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 the flamboyant fauvism style.

French postimpressionist Paul Cézannes 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 than 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. 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 illusionalistically into a three-dimensional picture space” (Chivers, 1998).

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 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. Cézanne 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” (Harden, 1999). Around 1912, Analytical Cubism reached a point where it threatened to go beyond the visual comprehension of the viewer.

At this time Picasso and Braque took a different approach by replacing parts of the pictures of real things with abstract signs and symbols. In Synthetic Cubism size scales no longer mattered; in Picassos painting The Three Musicians the hand of a man playing the guitar would be two inches while the guitar itself was two feet.

Bright, flashy color returned. Synthetic Cubism is credited with creating the collage. Picasso made the first collage using decorative paper and words and images clipped from newspaper and sheet music put on wood to create the image of a guitar. Other artists began using sand, rope and even mirrors to symbolize things.

In this way Synthetic Cubism came back slightly to the conventional method of representing objects realistically and the shape of objects became easier to recognize. 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 (Robinson, 1995).

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” (Schaffner, 1998). 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).

Artists 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 Franco’s 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 (Schaffner, 1998).

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.

Off 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. Art and Visual Perception, a psychology of the creative eye. Los Angelas: University of California Press, 1984. Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. Los Angelas: University of California Press, 1984. Chilvers, Ian, Harold Osborne, Dennis Farr. The Oxford Dictionary of Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Hoving, Thomas. Art for Dummies. Foster City California: IDG Books Worldwide, 1999. Miki, Tamon. What is Cubism? The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. November 29,1999. Robinson, Walter. Instant Art History, from cave art to pop art. New York: Bryon Press Visual Publications, 1995. Schaffner, Ingrid. The Essential Picasso. New York: Harry

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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