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Synthetic Cubism Collage

Synthetic Cubism

Started: 1912
Ended: 1914
Synthetic Cubism Timeline
"Color came into its own with papiers collés...with these works we succeeded in dissociating color from form, in putting it on a footing independent of form, for that was the crux of the matter. Colur acts simultaneously with form, but has nothing to do with form."
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Georges Braque Signature
"After having made the first papier collé, I felt a great shock, and it was an even greater shock for Picasso when I showed it to him."
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"The papiers collés in my drawings have also given me a kind of certainty."
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Georges Braque Signature
"What greatly attracted me - and it was the main line of advance of Cubism - was how to give material expression to this new space of which I had an inkling. So I began to paint chiefly still life's, because in nature there is a tactile, I would almost say a manual space... It was that space that attracted me strongly, for that was the earliest Cubist painting - the quest for space."
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Georges Braque Signature
"I try to concretise that which is abstract ... My art is an art of synthesis ... I consider that the architectural side of painting is mathematical, the abstract side, I want to humanise it."
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Juan Gris Signature

Summary of Synthetic Cubism

In an attempt to account for the most important advances in avant-garde art made by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris, historians have tended to split the Cubist movement into two key phases: Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism. Most scholars are agreed that the former covers a two-year period that ended around 1912 and by which time it had evolved into what became known as Synthetic Cubism. Through experiments in collage using newspaper print and printed patterns, the Synthetic Cubists moved away from the multi-perspective (Analytic) approach in favor of "flattened out" images that all-but dispensed with their earlier allusions to three-dimensional space. Synthetic Cubism embraced a broader palette, simpler geometric planes, and more representable subject matter too. To achieve its ends, Synthetic Cubism brought together - or "synthesized" - a variety of mixed media through collage and its signature papier collé technique. Synthetic Cubism is thought to have peaked by 1914 when World War One took many French artists (including Braque) away from their studios to fight in the conflict.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The revolutionary practice of presenting mundane materials as fine art introduced a more relaxed and more playful aesthetic option for the artists involved. This is not to imply, however, that Synthetic Cubism lacked conceptual rigor. Indeed, the prefix "synthetic" referred to the idea that by juxtaposing fragments from the real world with the painterly the artist creates a synthesis; something completely new out of a marriage of seemingly incompatible elements.
  • With papier collé, Synthetic Cubism took scraps from the material world and pasted them into the constructed world of painting and drawing. The technique of creating new structures out of the already familiar asked the viewer to consider, not just the content of the image, but also the texture, the color, and the materials of the work. The viewer was then invited to think about how these elements synthesised as a whole.
  • Synthetic Cubism was a self-conscious attempt to "deintellectualize" fine art by appropriating objects and signs from the realms of commodity culture. It was, certainly for Picasso, a politicized art in that its "makeshift" quality presented an affront to the time-honoured values of the art establishment.
  • Of the three men, it was Gris who produced Synthetic works that retained closest ties to what one might call "anti-pictorialism" (or abstraction). His works allowed for the methods of papier collé to develop more compositional depth and optical distortion than his esteemed colleagues. Gris, who believed that there was more to art than just replicating scenes from the bland material world, also drew on a more expressive palette to produce his works.

Overview of Synthetic Cubism

Synthetic Cubism Image

By 1912, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had already embarked on an extraordinarily productive period of collaboration during which they had pioneered the early, and the Analytic phases of Cubism. For his part, Juan Gris, a friend and neighbour of his fellow countryman Picasso, had brought some of the Analytic technique into his own, more vibrant, Salon Cubism pieces. Though his junior by some seven years, Gris had earned the respect of Picasso (not to mention a suggestion, put by the author Gertrude Stein, that Picasso was even envious of Gris's talent), but while their temperaments often clashed, the two Spaniards were nevertheless engaged in passionate discussions about the future of Cubism. Indeed, Stein, who was a collector of works by Gris and Picasso, would suggest that Gris was the only artist that could annoy Picasso and this was because Gris was intent on revealing through his art what Picasso thought should remain inexplicable. Whatever their differences in personality, it was Picasso, Braque and Gris who would become the three great exponents of Synthetic Cubism.

Key Artists

  • Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
  • Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
  • Juan Gris was a Spanish painter and sculptor, and one of the few pioneers of Cubism. Along with Matisse, Léger, Braque and Picasso, Gris was among the elite visual artists working in early-twentieth-century France.

Do Not Miss

  • Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
  • Collage was first employed in fine art in the context of Cubism, and involved the introduction of pre-existing materials into new designs, often to produce a playful ambiguity between art and reality. It has since been enormously influential, impacting not only drawing and painting but also attitudes to sculpture.
  • A readymade is a pre-existing, non-art object which has been used in the context of art. Marcel Duchamp is credited with inventing the readymade in 1913 when he inverted a bicycle wheel on a stool, titling it simply, Bicycle Wheel. The idea has been highly influential, particularly since the 1960s.
  • The Analytic phase of the Cubism movement focused on fracturing the depiction of subjects almost to complete abstraction.

