Picasso and Cubism in brief

By: Christian Watson

Picasso and Cubism in brief

By: Christian Watson



I t was the turn of the century, and the modern era was ushered in emphatically, with no better example than the steam engine. The early 19th century was the beginning of a new world – industrialisation was booming, innovation was peaking, and production soaring. Europe was growing in population and in positivity.

With such progress in science and engineering, it is hard to imagine the sense of optimism and freedom felt by the world. Heralded as a new-age creation, the steam engine became a focal point for artists, using them as symbols of power, speed and ingenuity. Contrastingly, it was also the time of the Impressionists whose aim was to capture the tranquility and transience of outdoor moments. Surrounded by the growth of industry and cities, they romanticised the open countryside. A good example being Monet’s Haystacks.

The culmination of the turn-of-the-century ideal came by the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 World Fair in Paris. It was veritable proof of what the modern era could achieve. The tower served as inspiration for artists, and the impressionists took to neo-impressionism. Georges Seurat broke the Eiffel tower down into these dots and painted it several times in this new style.


George Surats neo-impressionist depiction of the Eiffel Tower.


As much as I have spoken about the steam engine, it was not any one invention that created the modern era, it was that feeling of ‘possibility’. The world was at everyone’s feet, and art had to come to terms with it. How could art capture this quality? This dynamism, the speed at which life was moving, the way that every year passed, another machine invented, or another advancement gained.




T he answer was Cubism. Cezanne has been attributed as the ‘Father of Cubism’. A much underrated painter during his life, it was his escape from Impressionism that led to his discovery. After his death, his success was found in his work. Cezanne wanted to find a way to combine his fierce perception of nature and traditional painting, with impressionism. He wanted to find the space that was lost in the new style, with more depth and variety. His quote, “you have to treat nature as cones, spheres and cylinders”, was the spark into Cubism.

Cubism was coined after Louis Vauxcelle critiqued Georges Braque’s geometric cube compositions. Early Cubism was characterized by a reduced palette and the fragmentation of solid objects into components. It grew into other forms as well, taking on Analytical Cubism after ‘collage’ was invented. The style consisted of sticking objects onto the canvas in order to create physicality in the paintings, as well as creating a more three-dimensional object. It is the invention of ‘collage’ by Georges Braque that became such inspiration in contemporary art.

For many of us at first glance, the fragmented, geometrical compositions of a cubist painting are almost impossible to read. Only when looking again, and again, can you explore the painting through the layers of symbols and shapes. It was all an attempt to solve the problem, of representing something three-dimensional on a two-dimensional surface.

The Eiffel Tower was to pose the perfect challenge. As such a monumental engineering achievement, it was vital it was done right. How to translate this feat of the modern era accurately as a three-dimensional object onto canvas? Robert Delaunay painted several cubist paintings of the tower, deconstructing it, pulling its form away, and representing it with fragments of his imagination.

This quote by Delaunay’s friend, Blaise Cendrars, perfectly captures the Cubist painter’s mindset. He was fragmenting the subject in as many ways possible, to fit it into his mind, to then reconstruct it in his own, new vision.

“He took the tower apart to get it into his frame, he tipped it up so as to comprehend its dizzy 300 meter height, he took ten viewpoints, fifteen perspectives, this part from below, that one from above, the surrounding houses shown from right and the left, from a birds-eye view, at ground level.”


One of Robert Delaunay’s interpretations of the Eiffel Tower – 1910




B orn in Malaga in 1881, Picasso was thrust into art at a very young age. As a young child, some of his first words were “Piz, piz” short for ‘Lapis’ – Spanish for pencil. At the age of 9, he was drawing competently and, by 14, was drawing at the same level as those in his fathers’ college art courses. There is a story that his father realised his sons potential when he was a young boy. An accomplished ‘master of painting doves’, yet he quickly had to admit that his son had already surpassed his own skill.

In 1900,a 19 year-old Picasso moved to Paris and was amazed by the cities vibrance. In 1901, Picasso’s friend, Casemagas, committed suicide over an affair, throwing Picasso into a dark state. Known as his ‘Blue’ stage, it was a time of self-reflection – his art influenced by his dark state of mind. Shrouded in blue, the colour of sorrow and wisdom, his paintings took on a new form. The style was a success and caught the attention of art dealer Perdo Manache, who opened the doors of Paris to him.

