Cubism was a revolutionary new approach to representing reality in art invented by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1907/08, in which the artists aimed to bring different views of their subjects (usually objects or figures) together in the same picture, resulting in paintings that appear fragmented and abstracted

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  • Pablo Picasso, 'Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle' 1914

    Pablo Picasso
    Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle 1914
    Oil on canvas
    unconfirmed: 920 x 730 mm frame: 1279 x 1093 x 63 mm
    Lent by the National Gallery 1997 Succession Picasso/DACS 2002

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  • Juan Gris, 'Bottle of Rum and Newspaper' 1913-4

    Juan Gris
    Bottle of Rum and Newspaper 1913-4
    Oil and canvas
    support: 460 x 370 mm frame: 647 x 555 x 67 mm
    Presented by Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler 1974, accessioned 1994

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  • Georges Braque, 'Bottle and Fishes' circa 1910-2

    Georges Braque
    Bottle and Fishes circa 1910-2
    Oil on canvas
    support: 619 x 749 x 20 mm frame: 856 x 984 x 67 mm
    Purchased 1961 ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2004

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  • Jacques Lipchitz, 'Sculpture' 1915-16

    Jacques Lipchitz
    Sculpture 1915-16
    object: 980 x 280 x 180 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, Mrs Jack Steinberg and the Rayne Foundation 1982 The estate of Jacques Lipchitz, courtesy, Marlborough Gallery, New York

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  • Robert Delaunay, 'Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif)' 1912

    Robert Delaunay
    Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif) 1912
    Oil on canvas
    support: 457 x 375 mm frame: 651 x 565 x 67 mm
    Purchased 1967

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  • Pablo Picasso, 'Head of a Woman (Fernande)' 1909

    Pablo Picasso
    Head of a Woman (Fernande) 1909
    unconfirmed: 405 x 230 x 260 mm
    Lent from a private collection 1994 Succession Picasso/DACS 2002, courtesy Private Collection

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  • Georges Braque, 'Mandora' 1909-10

    Georges Braque
    Mandora 1909-10
    Oil on canvas
    support: 711 x 559 mm frame: 926 x 802 x 75 mm
    Purchased 1966 ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2004

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By breaking objects and figures down into distinct areas or planes, the artists aimed to not only show different viewpoints at the same time and within the same space but also to emphasize the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas, instead of creating the illusion of depth. This marked a revolutionary break with the European tradition, which had dominated representation from the Renaissance onwards, of creating the illusion of real space from a fixed viewpoint using devices such as linear perspective.

Cubism was partly influenced by the late work of Paul Cézanne in which he can be seen to be painting things from slightly different points of view. Pablo Picasso was also influenced 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’.

The generally agreed beginning of cubism was Picasso’s celebrated Demoiselles D’Avignon of 1907, and the name ‘cubism’ seems to have derived from the comment of the critic Louis Vauxcelles that some of Georges Braque’s paintings exhibited in Paris in 1908 showed everything reduced to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes’. Cubism can be seen to have developed in two distinct phases: the more austere ‘analytic cubism’, and ‘synthetic cubism’, which is used to refer to the later cubist work in which the artists collaged real elements such as newspapers into their paintings and experimented with cubist constructions.This was the start of one of the most important ideas in modern art, that you can use real things directly in art. Cubism was the starting point for much abstract art including constructivism and neo-plasticism. It also however, opened up almost infinite new possibilities for the treatment of reality in art.

Related glossary terms:

Analytical cubism
Synthetic cubism