The art movement known as Cubism emerged in Paris around 1907 and was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
In his painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in mid-1907, Picasso broke away from a style of European painting that had existed since the Renaissance and instead depicted the human figure in a more conceptual way, reducing it to shapes and abandoning normal body proportions.
In addition, he abandoned the tradition of one-point perspective and chose to view the subject from several different points of view simultaneously. It is likely that Picasso took some of his inspiration from techniques previously developed by Cezanne as well as primitive art, and in particular African sculpture which was on display in Paris at that time.
Georges Braque was introduced to Picasso by the poet Apollinaire in Paris towards the end of 1907. Braque and Picasso were almost the same age and at the time of their meeting Braque, who had been one of the leading Fauve painters, had already begun to adopt a Cezanne-like structure in his paintings.
Braque’s first encounter with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was to have a profound effect on his work. He and Picasso became close friends and Braque’s painting, Grand Nu, executed in 1908 demonstrates how he continued to use the techniques of Cezanne he was familiar with but at the same time began to incorporate Picasso’s technique of combining several points of view into a single image.
Picasso and Braque worked together to develop this new style of art. This early phase of the movement became known as the Analytic phase. Objects and figures were represented as geometric forms and painted from various and sometimes contrasting vantage points and thus ‘analyzed’ and dissected. However, the subject matter was reassembled in such a way that the original objects were still discernible to the viewer.
After 1910, however, their work became more abstracted and monochrome and took the form of still lifes with musical instruments, bottles, glasses, newspapers and the human form. The abstracted nature of the work during this phase made the objects more difficult to decipher and the paintings more obscure.
As complete abstraction was never the aim of the Cubists, their solution was to introduce realistic clues into the works, in the form of letters and numbers. A good example of this is Braque’s Still Life With Harp and Violin.
The Analytical phase reached its peak during 1911 and 1912. Around this time, Picasso and Braque began to work in collage, pasting pieces of paper in the shape of objects into their compositions and using objects or fragments of objects to represent themselves, as in Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning. In this collage, Picasso depicts a still-life scene in a cafe, with lemon, oyster, glass, pipe and newspaper and uses a piece of oilcloth which has a pattern of woven caning on it to denote the presence of a chair.
Braque followed with his work Still Life with Fruit Dish and Glass, using strips of wallpaper to indicate the drawer and top of a wooden table. This new visual language came to be known as the Synthetic Phase of Cubism. It was adopted and further developed by other artists such as Fernand Leger, Robert Delaunay and Sonia Delaunay, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp and Albert Gleizes among others.
By 1925, the creative potential of the movement had been fully explored and exploited and as a style it was coming to an end. Picasso in his work Three Dancers (1925) completed the circle begun with his painting of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). However, as an art movement, Cubism is regarded by many as the greatest single aesthetic achievement of the century and one to which artists remained indebted for decades to come.