How Cubism changed the way we see the world
A History of Cubism and Why it’s Important
When we create art, how do we account for how we actually experience the world? In representing things, how do we represent them as we experience them in space and time?
Take an apple as an example. Traditionally, the painting of an apple would be “mimetic”. A painter would mimic all those characteristics of “appleness” in paint to evoke an apple: the round shape, the green or red shiny skin, the stalk at the top poking out of a little smooth depression. You’d recognise it as an apple.
If you think about it in these terms you come to realise that “naturalistic” (by that I mean realistic) works of art offer a kind of virtual reality. That is, a constructed approximation of real things in space.
But is that how we experience an apple? I mean in the sense of time and space. In a short moment, we’d approach the apple, look at it, walk around it. How would that experience look drawn on a page, painted on a canvas or even carved in marble? That real encounter with real things? How — fundamentally — do we account for change and flux in an artwork?
This is really something that the cubists had top of mind. In a rapidly changing world at the beginning of the 20th century the cubists were looking for a new form of representation that could capture that flux and change. Where they found inspiration is very surprising.
The Primitive Bordello
The word Cubism hadn’t been coined in 1907, but the scene was set with one of the most extraordinary paintings in the history of art.
Pablo Picasso, who had already made a reputation for himself in the Parisian art world at the beginning of the twentieth century, had been working in secret on a large canvas.
When he unveiled it in his studio, some of his fellow artists like Henri Matisse thought it was a joke, others, like Georges Braque (who I will come back to) were initially disturbed and repulsed by it.
It was weird — and in some ways terrifying — for its audience. It was even seen as a direct attack on good Western values. What Picasso had painted was a shocking scene of a brothel called Le Bordel d’Avignon — the “Bordello of Avignon”, later being retitled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon for the sake of decency.
The scene was not necessarily shocking for being an image of a brothel — that had been done a lot in art history — but really because of its style. Or it’s “un-style”. It was a stylistic cacophony, a knowingly ugly image that had drawn from both ancient Iberian and African sculpture.
It was one of the first examples of what many art historians called “primitivism”, a quasi-style which is basically a word for western fine art borrowing from traditions outside of itself, i.e. sub-Saharan Africa.
For all its supposed ugliness and lack of seriousness, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has an extraordinary power that really emanates from its radical aesthetic. Its angular, flattened planes of colour that jostle across the surface of the canvas don’t hint to much more than they are.
Here’s what Daniel Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer, wrote of the painting.
“The nudes, with large, quiet eyes, stand rigid, like mannequins. Their stiff, round bodies are flesh-coloured, black and white. That is the style of 1906.
In the foreground, however, alien to the style of the rest of the painting, appear a crouching figure and a bowl of fruit. These forms are drawn angularly, not roundly modeled in chiaroscuro [light and dark shading]. The colours are luscious blue, strident yellow, next to pure black and white. This is the beginning of Cubism, the first upsurge, a desperate titanic clash with all of the problems at once.”
There was already a sense then that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was a watershed moment, a game changer. This is because the painting is a very site of change from “the style of 1906” to something very different.
The artists who were initially dismayed by the painting became themselves entranced by the weird beauty of its contorted forms. Both Henri Matisse and George Braque took cues from its strange composition and forms and incorporated the new “primitive” style into their own work.
Cézanne: Cylinder, Sphere, and Cone
There’s more to the story of Cubism than this sudden trend for “primitivism”. The origin of the movement also lies in the French painting tradition itself. The seeds of Cubism’s reductive approach had been laid by another giant of art who had entered old age as Picasso’s career had started to take off.
Picasso took on the tradition of western painting with a pincer movement: on the one hand he took inspiration from so-called primitive masks and ancient sculptures, and on the other the older french painter Paul Cézanne, who died the year before Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was painted.
Picasso admired Cézanne enormously and the impact of the Paris retrospective exhibition after his death in 1906 had certainly inspired a change in Picasso’s art.
Although he had died before the movement began, Cézanne was a kind of proto-cubist. His still lifes, portraits and landscapes reduced the forms of what he observed into flattened shapes and planes.
In a letter to a friend, Émile Bernhard in 1904, Cézanne wrote that artists should treat nature in terms of the “cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.”
The objects in Cézanne’s paintings convey solidity while losing all the all the illusionistic tricks that painters had up till then used to reach that goal. Optical deception — what I described as “virtual reality” earlier on — was jettisoned in favour of a painting that was reflective and self-knowing.
