Modern Art, Subjects for discussion

What is Cubism, who invented it, when did they do it and why?

In simple terms, the who is easy – Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and George Braques (1882-1963) are credited with ‘inventing’ this style of art.  When? 1907 is the first year a work in this style is exhibited.  The why and what is cubism are questions that are not so easy to answer.

The 19th century saw rapid changes in technology brought about by the industrial revolution.  Not least with the invention of photography in 1839 on both sides of the English Channel.  In England, Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) and in France, Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) developed forms of photography and within decades, the photographic portrait had become affordable by the growing middle class.  I have a photograph of my great grandfather that dates from the mid-1860s where he is dressed in top hat and smart morning dress.  Likewise, landscapes and cityscapes were able to be captured in photographs and the first war photographer, Roger Fenton (1819-1869) documented the Crimean war (1853-1856).  By the turn of the century photography was to become something that would be affordable by the comfortably off, and that anyone with little artistic skill could do. The skill was in the developing of the image.  By the end of the century, the Lumiére brothers had invented the moving pictures, or as we know it, cinematography, although this invention is also credited to William Dickson who had moved to America in 1879 .

Because of the invention of photography, why would a young, early 20th century artist want to continue to paint something that even those with no artistic merit could capture on paper, or in the case of a daguerreotype, on a silvered copper plate.  The latter produced a unique image, whereas Fox Talbot’s process meant many copies of a single image could be produced.

Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) experimented with capturing movement on film and in 1878 produced the first series of photographs showing a horse’s movements, proving that all four of the horse’s legs left the ground when galloping.  Cinematography was yet to be developed, and Muybridge developed a camera with faster shutter speeds in order to capture these images.  The Royal Academy’s exhibition of the work of Edgar Degas showed that he used photography for reference and also experimented in capturing movement on a series of photographic images.

At the same time as photography was developing, in France (then the centre of artistic endeavour and experimentation) the Impressionists had been developing new ways of painting; they painted directly on to canvas on the open air (en plein air) and the major differences was how they portrayed everyday scenes and captured light.

Now that this new technology could provide the mass market with cheap images of their loved ones, it killed the profession of the miniature portraitist overnight.  As the work of Muybridge, Degas, Dickinson and the Lumiére brothers developed the technology for moving pictures, the individual images played slowly were to influence later artists such as Marcel Duchamps (1887-1968).  This influence can be seen in his 1922 painting Nude Descending Stairs (No. 2) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (below). This particular painting is also influenced by the invention of cubism, but the cubists rejected Duchamps because they thought his ideas too surreal.

Nude Descending Stars (No. 2). Marcel Duchamps. The Met. New York.

In short the invention of photography freed artists to experiment with new ideas in the realm of visual art.

The two 19th century artists, Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) were to have a profound influence on the work of Picasso and Braques, and the artist often termed the third Cubist, Joan Gris (1887-1927).

The French artist and writer, Maurice Denis (1870-1943) straddled the development of post-impressionism and modern art and his theoretical writing was also to influence various groups such as the Fauves, the Symbolists and the Cubists.  In particular, Denis summarised a style termed ‘synthetism’ as follows:

It is well to remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.”

In 1889 an exhibition held at the Café  Volpini brought the term ‘synthetism’ to the fore, but the press ignored the exhibition and it was a failure.  If you want a more visual demonstration of synthetism, Gauguin’s use of blocks of colour in his paintings of the late 1870s are good examples.   Even if this exhibition had been a success, I doubt the public would have understood the concept of form being defined by line and colour as seen in Gauguin’s “Les Alyscamps” of 1888, now in the Musée d’Orsay.

Les Alyscamps (1888). Paul Gauguin. Musee d’Orsay.
Image © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

They were having enough problems getting their heads around the Impressionists’ pre-occupation of the effect of light and the scenes of the everyday.  It was not until the art dealer Paul Durand Ruel (1831-1922) took various Impressionist works to New York in 1886 did their work become collectable.  Ruel said “The American public does not laugh. It buys! … Without America, I would have been lost, ruined, after having bought so many Monets and Renoirs. The two exhibitions there in 1886 saved me. The American public bought moderately . . . but thanks to that public, Monet and Renoir were enabled to live and after that the French public followed suit.”

It is fair to say, that without Durand Ruel, the Impressionists would never have influenced the contemporary artists of the New World such as the American, George Bellows, and his contemporaries, or become as successful and much loved as they are today.

The idea of breaking down images into blocks of colour rather than having recognisable subject matter, even if it were of everyday scenes, would prove a difficult pill for the public to swallow.  Even now, as I go round exhibitions of post-impressionist and similar art of the 1890s and early 20th century, I often hear people saying phrases such as “My five year old could have painted this.”

