Explaining the Synthetic Cubism

Art History

December 5, 2016

In order to classify the revolutionary Cubist experiments made by Georges Braque, Picasso and Juan Gris, art historians tend to divide this movement into two main stages called Analytic and Synthetic Cubism. Although the first phase was quite innovative in its own right, the latter was arguably the most imaginative period of early avant-garde art which took the movement to its extremes. Synthetic Cubism is generally considered to have occurred between the years of 1912 and 1914. It introduced many new conceptual alternatives to the already established aesthetics of Cubism. The previous analytical approach was essentially based on breaking down an object into a fragmentary image, while the next phase developed interest in flattening the image and sweeping away all traces of allusion to a three-dimensional space.

By the time Analytic Cubism came to an end, it already broke the centuries-old rules of painting by providing an alternative to single point linear perspective. However, as the Synthetic Cubism started to establish its own set of rules, the art scene of Europe was taken by storm. Analytic Cubism was concentrated on the act of taking apart or deconstructing an object, but Synthetic Cubism was all about its construction or synthesis. It bridged the gap between reality and art by literally interpolating pieces of the real world onto the canvas. Authentic pieces of paper replaced painted flat depictions of paper, real music notebooks replaced drawn musical notation[1], etc. By expanding the movement to its second and final act, the authors gave themselves the creative freedom to depict the world around them however they saw fit.

Juan Gris - The Sunblind 1914 - Image via tate.org.uk

The Invention of Collage

Among other things, the concept of collage as a medium is a direct result of Synthetic Cubism.[2] This new art form integrated signs and fragments of real things and was integral to the development of the movement. Picasso's first collage piece titled Still Life with Chair Caning was created during the May of 1912, whilst Braque's first papier collé (translated as pasted paper) called Fruit Dish with Glass was created in September of the same year. Besides establishing an entirely new medium that will prove to be crucial to many movements of the 20th century, it should also be noted that Synthetic Cubism blurred the line between painting and sculpture as most of its pieces had relief-like characteristics within their compositions.

Works of Analytic Cubism
Georges Braque - Fruit Dish and Glass, 1912 - Image via pinterest.com

Characteristics of Synthetic Cubism

In order to fully grasp the ideas of Synthetic Cubism, one needs to understand its forerunner as well. There are a few characteristics that seem to be common to all Analytic pieces. First of all, such artworks appear as a busy interweaving of planes and lines where the subjects are completely fractured. The illusion of a third dimension is highly important and every subject is attempted to be portrayed from multiple perspectives. They are painted primarily by using a limited range of dark colors. Furthermore, there is very little tonal variation used as the general coloration tends to be muted with a similar dark tone.

Although the Cubism painters enjoyed a respectable amount of success with the pieces underlined by the aforementioned features, the entire movement changed around the year of 1912. Suddenly, the quite complicated grids of Analytic Cubism were completely gone. Instead, what was revealed will eventually prove to be the most radical aspect of Synthetic Cubism. As an alternative to the idea of breaking an existing object down to a grid, authors were now choosing to build up (or synthesize) their entire composition from their mind using uncommon materials and shapes. In other words, instead of looking closely at an object such as a violin in order to interpret its shape and structure, authors created a violin-like shape from their imagination. Contrary to reassembling facets of the original image, it was a matter of synthesizing entirely new structures.[3] Using the symbols of the present reality, the artists would create something entirely new, yet fairly familiar. Synthetic Cubism also featured an entirely new range of textures and incorporated a wide variety of extraneous materials. Furthermore, every sense of three-dimensionality disappeared, a feature which was quite present in the initial phase of the movement.

Juan Gris - The Violin, 1916 - Image via ideelart.com

Toying with Reality

The process of incorporating scraps of everyday materials such as paper clippings, tickets and tobacco folders into their compositions marked a move away from the intellectualism of Analytical Cubism, directing the course towards a more relaxed and playful set of aesthetics. After allowing themselves the creative freedom to depict the world around them however they saw fit, painters of Synthetic Cubism discovered an incredibly inventive approach to picture making. There were virtually no more restrictions of any kind as the only boundaries were set by the amount of creativity the artists possessed.[4] These authors, especially Braque and Picasso, used collaged snippets alongside drawings or painted portions of their pieces. For example, they might collage a scrap of a real magazine in order to represent an actual newspaper within the compositions, but place it alongside a bottle completely sketched in charcoal. However, an artist could also shape such a bottle with clippings. Interestingly, it was this mimicking of surfaces and textures that earned the last phase of Cubism its prefix - synthetic. It was supposed to be an indicator of how something artificial could be used to describe a material within an imitation of something else.

