Pablo Picasso, The Guitarist, 1910, oil on canvas, 39.4” x 28.7”, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Photo by teadrinker via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 License. Generic

Take Five: What’s So Great About Cubism?

By now you may have heard that cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder has promised the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York his large collection of Cubist art valued at over $1 billion.  This is an incredibly generous donation that will have a profound impact on the Met’s collections, simultaneously filling a gap and placing the collection among the greatest in the world for early 20th century modernism.  In the wake of all of this publicity, you may be wondering how a collection can be worth so much money and why it is so important.

You might want to know what’s so great about Cubism.

Invented by the Spaniard Pablo Picasso and Frenchman George Braque, Cubism was a true revolution in art that gave people a new way of seeing the world.  As an art movement, Cubism reflected the general optimism that was felt for the new century – the 20th century – and the dawn of a new age.

Cubism was very much a part of its historical context marked by other revolutions in science and technology, for example the invention of x-rays, or those charted by Einstein and Freud that revealed to the world that there is a truth beneath the surface of things.

Picasso and Braque met in 1909 and worked together nearly every day until 1912.  They called each other Orville and Wilbur after the Wright brothers.   Braque referred to them as “two mountaineers roped together” because metaphorically speaking, they were climbing toward a summit.

Surprisingly enough for a style that appears so abstract at first glance, Cubist art presents objects in a natural manner, the way we truly experience them in the real world.  Picasso and Braque were like scientists, carefully analyzing the subjects of their paintings and sculptures.  They show how you would see these objects if you were moving through space in time.  They included the fourth dimension within their art by showing several different sides of the objects at the same time.  Parallel lines in a painting or repetitive forms in a sculpture provide the impression of movement, which in turn imply the passage of time.

And of course movement is so important to the new modern era of speed and technology.  It’s very 20th century.

The earth tones of the paintings reflect the search for truth in the natural world.  They are real and essential colors..

Let’s look at Picasso’s The Guitarist to see how the artist analyzed the subject using the Cubist style.  The figure playing the guitar has been parsed and reduced to such an extent that it is barely recognizable; nevertheless, the guitarist is still there.  The head is formed by an upright cylindrical shape that has a semicircle at the top.  It also is suggested by a tilted rectangular form and a triangular shadow, both of which are superimposed on the cylinder.  And all of these shapes have repeating lines – some short and others long – that imply rhythm and movement.  A close examination will reveal this type of layering and echoing of fundamental geometric and planar forms is repeated throughout the canvas, all of which, together, suggest the guitarist sitting and playing music.

Very few of these basic shapes are completely enclosed by line, which contributes to the visual shifting.  Everything in the composition teeters on the Cubist grid.

Cubism had an enormous impact on art in the 20th century.  The most immediate and obvious influences are seen in the fine art movements of Futurism, Constructivism, and De Stijl.  There were Cubist movements in music, literature, and architecture as well.  Arguably, however, Cubism influenced all abstraction in 20th century art.