Cubism is an avant-garde movement of art history that surfaced in the early 20th century in the decade before Europe became embroiled in the First World War. Some say that Cubism was a natural outcome of earlier movements like Impressionism and Expressionism.
Pablo Picasso and his contemporary Impressionists, including Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Cezanne, were already known for avant-garde paintings. These brilliant artists worked in the creative explosion in Paris, the cultural capital of the West, and responded to each other with new paintings. Who would create the painting that started a new movement in art even if it lasted only a few years before the next one surfaced in Paris?
Although the first artists labeled Cubists were different, the real source of Cubism stemmed from works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. For example, Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) is a beautiful oil painting on canvas that shows the visual principles of Cubism, including irregular human figures and shapes and forms that are very geometrical instead of realistic.
Hugh Honour and John Fleming, editors of “The Visual Arts: A History,” describe the change in Picasso at the onset:
“So, abandoning the single viewpoint and normal proportions, reducing anatomy largely to geometrical lozenges and triangles, he [Picasso] completely re-ordered the human image.”
In the first stage of Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, Picasso and Braque showed evidence of geometrical forms in Picasso’s “The Three Women” (1908-1909) and “Female Nude” (1910) and Braque’s “Houses and Trees” (1908). Cubist paintings break up figures on canvas, which lends them more depth and life on a two-dimensional surface. Art history lovers can also find written notes by Braque, his aphorisms or expressions of love on the subject of art. These writings were first published in 1917, and they reveal his thinking as a Cubist. For example, Braque wrote, “To be pure imitation, painting must make an abstraction from appearances.”
The second stage of Cubism called Orphic Cubism was a side journey from Picasso and Braque. Notable artists were Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, and Francis Picabia. Paintings which exemplified this branch of Cubism are Sonia Delaunay’s “Simultaneous Contrasts,” and Robert Delaunay’s “Circular Forms,” and Leger’s “Contrast of Forms.” Duchamp and Picabia would soon become key members of the Dada movement; however, Dadaism focused heavily on multiple art forms, including stream-of-consciousness writing and publication and radical performance art.
In 1911, an assortment of artists displayed their works in a Paris exhibit. Written accounts of these works labeled them as the first “Cubists” even after Braque and Picasso had already created several Cubist works. In 1912, other Cubist exhibitions swept Europe, but Braque and Picasso did not participate. Two artists, Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, even published “Du Cubisme,” a book on the subject. Although Picasso’s work spanned almost a century, when people think of Picasso they often conjure up an image of one of his renowned Cubist paintings.