Heralded as the most innovative and instrumental avant-garde movement, Cubism aggressively confronted Western core conceptions of pictorial representation. Cubist paintings introduced the most revolutionary chapter of art history, instigating a genuine cultural awakening. Representatives of this movement, namely Picasso and Georges Braque, aimed to revitalize the tired standards of art which they believed had run their course. Through their vocabulary of cubes, cones, spheres and cylinders, Cubist paintings abandoned perspective which had been used to depict pictorial space since the Renaissance.
The creative artist duo of Picasso and Braque established a visual language of geometric planes and compressed space that rejected the conventions of illusionism and representation. Insisting that a subject must be displayed from several angles at once by utilizing geometrical components was the biggest game-changer the art world had seen so far. Initial works of Braque and Picasso comprise what art historians usually refer to as the first phase of Cubism known as Analytic Cubism. At the heart of this early stage of the movement was reduction and fracturing of objects that was followed by a realignment of those newly formed elements within a shallow space. The second main phase of Cubist paintings emerged in 1912 when Picasso glued a piece of oilcloth to a small canvas and named it Still-life with Chair-caning. Besides initiating the Synthetic Cubism stage, this piece was also the first collage artwork of the movement. The Synthetic style kept the various angles, open forms and flowing of space between and through subjects, but it also explored the use of non-art materials as abstract signs. As evidenced by some of our examples below, the second phase of Cubist paintings was a lot more aware of current events, particularly the horrors of World War I.
The Themes of Cubist Paintings
Since Cubist paintings were intended to confront traditional norms of art, it comes as no surprise that their authors often tackled similar themes in their avant-garde work. Wishing to prove that their new approach was superior to any other earlier method, Cubists regularly painted traditional subjects like nude figures, landscapes and still lifes. Artists would take such themes and put them through a process of characteristic abstraction, but most often maintained identifiable clues to a realistic figure, whether it be a woman, a violin or something else. Additionally, Cubist paintings featured some modern subjects and themes, some of which were quite repetitive. Music is a common motif, particularly in the works made by Picasso and Braque. The second of the two filled his entire Parisian studio with musical instruments which served as an endless source of inspiration. Picasso had a specific interest in music as many of Picasso paintings combined instruments with the shapes of feminine forms.
Since most notable authors of Cubist paintings were well educated, literature was an essential well of inspiration. Furthermore, many Cubists were acquainted with writers and poets of their time. Other cultural aspects of modern society also had a great influence on Cubism, including theater and opera. One of the regular motifs in Cubism was Harlequin, the comic character from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. This figure is especially important for analyzing Picasso’s art as the Spaniard seemed to have a particular interest in this subject. To him, Harlequin represented the experience of isolation and of being an outcast during the artist’s early career. However, as he matured intellectually and creatively, Harlequin returned in a form which is both a musical instrument and musician united into one, presenting an autonomous entity.
Just How Crucial are Cubist Paintings to Modern Art?
After everything it ultimately managed to achieve, Cubism paved the way for non-representational modern art. The liberating notions of Cubist paintings had far-reaching consequences for Dada and Surrealism, as well as for all artists pursuing abstraction. While Picasso and Braque are rightfully credited with creating this phenomenal visual language, it was adopted and further developed by many painters, such as Fernand Léger, Sonia Delaunay, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Metzinger. Some of these artist names will be mentioned as we chronologically list the Cubist paintings that changed modern art.
Editors’ Tip: Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Mediations
In what is interestingly Guillaume Apollinaire’s only book on art, Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Mediations was first published in 1913. This essential text in twentieth-century art presents the poet and critic’s aesthetic meditations on nine painters: Georges Braque, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Marie Laurencin, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. As Picasso’s closest friend and Marie Laurencin’s lover, Apollinaire witnessed the development of Cubism firsthand. This collection of essays and reviews, written between 1905 and 1912, is a milestone in the history of art criticism, valued today as both a work of reference and a classic example of modernist creative writing. It is also the perfect asset for one to witness just how influential Cubist paintings were to the development of modern art.
Featured images: Picasso – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 (detail) – Image via wikimedia.org; Jean Metzinger – L’Oiseau bleu, 1913 (detail) – Image via wikimedia.org; Fernand Léger – Three Women, 1921 (detail) – Image via myfreewallpapers.net
Pablo Picasso - Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
This large painting was finished in 1907 and is the most famous example of early Analytic Cubism. In it, Picasso abandoned all known forms and representations of traditional art, introducing a new geometric vocabulary. He used distortion of female’s body in an innovative way which challenged the expectation that paintings will offer an idealized depiction of womanly beauty. Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon also shows the strong influence of African art on Picasso.
Featured Image: Picasso – Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 – Image via wikimedia.org
Georges Braque - Woman with a Mandolin, 1910
Braque painted Woman with a Mandolin during the spring of 1910. Interestingly, this was the artist’s first depiction of the human figure after two years devoted exclusively to still lifes and landscapes. Driven by his love towards music, the painter believed the addition of an instrument endowed a character with the stillness of an object. To contemporary authors, Woman with a Mandolin was a perfect example of how Cubist paintings enabled a merger of the figure and background in a dense mesh of vertical and horizontal lines.
