Art in all its forms is constantly evolving. Sometimes this process is gradual, over the course of hundreds, or even thousands of years throughout the course of human history. Occasionally, an idea comes along that sets a new precedent for the way that Art is created. Its birth changes everything, and the course of artistic development is never the same again.
What is Cubism?
Cubism is an artistic style pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 20th century. It was a new way of looking at the world from multiple viewpoints at the same time, and it broke down its subjects into fragmented figures and objects. When painting a guitar for example, each artist would look at the front, back, sides, top and bottom of the object. Details such as strings and carvings were also included, in order to load the painting with as much information as possible to help determine to the viewer that this was a guitar.
Picasso and Braque believed that all these elements should be included in a painting of the instrument in order to create a more truthful overall representation, and a more accurate painting that only showed the guitar from one angle.
Stylistically, cubism has a geometric element, characterized by slabs of colour, angular forms and a loosely abstract quality. Both artists painted, sculpted and produced collages, and inspired an entire generation with their works and ideas.
Why did it change Art?
Up until this point, all western Art had been based on aesthetic principles developed during the proto-renaissance that determined a painting as a single view into a three dimensional space. A picture was an image of a scene from a single perspective, from the artist’s gaze. Cubism changed this significantly.
Cubism emerged during times of rapid technological advancement and political fracture in European history such as WW1. Its formal and conceptual qualities reflected the times in which it was produced. The chaos that WW1 created was monstrous and it tore the world apart, especially in Europe. James Joyce described it as ‘the ruin of all space’, and in literature and art, is was a period where all the rules changed, as if the thread of history had been momentarily snapped. Both Picasso and Braque knew that the world would never be the same again, so they created a new style of Art to reflect that pivotal moment in history, a unique style that would help people look towards the future.
Even when a painting by Picasso or Braque depicts a simple object such as a fragmented guitar, the Cubist style itself was still an encapsulation of the politically disjointed atmosphere and tensions of the world from which it was created.
A core principle of Cubism is that it seeks to show the world as it is, and so it inevitably becomes a form of social commentary. Picasso’s Cubist work enables viewers to emotionally and intellectually engage with the unsettling undercurrents of the 20th century. This element of Cubism continued throughout Picasso’s artworks his whole life. Slavoj Zizek recounted a story about the famous Artist whereby ‘A German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the WW2. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist chaos of the painting, asked Picasso: ‘Did you do this?’ Picasso calmly replied: ‘No, you did this!’ ’
One of the most famous examples of Cubism can be found in the artwork ‘La Guitare’, painted in 1909-10 by Braque. ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ by Picasso shows five naked prostitutes in a confrontational, almost savage painting from 1907. This is an iconic example of the principles of cubism as they started to emerge. But to really see how the legacy of Cubism endured, and changed stylistically, even when its principles remained the same, you must look at possibly the most important painting of the last century, ‘Guernica’.
Created in 1937, in a flurry of creative activity, the Spanish artist responded to the catastrophic bombing of the small town of Guernica in northern Spain by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish civil war. The painting has since gone on to become an iconic representation of the horrors of war, and toured the world many times over. Its sense of realism is emotive and deeply moving, capturing the psychology of extreme grief, pain and suffering. Picasso’s earlier cubist artworks had formally contained the silent fears and political fragmentation that has escalated into the First World War and the Spanish Civil War. Guernica was important because it was the pinnacle of this artistic development, and its brutal subject matter was an unapologetic and direct representation of a terrible historic act. It matched form and subject in a creatively innovative and historically pertinent way.
Cubism is over a hundred years old now, yet its power, influence and contribution to culture can still be felt. Its legacy has helped people to see the world in new ways, and its ideas have undeniably changed the course of Art forever.