The Influence of Art History on Modern Design – Cubism

If in the previous posts I wrote  about the influence of art history on modern design and I posted about the Gothic Style – Medieval Period, the Baroque Style – Western Art and the Art Nouveau Style – Modern Art, today’s article is about one of the most influential art movements of the twentieth century’s modern art: Cubism.

If you want to read more about Modern Art, click here.

When and where appeared the Cubism movement?

Because of the emergence of new technologies like photography, the motor car, cinematography, and the airplane, artists felt the need for a more radical approach, a new perspective that would expand the possibilities of art like the new technologies were extending the limits of communication and travel. This new perspective was called Cubism, also known as the first abstract style of modern art.

Dynamism of a Soccer Player (1913)Umberto Boccioni (1882 – 1916)

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There seem to be different opinions regarding the moment when cubism began. Some say that the year 1907 is its starting point. This was also the year in which Picasso was introduced by the poet Apollinaire to Braque. These two great painters developed their ideas on Cubism around the year 1907 in Paris and it’s widely known that their starting point was a common interest in the later paintings of Paul Cezanne.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

1907 Les demoiselles d'Avignon 2

In the same year, before meeting Braque, Picasso completed the painting Les Demoiselles d’Aviginion in his Montmartre apartment house which was called the “Bateau Lavoir”. This work is very important because it’s considered to be the painting which foretold the future development of Cubism. Along with Cezanne’s influence a new search appeared due to the suggestions from African sculpture.

Le Portugais/The Emigrant (1911 – 1912) – Georges Braque (1882 – 1963)

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The Cubist painters rejected the inherited concept that art should copy nature, or that they should adopt the traditional techniques of perspective, modeling, and foreshortening. They wanted instead to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas. So they reduced and fractured objects into geometric forms, and then realigned these within a shallow, relief like space. They also used multiple or contrasting vantage points.

Violin and Glass (1915) – Juan Gris (1887 – 1927)

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Which were the phases of Cubism?

In the development of Cubism, there were three phases: Facet or Pre-Cubism, Analytic Cubism, and Synthetic Cubism, although some divide the movement only in Analytic and Synthetic Cubism.

1. The first phase of Cubism – Pre-Cubism

The first phase, which was also known as pre-cubism lasted until the year 1910 and it is under the strong influence of Cezanne and his famous characteristic of reproducing nature in paintings by using cylinders, spheres, and cones. In this period, Picasso and Braque were painting characters, landscapes and still life. They were not satisfied with the attempts of renouncing on perspectives and started aiming at reducing the motifs to fundamental geometric forms.

Still Life with Chair Caning (oil on canvas, 1912)Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

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2. The second phase of Cubism – Analytical Cubism

Analytical Cubism is considered to be one of the major branches of the Cubism and it was developed in the 1910 – 1913 period. In comparison to Synthetic cubism, in this phase, the cubists “analyzed” natural forms and reduced them to basic geometric parts to create a two-dimensional picture plane.

In this phase, color was almost non-existent except for cases when the artists used monochromatic schemes that included blue, gray and ochre. Analytic cubists focused more on forms like spheres, cylinders, and cones to represent the natural world. Because of these features, the works created by Picasso and Braque had stylistic similarities.

Violin and Jug (1910) – Georges Braque (1882 – 1963)

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3. The third phase of Cubism – Synthetic Cubism

The last movement of Cubism and the second as importance, Synthetic Cubism was developed by Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris and others in the 1913 – 1919 period. This cubism movement was characterized by the introduction of different surfaces, textures, papier colle, collage elements and a great variety of merged subject matter. This was the first introduction of collage materials as an important ingredient of fine artworks.

Still Life with Mandolin and Guitar (1924) – Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

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In comparison to Analytic Cubism, which was an analysis of the subjects (pulling them apart into planes), Synthetic Cubism is actually pushing several objects together. Less pure than Analytic Cubism, this movement has fewer planar schematism and less shading, creating flatter space.

The Influence of African Art on Cubism

The artists of the cubist movement considered that the traditions of the Western art were overrated and the remedy they applied to revitalize their work was to draw on the expressive energy of art from other cultures, especially from the African art.

