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art movement, primarily in painting, originating in Paris c.1907.

Cubist Theory

Cubism began as an intellectual revolt against the artistic expression of previous eras. Among the specific elements abandoned by the cubists were the sensual appeal of paint texture and color, subject matter with emotional charge or mood, the play of light on form, movement, atmosphere, and the illusionism that proceeded from scientifically based perspective. To replace these they employed an analytic system in which the three-dimensional subject (usually still life) was fragmented and redefined within a shallow plane or within several interlocking and often transparent planes.

Analytic and Synthetic Cubism

In the analytic phase (1907–12) the cubist palette was severely limited, largely to black, browns, grays, and off-whites. In addition, forms were rigidly geometric and compositions subtle and intricate. Cubist abstraction as represented by the analytic works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris intended an appeal to the intellect. The cubists sought to show everyday objects as the mind, not the eye, perceives them—from all sides at once. The trompe l'oeil element of collagecollage
[Fr.,=pasting], technique in art consisting of cutting and pasting natural or manufactured materials to a painted or unpainted surface—hence, a work of art in this medium.
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 was also sometimes used.

During the later, synthetic phase of cubism (1913 through the 1920s), paintings were composed of fewer and simpler forms based to a lesser extent on natural objects. Brighter colors were employed to a generally more decorative effect, and many artists continued to use collage in their compositions. The works of Picasso, Braque, and Gris are also representative of this phase.

The Scope of Cubism

In painting the major exponents of cubism included Picasso, Braque, Jean Metzinger, Gris, Duchamp, and Léger. The chief segments of the cubist movement included the Montmartre-based Bâteau-Lavoir group of artists and poets (Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude and Leo Stein, Modigliani, Picabia, Delaunay, Archipenko, and others); the Puteaux group of the Section d'Or salon (J. Villon, Léger, Picabia, Kupka, Marcoussis, Gleizes, Apollinaire, and others); the Orphists (Delaunay, Duchamp, Picabia, and Villon; see orphismorphism,
a short-lived movement in art founded in 1912 by Robert Delaunay, Frank Kupka, the Duchamp brothers, and Roger de la Fresnaye. Apollinaire coined the term orphism
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); and the experimenters in collage who influenced cubist sculpture (Laurens and Lipchitz).

Cubist Inspiration and Influence

In painting the several sources of cubist inspiration included the later work of Cézanne; the geometric forms and compressed picture space in his paintings appealed especially to Braque, who developed them in his own works. African sculpture, particularly mask carvings, had enormous influence in the early years of the movement. Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City) is one of the most significant examples of this influence. Within this revolutionary composition lay much of the basic material of cubism.

The cubist break with the tradition of imitation of nature was completed in the works of Picasso, Braque, and their many groups of followers. While few painters remained faithful to cubism's rigorous tenets, many profited from its discipline. Although the cubist groups were largely dispersed after World War I, their collective break from visual realism had an enriching and decisive influence on the development of 20th-century art. It provided a new stylistic vocabulary and a technical idiom that remain forceful today.


See G. Apollinaire, The Cubist Painters (1913, tr. 1949); R. Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art (rev. ed. 1967); D. Cooper, The Cubist Epoch (1971); C. Green, Cubism and Its Enemies (1987); W. Rubin, Pioneering Cubism (1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a movement in modern art, chiefly in painting, during the first quarter of the 20th century that concentrated on the formal task of projecting three-dimensional forms onto a shallow surface and reducing to a minimum the representational and cognitive functions of art. The word “cubists” was used derisively in 1908–09 by the French critic L. Vauxcelles in describing a group of artists who represented the objective world as a combination of geometric shapes and figures. The term “cubism” was originally applied to the formalistic experimentation undertaken in France between 1907 and 1914 by a small group of artists influenced by the painting of P. Cézanne (whose works were exhibited posthumously in Paris in 1907), African sculpture, and primitive art.

In 1907, P. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Museum of Modern Art, New York), a picture in which the figures on the right, distorted and rough, were represented without shading or perspective as a combination of three-dimensional forms broken up into flattish facets. A group called BateauLavoir, organized in 1908, included Picasso, G. Braque, the Spanish artist J. Gris and the writers Apollinaire and G. Stein. Within this group the main principles of cubism were developed and put into practice. Another group arose in 1911 at Puteaux, near Paris, and took final shape in 1912 at the Section d’Or exhibition. This group included the epigones and popularizers of cubism A. Gleizes, J. Metzinger, J. Villon, H. Le Fauconnier and a number of artists who were only partly linked to cubism —F. Léger, the orphists R. Delaunay and F. Kupka, and the future dadaists F. Picabia and M. Duchamp.

