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In Paris around 1907, Pablo Picasso and George Braque broke away from centuries of traditional western art. The single viewpoint had been exhausted, it was cast aside. A new analytical system was put in its place.
They revitalized the way they worked by re engaging with expressive energetic art from lost cultures (especially African art). This was refreshing as religion and superficial extravagance were not part of this movement. Paul Gauguin, the French impressionist, probably had a lot do with this. His work was heavily influenced by the native culture of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.
By viewing a subject from many angles it created this ‘cubist’ effect. Almost like the image itself were living and moving. Pre 20th century, most paintings had always been still and flat, granted many were incredibly life like but they were lacking in energy.
Influential French art critique Louis Vauxcelles attributed the terms Fauvism (1905) and Cubism (1908).He described cubism as a geometric simplification of natural shapes and images. Upon seeing one of Braque’s paintings he said, “M.Braque scorns form and reduces everything, sites, figures and Roman houses in geometric diagrams, to cubes”
– U. Apollonio, Materializing Space, in Braque, P. 4.
Cubists wanted to create pictures that went beyond geometry or perspective. The idea of ‘relativity’ the notion of movement on a flat surface was introduced. Artist fused both their observations and memories into the one image. But in order to do this the Cubists examined the way that we see.
Artists were free from the use of perspective and accuracy. Tonal range and lighting was no longer heavily relied on but the representation of natural and fake textures made a lot of cubist art works appear tactile even though the surface of the canvas remained flat.
Unlike the abstract artists of the same period, the aim was not to create an image without a distinct form, but to create a completely new way to represent images figuratively and realistically.
In the beginning there were many very simple images of subject matter being used e.g. someone silting alone in an empty room with a window and the glimpse of an industrial landscape outside.
But, as more boundaries were crossed and the classical styles of representation seemed but a distant memory away, mixed media started to take form in many of the cubist’s paintings. The importance of connecting reality to their paintings opened up a completely different way in which to connect with art. And as a result this heavily influenced many other artists and their styles, today this style has made a huge impact within the art world and advertising and we see this on a day to day basis.
Cézanne’s later works and tribal African art greatly influenced Braque and Picasso. A lot of tribal art appeared to be very stiff but they had such iconic faces. They were misleadingly flat to look at head on but if you looked at them from the side they were both curved and angular. During the far more analytical period of cubism we see a change in how shape is exposed. We begin to find shapes within shapes of all different sizes, textures and colours.
Take Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” 1907 (MoMa) generally referred to as the first Cubist picture. This sarcastic representation of the female nude depicts a group of nudes in various poses. Some of the sharp disjointed angular faces look like tribal masks; this gives the nudes a feeling of masculinity rather than conventionally looking feminine. This reinvention of the nude is created without ordinary perspective but the picture does not look flat. On the contrary the angles, curves, lines and the sparing use of flesh tones thought the painting still allow you to see through all the shapes and into the picture itself. The several alternate angles on top of one another do confuse the eye somewhat. Picasso termed this as “an indulgence of colour”, using but a small range of colours, and only slight tonal shifts.
Around 1912 people began to think that Braque and Picasso’s style was becoming predictable and all of their work was becoming too similar, so much so that more often than not, people couldn’t tell their work apart from one another. They were becoming increasingly more abstract and the subject was lost to the eye. In an attempt to step back from the severe abstract paintings Picasso began to use more mixed media. He took images from the ‘real world’ and pasted them in to his work. His painting ‘Still Life with Chair Caning’ 1912 (Musée Picasso, Paris) was the first example of this ‘collage’ technique. A lot of Picasso’s paintings already embodied this effect of ‘collage’ He used different types paint and medium instead of mixed media. Thus for himself and other artists the second phase of the Cubist style was born: Synthetic Cubism had begun and the analytical phase was over.
The terms “Analytic Cubism” and “Synthetic Cubism” were popularized by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (1902-1981) in his books on Cubism and Picasso. Alfred Barr was the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Synthetic Cubism embodied a lot of repetition and the overlaying and overlapping of shapes and colours creating a more geometrically simplified and flatter image. Synthetic cubism was very different from analytical, it was colourful and more direct, even though the work sometimes appeared more abstract. The geometric way of thinking had now been replaced by freehand, patterns, lines, textures, shading and colour, all used in a variety of different ways, were rather rhythmic as they danced around the canvas. Paper was used as an alternative to paint and real scores of music replaced hand drawn notation. Anything you could find from newspaper, advertisements and packaging to everyday products that we use were either directly pasted or painted onto canvas. This was considered the first form of ‘Pop Art’.
Braque confesses “when we did Cubism, we had no intention of Cubism, but to express what was in us.” Even though Picasso and Braque are so alike what unites them is less important than what divides them.