How Cubism Works

Juan Gris' 1913 "Guitar on a Chair" was stolen from a home in Madrid in 2001 and recovered by law enforcement in 2002.
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We tend to take it for granted, the role of artists' perception in art. Surrealism, Abstractionism, Modernism -- none of them rest on visual reality, but instead on the artist's treatment of visual reality, the distortion or abstraction inherent in perspective and intent.

But it wasn't always this way. There was a time when most fine art strove for realism. Great portraits were true representations of the human subject. Landscapes looked a lot like the natural world.


While it's nearly impossible to pinpoint the beginnings and ends of art movements, Cubism represents a clear-cut, intentional break with art as visual realism. Rather than accuracy in viewpoint, Cubists strove to display its malleability. For the first time, a single image could simultaneously embody multiple vantage points.

From roughly 1907 to 1914, artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Legér, Juan Gris and Diego Rivera broke down the visual world into geometric shapes, analyzed it from various angles and reassembled it how they saw fit. While earlier art strove for depth, Cubist paintings draw attention to the two-dimensionality of a canvas.

The abstractionism in Cubism, and its reliance on the internal will of the artist over external visual reality, paved the way for later art movements like Dadaism (late 1910s to the early 1920s), Surrealism (early 1920s) and Pop Art (1950s). Cubism's roots can be traced to early 1900s Paris, where two painters were producing what would turn out to be a new form of art. There they created what is arguably the most influential art movement of the 20th century.

It began in 1907 with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.


History of Cubism

Pablo Picasso poses with his canvas, "The Aficionado," in the summer of 1912.
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Many experts view Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" as the start of the Cubist aesthetic. The style was influenced heavily by the African art Picasso had seen in Paris' ethnographic museum in the Palais du Trocadéro [source: Rewald]. Its fragmented, distorted imagery, in neutrals and blues, was indicative of the art movement that would be named a year later.

However, it wasn't until 1908 that Cubism emerged as such, and it was in response to work by the movement's other founder, Georges Braque, influenced by Paul Cézanne's landscapes. (In Cezanne's words, "Everything in nature takes its form from the sphere, cone or cylinder.")When art critic Louis Vauxcelles viewed Braque's new 1908 landscapes, such as "Houses at L'Estaque," he said -- perhaps derisively, perhaps not -- that they were mostly a collection of cubes. Thus began the movement "Cubism," which developed in earnest, mostly in Paris, until 1914.


Picasso and Braque, recognized as the movement's founders and central for its duration, were at the start of something that included the most famous artists of the early 20th century. The first official "Cubist" show, at Salle 41 in Paris in 1911, included works by Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger. (Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris, another prominent Cubist, were notably absent from the event since their art dealer wouldn't allow them to show at Salle 41 [source: WSJ].)

Cubism evolved quickly from its 1907 inception. Early use of monochromatic tones and single media gave way to multimedia textures, bright colors, and combinations of words and images. Early reconstruction of broken-down images into roughly recognizable form gave way to barely legible subjects, often compilations of images and words that imparted an overall sense rather than a direct representation.

The Cubist evolution is marked by two phases. The first is often called "Analytical Cubism."


Analytic and Synthetic Cubism

Fernand Léger's "Etude pour la Femme Bleu" was exhibited in London before its 2008 Sotheby's sale.
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Cubism's most popular period was between 1907 and 1914, although the aesthetic lasted well into the 1930s. Early Cubist works, roughly those produced between 1907 and 1912, were part of a stage known as Analytical Cubism. The later stage, Synthetic Cubism, ran from about 1913 to 1920 [source: Guggenheim].

In Analytical Cubist paintings, subjects were typically at least somewhat recognizable. Picasso's 1907 "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Braque's 1908 "Large Nude" obviously depict female forms. His "Arlequin," 1909, is recognizably a man. These early Cubist works were often composed of muted tones. While "breaking down," or analyzing, imagery, they still maintained some vestige of visual realism. Paintings were often more detailed, with images gathered tightly toward the center of the work, growing sparser toward the edges. The muted colors drew attention to the subtle shifting of perspective that embodied the artist's viewpoint.


