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Synthetic Cubism Collage

Synthetic Cubism - History and Concepts

Started: 1912
Ended: 1914
Synthetic Cubism Timeline


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.

Juan Gris's <i>Porträt Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler</i> depicts the art dealer turned art historian in 1921.

The art collector Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who had begun representing Braque and Picasso in 1908, played a pivotal role in supporting and representing the two men through his Paris gallery. Gris, meanwhile, joined his books a little later in 1912. Kahnweiler purchased many of the men's works, arranged and held exhibitions, and frequently met with the them to discuss their ideas about the future of art. Though forced to relocate to Switzerland during the First World War, he was to have a lasting influence on the Cubist movement when he published, on his return to Paris, the groundwork Der Weg zum Kubismus (The Rise of Cubism) in 1920. Emphasizing the innovative work of Braque and Picasso especially, it was he who separated the "Analytic" from "Synthetic" phase writing: "Instead of an analytical description, the painter can, if he prefers also create in this way a synthesis of the objects, or in the words of Kant, 'put together the various conceptions and comprehend their variety in one perception'".

This <i>Fiber Mask with Conical Eyes (Batwape)</i> (late 19<sup>th</sup> or early 20<sup>th</sup> century) incorporates burlap, cowrie shells, and raffia.

Both Picasso and Braque had been interested in primitivism and African art, and both men were collectors of African masks. As art historian Christine Poggi noted, "It seems likely that the idea of combining different materials in making a work of art was due in large measure to the example of African objects. The African masks in the Trocadero, including a Grebo mask, which Picasso must have known, contain various fibers - straw and raffia [while a] similar use of natural fiber appears in a Fang mask owned by Braque". Picasso in particular often explored the masks in his sketches and studies, not as an attempt at imitation, but rather to deconstruct their design in order to inform his own way of working. Braque and Picasso had already experimented with painting letters in their Analytic phase, adding sand to pigment to create texture to their works too. They had also including fragments of everyday items such as rope and fringe, but these later additions would become central to Synthetic Cubism's preference for incorporating the "variety" of everyday mixed media into their works.

Concepts and Trends


Around 1912, Picasso and Braque coined the term "collage" (from the French meaning "to glue") to describe works of theirs that incorporated paper, newspaper clippings, fabric and other everyday objects. Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), assimilating wallpaper with a chair caning pattern and framed by a piece of ordinary rope, introduced the collage technique to the art world. As Poggi wrote, Picasso's still lifes "acquired legendary status [...] as the first deliberately executed collage; the first work of fine art, that is, in which materials appropriated from everyday life, relatively untransformed by the artist, intrude upon the traditionally privileged domain of painting". Collage artists often selected particular materials reflecting their own predilections: Picasso would often use cuts of rope or tassels, Braque favored elements of woodgrain, while Gris even brought broken pieces of mirrors to at least one of his works.

In his book, Kahnweiler noted that Braque and Picasso's Cubist evolution was driven by the aesthetic question of "representation and structure conflict"; or to put it more simply, the question of how the artist might separate out colors and objects within the same work. The two men had addressed this "conflict" in their monochromatic Analytic works. But having established the collage technique, the practice opened up new possibilities for separating color from content so that each could be applied independently within the same flat pictorial space. As art historian Douglas Cooper put it, "If an object could be convincingly represented in a painting by some readymade equivalent of itself, Braque reasoned, it should be possible to treat color as a free element in the composition".

Papier Collé

Georges Braque's <i>Fruit Dish and Glass</i> (1912), incorporating sections of oilcloth, is the first <i>papier collé</i>.

With Fruit Dish and Glass (1912) Braque produced what is generally agreed to be the first papier collé. The process involves combining fragments of oil-cloth, paper, wood, linoleum and newspaper with oil on canvas. Picasso and Gris quickly followed their friend's lead with the former stating that, "If a piece of newspaper can become a bottle, that gives us something to think about in connection with both newspapers and bottles [while adding that] This displaced object has entered a universe for which it was not made and where it retains, in a measure, its strangeness". The technique also informed the artists' approach to painting, with all three producing works that included planes resembling readymade pieces of various types of papers and wood with the effect of creating striking spatial and surface contrasts.

