Cubism in 9 Minutes: Art Movement by Pablo Picasso Explained

Cubism began in France in 1907, as a response to a rapidly changing world shaped by technology, new inventions, and scientific discoveries. Fundamental change always needs a watershed moment, and for visual culture at the beginning of the 20th century, this was Paul Cézanne’s posthumous retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. The event had an immediate and profound impact on the young artists of the day. 

The effect of the exhibit becomes clear when we look at Picasso’s painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (The Young Ladies of Avignon), which was painted the same year. It is considered to be among the first Cubist paintings, marking a radical break from the style of Western European art in years past. When George Braque saw it for the first time, he went into a state of shock. Fortunately, he managed to pull himself together, and the two artists began formulating the new visual language of modernity.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon gave art critics a good indication of where Cubism would go in the following years. We came to see distorted female bodies composed of flat, abstracted geometric shapes in a compressed space, with no central vanishing point. Goodbye, linear perspective! Goodbye, chiaroscuro! Goodbye, old standards of beauty! The fundamentals of Western European painting simply didn’t matter anymore.

Cubist art also introduced the popularity of mask-like faces in paintings. Besides Cézanne, the Cubists were greatly influenced by African and Native American cultures, Assyrian and Egyptian art, and Iberian sculpture. Picasso once said that he learned what painting was really about after seeing African masks at the Ethnographic Museum in Paris.

Imagine how strange and disturbing this radical new aesthetic must have felt for audiences of the day? So strange that, after seeing Braque’s painting, “Houses at L’Estaque,” art critic Louis Vauxcelles referred to it as “bizarreries cubiques” (cubic oddities), unaware that he had actually named the movement. Thus, Cubism was officially born! 

Since the Renaissance, Western European painting had been preoccupied with creating an illusion of a three-dimensional space on a flat, two-dimensional surface. Cubism changed all of that. Drawing upon Paul Cezanne’s idea that objects don’t have just one perspective, Braque used multiple viewpoints to break down objects into basic, geometrical forms such as cubes and cones, condensed in a space where foreground and background could merge. 

The Cubists decided to break from the belief that a painting should be a window onto a realistic scene and instead show it as it truly is — a flat, two-dimensional surface. Hence, Picasso and Braque started analyzing parts of objects by rendering them from multiple perspectives. This allowed the artists to convey a sense of totality without freezing a moment in time. However, it’s important to note that Cubism did not arrive all at once, but rather in various stages and submovements.  

The first stage was called Analytical Cubism. One can see the differences by looking at two of Picasso’s paintings on the same subject — a guitar player. One is from his early Blue Period, while the other one is from the latter days of Analytical Cubism. The second guitar player appears sliced up in two-dimensional planes overlapping to the point that the image is nearly unrecognizable. According to Picasso, this kind of representation gives the viewer a more accurate understanding of what we really see when we look at objects around us. Like many Analytical Cubism pieces, the painting uses very few colors, because the Cubists wanted the viewer to concentrate on the shapes more than the color. That’s why the paintings of this phase look austere, formal, and cold.

After 1912, Cubism entered a new stage called Synthetic Cubism. During this period, the Cubists started pasting real objects like newspaper, colored paper, or cloth onto the canvas in place of former planes of the subject, inventing a collage. The prefix "synthetic" referred to the idea of creating a synthesis of fragments from the real world and the painting world. By appropriating objects from commodity culture, the Cubists further challenged the notion of “Fine Art.” This stage also introduced more colors and a lighter, more playful mood to the style.
Other important artists who have worked in a Cubist style include Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, and Robert Delaunay. Their influence on future generations of artists continues to this day. In Italy, the Cubists inspired Futurism; in the UK, Vorticism; in Russia, Constructivism, and in Germany, Expressionism. The Dadaists and Surrealists would also pick up on a Cubist re-examination of the relationship between art and reality, taking it further towards questioning the cultural assumptions of “high” and “low” art.

But the art revolution of Cubism inspired other forms of artistic expression as well. The movement influenced modernist novelists and poets of the same period, such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, and the king and queen of fashion, Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel. Musicologists even find traces of Cubism in Igor Stravinsky’s work.

By the end of the First World War, Cubism had established itself as the new visual language of modernity. The original movement lasted through the 1920s, although many of its protagonists continued to work for decades. Around that time, Picasso was the most famous artist in the world.  In 1937, he painted an immensely powerful anti-war piece — Guernica — inspired by the Nazi bombing of a small Basque town in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The painting synthesizes 40 years of the artist’s work through fractured forms, multiple perspectives, and the use of newspapers, becoming one of the greatest and the most famous paintings from Picasso; a masterpiece of universal quality! 

Although the original movement was short-lived, Cubism has had a lasting influence on 20th-century art, paving the way for many modernist art movements to come. It is still one of the most well-known art styles today, with many of its works worth hundreds of millions of dollars!

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