The Important Artists and Works of Synthetic Cubism

Still Life with Chair Caning (1912)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

This oval canvas, framed by a piece of common rope, posits itself as a table, while a painted and multi-faceted tableau of items - a knife, a pipe, a slice of citrus - are arranged on a piece of oilcloth, printed with a chair caning pattern. As Poggi noted, "The rope, in marking the edge of the collage as a picture of a café table, also makes the oval canvas itself synonymous with that table, thus conflating the literal object with the table that it represents". The image proved iconoclastic in that it confused the viewers' idea of where the line between popular culture and fine art stood.

Not for the first time, Picasso included the painted letters "JOU", here in the guise of the title of a newspaper. He had explored the idea of the pun for its potential to exploit misunderstandings between words that are alike but which have different meanings. "JOU" is a slang abbreviation that could be part of a number of French words - Jouailler (to play a musical instrument badly); Jouasse (the initial rush of taking drugs); Jouer (to act the fool); Joueur (a participant in a game); Joujou (a plaything or toy); Jouissance (reach orgasm) - and Picasso used the pun as a device for making his viewer question the pictorial meaning of the work. Poggi put it thus: "Picasso was able to subvert the notion of realism from within the very genre most frequently concerned with visual description and the actuality of the referent", the letters that make up the pun in this example.

Pioneering the use of collage, this work straddled the phases of Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, and in so doing it pointed towards a new transformation in modern art. Speaking of the move towards mixed media, the art critic Christine Poggi observed that "Picasso's Still Life with Chair-Caning challenged some of the most fundamental assumptions about the nature of painting inherited by Western artists from the time of the Renaissance".

Georges Braque: Compotier et verre (fruit dish and glass) (1912)

Compotier et verre (fruit dish and glass) (1912)

Artist: Georges Braque

As the earliest Cubist papier collé (a collage formed of pasted papers), Braque's work marked a decisive break in the move from the overtly complex (and serious) Analytic Cubism. During the summer of 1912, Picasso and Braque were working together in Sorgues in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of South Eastern France. Braque told the story of how he was strolling through the streets of the nearby city of Avignon when he spotted rolls of faux bois (fake wood-grain) wallpaper on display in the window of a hardware store. Once Picasso had returned to Paris, Braque began experimenting by pasting the faux bois into a series of charcoal drawings with lettering.

On the one hand, Compotier et verre might be considered a Cubist rebus (a puzzle containing pictures and letters). "Hidden" within its horizontal and curvilinear forms, we can clearly make out the drawer of a table (represented through the circular door-knob) and some grapes, while the lettering relates explicitly to a bar serving alcohol. But by bringing scraps from the material world into the artificial world of the drawing, Braque asks the viewer to consider the texture and material of the work just as much as the image's content. There is a clear separation between the shapeless color and the drawing in the work with the former becoming a thing in its own right. Braque commented later that "Colour came into its own with papiers collés [...] with these works we [he and Picasso] succeeded in dissociating colour from form, in putting it on a footing independent of form, for that was the crux of the matter".

Speaking about having created the first truly synthetic work, Braque recalled feeling "a great shock [that] was an even greater shock to Picasso when I showed it to him". The art critic William Rubin, meanwhile, alluded to the idea that the papier collé had effectively deconstructed the idea of pure or divine artistic genius when he wrote "[Synthetic] Cubism had, in itself, the prophetic notion of an artwork as a pure idea, completely separated from the artistic talent and therefore, feasible by anybody".

Juan Gris: Le Lavabo (The Washstand) (1912)

Le Lavabo (The Washstand) (1912)

Artist: Juan Gris

Shortly after arriving in Paris in 1908, the Spaniard Juan Gris met Picasso and Braque and quickly became a disciple of Cubism. Gris, who became known as the "third musketeer" (with Braque and Picasso), was initially grouped with the Salon Cubists, and Le Lavabo was the first collage to be exhibited at the 1912 Section d'Or where it effectively introduced the general public to the new direction of Cubism. Indeed, following the exhibition art critic Maurice Raynal commented on the "curious originality of Juan Gris [that showed] clearly that in his conception of pure painting, there exist objects that are absolutely antipictorial".

Gris's Synthetic collages differed most noticeably from those of Picasso and Braque in that they typically featured complex overlapping patterns made from carefully cut and pasted paper, and in this example, fragments of a mirror too. Positioned in front of an illusionist shuttered windows, one can discern the right angle of a washstand and perhaps fragments of other washroom fixtures and fittings. The illusionist fanned shower curtain, meanwhile, offers some relief from the faceted planes and viewpoints, and Gris pastes a bottle label towards the bottom right of the frame. It is, however, the inclusion of the fragments of mirror at the top right of the frame that provided the most radical feature of this collage. As Gris himself explained, "surfaces can be re-created and volumes interpreted in a picture, but what is one to do about a mirror whose surface is always changing and should reflect even the spectator? There is nothing to do but stick on a real piece [of mirror]".

Gris's "understanding of pictorial illusion," as art historian Christine Poggi noted, "presents, in some ways, an alternative to that of Braque [...] who felt that the depiction of depth on a flat surfaces necessarily involved undesirable optical distortion from the true form of an object [...] Gris apparently believed that there was no point to copying already flat images. In his view, such copying reduced the artist to a merely skilful artisan, a maker of trompe l'oeil effects."

Useful Resources on Synthetic Cubism

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd

"Synthetic Cubism Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
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First published on 26 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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