Cubism in Art

Between 1907 and 1914, a new visual art style was born and developed. Until this point in time, artists painted pictorial illusions organized of compositional space in terms of linear perspectives. Led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the emerging style of this time period rejected the theory that art should copy nature and dismissed the traditional techniques of perspective, modeling, and foreshortening. Picasso and Braque chose to embrace and emphasize the two-dimensionality of canvas. They reduced and fractured objects then realigned them within shallow, relief-like space with multiple and contracting vantage points.

Influenced by the works of Paul Cezanne and Jean Dominque Ingres, Picasso became intrigued with ambiguous silhouettes. Picasso also began to include elements of primitive and African art. It is believed that after Braque saw Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Braque set out to deliberately change his style in a friendly rivalry with his friend, Pablo Picasso. Heeding Cezanne’s advice that artists should treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, ad the cone, Picasso and Braque considered their subject and then fragmented it, analyzed it, and reassembled it in abstract form. Proportions, organic integrity and continuity of life samples and material objects were abandoned. One vicious critic said the works resembled a field of broken glass. Cubism was the most radical and influential movement in twentieth-century art. The movement began a revolution in the visual arts that all subsequent painters dealt with in some way. French art critic Louis Vauxcelles, upon seeing Braque’s highly abstracted 1908 landscapes, coined the word Cubism to describe the new style that seemed to be composed of geometric cubes.

In actuality it is the facet, not the cube that is the key to Cubism. From 1908 to 1913, the facet size varies but basically is a small area bordered by straight and curved lines with the two adjacent edges defined with light tones and the two opposite edges with dark tones. The area in between modulates between the two extremes. There are three basic principles of facets which provide a look that is almost bas relief. Facets are almost always painted as if at an angle to the vertical surface of the canvas. Facets overlap and cast shadows on each other in an inconsistent manner. The edges of the facets dissolve. Some think Cubism shows a spatial shift from different perspectives within the same time and space and emphasizes the canvas’s real two-dimensional flatness instead of conveying the illusory appearance of depth.

Through 1910, the subject in Cubist works was discernible. Figures were dissected and analyzed but reassembled into something resembling the original object. During 1911, Picasso and Braque began experimenting with simulated textures, shadows, and modern stenciled typography. The conceptual planes of figures and objects were developed into an austere, depersonalized style. Also called hermetic, which is the ultimate analysis of an object, this period of analytical Cubism fragmented three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional plane. Picasso and Braque reduced their subjects to a series of overlapping planes and facets in browns, grays, and blacks. Their similar compositions are broken into planes with open edges sliding into each other with no depth. The monochromatic color is applied uniformly in small brush strokes creating vibrations of lights. Sand or sawdust applied with the paint created relief and made the picture more physically an object. Often including inverted items of artistic illusionism as if mocking two-dimensional representation, favorite motifs included musical instruments, bottles, pictures, glasses, newspapers, playing cards, and the human face and figure. Landscapes were rare.

Color returned during the period of synthetic Cubism, about 1912-1913. Picasso and Braque incorporated papier colle, or paper college, into the works of this time period, adding such things as actual newsprint, ticket stubs, wallpaper, and real playing cards. These objects were altered, overlapped, and glued to the canvas. With these additions, the final vestiges of three-dimensional space, or illusionism that remained in analytical Cubism were swept away. Rather than evoking objects through reassembled facets, synthetic Cubism used large pieces of neutral or colored paper to allude to a particular object. Often they were cut in the desired shape or would bear a graphic element that clarified the association. Brighter colors, ornamental patterns, undulating lines, and round as well as jagged shapes are in works through the 1930’s.

Max Weber was an American artist who was exposed to Cubism in its early period when he worked in Paris from 1905 until 1909. During the winter of 1910-1911, after returning to New York City, Weber incorporated Cubism in his American subject matter. His works combine his interest in Cubism with the Italian avant-garde Futurist view of dynamic movement and nature in flux. Although Weber’s interest in Cubist-Futurist experiments lasted only a few years, he had a profound impact on John Marin and Joseph Stella, both active in New York City.

The war of 1914-19 ended the collaboration between Picasso and Braque, but the Cubist core group remained active until the 1920’s. Cubists took a geometrically analytical approach to form and color and shattered an object in focus into geometrically sharp-edged pieces. Cubism distrusts the whole images seen by the eye, rejects those images, and recognizes that perspective space is an illusory invention. Cubism attempts to mimic the mind’s power to abstract and synthesize different impression of the world into new whole images. The Cubist view if analogous to nature but built along different principles. Picasso and Braque created this new visual language, but many others followed and further developed the style. Among them were Fernand Leger, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Juan Gris, Roger de La Fresnaye, Marcel Duchamp, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, and Diego Rivera. The liberating concepts begun by Cubism can be seen in later works of Dada and the Surrealists as well as abstract artists in many countries. Additionally, Cubism also had a great influence on 20th century architecture and sculpture. Noted Cubist sculptors include Alexander Archipenko, Henri Laurens, and Jacques Lipchitz.

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