Artworks and Artists of Cubism
Progression of Art
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Picasso's painting was shocking even to his closest artist friends both for its content and for its formal experimentation. The subject matter of nude women was not in itself unusual, but the fact that Picasso painted the women as prostitutes in aggressively sexual postures was novel. Their blatant sexuality was heightened by Picasso's influence from non-Western art that is most evident in the faces of three of the women, which are rendered as mask-like, suggesting that their sexuality is not just aggressive, but also primitive. The unusual formal elements of the painting were also part of its shock value. Picasso abandoned the Renaissance illusion of three-dimensionality, instead presenting a radically flattened picture plane that is broken up into geometric shards. For instance, the body of the standing woman in the center is composed of angles and sharp edges. Both the cloth wrapped around her lower body and her body itself are given the same amount of attention as the negative space around them as if all are in the foreground and all are equally important.
The painting was widely thought to be immoral when it was finally exhibited in public in 1916. Braque is one of the few artists who studied it intently in 1907, leading directly to his later collaboration with Picasso. Because it predicted some of the characteristics of Cubism, Les Demoiselles is considered proto or pre-Cubist.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Houses at L'Estaque
In this painting, Braque shows the influence of Picasso's Les Demoiselles of the previous year and the work of Paul Cézanne. From Cézanne, he adapted the uni-directional, uniform brushwork, and flat spacing, while from Picasso he took the radical simplification of form and use of geometric shapes to define objects. There is, for example, no horizon line and no use of traditional shading to add depth to objects, so that the houses and the landscape all seem to overlap and to occupy the foreground of the picture plane. As a whole, this work made obvious his allegiance to Picasso's experiments and led to their collaboration.
Oil on Canvas - Hermann and Margrit Rupf Foundation, Bern
Violin and Palette
By 1909, Picasso and Braque were collaborating, painting largely interior scenes that included references to music, such as musical instruments or sheet music. In this early example of Analytic Cubism, Braque was experimenting further with shallow spacing by reducing the color palette to neutral browns and grays that further flatten out the space. The piece is also indicative of Braque's attempts to show the same item from different points of view. Some shading is used to create an impression of bas-relief with the various geometric shapes seeming to overlap slightly. Musical instruments such as guitars, violins, and clarinets show up frequently in Cubist paintings, particularly in the works of Braque who trained as a musician. By relying on such repeated subject matter, the works also encourage the viewer to concentrate on the stylistic innovations of Cubism rather than on the specificity of the subject matter.
Oil on Canvas - Guggenheim, New York
When this painting was shown at the 1911 Salon d'Automne, the critic Andre Salmon dubbed it "The Mona Lisa of Cubism." While Picasso and Braque were dematerializing figures and objects in their works, Metzinger remained committed to legibility, reconciling modernity with classicism, thus Salmon's nickname for the work. Despite the realism of the painting, like other Cubists, Metzinger abandons the single point of view in use since the Renaissance. The female figure and the still life elements are shown from differing angles as if the artist had physically moved around the subject to capture it from different points of view at successive moments in time. The teacup is shown in both profile and from above, while the figure of the centrally positioned woman is shown both straight on and in profile. The painting was reproduced in Metzinger and Gleizes's book Du Cubisme (1912) and in Apollinaire's The Cubist Painters (1913). The work became better known at the time than any work by Picasso or Braque who had removed themselves from the public by not exhibiting at the Salon. For most people in the 1910s, Cubism was associated with artists like Metzinger, rather than its originators Picasso or Braque.
Oil on Cardboard - Philadelphia Museum of Art
Picasso ups the ante in this work, pushing his experiments in new directions. Building on the overlapping, geometric shapes, Picasso moves further away from the Renaissance illusion of three-dimensionality and towards abstraction by reducing color and by increasing the illusion of low-relief sculpture even further than Braque did in Violin and Palette. Most significantly, however, Picasso included painted words on the canvas.
The words, "ma jolie" not only flatten the space further, but they also liken the painting to a poster because they are painted in a font reminiscent of that used in advertising. This is the first time that an artist had so blatantly used elements of popular culture in a work of high art. This melding of high and low culture may have been influenced by the late-19th-century posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Though they were made as advertisements for various entertainment venues, Toulouse-Lautrec's posters were appreciated as high art, perhaps because he was himself also a painter. Further linking Picasso's work to pop culture and to the everyday, "Ma Jolie" was also the name of a popular tune at the time as well as Picasso's nickname for his girlfriend.
Oil on Canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Still Life with Chair Caning
By 1912, Picasso and Braque had exhausted their experiments with monochromatic color and with the illusion of low-relief sculpture across the surface of the canvas. In Still Life with Chair Caning, Picasso reintroduces color and goes further into experimentation with multiple perspectives. The image depicts a tabletop at a café; Picasso shows various objects on the table from multiple points of view including the knife, pieces of fruit, and wine glass that are in the top right of the image. Combining both paint and collage, Picasso also incorporates a piece of oilcloth (a cheap tablecloth) that resembles chair caning to reference to the type of seating common in a traditional café. The work is playful in that Picasso conveys the transparent quality of the tabletop by making it appear as if the caning of the chair can be seen through the glass. The spacing in the image, however, is even flatter than in previous works with no shading of objects, thus the café table is not depicted illusionistically as if in three dimensions, but conceptually.