Arising during the general, profound crisis of bourgeois culture of the era of imperialism, cubism on the whole represented a break with the tradition of realistic art that had developed during the Renaissance and that included creating on a flat surface an illusion of the visual world. Cubist art, however, was a challenge to the conventional beauty of salon art, the vague allegories of symbolism, and the hazy ambiguities of late impressionist painting. Early cubism belonged to the rebellious, anarchistic, bourgeois-individualistic trends and was distinguished from the others by its penchant for nearly monochromatic color, simple, palpable forms, and such basic subjects as wood, houses, utensils, and instruments. The very geometrization of forms stressed the stability and materiality of the world, particularly during the early “Cézanne” period of cubism (1907–09). The solid, faceted shapes seem to unfold from the surface of the canvas, creating a semblance of relief, and color, defining the various facets, both emphasizes and fragments the form (Picasso, The Farmwife, 1908, Hermitage, Leningrad; Braque, L’Estaque, 1908, Museum of Art, Bern).

In the succeeding, analytical stage of cubism (1910–12), the object is completely taken apart and divided into small facets that are distinct from one another, and the form appears to be divided into layers on the canvas. The play of facets is subordinated to a complex decorative rhythm (Picasso, Portrait of A. Vollard, 1910, A. S. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; Braque, In Honor of J. S. Bach, 1912, private collection, Paris). In the later synthetic stage (1912–14) the decorative principle triumphs, and the pictures become colorful, flat panels (Picasso, The Inn, 1913–14, Hermitage; Braque, Woman With a Guitar, 1913, National Museum of Modern Art, Paris).

Simultaneously there developed an interest in collages, in the sprinkling on of powdered substances, and in three-dimensional constructions; that is, the rejection of representation of volume and space is “compensated for” by constructions in actual space. Cubist sculpture appeared, characterized by a play of positive-negative forms, for example, the counterreliefs of A. P. Archipenko, the spatial constructions of H. Laurens and R. Duchamp-Villon, and the geometrized reliefs and figures of O. Zadkine and J. Lipchitz. Having passed its peak in France, cubism influenced the Italian futurists (G. Severini, C. Carrè), the Russian cubofuturists (K. S. Malevich and V. E. Tatlin), and the German Bauhaus artists (L. Feininger, O. Schlemmer). In many cases cubism proved to be an intermediate phase leading to more abstract art. Cubism is directly connected with the purism of the 1920’s. Some outstanding 20th-century realists—D. Rivera, O. Gutfreund, and R. Guttuso—passed through and out of a cubist phase. The poets Apollinaire, M. Jacob, and A. Salmon sought to create cubist poetry by expressing a dynamic sense of the movement and interpenetration of objects.

When cubism first arose, its theoretical “principles,” subjective and idealist in nature, were expounded by Metzinger, Gleizes, and Apollinaire. These principles became the corner-stone of numerous reactionary concepts justifying the decadence of bourgeois art. There have also been many arbitrary attempts to relate cubism to the latest scientific and technical discoveries, such as the view that the multiplicity of viewpoints in apprehending an object is presumably akin to modern space-time concepts in physics. Both the theoretical principles and the efforts to associate cubism with scientific developments are characteristic of the intellectual atmosphere in which cubism was born, but neither explains its concepts of painting. Cubism does not reject emotional imagery, particularly in the works of Picasso, which rise to dramatic integrity and breadth. Cubism does not “free” itself from all representation but subordinates it to formal transformations. Reality, as reflected in art, is distorted in obedience to fetishistic material artistic means and to the concept of the painting as primarily a material object—canvas covered with paint.

Cubism’s constructional aspirations and exploration of problems of volume and space, similar to those of other trends in modern architecture and design (the Bauhaus, De Stijl group in the Netherlands), also prove to be illusory because they do not transcend “pure painting” or representational experimentation in easel works. Therefore, despite the talents and unflagging energy of Picasso and Braque, cubism was caught up in a vicious circle of contradictions and soon reached a crisis. V. I. Lenin claimed not to understand cubism, and G. V. Plekhanov and A. V. Lunacharskii criticized it. Cubism soon revealed its in-compatibility with socialist culture.


Lunacharskii, A. V. “Molodaia frantsuzskaia zhivopis’.” Sovremennik, 1913, no. 6.
Plekhanov, G. V. Soch., vol. 14. Moscow [no date]. Pages 170–80.
lavorskaia, N. “Kubizm i futurizm.” In Modernizm. Moscow, 1969.
Sérullaz, M. Le Cubisme. Paris, 1963.
Fry, E. Der Kubismus, Cologne [1966].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a French school of painting, collage, relief, and sculpture initiated in 1907 by Pablo Picasso, the Spanish painter and sculptor (1881--1973) and Georges Braque, the French painter (1882--1963), which amalgamated viewpoints of natural forms into a multifaceted surface of geometrical planes
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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