Therefore, with synthetism, we have to consider whether painting was becoming a cerebral and intellectual performance?  If so, perhaps it was the technological development of photography that had freed art from the confines of naturalistic rendition and, perhaps as it developed, went on to influence cubism and other aspects of modern art.   This thought suggests that painting has remained something of an intellectual exercise for the viewing public that may not be too popular with many. Certainly there is enough pretentious guff written about what is considered art – or not, depending on your personal viewpoint. However, we are all allowed to have our favourite periods of art. Mine happen to have changed from being a dedicated modernist when I was a teenager, to the study of the Flemish ‘primitives’ of the 15th and early 16th century.

So how did cubism come about.  To address the definition of cubism, we have to start with Picasso’s statement that Cezanne was “The Father of us All.” Previously, Cezanne had said “I point the way.  Others will come after.”  But what prompted both men to make these statements?

Paul Cezanne had moved to Provence in late 1870s and by the 1890s after climbing Mont St Victoire, painted this mountain again and again, analysing the shapes made by the geology and portraying their form and colour using ‘constructive brushstrokes’.

In his early career, Cezanne had been influenced by the work of Eugene Delacroix (1789-1863) and Delacroix had written extensively on colour theory. Cezanne’s early style had developed using dramatic tonal contrasts applied thickly to the canvas by palette knife.

His first painting of Bathers was painted in 1874.  Taking the Impressionists concept of painting in the open air he painted the landscape ‘en plein air’, then added the human figures back in the studio and the form of these figures originated in his imagination.  The complex process of painting nature as he saw it in front of him,  and then removing the canvas to the studio where he added elements from his imagination continued throughout his life.

During the 1870s, Cezanne’s still-lives address the technical problems of form and colour and by 1877 he deliberately places colours next to each and rejects the dramatic intensity of dramatic chiaroscuro. 

Despite exhibiting in the first and third exhibition of the Impressionists of 1874 and 1877, Cezanne did not exhibit much until the Parisian dealer, Amboise Vollard, gave him a solo exhibition in 1895.   The artist had moved down to Aix en Provence in 1882 and was concentrating on using a system of layers, which was the next stage of his progressing the rejection of single point perspective.  

There are three paintings of the village of the hill top village of Gardanne all painted between 1885-1886.  This image, also in the Met, demonstrates just how Cezanne began playing with line, volume and the faceting of geometric shapes, and as the museum entry states, this view of the village of Gardanne fully anticipates the Cubism invented by Picasso and Braques in 1908.

One of three scenes of the village of Gardanne by Paul Cezanne held by the Met, New York.

The Met (New York) also holds Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902-03) which shows how he is also beginning to break down what he sees into various geometric shapes.  

Mont St Victoire (1902-03). Paul Cezanne. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Picasso and Braque met in Paris in the early years of the 20thcentury.  Picasso had moved to Paris in 1904, but it was not until after he had seen an exhibition of African bronze masks in the Trocadero, and allegedly a visit to a brothel, did he paint the ground breaking canvas, Les Desmoiselles d’Avignonin 1907.  Up until this event, he had created works that are assigned by their use of blue and rose colours and the images are rendered in a more realistic way. His self-portraitof the same year shows how he has managed to render a recognisable image of himself, but rather than a realistic face, it is one that is reduced to flat outlines defined with sharp flat lines infilled with colour.

Desmoiselles d’Avugnon, 1907. Picasso. MOMA, New York.

Both artists now followed Cezanne’s rejection of single point perspective and took the older artist’s idea of reducing images to geometric shapes such as cubes, cones, rectangles and paralellograms .  Braque’s paintings of the Viaduct at L’Estaque dated 1907 and 1908 show how he has reduced this landscape to a series of geometric shapes. In the painting of 1907, there is a reflection of some of the colour palette of Cezanne, but is more likely because he had previously been painting with the Fauvists, Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Andre Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice Vlamink (1876-1958). 

The Viaduct at l’Estaque (1907). Georges Braque. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

This painting of an olive tree near l’Estaque (below) was painted in 1906 and shows just how Braque’s style changes within  year. This painting was stolen in 2010 and remains lost.

Olive tree near l’Estaque (1906) Georges Braque. Stolen and still missing

A Slade lecturer at a summer school drawing class once remarked that all art is about sex and death.  If this is the case, then it certainly can be seen in Picasso’s work.  Throughout his career, during all his various reinventions, women dominate his subject matter. If you apply these parameters to Braques’ work, it is not as clear.  In the first phase of cubism, both artists often use women holding mandolin or similar instruments.  Whereas Braque often reduces the image to a complete abstraction as in this 1910 version now in the Thyssen Bornemiza Museum, Madrid.

Girl with Mandolin (1910). Georges Braque. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Picasso’s 1910 painting of the same theme, with the additional title of Fanny Tellier, is a much less abstracted painting. 

Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier) 1910. Picasso.

Clearly Picasso still has an interest in rendering the individual as recognisable, whereas his fellow artist has a more intellectual approach.  In the Braque painting, the law of single perspective has been rejected, thus each element portrayed is an object in its own right within the picture space and this often makes the viewer screw up their eyes as their mind tries to make the image into something they recognise. That is where the Picasso version wins.