Cézanne’s apples, jugs, plaster statues, bowls and people look tangible enough but also preeminently “painted”.
Cézanne was thinking of what he was looking at in terms of more fundamental forms. What Cézanne was putting down on canvas expressed his experience of life, he started to break the classical rules of single point perspective, proportion and composition.
His sitters became more abstract and less recognisable, his still lifes more fractured and warped. Apples in a bowl started to lose the mimetic qualities of appleness, and became instead more about the experience of looking at apples, the sensation of colour and form hitting the eyes.
Cézanne’s letters often emphasise the physiological effect of nature on our senses, and that really comes out in the painting. Cézanne wanted to capture that raw, unmediated sensation of seeing as a physical experience.
If you closely examine some of Cézanne’s paintings you’ll see that he seems to encroach on the objects he paints as he paints them, they often have this “tipped up” effect. This is likely an effect caused by the artists attention on the things themselves as he experienced them, rather than placing them in space.
Having broken ground with the Demoiselles. Picasso took the influence of Cézanne’s later paintings and the simpler, stronger forms of so-called primitive art, and started to make paintings and sculptures that prioritised the fundamental shapes over the surface appearance of people and things.
In 1909 he took a working trip to Horta de San Joan on the coast of southern Spain. The paintings he came back with took Cézanne’s visual ideas to full fruition. In retrospect, this is the moment that Cubism really began.
By that time, Picasso’s friend and collaborator, George Braque, had also developed a painting style that was heavily influenced by both Cézanne and Picasso’s simplification of forms.
His small landscape paintings of 1908 and 1909 from Normandy and l’Estaque in Provence (where Cézanne also often painted), semi-independently arrived at the same artistic destination as Picasso’s works. The landscapes are depicted in planes of colour and light in the absence of any unifying perspective.
The influential critic Louis Veuxcelles, described Braque’s new style as “reducing everything, places and figures and houses, to geometric schemas, to cubes.” He also described Braque’s small paintings as “cubic oddities.” And so “Cubism” was coined, and became a banner to which like-minded artists could rally.
Jean Metzinger and Robert Delaunay, two prominent avant-garde artists active in Paris quickly had their work assimilated into this new way of seeing, as did many young artists flocking to the artistic capital of the world.
“Way of seeing” is the point: what’s so radical here is that Cubism at that point transcended stylistic choice and became a way of seeing unto itself. It was a new way of seeing that would radically alter the fine arts and the way we view the world.
At the heart of this is the attack on single point perspective. It is single point perspective — invented in the Renaissance — that gives naturalistic painting both its order and the frozen-in-time effect. The technique gives us the illusion of spatial depth to present a virtual reality.
Cubism places things in flux, and in some ways this is just as “real” a way of depicting things as using perspective is.
We perceive things through our senses, we don’t have any direct access to things. If I dip a stick in water it will appear to bend. This is because of the refraction of the light entering our eyes. The stick is not bending itself, our eyes are deceiving us.
It is our subjective approximation of the scene before us in our mind that makes the scene before us intelligible. The cubists wanted to translate that subjective experience into paint.
Where the single point perspective picture is maybe a photo snapshot of a scene, the cubist painting is the long exposure shot that is blurred. Particular things may be less recognisable, but it gives a better sense of a scene as it unfolds in time and space.
For the cubists, the planes, and cylinders and cubes were the most convenient way of conveying that real depiction of things set free from a single point perspective. This effect is called “simultaneity”, i.e the simultaneous depiction of many views on a single picture surface.
At the time that Cubism began to form as a movement, the French philosopher Henri Bergson had risen to a kind of celebrity and was read widely, including by members of the avant-garde. The cubist painter Jean Metzinger made a very explicit reference to the influence of Bergson on his work, for example, betraying the philosopher’s profound influence.
To Bergson, our experience of time is that of a continuum where past, present and future meld together. Cubism incorporates time into a moment, because no moment is ever a freeze-frame of reality. Cubism reflects the fluidity of consciousness.
By 1910 the different strands of proto-Cubism coalesced into a recognisable style. This style has come to be called “Analytic Cubism”, and was practised by most of the cubists associated with a group exhibition held at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1911.