Finally, Picasso paints the words "JOU" that are both the first three letters of the French word for newspaper (Journal), thus referring both to the act of reading a newspaper at a café (the folded newspaper itself can be seen on the left), and also spell the first letters of the French word for "play", signifying the playfulness and experimental quality of the image. Not only is this the first time that collaged elements were included in a work of high art, but it has been argued that the bits of collaged newspaper reference the unstable political situation in Europe and perhaps Picasso's own anarchist tendencies. Even though this work is now synonymous with Cubist experiments, it was seen by few people at the time because Picasso did not show his works at public exhibits, but rather displayed his ideas to like-minded (avant-garde) collaborators.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London
Maquette for Guitar
Picasso's experiments with collaged elements encouraged him to reconsider sculpture as well. Rather than a collage, however, Maquette for Guitar is an assemblage (or three-dimensional collage). While traditional sculpture was made up of a mass (or solid) surrounded by a void, using a material such as wood or marble that was then shaped by the hand of the artist, Picasso here takes pieces of cardboard, paper, string, and wire that he then folded, threaded, and glued together. This is the first time that a sculpture had been assembled from disparate parts. Rather than being a solid material, it fluidly integrates mass and its surrounding void. Picasso translated the Cubist interest in multiple perspectives and geometric form into a three-dimensional medium.
The work is also groundbreaking in the history of 20th-century sculpture in part because of Picasso's use of non-art materials that, like Ma Jolie, challenge the distinction between high art and popular culture.
Paperboard, paper, thread, string, twine, and coated wire - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Conquest of the Air
La Fresnaye's colorful and optimistic paintings did much to popularize Cubism before World War I. In The Conquest of Air, his most famous work, he depicts himself with his brother Henri, sitting at a table outdoors. The yellow hot-air balloon in the distant background likely refers to the oldest balloon race in the world, the Gordon Bennett cup, which took place annually from 1906 to 1938, with breaks during the war years. The race alternated between European cities, but was held first in Paris in 1906 and again in 1913. A French crew won the race in 1912, adding to their national honor in this arena as the French had invented the hot-air balloon in 1783, no doubt explaining the celebratory French flag in the painting.
La Fresnaye's work shows influence from both traditional Cubism in its use of geometrical forms and also from Delaunay's Orphism in its bright color and use of the circle. He was a member of La Section d'Or Cubists from 1912-1914, but after the war became a well-known proponent of more traditional realism.
Oil on Canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York (Not on Display)
Robert and Sonia Delaunay exhibited with the Salon Cubists, and later founded the Orphism movement that was heavily influenced by Cubism. Like all Cubists, they used geometric forms and flattened perspective to show visual manipulation of their subject, but the Delaunays in particular had metaphysical interests in color and concept, often overlapping multiple scenes and views to suggest a fourth dimension. This multiplicity of scenes (or so-called theory of simultaneity) proposed that events and objects are "inextricably connected in time and space." Electric Prisms uses the sphere to represent this idea of overlap. In the work, different spheres convene into large concentric circles that are arranged to depict dynamic movement of electricity. Orphism was a short-lived movement but was a key phase in the transition from Cubism to non-representational art.
Oil on canvas - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Still Life with Open Window, Rue Ravignan
Of the Salon Cubists, Juan Gris' work is often considered closest to that of Picasso and Braque with whom Gris was in close contact beginning in 1911. By 1914, Gris had developed collage techniques in which he pasted elements from newspapers and magazines onto deconstructed, abstract scenes. His works were sometimes actual collages, but could also be paintings that resembled collages as in Still Life with Open Window. In this work Gris combined interior and exterior views through interlocking elements and subtle shifts in color, including an intense blue that suffuses the work and, like Synthetic Cubism, reintroduces color to the Cubist style. A still life in the foreground features traditional elements such as a book, a carafe, and a bottle of wine on an upturned tabletop. These objects are refracted through shafts of colored light from the open window that bring the neighboring houses and trees into the composition; the interior electric light contrasts with the moonlit scene outside the window. Gris's compositions were more calculating than those of other Cubists. Every element of the grid-like composition was refined to produce an interlocking arrangement without unnecessary detail. Within the grid, Gris balances different areas of the work: light to dark, monochrome to color, and lamplight inside the room to moonlight outside. The viewer has a sense of the still life as it exists in its surroundings.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Washington DC
In Three Women, Léger updates the traditional theme of the reclining nude into a modern vocabulary that combines his various influences from Cubism and Futurism. The geometric forms of the figures indicate his Cubist sources, while his reliance on machine-like imagery is borrowed from Futurism. His pristine and colorful geometric forms are, however, much different from the faux low-relief sculptural effects used in Analytic Cubism. The shapes that make up the figures and objects, for example, do not overlap in the foreground, but are used to create an illusion of three-dimensionality. Thus, the furniture, the bodies of the women, and the spaces between them are easily distinguished.
Léger's polished forms can be tied to the interest in classicism or "return to order" that was widespread in French art after the chaos of World War I. The machine-like precision and solidity of the objects and figures suggest Léger's faith in the modern world and the hope that technological advances and the machine age would together remake the world. Léger was badly injured in WWI, yet nevertheless presents a cheerful scene that relies on primary colors to convey his positive mindset about the benefits of modernity and technology, ultimately expressing his faith in the future.
Oil on Canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York