November 14, 2016
Andreja Velimirović is a passionate content writer with a knack for art and old movies. Majoring in art history, he is an expert on avant-garde modern movements and medieval church fresco decorations. Feel free to contact him via this email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Heralded as the most innovative and instrumental avant-garde movement, Cubism aggressively confronted Western core conceptions of pictorial representation. Cubist paintings introduced the most revolutionary chapter of art history, instigating a genuine cultural awakening. Representatives of this movement, namely Picasso and Georges Braque, aimed to revitalize the tired standards of art which they believed had run their course. Through their vocabulary of cubes, cones, spheres and cylinders, Cubist paintings abandoned perspective which had been used to depict pictorial space since the Renaissance.
The creative artist duo of Picasso and Braque established a visual language of geometric planes and compressed space that rejected the conventions of illusionism and representation. Insisting that a subject must be displayed from several angles at once by utilizing geometrical components was the biggest game-changer the art world had seen so far. Initial works of Braque and Picasso comprise what art historians usually refer to as the first phase of Cubism known as Analytic Cubism. At the heart of this early stage of the movement was reduction and fracturing of objects that was followed by a realignment of those newly formed elements within a shallow space. The second main phase of Cubist paintings emerged in 1912 when Picasso glued a piece of oilcloth to a small canvas and named it Still-life with Chair-caning. Besides initiating the Synthetic Cubism stage, this piece was also the first collage artwork of the movement. The Synthetic style kept the various angles, open forms and flowing of space between and through subjects, but it also explored the use of non-art materials as abstract signs. As evidenced by some of our examples below, the second phase of Cubist paintings was a lot more aware of current events, particularly the horrors of World War I.
The Themes of Cubist Paintings
Since Cubist paintings were intended to confront traditional norms of art, it comes as no surprise that their authors often tackled similar themes in their avant-garde work. Wishing to prove that their new approach was superior to any other earlier method, Cubists regularly painted traditional subjects like nude figures, landscapes and still lifes. Artists would take such themes and put them through a process of characteristic abstraction, but most often maintained identifiable clues to a realistic figure, whether it be a woman, a violin or something else. Additionally, Cubist paintings featured some modern subjects and themes, some of which were quite repetitive. Music is a common motif, particularly in the works made by Picasso and Braque. The second of the two filled his entire Parisian studio with musical instruments which served as an endless source of inspiration. Picasso had a specific interest in music as many of Picasso paintings combined instruments with the shapes of feminine forms.
Since most notable authors of Cubist paintings were well educated, literature was an essential well of inspiration. Furthermore, many Cubists were acquainted with writers and poets of their time. Other cultural aspects of modern society also had a great influence on Cubism, including theater and opera. One of the regular motifs in Cubism was Harlequin, the comic character from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. This figure is especially important for analyzing Picasso’s art as the Spaniard seemed to have a particular interest in this subject. To him, Harlequin represented the experience of isolation and of being an outcast during the artist’s early career. However, as he matured intellectually and creatively, Harlequin returned in a form which is both a musical instrument and musician united into one, presenting an autonomous entity.
Just How Crucial are Cubist Paintings to Modern Art?
After everything it ultimately managed to achieve, Cubism paved the way for non-representational modern art. The liberating notions of Cubist paintings had far-reaching consequences for Dada and Surrealism, as well as for all artists pursuing abstraction. While Picasso and Braque are rightfully credited with creating this phenomenal visual language, it was adopted and further developed by many painters, such as Fernand Léger, Sonia Delaunay, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Metzinger. Some of these artist names will be mentioned as we chronologically list the Cubist paintings that changed modern art.
Editors’ Tip:Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Mediations
In what is interestingly Guillaume Apollinaire’s only book on art, Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Mediations was first published in 1913. This essential text in twentieth-century art presents the poet and critic’s aesthetic meditations on nine painters: Georges Braque, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Marie Laurencin, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. As Picasso’s closest friend and Marie Laurencin’s lover, Apollinaire witnessed the development of Cubism firsthand. This collection of essays and reviews, written between 1905 and 1912, is a milestone in the history of art criticism, valued today as both a work of reference and a classic example of modernist creative writing. It is also the perfect asset for one to witness just how influential Cubist paintings were to the development of modern art.
Featured images: Picasso – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 (detail) – Image via wikimedia.org; Jean Metzinger – L’Oiseau bleu, 1913 (detail) – Image via wikimedia.org; Fernand Léger – Three Women, 1921 (detail) – Image via myfreewallpapers.net
Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), Picasso
Like the Analytical phase of Cubism, the Synthetic phase conveyed a sense of the tableau-objet (painting as a subject in itself). However, this was brought to a new level where non-artistic materials in the painting were used to create its own reality. This work is revolutionary in that the inclusion of exterior materials into art was to transform Cubism and to become the source for much of 20th century art. As the first Cubist Collage, Still Life with Chair Canning creates a reality without using illusionism. Instead of using traditional painting methods, Picasso incorporates a piece of commercially made oil cloth printed with a cane chair pattern, and thick textured rope as a frame.
Cubists wanted to regain and recreate a genuine sense of reality in their artworks and through this collage, Picasso challenges the ‘false’ sense of reality in painting, implying that artworks through the history of art are only imitations of the real world. This is the first instance that an artist has used such a vulgar and rough material in his work in order to challenge his audience’s perceptions of so-called “high art”.
Still Life with Chair Caning shows not only faux chair caning, but a pipe, glass, lemon, oyster and newspaper. While there are no figures in this work, the chair caning and the letters ‘JOU’ (as part of the French newspaper title ‘Journal’), suggest a cafe setting that encompasses the human audience.