Featured Image: Georges Braque – Woman with a Mandolin, 1910 – Image via juliennedickey.com
Pablo Picasso - Man with a Guitar, 1911
Definitely one of the most influential Cubist paintings ever made, this Picasso’s piece will be found on many similar lists. Here, strong geometrical shapes are allowed a gentler, more rhythmical quality a bit uncommon to Spaniard’s visuals at that period. The repeated darkened shapes echo the presence of a guitar in the middle of the composition. Around the music instrument which obviously serves a pivotal role within the painting is a fantastic use of shading, emphasizing what Picasso believed should be the piece’s strongest section.
Featured Image: Man with a Guitar, 1911 – Image via pablopicasso.org
Georges Braque - Man with a Guitar, 1911
In this piece which may easily be Braque’s most interesting Analytic artwork, the artist challenged the orthodoxy of illusionistic space in painting. He paired up a lifelike rendering of a nail and rope with a nearly indecipherable depiction of a man playing a guitar. By leaving the traditional use of perspective far behind, Braque challenged viewers to understand the subject at hand despite it being broken down to its most basic geometrical elements.
Featured Image: Georges Braque – Man with a Guitar, 1911 – Image via wikiart.org
Pablo Picasso - Ma Jolie, 1911
Interestingly, Ma Jolie was actually the refrain of a popular song performed at a Parisian music hall Picasso frequently visited. Loving that musical piece, the artist gave this nickname to his lover Marcelle Humbert, whose figure he loosely built in this painting using the signature shifting planes of Analytic Cubism. Although there are clues to its representational content, Ma Jolie is far from a traditional portrait. the painter yet again displayed his love for music in this painting as strings of a guitar can be found in the center of the composition.
Featured Image: Ma Jolie, 1911 – Image via shafe.co.uk
Juan Gris - Still Life with Flowers, 1912
Although he remains greatly overshadowed by his more famous colleagues, Juan Gris is still considered to be an important author of Cubist paintings. As a matter of fact, he was the one to coin the term Analytical Cubism. In his Still Life with Flowers, Gris displayed his own unique and colorful style underlined by his heavy, often triangular, shading of the angles.
Featured Image: Juan Gris – Still Life with Flowers, 1912 – Image via pictorem.com
Pablo Picasso - Maquette for Guitar, 1912
Cobbled together from cardboard, paper, and wire, Maquette for Guitar is a silent instrument resembling no sculpture ever seen before. Spurred by the success of his aforementioned Still Life with Chair Caning, the painter attempted to expand his collage visuals to the fields of assemblage. The paint translated the Cubist interest in multiple perspectives and geometric form into a three-dimensional medium. It should be noted that Maquette for Guitar is the first sculpture assembled from disparate parts.
Featured Image: Maquette for Guitar, 1912 – Image via theartblog.org
Jean Metzinger - L'Oiseau bleu, 1913
L’Oiseau bleu, one of Metzinger’s most recognizable and frequently referenced works, was first exhibited in Paris at the famous Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1913. This large oil painting is a great indicator of Metzinger’s unique style. Among all Cubist paintings, this author’s work has a way of standing out due to its stringent geometrical visuals and poetic line. It should be noted that Jean Metzinger is one of two authors who published the first and only Cubist manifesto, titled Du Cubisme. The other co-writer was Albert Gleizes.
Featured Image: Jean Metzinger – L’Oiseau bleu, 1913 – Image via wikimedia.org
Sonia Delaunay - Electric Prisms 1914
Sonia Delaunay’s innovative explorations of color and form were crowned in 1914 when she presented her Electric Prisms was first displayed. Along with her husband Robert, Sonia Delaunay developed a non-objective style which eventually transformed itself into a blend of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. Electric Prisms is the precise example of how this painter managed to combine this mixed style with the notions of Cubist paintings.
Featured Image: Sonia Delaunay – Electric Prisms, 1914 – Image via tate.org.uk
Joan Miró - Horse, Pipe and Red Flower, 1920
Joan Miró painted this artwork at his home in the Spanish village of Montroig shortly after his first visit to The City of Light. Horse, Pipe and Red Flower reveals a complex configuration of forms which adopted a Cubist collage technique inspired by the work of Pablo Picasso. Miró’s fascination with the Spaniard is demonstrated with the book on the table, titled The Rooster and the Harlequin and featuring illustrations by Picasso. The remainder of various objects within the compositions all have their symbolic reasons as well. Shortly after Horse, Pipe and Red Flower was completed, Joan Miró joined the Surrealist movement.
Featured Image: Joan Miró – Horse, Pipe and Red Flower, 1920 – Image via wikimedia.org
Fernand Léger - Three Women, 1921
Fernand Léger’s Three Women represents a group of three reclining nudes drinking cups of tea or coffee in a very chic apartment. Although the nude is a common subject in most of art history, Léger’s figures have been simplified into rounded and dislocated forms in a style of Cubist paintings. Through a machinelike precision, the author aimed to make a symbol for modern industry. By the artist’s claim, Three Women was also intended to represent the belief that modern life will be able to reverse the chaos unleashed by World War I.