The Picasso is held by MOMA and the museum will be closed from June 16th until 20thOctober if you are planning to visit it.

These first cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque tend to be of a limited palette.  Braque and Picasso went on to use collage in the second stage of cubism. While these are all very interesting, it is Juan Gris who produces one of the more subtle and thought provoking canvases in 1915, with his Man at the Cafe. In this image the face is hidden by newspaper fragments.  This is where Gris makes us think.  The fragments are taken from an article titled “The Bertillon Method / One will no longer be able to make fake works of art.”   Evidently Alphonse Bertillon was a famous French criminal investigator who was a great champion of the new science of fingerprinting. The article suggests that artists should be required to register their fingerprints as a means for investigators being able to identify genuine works from forgeries.  Recently an art historian spotted an alleged da Vinci thumbprint, so no doubt this additional piece of information about the great Renaissance engineer will be used if other fingerprints dating from his lifetime are found on his works.

Man at the Cafe. 1916. Juan Gris. The Met. New York.

From the various observations by Gertrude Stein made in her biography of her partner Alice Tolkas, it appears that Picasso found Gris a threat.  Certainly Stein collected and admired Picasso’s work and he painted her portrait in 1906.  The documentary maker, Andrea Weiss, suggests that without the influence and support of both Gertrude and her brother Leo, Picasso would have struggled to make it as an artist as, at the time, they were the only ones to collect his work.

However, in 1907, enter art historian and dealer, Daniel Kahnweiler(1884-1979). 

Portrait of Daniel Kahnweiler (1910). Picasso. Chicago Institute of Art.

Kahnweiler wanted to buy Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon, plus all the work he had created so far.  At the time, Picasso was an unknown artist, destitute and broke.  He later wrote “”What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn’t had a business sense?”  Certainly, both Picasso and Braque owe their success to Kahnweiler’s eye for the new and this German born entrepreneur made it his mission to promote and support the young innovative artists living in both Montparnasse and Montmartre. Braque’s first solo exhibition was in the Kahnweiler gallery.

One of new ideas that Kahnweiler came up with was to partner an artist with a writer to illustrate the writer’s book.  Picasso illustrated the work of his friend, the poet Max Jacob (1879-1944).  Jacob had introduced Picasso to Braque and was immortalised in Picasso’s 1921 painting Three Musicians – the year being when Jacob entered a monastery.  This is an example of synthetic cubism, as opposed to analytical cubism, and contains colour. There are three versions of this painting which is supposed to represent the friendship between Picasso, Max Jacob and another writer, Guillaume Apollinaire.  Sadly Apollinaire had died of Spanish flu in 1918 and Jacob died in Drancy Deportation Camp in 1944 having been arrested because he was Jewish by birth, if not by inclination.   Like Jacob, Kahnweiler was Jewish, but managed to hide from the Gestapo during WW2 for the full duration of the war.

Three Musicians 1921. Picasso. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Another is in MOMA, New York.

World War One saw an end to the cubist experiment, and all other art movements that were inspired by elements of cubism such as the Futurists and Vorticists. However, the fracturing of a shape using lines and geometric shapes played its part in the emerging requirement for maritime camouflage.  The idea was to baffle any U-boat captain visually as can be seen in this photograph of the USS West Mohamet.

USS West Mohamet painted as a dazzle ship. Bureau of Ships collection U.S. National archives.

I hope you are a bit wiser about the who, how, what and why of cubism. I have to admit that despite attempting for years to understand the why and how of portraying a three dimensional object by rendering it into geometric shapes, I am still confused!

Further Reading.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Cubism and Abstract Art,New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936.

Cooper, Douglas; The Cubist Epoch.London: Phaidon in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art & the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1970

Malcolm Gee, Dealers, critics, and collectors of modern painting : aspects of the Parisian art market between 1910 and 1930, London, Garland, 1981.

John Richardson, A Life Of Picasso, the prodigy, 1881–1906, Publ. Alfred A. Knopf 1991,

John RichardsonA Life Of Picasso, The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916, Publ. Alfred A. Knopf 1991

John Cauman; Inheriting Cubism: The Impact of Cubism on American Art, 1909-1936.New York: Hollis Taggart Galleries; 2001

Christopher Green, Cubism and its Enemies, Modern Movements and Reaction in French Art, 1916-28, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987

Steve Edwards, Paul Wood Art of the Avant-gardes, Yale University Press, 2004

Mark Antliff, Patricia Leighten, A Cubism Reader, Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914,The University of Chicago Press, 2008

© Melanie Taylor 2019.

5 thoughts on “What is Cubism, who invented it, when did they do it and why?”

    1. Thanks Liz. Tate Modern has just opened its doors on an exhibition of Natalia Goncharova’s work (I’m giving a talk about her next month) if you fancy going to it. Her stuff is more accessible than some of the pure cubist works.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Melanie, huge apologies as I am woefully behind with all my messages and meant to reply far sooner. When is your talk taking place? I would love to come along (hopefully I haven’t missed it!).


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