Cubism and Cubist Theory

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Cubism & Cubist Theory

Cubism is an art movement, primarily in painting, originating in Paris c.1907.

Cubist Theory

Cubism began as an intellectual revolt against the artistic expression of previous eras. Among the specific elements abandoned by the cubists were the sensual appeal of paint texture and color, subject matter with emotional charge or mood, the play of light on form, movement, atmosphere, and the illusionism that proceeded from scientifically based perspective. To replace these they employed an analytic system in which the three-dimensional subject (usually still life) was fragmented and redefined within a shallow plane or within several interlocking and often transparent planes.

Analytic and Synthetic Cubism

In the analytic phase (1907–12) the cubist palette was severely limited, largely to black, browns, grays, and off-whites. In addition, forms were rigidly geometric and compositions subtle and intricate. Cubist abstraction as represented by the analytic works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris intended an appeal to the intellect. The cubists sought to show everyday objects as the mind, not the eye, perceives them—from all sides at once. The trompe l’oeil element of collage was also sometimes used.

During the later, synthetic phase of cubism (1913 through the 1920s), paintings were composed of fewer and simpler forms based to a lesser extent on natural objects. Brighter colors were employed to a generally more decorative effect, and many artists continued to use collage in their compositions. The works of Picasso, Braque, and Gris are also representative of this phase.

The Scope of Cubism

In painting the major exponents of cubism included Picasso, Braque, Jean Metzinger, Gris, Duchamp, and Léger. The chief segments of the cubist movement included the Montmartre-based Bâteau-Lavoir group of artists and poets (Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude and Leo Stein, Modigliani, Picabia, Delaunay, Archipenko, and others); the Puteaux group of the Section d’Or salon (J. Villon, Léger, Picabia, Kupka, Marcoussis, Gleizes, Apollinaire, and others); the Orphists (Delaunay, Duchamp, Picabia, and Villon; see orphism); and the experimenters in collage who influenced cubist sculpture (Laurens and Lipchitz).

Cubist Inspiration and Influence

In painting the several sources of cubist inspiration included the later work of Cézanne; the geometric forms and compressed picture space in his paintings appealed especially to Braque, who developed them in his own works. African sculpture, particularly mask carvings, had enormous influence in the early years of the movement. Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City) is one of the most significant examples of this influence. Within this revolutionary composition lay much of the basic material of cubism.

The cubist break with the tradition of imitation of nature was completed in the works of Picasso, Braque, and their many groups of followers. While few painters remained faithful to cubism’s rigorous tenets, many profited from its discipline. Although the cubist groups were largely dispersed after World War I, their collective break from visual realism had an enriching and decisive influence on the development of 20th-century art. It provided a new stylistic vocabulary and a technical idiom that remain forceful today.

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