Obelisk Art History

"We only wanted to express what was in us..."

Cubism, ModernismVase, Palette, and Mandolin

“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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Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Pablo Picasso, 1907
Girl with a Mandolin (Portrait of Fanny Tellier), Pablo Picasso

Girl with a Mandolin (Portrait of Fanny Tellier)

Pablo Picasso, 1910
The Elegant Ball, the Country Dance, Marie Laurencin

The Elegant Ball, the Country Dance

Marie Laurencin, 1910
Woman in an Armchair, Pablo Picasso

Woman in an Armchair

Pablo Picasso, 1909-1910
Woman with Phlox, Albert Gleizes

Woman with Phlox

Albert Gleizes, 1910
Gray Tree, Piet Mondrian

Gray Tree

Piet Mondrian, 1911
I and the Village, Marc Chagall

I and the Village

Marc Chagall, 1911
Portrait de Jacques Nayral, Albert Gleizes

Portrait de Jacques Nayral

Albert Gleizes, 1911
Tea Time, Jean Metzinger

Tea Time

Jean Metzinger, 1911

I condemn without hesitation the position of the Knave of Diamonds, which has replaced creative activity with theorizing.

Cubism — a Diatribe

Natalia Goncharova, 1912
Dancer, Gino Severini


Gino Severini, 1912
Dancer in a Café, Jean Metzinger

Dancer in a Café

Jean Metzinger, 1912

There is nothing real outside ourselves; there is nothing real except the coincidence of a sensation and an individual mental direction.

Excerpts from Du "Cubisme"

Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, 1912
Female Figure, Piet Mondrian

Female Figure

Piet Mondrian, 1911-1912
Harvest Threshing, Albert Gleizes

Harvest Threshing

Albert Gleizes, 1912
La Plume Jaune, Jean Metzinger

La Plume Jaune

Jean Metzinger, 1912
Man on a Balcony, Albert Gleizes

Man on a Balcony

Albert Gleizes, 1912
Nude, Piet Mondrian


Piet Mondrian, 1911-1912
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, Marcel Duchamp

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

Marcel Duchamp, 1912
Plastic Synthesis Of Movements Of A Woman, Luigi Russolo

Plastic Synthesis Of Movements Of A Woman

Luigi Russolo, 1912
Portrait of Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger

Portrait of Albert Gleizes

Jean Metzinger, 1912
Self-Portrait with Straw Boater, Gino Severini

Self-Portrait with Straw Boater

Gino Severini, 1912
Still Life with Ginger Jar 1, Piet Mondrian

Still Life with Ginger Jar 1

Piet Mondrian, 1912
Still Life with Ginger Jar 2, Piet Mondrian

Still Life with Ginger Jar 2

Piet Mondrian, 1912
The Passage from Virgin to Bride, Marcel Duchamp

The Passage from Virgin to Bride

Marcel Duchamp, 1912
The Rider, Jean Metzinger

The Rider

Jean Metzinger, 1911-1912
The Smokers, Fernand Henri Léger

The Smokers

Fernand Henri Léger, 1911-1912
Woman with a Fan, 1912, Jean Metzinger

Woman with a Fan, 1912

Jean Metzinger, 1912
Composition in Grey Blue, Piet Mondrian

Composition in Grey Blue

Piet Mondrian, 1912-1913
Composition No. 3, Piet Mondrian

Composition No. 3

Piet Mondrian, 1912-1913
Composition with Figures, Liubov Popova

Composition with Figures

Liubov Popova, 1913
Football Players, Albert Gleizes

Football Players

Albert Gleizes, 1912-1913
House + Light + Sky Movement, Luigi Russolo

House + Light + Sky Movement

Luigi Russolo, 1913
Illustration for Souz Molodyozhi, Olga Rozanova

Illustration for Souz Molodyozhi

Olga Rozanova, 1913
Illustration for Souz Molodyozhi, Olga Rozanova

Illustration for Souz Molodyozhi

Olga Rozanova, 1913
Man in a Hammock, Albert Gleizes

Man in a Hammock

Albert Gleizes, 1913
Man with a Pipe, Jean Metzinger

Man with a Pipe

Jean Metzinger, 1913
Nude Model in the Studio, Fernand Henri Léger

Nude Model in the Studio

Fernand Henri Léger, 1912-1913
Peasants Gathering Grapes, Natalia Goncharova

Peasants Gathering Grapes

Natalia Goncharova, 1913
The Cyclist, Natalia Goncharova

The Cyclist

Natalia Goncharova, 1913
The Knife Grinder or 'Principle of Glittering', Kazimir Malevich

The Knife Grinder or 'Principle of Glittering'

Kazimir Malevich, 1912-1913
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Umberto Boccioni

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space

Umberto Boccioni, 1913
Woman with a Fan, Jean Metzinger

Woman with a Fan

Jean Metzinger, 1913
Cards and Dice, Georges Braque

Cards and Dice

Georges Braque, 1914
Curtain for Le Coq d'Or: Third Act, Natalia Goncharova

Curtain for Le Coq d'Or: Third Act

Natalia Goncharova, 1914
Femmes assises à une fenêtre, Albert Gleizes

Femmes assises à une fenêtre

Albert Gleizes, 1914
Interventionist Demonstration, Carlo Carrà

Interventionist Demonstration

Carlo Carrà, 1914
Paysage Cubiste (Landscape, Baum und Fluss), Albert Gleizes

Paysage Cubiste (Landscape, Baum und Fluss)

Albert Gleizes, 1914
Pier and Ocean, Piet Mondrian

Pier and Ocean

Piet Mondrian, 1914
Set design for 'Le Coq d'Or', Natalia Goncharova

Set design for 'Le Coq d'Or'

Natalia Goncharova, 1914
Next Movement
Suprematism, Modernism


Taking refuge in the square.


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