Before the twentieth century, art was recognized as an imitation of nature. Paintings and
portraits were made to look as realistic and three-dimensional as possible, as if seen
through a window. Artists were painting in a flamboyant style. French postimpressionist
Paul C?zannes flattened still lives, and African sculptures gained in popularity in Western
Europe when artists went looking for a new way of showing their ideas and expressing
their views. In 1907 Pablo Picasso created the painting Les Damsoilles d’Avignon,
depicting five women whose bodies are constructed of geometric shapes and heads of
African masks rather then faces. This new image grew to be known as ?cubism?. The
name originating from the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who after reviewing French artist and
fellow Cubist Georges Braque exhibition wrote of ?Bizzeries Cubiques?, and that objects
?had been reduced to cubes (Arnheim, 1984). Cubism changed the way art was
represented and viewed.
Cubism was divided into two categories. Analytical Cubism, beginning in 1907,
visually laid out what the artist thought was important about the subject rather then just
mimicking it. Body parts and objects within the picture were broken down into geometric
shapes that were barley recognizable as the original image. Braque wrote that ?senses
deform and the spirit forms?. Analytical Cubism restricted the use of color to simple and
dull hues so the emphasis would lie more on the structure. C?zanne said, ?nature should
be handled with the cylinder, spear and cone? (Miki, 1976). The shapes painted were to
be dissected, separately analyzed and then reconstructed to form a new whole. The
outcome was to be of intellectual vision rather then spontaneous. ?The aim of Analytical
Cubism was to produce a conceptual image of an object, as opposed to an optical one?
Picasso, together with Braque, presented a new style of painting that showed the
subject from several different angles simultaneously. The result was intended to show the
object in a more complete and realistic view than traditional art, to convey a feeling of
being able to move around within the painting. ?Cubism abandoned traditional notions of
perception, foreshadowing and modeling and aimed to represent solidarity and volume in
a three-dimensional plane without converting the two-dimensional canvas illusionaly
into a three-dimensional picture space? (Miki, 1976). Picasso and Braque pioneered the
movement and worked so closely together that they had difficulty telling their own work
apart. They referred to each other as Orville and Wilbur, knowing that their contributions
to art were every bit as revolutionary as the first flight (Hoving, 1999).
Cubism gained the interest of critics who had mixed views. One critic viewed a
Picasso painting of a violin and said he considered it an insult to the viewers’ intelligence
to be expected to believe that a violin would look like that. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a
Paris art dealer and friend of Picasso and Braque who supported Cubism, distributed
pamphlets advertising the ?new look? of reality and art (Arnheim,1984). After viewing a
portrait done of her by Picasso, Gertrude Stein told him: ?I don’t look like that?. He
answered, ?you will?. She later wrote, ?it is the only reproduction of me which is always
I, for me? (Arnheim, 1984). Other artists soon adopted the style. Juan Gris was one of
the first to copy cubism and brought it beyond France to his native Spain and other
countries. In the spring of 1911, the Paris salon Des Independence began collecting the
works of local Cubist painters and held an exhibit featuring Jean Metzinger, Fernand
Leger and Robert Delaunay. It was the first large Cubism exhibit. During 1913 and 1914
so many artists in Paris had turned to Cubism that it had temporarily became the universal
language of avant-garde painting (Arnheim, 1984). Artist in China, Russia and South
America caught on and began experimenting with different forms of Cubism. Aaron
Douglas and Stuart Davis brought the style to America in 1912, although their
interpretation was not as abstract as what was being done in Europe at the time. In 1913
the Midtown Armory in New York hosted an exhibit that drew large crowds. Cubism
became the dominating influence in the art world of New York until 1918.
The start of World War I marked the decline in Cubism in Europe. Braque and
many other artists were called off to fight. After being injured by shrapnel; Braques
painting was never the same. The war killed many of the friends Picasso collaborated
with. The community that surrounded Cubism was over. Cubism led the way for other
new radical ideas in painting. Dada, Surrealism and Art Deco followed after 1918.
These still showed objects in a symbolic manner but in a realistic, more traditional
semblance. Picasso experimented with new styles of painting he tried his hand with
Surrealism but turned to a classical style in 1920. Picasso also took up designing theater
sets and costumes.
In 1937 the Spanish Civil War broke out between the Republicans and the
Fascists under General Francos rule. Picasso was asked by the Republicans to paint a
mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the World Exposition in Paris. He wanted the work to
express the horrors man can carry out on his fellow man. In April of that year German
planes under Francos’ orders bombed the small village of Guernica in the southern
French Braque countryside (Hoving, 1999). After hearing of the total destruction caused
by the attack, Picasso returned to Cubism and completed piece Guernica. Taking
influence from Goya, the painting showed the townspeople in agony over their loss. Of
to the side a mother cries over her dead child while in the center a horse is painfully
dying. This would become his most famous painting.
Cubism redefined art in the twentieth century. It succeeded in giving people a
different perspective with which to look at reality and evoked new emotions. Cubism set
a new standard for what is accepted as a work of art. ?Art no longer had to be
aesthetically right or nice to be a masterpiece?(Hoving, 1999). It also set the stage for
other artists to test new styles that would have been considered too unorthodox before.
Cubism truly embodied the phrase, ?art is in the eye of the beholder.?
Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking.
Los Angelas: University of California Press, 1984.
Hoving, Thomas. Art for Dummies.
Foster City California: IDG Books Worldwide, 1999.
Miki, Tamon. What is Cubism? The National Museum of Modern Art.