Paintings in this style are characterised by fragmentary picture surface of multiple viewpoints and overlapping planes and facets. Essentially it was the refinement of the Cézannesque style of Cubism, with the influence of Impressionism (colour) and primitivism (hard edged shapes) dialled down somewhat.The vivid, sometimes lurid colour schemes and the aggressive simplification of forms had all but disappeared.
The style is gentle and intellectual, with muted colour palettes (usually of grey and brown) and the choice of subjects tending to be single portraits and the still-lifes. At this time, Picasso and Braque had worked so closely that their paintings were almost indistinguishable.
The style became increasingly abstracted to the point where the subjects had become barely recognisable in the flux of facets. As a solution to this encroaching abstraction Picasso and Braque took to using visual metonymy which helped to pin down the subjects of the paintings. These metonyms, or visual synecdoches, were suggestions of things. Of his portrait of Daniel Kahnweiler, Picasso later told his partner:
“I thought it would go up in smoke [become too abstract] in its initial form. But when I paint smoke I want you to be able to drive a nail into it. So I added some attributes — a hint of an eye, a wave of hair, a piece of an ear, joined hands — and now, it’s hard and solid”.
Let me give you examples common in Picasso’s paintings: a small semi-circle suggests a button, the yellow curve a gold watch chain, and the shell-like pattern suggests slick combed hair.
A sort of language developed, and it developed to include words themselves — Picasso and Braque often included letters in their paintings that enigmatically only spelt out part of a word to make them open ended to interpretation.
Picasso was an expert caricaturist and his knack for teasing out features played a part in underpinning the subjects of his paintings amongst the increasingly abstract spatial schemes.
A great example of this is Picasso’s L’Aficionado (1912). L’Aficionado is not a portrait of a person, it’s more a portrayal of a kind of person: the kind who’d show up in the bullfighting stadiums of southern France. These men were nationalist, fervent in their love of bullfighting and sometimes violent.
L’Aficionardo was mentioned in a letter written by Picasso in July 1912, he had stated that he had
“Transformed an already begun painting of a man into an aficionardo; I think he would look good with his banderilla in hand, and I am trying to give him a real southern face.”
It is clear that the “aficionardo” is a caricature of a southern French cliché, an embodiment of provincial and politically reactionary culture. The bullfighting stadium was a site of violent clashes between rival ideologies, much like the clashes that take place at soccer matches in Europe and South America.
With a caricatured moustache rendered by dragging a comb through paint, a white ‘dicky’ bow and stiff collar, the southern face and a banderilla spike — a small spear that bullfighters use — jutting from the middle of the composition, the picture is a sum of signs that amount to signify this social ‘type’.
The character’s type is literally underwritten with the words and synecdoche in the picture (‘Nimes’ is a southern town in which bullfights took place, ‘Le Torero’ was a bullfighting newspaper and ‘TOR’ is a synecdoche for ‘toréador’ or ‘toréer’).
This picture is a kind of system of reference which, through its language of caricature and cliché, evokes a character in the webs of the cubist flux.
The subjects then become just a sum of their parts. With Cubism we don’t get the kind of traditional portrait where the eyes follow you around the room, we don’t get what some art historians have called the “cult of interiority” where the “soul” of the subject is transmitted through the likeness on the canvas.
Cubism is about the flux of everyday life. There’s no unified or innate essence to the sitter of the portrait, but instead a creole of signifiers, visual puns and caricatured features.
Cubism is an art form that is more about experience than expression.
It’s perhaps the cubist portrait that exemplifies just how radically cubist art had broken with the past. It is the artists subjectivity here that is the key to Cubism; the artists subjective take on the world. Cubism is an artform that is more about experience than expression. Its subject, in some ways, is the beholder who is looking, not what is being looked at.
Analytical Cubism had dominated that scene for quite some time and a division, a kind of hierarchy had developed between the artists who found themselves in two camps: the “salon cubists”, who were more plucky, more concerned with modern life and technology in their art; and the “gallery cubists”, like Picasso and Braque who were represented by dealers, who had more influence but were a little more restrained in their subject matter, and instead focused on subverting — rather than throwing out — tradition.
In 1911–1912 George Braque started to do something extraordinary for a painter. Realising that his drawings had become increasingly flat at the high point of the analytical phase of Cubism, he began to experiment with textures. He cut out pieces of wood grain-effect wallpaper (that he used in his day job as a decorator) and began to glue them onto his drawings to simulate the woodgrain of a guitar.