When Picasso first moved to Paris, he mixed with Spanish friends and acquaintances. However, at an exhibition in Paris at the Vollard Gallery, Picasso first made the acquaintance of his lifelong friend, Max Jacob. The shabby poet, writer and art critic took a shining to Picasso and his work. After becoming close friends’ and realising the extent to each other’s poverty, they ended up renting a room together in a slum in a corner of Paris. With one bed, Jacob slept during the night while Picasso painted, and during the day, Picasso slept while Jacob was at work. Jacob became part of his close-knit group of artists known as the ‘The Picasso gang’, which Braque would later join.

Picasso was a prolific artist, exploring everything he could and looking at everything that interested him for inspiration. Because of this he explored a pathway many artists  only dreamed of. He moved from one style to the next, with ease; constantly painting – half finishing projects and leaving them for years. He was searching for something, trying to find something within his art.


“I paint what I see, sometimes like this, sometimes like that. I don’t brood about it, or experiment. If I have something to say, I say it the way I think I need to. There’s no transitional art, there are only good artists and bad artists.”


Many people are familiar with Picasso’s sketches of both Bulls and Matadors, which had such an enormous impact on his art. He would regularly attend displays and sit quietly, even when the crowd was at its wildest. On one occasion they were watching the moment when old horses were dragged out for the bulls, a cruel sacrifice that was often a terrible, bloody sight. He sat alone, quietly and reserved.

Most people are also familiar with Picasso’s track record when it came to wives, girlfriends, partners, affairs and mistresses. It seems that perhaps it was all in an attempt to pursue his art.

Picasso once remarked to his friend Sir John Richardson ‘Those horses, they’re the women in my life,’” said Richardson. Richardson commented. “Throughout his life there was a thing of women being sacrificed to feed his art. His record with wives and mistresses and girlfriends is pretty rugged and a lot of women had to suffer for the sake of his art.”



Picasso, Braque and Cubism


W hen Picasso moved into Cubism, he approached it with the same fervour he approached everything. After studying Cezanne with friend Georges Braque, they delved into cubism, but what exactly was it? They studied Cezanne’s late paintings and saw his attempts at strictly adhering to the ‘cones, spheres and cylinders’ rule. With Cezanne as their inspiration, they attempted to define it. Taking the basic concepts they wanted to use as the base for all their cubist art. Non-illusionistic (without shading, or perspective), simple volumes, small colour palettes, geometric shapes and a simple balance holding the picture together.

Picasso could be described as an analytic cubist who “analysed” natural forms and reduced the forms into basic geometric parts (fragments). Colour was almost non-existent except for the use of a monochromatic scheme that often included grey and blue. Instead of an emphasis on colour, he focused on forms that Cezanne had pioneered like the cylinder, sphere and the cone to represent the natural world.

The idea was to deconstruct and, at the same time, construct. Not to imitate or imagine a new object of the painting, but to create a new object from the original. Using bold lines, fragmentation, and responsive, yet contrasting techniques, such as straight lines and curved.  Loud colours next to quiet, light to dark, texture to plain. The only issue came when it was taken too far, and the image resembled a picture with broken glass in front of it. This was when Braque entered using his background as a decorator, by placing wallpaper onto one of his paintings, creating Collage.

They began to master the field by ever so slightly tweaking the elements that composed the style.


Ma Jolie by Picasso, my personal favourite.


Although both Picasso and Braque developed Cubism together, their styles slightly varied. The technique of ‘faceting’ originated from Braque, the style being what he used to depict a natural object. Picasso didn’t so much ‘facet’ natural objects but used the geometry of Braque’s faceted paintings to create a style that was abstract in essence.

Cubism refers to the styles of both Braque and Picasso, although Braque’s Cubism has a recognizable figurative objective, while Picasso’s Cubism served as the link between Braque’s style and the pure, abstract art that followed from Cubism. They both, however, moved toward abstraction – leaving only enough signs of the real world in their work to create a tension between the reality outside the painting and the complicated fragmentation’s within the frame.

Picasso never fully committed to abstract art as a concept, only ever using Cubism to touch the surface. Although revolutionary, he left Cubism behind after a few years, and moved into a neo-classic style. This baffled his contemporaries, as he was returning to a more traditional approach that he was used to when he was younger.

Towards the end of his life he dabbled back into cubism, reflecting on death a great deal, creating a lot of dark images and motifs throughout his work. The German Art historian Werner Spies identified two styles in Picasso’s work during his later years. One was his usual rapid painting style, with large speedy gestures, where you can see the pace at which he is trying to express his thoughts. The second, a more patient style shown in his sketches and drawings.

Spies then went on to say that, “to formulate in terms of pathos, you could say he was painting his own fear of death. Expressed metaphorically, he had an hourglass in his head which he turned over every time he began something.”


Guernica is one of the most famous paintings by Picasso and is considered one of the most brilliant artworks ever created.

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