According to the likes of art historian Sabine Rewald, the papier collé technique caused a revolution within Cubism (not to mention the art world at large): "With this new technique of pasting colored or printed pieces of paper in their compositions, Picasso and Braque swept away the last vestiges of three-dimensional space (illusionism) that still remained in their 'high' Analytic work".

Color and Juan Gris

<i>Pears and grapes on a table</i> dates from the autumn of 1913 when Gris was painting in the Spanish border town of Céret with his friend and compatriot Picasso. The two men were engaged in deep discussions about the future of Cubism.

According to historian Francis Francina, art history has tended to treat "Picasso and Braque as a sort of 'avant-garde' within the broader grouping of modernists [...] publicly known [as] Cubists". It was the Spaniard Gris (real name José Victoriano González-Pérez), however, who earned the special title of the "Third Musketeer", and it was he who helped widen the Cubist vocabulary, firstly through his involvement with the Salon Cubists, and subsequently through his more expressive contributions to Synthetic Cubism.

Like Braque and Picasso, Gris experimented with the Papier Collé technique and this earned him a reputation as an artist with a keen eye for interlocked patterns. Speaking about his period of experimentation with Picasso, Christies Curator Tracy Atkinson stated that "the ambiguous, shifting uncertainties of Cubism were transformed by Gris into a regular, rhythmic system of shading over gleaming, icy surfaces and sharp, tightly organized, crystalline facets, qualities which are nowhere more evident than in the pictures [he] painted at Céret". Indeed, as the most "poetic" of the three men his work was more open to the possibilities of color. As the art critic John Russell observed, his work has "an imaginative energy, a multiplicity of lucid statement and an apparently limitless invention [that] stands for a depth and strength of color that on the whole were excluded from Cubism".

Collage Constructions and Sculpture

Pablo Picasso's <i>Maquette for Guitar</i> (1912) borrowed from collage to transform sculpture.

Synthetic Cubism's development in collage had a radical effect on modern sculpture following Picasso's Maquette for Guitar (1912), a three-dimensional collage incorporating paper, cardboard, string, and wire. Yet art historian and MoMA curator William Rubin argued that it was Braque (rather than Picasso) who was responsible for the first Cubist construction sculptures. As he said, "These Braque reliefs in painted cardboard, and later wood, were without mass or solidity and were cut out and assembled rather than (as in traditional sculpture) carved or modelled". However, Braque seems to have viewed the sculptural works primarily as tools for exploring new painting strategies, while Picasso saw rather the potential for transforming traditional sculpture. Picasso was also more directly influenced by African masks with, as art historian Christine Poggi noted, the "sound hole of the Guitar [resembling the] cylindrical eyes of a 'Wobe' mask in the artist's possession".

Later Developments

In the post-war years, and running till about 1922, a tendency known as Crystal Cubism emerged as part of the so-called "Return to Order" (also known as Interwar Classicism) trend in Parisian art. Led by Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and including contributions from Braque, Picasso and Gris, the style of Crystal Cubism was associated with larger, more colorful, geometric planes.

The influence of Synthetic Cubism can be traced, meanwhile, in Alexander Archipenko's "sculpto-paintings" which incorporated nailed and pasted readymade objects. Collage became a dominant trend within the Dada movement, as artists including Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, and Raoul Hausmann developed photomontage, works composed of juxtaposed images cut from mass media publications. Subsequent movements, including Futurism, Surrealism, Pop Art, and Neo-Dada not only adopted collage but evolved it, leading ultimately to the development of Assemblage and Installation Art. Collage became a staple feature in 20th century art and, as art critic Harriet Baker put it, it revealed "the fundamental concept of what it is to create art, whilst offering a prismatic reflection of the social change and upheaval of the twentieth century".

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.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony 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 Antony Todd
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First published on 26 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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