At Large  November 23, 2021  Rachel Ozerkevich

ART 101: Cubism 

Wikimedia Commons. Sharon Mollerus.

Paul Cézanne, Pommes et oranges, 1899.

For Cubist artists, painting up until the 1900s had failed to give true insight into reality. Cubists shared a dissatisfaction with rationality and positivism, two schools of thought that had come to dominate European science and philosophy. To this growing number of painters, it was no longer enough to depict space, color, light, and shape as orderly or even legible.

Cubists believed that the world was not predictable or easily measurable; they wanted to leave room for free will and spontaneity. Material appearances could not possibly tell the whole story about the world, and these artists used their work to suggest the possibility of other truths hidden beneath the veneer of materialism. Time might be experienced all at once, and not linearly. And vanishing-point perspective, so long a revolutionary tool in artistic rendering, no longer reflected how people experienced their surroundings. Cubists ripped apart the pictorial conventions that had for so long divided the world into rigid units of measure.

In 1907, Pablo Picasso completed his monumental Démoiselles d’Avignon, inspired in part by African and Oceanic masks in French ethnographic museums, and which we now understand to be rooted in unethical, racist assumptions about non-Western peoples.

Wikimedia Commons.

Georges Braque, Still Life with Glass and Newspaper, 1913.

Picasso shocked and disturbed critics by simplifying his forms into blocks of color and sharp angles. He offered many different simultaneous perspectives on a flat picture plane. This was an entirely new way of painting, and one that required the viewer to work hard to decipher the canvas.

Around this same time, Georges Braque began paring landscapes down into cube-like shapes. It is almost impossible to read his paintings comfortably; like Picasso, Braque rearranged background and foreground elements, colors, and clues about spatial recession so that we simply cannot read any illusionism in them.

Years before Picasso and Braque’s experiments, Paul Cézanne had tried to use paint to offer new insights into sensory experience. He wanted to capture the passage of time and the vibrations he felt in landscapes via painting. Cézanne’s work would come to be crucial to artists in the following years searching for ways to access subjects’ truths in more holistic ways. These examples make clear that Cubism does not have a single point of origin, but rather several tangential branches that took years to meet, only to veer off again in multiple iterations.

Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Cézanne, Hillside in Provence, 1890.

There were two distinct, yet overlapping, groups of Cubist artists and writers based around Paris just prior to World War OnePicasso and Braque found representation with the prominent art dealer Henry Kahnweiler, who quickly exercised a monopoly on the painters’ works. In 1911 and into late 1912, several other artists interested in breaking apart formal elements in their works and offering them in new, challenging arrangements began to exhibit together at the Salon d’automne and the Salon des Indépendents in Paris.

The “Salon” Cubists, as they were known, included Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger, and later Marie Laurencin. The Salon Cubists enjoyed more freedom to exhibit, unbound by the restrictions that Picasso and Braque experienced. But these groups were fluid: members corresponded with each other and learned about each other’s work.

Gandalf's Gallery on Flickr.

Albert Gleizes, In Port, 1917, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Art historians have divided the works and theories that the artists in Kahnweiler’s orbit explored into two categories. The first, lasting roughly from 1908 until 1912, is known as ‘Analytical Cubism. During these years, Picasso, Braque, and Gris tried to capture multiple viewpoints all at once by dividing their subjects into fragmentary planes, analyzing their subjects in an unprecedented way.

Then, from 1912 until 1914, the period of “Synthetic Cubism” ushered in new materials and collage. Instead of deconstructing, analyzing, and then reconstructing their subjects, the Synthetic Cubists eradicated any reference to three-dimensionality, instead exploring patterns, textures, and the very materiality of art.

Wikimedia Commons.

Georges Braque, The Viaduct at L’Estaque, 1907.

This constellation of artists was all occupied with the problem of how to best represent an experience or a three-dimensional subject and all the weight and movement it carried. Each artist looked for answers in different ways. Braque and Gris, for example, incorporated items like chair caning, newspaper, and wallpaper onto their works during their Synthetic phase, shattering previous limitations of what constituted a work of art. Salon Cubists Delaunay and Metzinger would explore subjects in motion, trying to use color or line to convey the complexities of time and velocity on a canvas.

All these artists believed that there was much more to reality than what the eye had been conditioned to read.

About the Author

Rachel Ozerkevich

Rachel Ozerkevich lives in Raleigh, NC and is a PhD student in Art History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her doctoral research focuses on athletic subject matter in French painting and news media immediately before the First World War. 

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