20th Century Art Movements: Cubism

Juan Gris - Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin


During the last decades of the 19th Century, an era of tremendous technological growth took place throughout the world. Modern inventions like photographic and film cameras, automobiles, airplanes, and telephones heralded the dawn of a new age. Before 1900, visual art was rather formulaic and representational, staying true to Renaissance imagery and realism as unchallenged ideals for artistic expression.

Small groups of young artists working at the turn of the century became restless, seeking to distance themselves from the status quo and experiment with new ways to express their fears and concerns over industrialization and uncertain times by embracing new forms.

The abstract art movement called Cubism was a direct result of this experimentation, utilizing Fauvist influences and the later works of Paul Cezanne as stylistic templates for devising a new way of interpreting dimensional realism, regardless of perspective. Cezanne’s death in 1906 left a legacy of disciples who sought to further develop his interest in geometric forms. Artists also began traveling to Africa, Micronesia, and the Americas, inspired by tribal cultures and strange new worlds they found there.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque became leaders in devising an alternate artistic viewpoint, breaking objects down to simple geometry in an ambiguous space full of fractured planes. Dissatisfied with the established view of art in France, they saw the potential for sourcing multiple views of a single subject within the same composition, stripping their compositions down to a cache of abstract planes.

Early Influence

Picasso is the man most often attributed with Cubism’s greatest achievements. French artist Georges Braque, however, bored with Fauvism, was most responsible for the movement’s genesis. In 1907, while Picasso was creating his landmark painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Braque returned to the fishing village of L’Estaque near Marsailles, and painted the enigmatic piece Houses at L’Estaque.

This landscape painting, first seen at a 1908 Kahnweiler Gallery exhibition after being shunned by the Salon d’Automne, drew great disdain from critic Louis Vauxcelles, who commented that Braque’s painting reduced all elements to “geometric schemas and cubes.” Fellow artist Henri Matisse, bowing to conventional wisdom, agreed, supplying the impetus for this new art movement’s name.

Picasso and Braque were originally introduced by Guillaume Apollinaire, a contemporary poet, art critic, and influential member of the Paris art scene, and the trio soon became friends. Their collaborative leadership found support from Spanish artist Juan Gris, and French artists Fernand Leger and Robert Delaunay. Cubism’s controversy quickly inspired interest, though often provoking sharp criticism and political dissent among critics, artists, and patrons who took notice.

Exhibitions at the Salon des Independents in 1911 and the Salon d’Automne the following year marked the official beginning of the Cubist campaign, albeit missing works by Picasso and Braque, both of whom were discouraged from exhibiting by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, their mutual and very influential art dealer, who feared controversy.

Theory and Impact

Cubists were not so much innovators as artistic scientists, challenging the laws of physics and representation for art’s sake. Blind to linear and atmospheric perspective, they focused on a less-than-beautiful world view as seen through the mind’s eye. Cubism added a fourth dimension of time to painting, shattering the viewer’s expectations for balanced structure and well-ordered 19th century modeling. Picasso and his Cubist friends painted for density, not form.

To them, the social, economic, and industrial advances of the modern world were a significant threat to art itself. An industrialized society championed mass production, poster art, and printing techniques that changed the visual landscape of Paris seemingly overnight. Their collective reaction imposed formalist elements onto the canvas, an entirely new approach to viewing and describing the world around them.

Cubism developed through two short but distinct phases. Analytic Cubism produced moody, monochromatic, figurative studies of geometric forms with convergent planes and multiple points of view. Synthetic Cubism followed after 1912, a more decorative period that advanced these synthesized forms and introduced collage into the Cubist framework.

World War and Cubist Decline

The military campaigns of two World Wars ultimately splintered the Cubist camp beyond repair. Braque joined the French Army, returning a wounded and profoundly changed man. Picasso’s compatriot Juan Gris suffered abject poverty and remained in obscurity until his death in 1927. Delaunay worked odd jobs before succumbing to cancer in 1941 while hiding from German forces.

In the end, Cubism was victimized by its own politics, its critical reactions to society and a fierce sense of nationalism among participating artists. Surrealism, however, was directly influenced, and Neo-Plasticism, Constructivism, and Abstract Expressionists like Marc Chagall are also indebted as direct descendants of the Cubist epoch.

Cubist momentum dissolved after 1921, but the movement retains strong interest, even today. Only Picasso, who endured Nazi occupation in France during the 1940’s, remained true to Cubism’s ideal until his death in 1973 at the age of 91, father of four children and numerous prodigal artists who have been influenced by his work.


Green, Christopher. Art in France, 1900 - 1940. CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Moffat, Charles Alexander. The Art History Archive - Art Movements: Cubism. Available at: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/cubism/ (2009)

© 2015 Marc Zeale


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