The initial assumption that helped shape Synthetic Cubism was the idea of introducing physical elements that were intended to make the images seem more real. The use of mundane bits and pieces of daily rubbish was a purposeful assault on the high-mindedness of what was perceived as fine art at the time. By including such elements within respected artworks, Cubist artists suggested that art could be made with scissors and glue as effectively as with brushes and paint. This was an enormous innovation at the time, one that impacted the art scene for good.

P. Picasso - The Card-Player, 1913-14 - Image via cubismsite.com

The Most Famous Practitioners and Artworks

On the conceptual level, Synthetic Cubism turned each painter creatively loose so they could find their own process of using this new and inventive way of conceiving form. Many of these artists opted to paint still life compositions, as this genre was the usual choice for many, but there were also compositions with musical instruments, Harlequins and other typical Cubist themes.[5] All of these painters produced playful artworks as this was obviously a common tendency of anyone contributing to the final phase of Cubism.

Works abided to Cubistic terms of visuals
P. Picasso - Guitar Sheet Music Wine Glass, 1912 - Image via apt3.com

Pablo Picasso

The famed Spaniard produced his first Synthetic collage piece in the year of 1911,[6] titling it as Still Life with Chair-Caning. In it, the author incorporated a piece of oilcloth and a lengthy rope alongside traditional materials at the painter's disposal. The oilcloth pattern was intended to simulate the bars of the chair and the rope served the role of a picture frame. Rather than depicting a chair, part of a chair was actually put onto the piece and this was the most revolutionary aspect of the compositions. Although Picasso had a playful and casual approach to making this piece, Chair-Caning became a prototype of all later ready-made experiments, having an extensive impact on Marcel Duchamp. Despite this painting being the Picasso's most iconic Synthetic work, his series called Guitars is the most popular one. For these artworks, he used newspapers, music sheets, wallpapers, various fabrics, cardboard, etc. He also incorporated charcoal, pencil, oil, wax, wood and other ready-made objects such as teaspoons.[7] Other most notable Synthetic pieces Picasso authored in his time are The Tavern (1914), Pipe, Glass, Ace of Clubs, Bass Bottle, Guitar, Ma Jolie, Dice (1914), Harlequin (1915), Man with a Pipe (1915) and Three Musicians (1921).

P. Picasso - Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle, 1914 - Image via tate.org.uk

Georges Braque

As far as Georges Braque is concerned, the new type of creating was displayed in two artworks. In The Portuguese (1911), he began to experiment with mixing materials such as sawdust with his paint with goals of creating interesting textures. This was the first time someone added sand to a painterly surface in order to add levels of texture and depth. He also introduced the use of stenciled lettering, a characteristic which will have a big effect about a half a century later when Situationist interventions start emerging in France. As a reaction to the Picasso's Chair-Caning, Braque began using printed or decorative color paper within his own compositions. His first recorded use of papier collé was in Fruit Dish and Glass (1912). In this picture, Braque utilized cut out pieces of wallpaper and then shaded the piece using paint filled with sand. Besides being one of the most important Synthetic artworks, Fruit Dish and Glass is also a great indicator of how the author wanted to shift away from the serious and overly complex nature of Analytic Cubism. Some other examples of Georges' Synthetic pieces are Bottle, Newspaper, Pipe, and Glass (1913), The Violin (1914) and Young Woman with a Guitar (1913).

Works of Synthetic Cubism
Georges Braques - The Portuguese, 1911 - Image via wikimedia.com

Juan Gris

Although Juan Gris is considered to be the less significant and productive than the two authors above, he can still be described as the most poetic of the movement. In Gris's Dish of Fruit (1916), he incorporated all main concepts of Synthetic Cubism with great success. Analyzing this artwork, it is easy to recognize the general shape of a compote and to identify a couple of colored shapes as pieces of fruit. The tabletop and something that appears to be the bowl's shadow to the right of the base are also distinguishable. In Gris' The Open Window (1917), we can see a piece which is composed of simple shapes dominated by soft blues, grays and modified whites. This is probably the best example that shows exactly why Juan Gris was and still is perceived as the poet of Synthetic Cubism - the entire composition is filled with gentle, quiet mood that can not be found in any piece of Picasso or Braque.