The inspiration to cross-reference art that came from other cultures is believed to come from Paul Gauguin, a French post-impressionist artist. His prints and paintings were inspired by the native cultures of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, places where he spent his final years.

Head of a Woman (1907) – Pablo Picasso and right: Dan Mask


A controversial element of early Cubism was the grotesque face that evoked African masks. The exaggerated features of these masks represented a hallmark of Cubism. The artists tried to interplay elements in their works and to create a sort of detachment in technique, resulting in grotesque, exaggerated forms.

Which are the most important characteristics of Cubism?

In Cubism, proportions, organic integrity and continuity of life samples and material objects are abandoned. The artist’s canvas resembled more of a field of broken glass, some critics said.

The shattering of objects in focus into geometrical sharp-edged angular pieces and the geometrically analytical approach to color and form baptized the movement into “Cubism”. Actually, despite what some vicious critics might have said at the time, a closer look into cubist artworks reveals a very methodical deconstruction into three-dimensional shaded facets, some caved others convex.

The Bargeman (1919) – Fernand Leger (1881 – 1955)

Working Title/Artist: The Bargeman Department: Modern Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1918 photography by Malcolm Varon 1988, transparency #3 scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 12_15_04

Cubism considers the “whole” image perceived by the retina artificial and conventional, based on the influence of the past art. This movement rejects these images and recognizes that perspective space is an illusory and rational invention or a sign system that comes from Renaissance art.

Factory, Horta de Ebbo (1909) – Pablo Picasso

1909 Usine à Horta de Ebbo

 

In cubist works, instead of an image of an external world, we are given a world of its own, analogous to nature but built upon different principles. Cubists seek to reproduce different perspectives simultaneously like they might be seen by the mind’s eye. It tries to mimic the mind’s power to abstract and synthesize its different impressions of the world into new wholes.

Which are the main domains where Cubism emerged?

1. Cubism in painting

Picasso and Braque are credited with creating this new visual language, but the movement was adopted and further developed by many painters like Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Roger de la Fresnaye and Jean Metzinger.

Nude Descending Starecase No. 2 (1912) – Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968)

The Cubist painters did not embrace the concept that art should copy nature, or that they should adopt the traditional techniques of modeling, perspective and foreshortening. The artists wanted to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas so they fractured and reduced the objects into geometric forms and then realigned them within a shallow, relief like space. A specific feature also was the use of multiple or contrasting vantage points.

2. Cubism in sculpture

Although it was primarily associated with painting, Cubism also exerted a great influence on 20th-century sculpture. The most important Cubist sculptors were Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Alexander Archipenko, and Jacques Lipchitz, identified as the first Cubist sculptor.

Walking Woman (1912) – Alexander Archipenko (1887 – 1964)


It’s believed that cubist sculpture developed in parallel to Cubist painting, having many of the same artists. For example, some sources name the first cubist sculpture Picasso’s 1909 Head of a Woman or Otto Gutfreund’s Anxiety, which were showed in Prague in 1912.

Head of a Woman (1908) – Pablo Picasso

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Just like in Cubism painting, the style has its origins in Cezanne’s reduction of painted objects into component planes and geometric solids (spheres, cubes, cylinders, and cones). Like in painting, cubism sculpture had its course by 1925, and it became an influence and contributed fundamentally to Constructivism and Futurism.

3. Cubism in architecture

Some people might say that the relationship between Cubism and architecture was at best tentative and it involved the application of Cubist decorations to stripped Neoclassical buildings. However, in Prague, the Czech Cubist group (Chochol, Gocar, Capek, Hofman, Janak and Novotny) managed to do more than treat the facades with prismatic ornaments.

The basic features of Cubism, however, which included asymmetrical compositions, transparency, interpenetration of volumes and simultaneous perception from different points of view were enshrined in the Modern Movement and played an important part in its evolution.

House of the Black Madonna, Museum of Cubism in Old Town Prague

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The most representative feature of cubist architecture was the multi-faceted facade of a building, which was also a way of articulating a vision of space, especially the relation between inside and outside. In other words, the cubist design should not celebrate the solid tectonic qualities of the material but to call those into question, establishing an ambiguous relationship between the space on the inside and on the outside of the structure.

Is contemporary artwork still influenced by Cubism?

Although Cubism was born in France it emigrated across Europe and integrated with the artistic consciousness of several countries. This movement emerged as futurism in Italy, vorticism in England, Suprematism and Constructivism in Russia and Expressionism in Germany and it also influenced several of the major design and architectural styles of the 20th century and it still prevails to this day as  a mode of expression in the art language.

The Key by Marcos Andruchak

Cubism is far from being an art movement confined to art history, its legacy continues to inspire the work of many contemporary artists. Cubist imagery is regularly used commercially but also a significant number of contemporary artists keep drawing upon it stylistically and, more importantly, theoretically.

YetAnotherFace by Petra Stafankova

Some said that the latter contains the clue as to the reason for cubism’s continuous fascination for artists. When it came to image making, photography was an increasingly viable method and Cubism attempts to take representational imagery beyond the mechanical photography and go beyond the limits of traditional single point perspective perceived as though by a totally immobile viewer.

Art and Culture by Marcos Andruchak.

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As an example of the contemporary feature of Cubism, the questions and the theories which arose during the initial appearance of the movement are, for many representative artists, as current today as when first proposed.

Woman Arranging Her Flowers – Michael Yee.

Some artists believe that Cubism will have durable consequences because it influenced all the important movements in modern European and American art. Without Cubism, we couldn’t imagine the collages of Max Ernst, the surreal works of art of Joan Miro, the art of Roy Lichtenstein and, from a wider viewpoint, pop art, the “ready made” artwork of Duchamp and finally, the whole abstract art.

The Chef by Kristen Stein.

The influence of Cubism in contemporary designs, especially from the features of Synthetic Cubism, seems to come from a structural design of the picture plane, the grid. We can also notice the use of pictorial space and figure reduction to hard-edged geometric forms.

Cubism in Contemporary Designs

A representative characteristic that Cubists proposed was that your sight of an object is the sum of many different views and our memory of an object is not created from one angle, as in perspective, but from many angles selected by our sight and movement. Keeping that in mind, contemporary artists create paradoxically abstract graphic designs. This can be construed as an attempt at a more realistic perspective.

Kitty in a Box by Alma Lee.

Cubism Cafe collage by Mischi92.

cubism_cafe_by_mischi92

Cubism by Toesinhand.

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As in the artworks of famous representatives of Cubism, contemporary artists create designs with people, objects, places, but not from a fixed point of view. Their artworks often show you many parts of the subject at the same time but viewed from different angles and reconstructed into a composition of planes, colors, and forms. The purpose of this feature, specific to Cubism, is to reconfigure the space: the front, the back and the sides of the subject will become interchangeable elements in the design.

The Cello Player by hummingbird44.

Cubism… by CrazedQuetzal.

Cubism in Modern House Designs

This modern movement was also influential in contemporary architecture. Cubist houses are recognized by having many geometric lines, sharp edges and many facades with fantastic perspectives from different angles. Even the colors used in the house designs are monochrome or very limited.

Multifarious Modern Cubic House Architecture.

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Aggressive Cubism.

Cubism – Notes

  • Cubism appeared around 1907 in Paris and its parents were Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

  • Cubism was the first abstract style of modern art.

  • A Cubist painting ignores the traditions of perspective drawing and shows you many views of a subject at one time.

  • The Cubists introduced collage into painting.

  • The Cubists were influenced by art from other cultures, particularly African masks.

  • There are two main distinct phases of the Cubist Style: Analytical Cubism (pre-1913) and Synthetic Cubism (post-1913)

  • Cubism influenced many other styles of modern art including Orphism, Futurism, Vorticism, Suprematism, Constructivism and Expressionism.
  • Cubism continues to inspire the work of many contemporary artists, which still use the stylistic and theoretical features of this style.

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted in August 2010 and has since been revamped and checked to ensure all information and accuracy. 

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12 Comments
Ravi
Cubism was such a big step in modern design, and you can really see the difference between the previous styles and this one. Great article by the way.
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