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Grove Art: Subject Guide

Cubism

Introduction

Pablo Picasso: Three Musicians, oil on canvas, 2.01×2.23 m, 1921 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY Heralded as one of the most original and influential artistic movements of the 20th century, Cubism aggressively challenged Western conceptions of pictorial representation. The exact date of the inception of Cubism is debated. Some scholars cite Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, others Georges Braque’s Houses at L’Estaque of 1908 and still others the first organized group show by Cubists in Paris in 1911 with works by Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. The term Cubism, however, was coined in 1908 by the French art critic Louis Vauxcelles when he described some of Georges Braque’s paintings as ‘geometric schemas and cubes’. These initial works of Braque and Picasso comprise what art historians usually refer to as the first phase of Cubism, or Analytic Cubism. The early Cubist works of Picasso and Braque assaulted Renaissance ideals of perspective and illusionism by breaking up the picture surface into a series of planes, signs and shifting viewpoints. Volume was rendered in flat planes instead of using tonal modeling and three-dimensionality was indicated by showing multiple viewpoints simultaneously.

Sometime in the spring of 1912 Picasso glued a piece of oilcloth printed with a tromp l'oeil chair-caning pattern to a small canvas and named it Still-life with Chair-caning. This was the first Cubist collage and initiated the second major phase of Cubism termed Synthetic Cubism. The artists used collage to further challenge the viewer’s understanding of reality and representation. By creating an image that is a synthesis of pictorial elements, both real and painted, Picasso and Braque challenged the deceptive and artificial nature of illusionistic representation. Although the term Cubism usually refers to these developments of Analytic and Synthetic Cubism in early 20th century France pioneered by Picasso, Braque and others, the impact of Cubist ideas and pictorial forms reverberated throughout Europe and abroad. Cubism profoundly affected the Russian avant-garde, the Italian Futurists and the British Vorticists among others. The Cubist destruction of the traditional Western pictorial system left the door open for radical artistic experimentation that continues today.

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