Synthetic Cubism took the movement to its extreme -- all sense of three-dimensionality disappeared. Instead of breaking down and reassembling facets of the original image, it was a matter of synthesizing entirely new, expansive structures. Sometimes the subject was recognizable as a unified structure; at other times, it was hardly legible. Instead, artists started using collage methods; overlapping various media; and including words, graphics and patterns, to achieve a desired thematic result. Colors were much brighter, geometric forms were more distinct, and textures began to emerge with additives like sand, paper or gesso. Picasso's "Bowl of Fruit" and Braque's "Bottle, Newspaper, Pipe and Glass" are in the Synthetic style.

Art historians distinguish between Analytical and Synthetic, signifying the progression of the Cubist movement. In the end, though, the time limits of Analytical and Synthetic are rather flexible. Works partly fitting the Analytical aesthetic were produced after 1912, and paintings with features of Synthetic Cubism date back to the start of the movement.

Picasso and Braque are considered the founders of Cubism, and their work is central to the movement as a whole. They're not, however, the only important Cubists.


Cubist Artists

Georges Braque, along with Picasso, helped usher in the Cubist movement. He's pictured here much later, in 1957.
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The two most influential contributors to the Cubist movement were Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who are also considered its founders. However, since their lives were so intertwined in the Paris art scene, determining which one actually founded the movement is up for debate.

Georges Braque (1882-1963), born in the village of Argenteuil, France, came from a line of artists. After flunking out of art school in 1899, he became a painter's apprentice. His early works were influenced in large part by the Fauves and Henri Matisse. In 1907, he first experienced the work of Cezanne, met Picasso, and began painting the landscapes that would name him a founder of the Cubist movement. Some of his most famous Cubist works include "Large Nude" (1908), "Houses at L'Estaque" (1908), "Violin and Pitcher" (1910) and "Man With a Guitar" (1911).


Here's Braque, in his own words:

I no longer believe in anything. Objects don't exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence -- what I can only describe as a state of peace -- which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.

After being wounded in World War I, Braque began moving away from the Cubist aesthetic, eventually producing works like "Still Life" (1932) and "Les Oiseaux" (1953).

Spanish-born artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1972) is probably the most famous artist of the 20th century, and one of the few in history to be a household name during his own time. After studying art in Barcelona, he moved to Paris in 1904, where he became a central figure in the burgeoning art scene.

His work went through several well-known, well-studied phases, including the Blue Period (1901-1904), the Rose Period (1904-1906) and, beginning in 1907, Cubism. His "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" is considered by many to have initiated the Cubist movement, although writer and art aficionado Gertrude Stein called his 1909 work at Horta de San Joan in southern Spain (such as "Reservoir at Horta de Ebro") the first true Cubist artworks [source: MOMA].

Some of Picasso representative Cubist works include "Self Portrait" (1907), "Woman with Mandolin" (1910) and "Three Musicians" (1921). Earlier work includes "The Tragedy" (1903) and "Boy with a Pipe" (1905), while later work includes "The Dream" (1932) and sculptural pieces like the giant head in Chicago's Daley Park.

Other painters were also considerable contributors to the Cubist canon, including Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Diego Rivera and Marcel Duchamp.

The Cubist movement, while typically associated with paintings, was not limited to a single medium. Sculptors Alexander Archipenko, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Lipchitz, as well as architect Le Corbusier (formally Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris) reveal the influence of Cubism beyond the painting realm. Cubist style shaped art until World War II. Even as it faded from prominence, it influenced works of Surrealism and Pop Art, and it continues to influence contemporary art to this day.

As Pablo Picasso once said, "In Cubism, in the end what was important is what one wanted to do, the intention one had. And that one cannot paint."


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Cubism. The Art History Archive.
  • Cubism. Art Movements.
  • Cubism. Guggenheim Collection.
  • Cubism. The Museum of Modern Art.
  • Cubism Art Quotations. The Artist's Keys.
  • Delahunt, Michael. "Cubism." ArtLex.
  • Rewald, Sabine Rewald. "Cubism." Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.