapsed onto the surface of the picture.  The newspaper clippings report the first Balkan War of 1912-13, and a graphic description of the war’s victims is pasted upside down.  Another article about a pacifist meeting held to protest the advent of a European war is pasted right side up.

Collapse of Time and Space – The 4th Dimension
Supporters of Cubism argued that the compression of space in Cubist pictures reflected the “collapse of time and space” brought about my modern technological advances.  Whereas in the past, distant places were separated by the time it took to travel, modern modes of transportation and communication collapsed this distance.  Picasso’s picture illustrates this concept:  on this café table in Paris, news of a war in the Balkans is reported in the newspaper, collapsing time and space by transforming distant world events into an instantaneous moment of simultaneity.

Synthetic Cubism
Once the Cubists had analyzed the world into its component parts, it became possible to reassemble these elements into on entirely new pictorial world.  As Juan Gris put it:  “Cézanne turns a bottle into a cylinder. I make a bottle — a particular bottle — out of a cylinder.”  Unlike the Analytic phase of Cubism, Synthetic Cubism is not necessarily based upon an initial observed reality.  Instead, the flat canvas becomes a surface upon which the painter (or collagist) manipulates elements that in turn become objects, or figures.  As such, painting has been completely liberated from its mimetic function (“mimetic” = “mime” = copy).  No longer a picture of a world beyond itself, the Synthetic Cubist picture is an invented pictorial world.

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921Museum of Modern Art
Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921
Museum of Modern Art

In this work, Picasso returns to the theme of the itinerant performers that had preoccupied him during the Rose Period.  The conceptual roots of the picture in the process of collage are evident; although painted, the picture looks as though the painter has merely picked up scraps of colored paper off the floor and, while playing with them, “discovered” the comical figures that make up his motley band.

Cubist Sculpture
The Cubists also reinvented sculpture.  Traditionally sculpture was conceived in terms of carving, shaping, or modeling of mass, Picasso introduced construction or assembling as a sculptural procedure.  His Guitar was made from assembling pieces together (much like a collage), rather than from carving or molding.  In other works, he took found objects and pieced them together (again, like a collage), to create something entirely new.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, after March 1914Museum of Modern Art
Pablo Picasso, Guitar, after March 1914
Museum of Modern Art

Originally made from cardboard and string (and later reproduced in more durable sheet metal), the very material of this object is an assault on the preciousness of materials exclusive to “high” art.  Here, Picasso translates into three dimensions the multiple viewpoints and shifting planes characteristic of painting from the Analytic phase of Cubism.  Rather than presenting us with the guitar from a single, fixed, point of view, Picasso presents us with a kind of “x-ray” of the object by cutting it open, so that we are able to see the front and back simultaneously.  Picasso also plays with solid and void, which raises questions about “illusion” and “reality.”  The hole of the guitar is “represented” by a cylinder (so that “void” is represented by “form”), while the neck of the guitar is concave, so that its flat surface is signified by the plane of space that we perceive with our eye (“form” is represented by “space”).

“Early visitors to Picasso’s studio were bewildered by this work: “What is that?” they asked, according to the poet André Salmon: “Does that rest on a pedestal? Does that hang on the wall? Is it a painting or sculpture?” Apparently, Picasso responded, “It’s nothing, it’s ‘la guitare!'” For Salmon, one of Picasso’s closest friends during the Cubist years, the effect was of radical importance: “We were delivered from painting and sculpture, liberated from the imbecilic tyranny of genres.” With its center open to space, Picasso’s Guitar was a radical breakthrough.”
Museum of Modern Art 

The Language of Representation: Pablo Picasso’s Guitar, 1912-14 (Smarthistory)


Web Resources:

Cubism (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)

Cubism (Guggenheim Museum)

Cubism, Museum of Modern Art

Click here for an excellent overview of Cubism:

Click here to download a powerpoint on Synthetic Cubism:
Synthetic Cubism 

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