Art Term

Cubism

Cubism was a revolutionary new approach to representing reality invented in around 1907–08 by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. They brought different views of subjects (usually objects or figures) together in the same picture, resulting in paintings that appear fragmented and abstracted

Pablo Picasso, ‘Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle’ 1914
Pablo Picasso
Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle 1914
Lent by the National Gallery 1997
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2017

Cubism was one of the most influential styles of the twentieth century. It is generally agreed to have begun around 1907 with Picasso’s celebrated painting Demoiselles D’Avignon which included elements of cubist style. The name ‘cubism’ seems to have derived from a comment made by the critic Louis Vauxcelles who, on seeing some of Georges Braque’s paintings exhibited in Paris in 1908, described them as reducing everything to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes’.

Cubism opened up almost infinite new possibilities for the treatment of visual reality in art and was the starting point for many later abstract styles including constructivism and neo-plasticism.

By breaking objects and figures down into distinct areas – or planes – the artists aimed to show different viewpoints at the same time and within the same space and so suggest their three dimensional form. In doing so they also emphasized the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas instead of creating the illusion of depth. This marked a revolutionary break with the European tradition of creating the illusion of real space from a fixed viewpoint using devices such as linear perspective, which had dominated representation from the Renaissance onwards.

What inspired cubist style?

Cubism was partly influenced by the late work of artist Paul Cézanne in which he can be seen to be painting things from slightly different points of view. Pablo Picasso was also inspired by African tribal masks which are highly stylised, or non-naturalistic, but nevertheless present a vivid human image. ‘A head’, said Picasso, ‘is a matter of eyes, nose, mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like’.

Georges Braque, ‘Mandora’ 1909–10
Georges Braque
Mandora 1909–10
Tate
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017
Pablo Picasso, ‘Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper’ 1913
Pablo Picasso
Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper 1913
Tate
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2017

Types of cubism: Analytical vs. synthetic

Cubism can be seen to have developed in two distinct phases: the initial and more austere analytical cubism, and a later phase of cubism known as synthetic cubism.

  • Analytical cubism ran from 1908–12. Its artworks look more severe and are made up of an interweaving of planes and lines in muted tones of blacks, greys and ochres.
  • Synthetic cubism is the later phase of cubism, generally considered to date from about 1912 to 1914, and characterised by simpler shapes and brighter colours. Synthetic cubist works also often include collaged real elements such as newspapers. The inclusion of real objects directly in art was the start of one of the most important ideas in modern art.

Related terms and concepts

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Selected artists in the collection

Artist

Pablo Picasso

1881–1973
Artist

Georges Braque

1882–1963
Artist

Juan Gris

1887–1927

Selected artworks in the collection

Cubism at Tate

Tate Modern Display

Modern Times

Feel the excitement and anxiety generated by the modern city

Tate Modern Display

Collage

Find out how combining everyday objects and materials became a new technique for twentieth-century artists

Tate Modern Exhibition

The EY Exhibition Wifredo Lam

14 Sep 2016 – 8 Jan 2017

Discover the fascinating career of Wifredo Lam, one of the most iconic Cuban artists of the twentieth-century

Tate Britain Talk

Picasso and Modern British Artists

2 Mar 2012
Information about the Picasso and British Art discussion at Tate Britain. Part of Late at Tate, March 2012