“When we discovered Cubism, we did not have the aim of discovering Cubism. We only wanted to express what was in us... The goal I proposed myself in making cubism? To paint and nothing more... with a method linked only to my thought... Neither the good nor the true; neither the useful nor the useless.” - Pablo Picasso
Paul Cézanne said that painting was painful to him — that the intensity of the real world beat on his senses. And true to his word, Cézanne’s paintings often vibrate with color — a simple still life with apples look like they might shake themselves off the canvas.
In 1907, a year after Cézanne’s death, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque visited a posthumous retrospective of the impressionist giant at the Salon d'Automne. Cézanne’s simple and intense forms made a powerful impression on Picasso and Braque, and over the next three years they began a series of experiments to push their artwork even further. As usual, Picasso kicked things off with a bang, shocking his friends and compatriots with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a portrait of five prostitutes in aggressive postures with bodies distorted to near abstraction. Braque countered with landscapes where pyramids and cubes replaced the trees. It was Braque’s landscapes that caught the eye of the French art critic Louis Vauxcelles — who describes the work as reducing the world to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes’ coining the now famous term. Braque and Picasso were officially ‘Cubists.’
Like many new ideas, cubism evolved very quickly at first. At first, Picasso and Braque’s explorations were figurative — it was still possible to discern the person or object that was being exploded into geometry. Other artists began to catch on, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, and Piet Mondrian all contributed to the new movement.
But Picasso and Braque were in the zone, and as cubism grew in popularity the two artists pushed it to its conceptual limits. Living in the bohemian Paris neighborhood of Montmartre, Picasso and Braque worked so closely it’s still nearly impossible to distinguish one artist’s work from the other. They explored cubism like scientists, reducing it to its essence, now referred to as ‘Analytical Cubism’. Muted fields of geometric shapes and shadow in browns and grays.
By 1913, Cubism was evolving again. In Russia, avant-garde painters Liobov Popova and Natalie Goncharova were pushing cubism toward new forms of expression: Suprematism and Rayonism. And Picasso and Braque were integrating collage, adding snippets of newspaper in simpler compositions that came to be called Synthetic Cubism.
Perhaps more than any movement before, cubism was a catalyst. The idea of using geometry to see an object from many angles at once forced artists to question how they saw their subjects, a question that drives artists to this day.
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Reed Enger, "Cubism, "We only wanted to express what was in us..."," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 27, 2015; last modified July 21, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/modernism/cubism/.
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