Ism number six – Cubism

Definition – Cubism

Cubism can be said to be one of the most influential visual art styles of the early 20th century. It was created by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1907 and 1914. The French art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term Cubism after seeing the landscapes Braque had painted in 1908 at ‘L’Estaque’ in emulation of Cézanne. Vauxcelles called the geometric forms in the highly abstracted works ‘cubes’.

Cubists rejected the inherited idea that art should copy nature, or that artists should adopt the traditional techniques of perspective, modeling, and foreshortening that they are taught at art school. They focused on the importance of the two-dimensionality of the canvas. So they reduced and fractured objects into geometric shapes, and then realigned these to a shallow, relief-like form. They also used multiple or contrasting vantage points to create a sense of perspective and three dimensions.

There are two main phases that Cubism went through:

Analytical Cubism. This first sub-movement lasted until 1911 and is characterized by monochrome, relatively unemotional paintings that depict rather uneventful subjects, such as still lives.

Synthetic Cubism. From 1911 on Cubism moved in a direction which we know today as Synthetic Cubism. In both Analytical and Synthetic Cubism the subject is fragmented, in Analytical Cubism giving rise to a crystalline geometry; in Synthetic Cubism the fragmentation is reduced in size, making the subject more recognizable and less formal. In both styles a subject is reconstructed in intersecting, sometimes transparent planes.

Cubism has been called the first abstract art.

Four Key Artists

Paul Cézanne – Cézanne wasn’t a Cubist, but he played an important part in the story of Cubism. He was actually a Post-Impressionist. Cézanne was interested in the simplification of naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials. This painting ‘Les Grandes Baigneuses’ makes obvious the influence of Cézanne on Cubism.

Les Grandes Baigneuses

Pablo Picasso – Picasso and George Braque independently from each other came up with the idea of depicting objects from different viewpoints. They came together in a friendship which Picasso described as a marriage. Picasso didn’t ‘facet’ natural objects as Braque did, but utilised the geometry of Braques’ faceted images to create a style that was abstract in essence, but almost pure abstract art. Picasso’s influences were different from Braque.

Factory, Horta de Ebbo

George Braque – Braque along with Picasso is regarded as one of the fathers of Cubism. Braque was interested mainly in developing Cézanne’s ideas of multiple perspectives, whereas Picasso was influenced by African art and Gauguin. Braque’s subjects were the ordinary objects of his life. Picasso was interested in animation. Braque was into contemplation.

Violin and Candlestick

Piet Mondrian – Modrian can be said to linearized Cubism in his painting from 1912 entitled ‘Apple Tree’. This process ultimately led to the first really non-figurative paintings (or pure abstract art), from 1914 on. Paintings such as The Sea’ from that same year and his studies of trees did have a representational form, but also they were dominated by geometric shapes and interlocking planes. While Mondrian was eager to absorb the Cubist influence into his work, he saw it as a phase rather than his life.

Apple Tree

One Key Work

This time the key work is an easy choice. I wrote a long essay on ‘Cubism and the Human Figure’ when I did A Level art many years ago and I remember this painting as being very key to the Cubist movement. The painting I am talking about is Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ painted in 1907. It is iconic of the movement of Cubism. In this painting Picasso depicts human figures by making use of several viewpoints, which became one of the characteristic features of Cubism.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon


Metropolitan Musem of Art, [last accessed 19 November 2012]

Art Factory on Cubism, [last accessed 19 November 2012]

George Braque, [last accessed 19 November 2012]

Pablo Picasso Cubism, [last accessed 19 November 2012]

Piet Mondrian on Wikipedia, [last accessed 19 November 2012]

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1 Response to Ism number six – Cubism

  1. Pingback: Bonus ism – Vorticism | BeckyBendyLegs

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