Cubism (early 1900s)

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Periods and Styles in Western Art >

Cubism was one of the most important art movements of the 1900's. Cubist artists transformed the way that people, places, and things are presented in art. They broke up these typical subjects into basic geometric shapes and patterns. Cubists also depicted figures and objects from several different viewpoints at once. For example, a woman might be painted with three eyes in order to show her face from the front and the side at the same time. (This style of painting, in which subjects are distorted and difficult to recognize, is known as abstract art.)

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and French artist Georges Braque invented many of cubism's characteristics. Between 1908 and 1914, they worked closely together in France to create a new style of painting that went beyond realism. For centuries, artists had used perspective to render subjects as they appear in the real, three-dimensional world. (Perspective is a technique that gives a painting the appearance of depth.) Picasso and Braque, however, wanted to emphasize the flat, two-dimensional surface of the canvas. So they began dividing their subjects into flat surfaces, or planes. Their collaboration led to two phases of cubism: analytic and synthetic.

Analytic cubism began about 1910. During this phase, Picasso and Braque made paintings that were more about thought than emotion. They used neutral colors such as black, brown, gray, and white rather than their usual vivid colors. And they obscured their subjects in a puzzle of broken planes that seem to shift before one's eyes. In a typical analytic cubist work, it is a challenge to find the subjects themselves. In Picasso's Ma Jolie (Woman with a Zither or Guitar, 1911-12), it takes a keen eye to piece together the musician's triangular head at the top of the painting with her bent arm strumming just a fragment of the instrument at the painting's center.

Synthetic cubism emerged in 1912. Picasso and Braque's subjects became easier to identify; they appear as flatter, more colorful shapes. In Picasso's Woman with a Mandolin (1914), the woman and instrument are more visible (even though she has two overlapping faces). During this phase, Picasso and Braque also glued cloth, newspaper, and other materials directly onto their canvases. This technique became known as collage. The term was derived from the French verb coller, meaning "to glue."

By 1913, many cubist innovations were being tested by other artists. In Paris, French painters Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay, Spanish-born artist Juan Gris, and Russian-born sculptor Alexander Archipenko made significant contributions to cubism. In Italy, a group of artists calling themselves futurists borrowed the shifting, broken shapes of analytic cubism to suggest the motion of machinery in their art. In Russia, an art movement led by Kazimir Malevich took cubism's abstraction of forms even further. These artists were known as suprematists. They chose to paint only basic geometric shapes such as squares and circles.

Picasso and Braque's collaboration ended when Braque was called to fight in World War I (1914-18). But they and numerous other artists continued to devise new styles based on cubism into the second half of the 1900's. In fact, many cubist techniques are still used today, especially collage.

Cheri L. Coffin
Family Programs, Department of Education
The Museum of Modern Art

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