Cubism was a truly revolutionary style of modern art developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. It was the first style of abstract art which evolved at the beginning of the 20th century in response to a world that was changing with unprecedented speed. Cubism was an attempt by artists to revitalise the tired traditions of Western art which they believed had run their course. The Cubists challenged conventional forms of representation, such as perspective, which had been the rule since the Renaissance. Their aim was to develop a new way of seeing which reflected the modern age.
In the four decades from 1870-1910, western society witnessed more technological progress than in the previous four centuries. During this period inventions such as photography, cinematography, sound recording, the telephone, the motor car and the airplane heralded the dawn of a new age. The problem for artists at this time was how to reflect the modernity of the era using the tired and trusted traditions that had served art for the last four centuries. Photography had begun to replace painting as the tool for documenting the age and for artists to sit illustrating cars, planes and images of the new technologies was not exactly rising to the challenge. Artists needed a more radical approach – a ‘new way of seeing’ that expanded the possibilities of art in the same way that technology was extending the boundaries of communication and travel. This new way of seeing was called Cubism – the first abstract style of modern art. Picasso and Braque developed their ideas on Cubism around 1907 in Paris and their starting point was a common interest in the later paintings of Paul Cézanne.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
Bibemus Quarry (oil on canvas, 1895)
Cézanne was not primarily interested in creating an illusion of depth in his painting and he abandoned the tradition of perspective drawing. Perspective, which had been used since the Early Renaissance, was a geometric formula that solved the problem of how to draw three-dimensional objects on a two dimensional surface. Cézanne felt that the illusionism of perspective denied the fact that a painting is a flat two-dimensional object. He liked to flatten the space in his paintings to place more emphasis on their surface – to stress the difference between a painting and reality. He saw painting in more abstract terms as the construction and arrangement of colour on a two-dimensional surface. It was this flat abstract approach that appealed to the Cubists and their early paintings, such as Picasso’s ‘Factory at Horta de Ebbo‘ (1909) and Braque’s ‘Viaduct at L’Estaque‘ (1908,) took it to an extreme.
When you look at an object your eye scans it, stopping to register on a certain detail before moving on to the next point of interest and so on. You can also change your viewpoint in relation to the object allowing you to look at it from above, below or from the side. Therefore, the Cubists proposed that your sight of an object is the sum of many different views and your memory of an object is not constructed from one angle, as in perspective, but from many angles selected by your sight and movement. Cubist painting, paradoxically abstract in form, was an attempt at a more realistic way of seeing.
A typical Cubist painting depicts real people, places or objects, but not from a fixed viewpoint. Instead it will show you many parts of the subject at one time, viewed from different angles, and reconstructed into a composition of planes, forms and colours. The whole idea of space is reconfigured: the front, back and sides of the subject become interchangeable elements in the design of the work.
Juan Gris (1887-1927)
Violin and Glass (oil on canvas, 1915)
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University
Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque conceived and developed Cubism but other artists also adopted the style. The Spanish artist Juan Gris, who is often referred to as the ‘Third Musketeer of Cubism’, was the best of these and he refined the Cubist vocabulary into his own instantly recognisable visual language. Other notable artists associated with Cubism were Fernand Leger, Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Louis Marcoussis, Marie Laurencin and Roger de La Fresnaye.