This technique, which was taken up almost immediately by Picasso was coined by both men as collage (“glueing”). In Analytical Cubism, a trompe l’oil — meaning trick of the eye — effect was used to evoke the kind of synecdoches I have already mentioned. For example, newspaper mastheads would be faithfully reproduced on the surface of a cubist painting, to show that a newspaper was present in the scene by representing it in part.
Picasso and Braque began to literally glue cut out pieces of newspaper, among other things, to the surface of their paintings. And so began an even more reductive phase of Cubism that art historians call “synthetic cubism”.
Collage was fundamental to this phase by virtue of its essential flatness. Cubism became flatter, more abstract, and more decorative in its forms and colours.
There’s a painting by Picasso called Still life with Chair Caning made in 1912 that draws from both the analytical and synthetic styles and as such bridges them. An analytical still life is set against a backdrop of a chair back. A typical chair that you would find in a French cafe with a wicker caning seat and back.
At first, you’d think that the chair caning has been painted in the trompe l’oil — trick of the eye — style, but observe closely and that guess will be more than confirmed because it’s actually cut out from a wicker caning-effect wallpaper. To further complicate the difference between painted reality and reality itself, Picasso framed the oval painting with rope.
It was the invention of collage that really gave Synthetic Cubism its shape. Synthetic Cubism became a very inventive and even playful approach to picture making. The Cubists, to achieve the effect of simultaneity, had built up a system of signs — the hints and synecdoche that were stand-ins for things in the flux of planes.
With advent of Synthetic Cubism, they began to play with those signs in the same way we play with language when we make jokes. They used puns and allusions that play with our expectations. Cuttings of newspaper could represent newspapers, but they could also be cut into the shape of a bottle to represent a bottle. The cubists had broken painting down into into a language with its own rules.
In 1914 Germany invaded France and Belgium. Many avant-gardists marched off to war. Some, like the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who acted as a kind of father figure to the cubist movement, never came back.
The First World War irreparably damaged the social ties that kept the momentum of Cubism going. The movement became fragmented, former friends had been split apart or even found themselves fighting against each other.
A Profound Shift
In the cultural void Léonce Rosenberg, a rich and well-connected Cubism enthusiast who had returned from the front, opened Galerie de L’Effort Moderne.
Through Rosenberg’s exhibitions, Cubism became increasingly abstracted, colourful and “flat”. It became less about seeing the world and more about the play of form and colour.
The invention of collage changed the way artists painted. So-called “Crystal Cubism” was more about the dance of planes of colour. The composition of the painting itself took precedence over the subject matter, the “flatness” of painting was emphasised in a way that was unprecedented in the history of art.
Although abstract art had been invented outside of Cubism (by Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian), the movement’s influence on the development of abstract art was profound.
Modern art has its roots in Romanticism, and while we can identify modernist artists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — like Courbet and Monet, for example — it was really Cubism that marshaled the forces of modernism in Europe, it was Cubism that tied all the loose ends of innovation together.
Movements emerged that were inspired by and derivatives of Cubism. Futurism in Italy and Vorticism in England, for example. The disjointed surfaces of Synthetic Cubism inspired both abstract artists, for its emphasis on shape and colour, and surrealists, for its juxtapositions of disparate elements.
Braque and Picasso separated, both initially embracing a more conservative and classical aesthetic immediately after the war, but the innovations of Cubism crept back into both artists works. The movement fizzled out as its innovations were assimilated. Its key practitioners moved beyond the cubist aesthetic. But the legacy of cubism remains.
Cubism gave us a profound shift — in the fragments and shards of its works we have a new way of looking at the world.
Up until Cubism, art reflected life back at us in a recognisable, centralised order. Things had essences that painters and sculptors captured in a kind of virtual reality called “art”. Cubism reflects life back at us as a fragmented, fluid and changing experience.
We’d like to believe we have a stable “self” or essence, and our experience of the world is unified as an integral whole in our consciousness.
Cubism teaches us that our experience of things is fragmented and fleeting, and that our “self” is only the sum of our actions and environment, not an essence beneath the surface of our skin. This lesson took technical innovation, artistic courage and a lot of virtuosity, and it yielded beautiful results.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new. If you enjoyed this article, you may like the piece I wrote about Picasso’s hidden masterpiece: