In the second decade of the 20th century, modern art was poised for a change, and a movement developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque provided the change that artists and art critics had been waiting for, even if they didn’t know that they had been waiting. Cubism was a radical new way of looking at the subject matter of art, a new way of approaching abstraction, and a new philosophy of visual expression itself.
Before Picasso and Braque embarked on their first Cubist experiments, other artists had already laid the foundation on which they would build. Paul Cézanne in particular had developed a style of abstraction that foreshadowed what Picasso and Braque would do a few years later. Cézanne began with real-world subject matter—still lifes, landscapes, figures—and reduced it to simpler geometric objects, flattening three-dimensional forms into two-dimensional shapes, fragmenting and layering the shapes to create an altered representation of volume and space. This kind of abstraction is precisely what Picasso and Braque would begin with in the earliest examples of Cubism.
In 1907, Picasso painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a picture that is often presented as the most direct ancestor of Cubism in Picasso’s work. The most obvious aspects of the Cubist philosophy are present in the painting: the five women in the painting are flattened and fragmented; they are positioned in a flattened, ambiguous space; and their features and limbs are distorted, as if they are being viewed from multiple angles at the same time.
Art historians usually divide Cubism into phases, and the most common division includes two phases. The first, Analytic Cubism, spans the years between 1907 and 1911 and comprises the earliest Cubist works. In this phase, Picasso, Braque and the other artists who joined the movement were defining and refining the Cubist philosophy, and these works are among the most radically abstracted images, with fractured forms that often mostly obscure the subject matter that they depict.
The next phase of Cubism was marked by the introduction of elements not usually present in early Cubist works. Whereas early Cubist paintings were often monochromatic, later paintings more often utilized bold, saturated color. Synthetic Cubist works also sometimes incorporated materials other than paint—cut paper, for example, or commercial packaging—in mixed-media collages. In general, while Analytic Cubism tried to break down images by reducing them to simple forms, Synthetic Cubism tried to build new images from the same basic forms.
Cubism had a profound influence on 20th-century art. Early on, the Cubists influenced the European Futurists, who used Cubist techniques to capture the energy and movement on the modern world, and the Russian Avant Garde, who experimented with Cubist ideas as they developed their own philosophies of art.
In America, the Precisionists applied Cubist ideas to American subject matter, producing landscapes and cityscapes that flattened and simplified American geography and technology into bold compositions.
Later movements, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism among them, built on the Cubist philosophy, especially the ways in which the Cubists gave the surface of the picture precedence over representation and the illusion of reality.