Analytical works set the terms of the movement's later stages
Juan Gris - Newspaper and Fruit Dish, 1916 - Image via ideelart.com

The Influence of Synthetic Cubism on Art

Although the outburst of the First World War put a major dent in the development of Synthetic Cubism, many artists continued to evolve it even during the years of war. Unfortunately, many authors and their disciples were off fighting on the fronts and losing their lives in the trenches around Europe, so it's fair to say that this final act of Cubism would have been much more advanced if its progress occurred during more peaceful times.[8] Picasso was one of the authors who avoided the army draft, so he remained the pivotal mind behind the Synthetic visuals for the remainder of its existence. Although the timelines are a bit blurry on this one, many experts agree that the most innovative segment of Synthetic Cubism ended approximately when the First World War started in 1914.[9]

Although the nature of Synthetic Cubism was quite spirited and whimsical, most art critics treat it very seriously and read enormous significance into its achievements. This period of Cubist artworks explored many new grounds that served a big role within most avant-garde movements that came after it. The way it treated the pictorial composition, incorporated mixed media elements, unleashed the author's creativity and relied on the use of unconventional materials - all these characteristics echoed massively throughout the remainder of the 20th century. The new stylistic vocabulary and a technical idiom of Synthetic Cubism served as the starting point for a number of movements and anti-art schools, such as the Surrealism and the notorious Dada. It also influenced many notable younger artists, including the likes of Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Hans Hoffman, among many others. Furthermore, Synthetic Cubism's integration of high and low art can be considered the primary thesis of Pop Art, the youngest of the great artistic movements of the 20th century. Through all of those spiritual successors, the legacy of Synthetic Cubism is virtually engraved in the pages of art history and it is safe to presume that the entire contemporary scene would not be quite the same if the late Cubistic style did not spawn such an imaginative practice.

Editors’ Tip: Synthetic Century: Collage from Cubism to Postmodernism

Invented in the year of 1912 during the collaborative investigations of Braque and Picasso, synthetic cubism combined actual objects with traditional fine art materials on a 2-dimensional surface. Synthetic Century: Collage from Cubism to Postmodernism is a fantastic overlook at how and why synthetic cubism came to be. It analyzes its history and practitioners, as well as ideas behind this arguably most revolutionary movement in the early avant-garde art. Synthetic Century: Collage from Cubism to Postmodernism also presents the readers with various examlpes of synthetic pieces, allowing everyone interested to see first-hand how such artworks look and exactly what they mean. Besides dedicating many pages to the analysis of synthetic cubism and investigating how collage was used to devise its concepts, this book also examines just how influential the last phase of Braque and Picasso was to the rest of 20th century art.


  1. Eimert, D., Apollinaire, G., Cubism (Art of Century Collection), Parkstone International, 2014
  2. Hodermarsky, E., Synthetic Century: Collage from Cubism to Postmodernism, Yale University Art Gallery, 2006
  3. Podoksik, A., Eimert, D., Apollinaire, G., Le Cubisme, Parkstone International, 2013
  4. Berger, J., The Moment of Cubism, NY: Pantheon, 1969
  5. Rosenblum, R., Cubism, Robert Rosenblum, "Cubism," Readings in Art History 2 (1976), , 1976
  6. The Picasso Project , Picasso's Pictures, Watercolors, Drawings & Sculpture: Synthetic Cubism - 1913-1916, Alan Wofsy Fine Arts; 1st edition, 2016
  7. Berger, J. The Success and Failure of Picasso, Penguin Books, 1965
  8. Robbins, D., Jean Metzinger: At the Center of Cubism, The University of Iowa Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Trust, University of Washington Press, 1985
  9. Cooper, D., The Cubist Epoch, NY: Pantheon, 1971

Featured images: Picasso - Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912 - Image via pinterest.com; Juan Gris - The Open Window, 1917 - Image via ibiblio.org; Picasso - Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913 - Image via tate.org.uk

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