A style of painting originated by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Instead of painting a figure or object from a fixed position they represented it from multiple viewpoints.

Georges Braque Le Bougeoir [The Candlestick] 1911 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

The Origins of Cubism

The two leaders of the revolutionary Cubist style were Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and French artist Georges Braque. Both artists abandoned linear perspective, instead showing objects from varying angles and viewpoints in a geometric, deconstructed style. One of their primary aims was to represent reality as we experience it all around us, rather than as a static, unmoving state. Artist Juan Gris said, ‘Truth is beyond any realism, and the appearance of things should not be confused with their essence.’ In a 1908 review, art critic Louis Vauxcelles said Braque, ‘despises form and reduces everything, landscapes and figures and houses, to geometric patterns, to cubes.’ Although initially derogatory, the term Cubism soon took hold.

The Influence of Cezanne

In 1907, a retrospective exhibition of work by French Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne was held at the Salon d’Automne including his Montagne Sainte-Victoire series, 1904-06, in which scenes were reduced to broken planes of colour and form, fascinating both Braque and Picasso. Their influence can be clearly seen in Braque’s L’Estaque landscapes, 1908, considered some of the earliest examples of Cubism. One year earlier Picasso also encountered Iberian and African art; similar, simplified human forms can be seen in his Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907. Both Picasso and Braque were living in Montmartre in Paris around this time and developed a close working relationship - Picasso referred to their friendship as a ‘marriage’, and Braque said, ‘We were like two mountain climbers roped together,’ - so much so it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between their works.

Analytic and Synthetic Cubism

Cubism is now recognised in two stages, Analytic Cubism from 1910-12 and Synthetic Cubism from 1912-14. Analytic Cubism was based on close observations of portraiture or still life subjects as seen from a range of viewpoints, painted in muted, earthy colours. Artist Juan Gris also began contributing to Cubism during this early phase and by around 1910 a range of other artist also developed similar styles including Fernand Leger, Francis Picabia and Andre Derain. By 1911 Cubism had become the leading style in Paris and by 1912 its influence was felt worldwide, promoted through the publication of De Cubism, 1912, by Gleizes and Metzinger and Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les Peintres Cubistes (The Cubist Painters) in 1913.

During the second, Synthetic phase of Cubism artists began introducing elements of collage into their work, such as newspaper or chair caning, as seen in Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, as well as experimenting with constructed sculptures. Picasso, Braque and Gris did not develop pure abstraction, although artists involved in parallel movements did, including the Orphists, the Rayonists and the Vorticists.

Cubism was one of the most influential movements of the early twentieth century, shifting traditional pictorial methods and spawning a new generation of styles, including Constructivism, Futurism, Suprematism, De Stijl and Minimalism.

Artists

Pablo Picasso
1881 - 1973
Georges Braque
1882 - 1963

Glossary terms

  • Used to cover a range of different painting styles that emerged following Impressionism in Europe. This includes artists such as Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

  • A geometric, abstract style founded in the early twentieth century in Russia by Vladimir Tatlin.

  • The name of a Dutch art and design journal edited by Theo van Doesburg from 1917 to 1932 and the movement associated with it, which included Piet Mondrian. They were concerned with finding a harmonious balance in life and art, and the associated visual style is simple abstraction, characterised by strong horizontal and vertical lines and primary colours.

  • An Italian literary and artistic movement that began in 1909 led by the writer Filippo Tommasso Marinetti. It rejected the culture of the past and embraced new technology, emphasising speed and dynamism. It used the Cubist techniques of fragmentation and shifting viewpoints to represent these ideals in paint. Futurism also had a political aspect and was closely associated with Italian Fascism.

  • An art movement of the 1960s onwards, primarily in sculpture. It was in part a reaction against the flamboyance of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. It is characterised by a lack of expressiveness and the use of simple forms, often in repetition.