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Created by BJ Haffeman



    Cubism was an avant-garde art movement created in the early 20th century focused mainly on changing perception of European art on a perspective that the external world and the experience of that world as shaped by the experiencer. A Cubist artist breaks up particular objects and rearranges them in an abstract way. Cubism tries to view objects from multiple perspectives in an attempt to fully represent the object, giving it a depth that would have been unattainable from a conventional perspective. The problem of perspective is not the only concern of cubists, who also must demonstrate the "relative importance of form and color" as "form is not only more real but offers the security of perception through more than one sense." By giving the viewer a new way to look at the object portrayed in the art, the artist was forcing the viewer to reevaluate the conventional way of viewing the object, essentially, making it a completely new thing. Cubism in visual art was another way that artists and thinkers of the Modernist movement endeavored to "make it new."


    Paul Cezanne originated Cubism, but artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris expanded the art to entirely new horizons. During the early Cubist period, Picasso and Braque--both influenced by the work of Cezanne--began to work together, experimenting with the ideas of space and color. They sought to remove their work from the traditional understanding of art and create a radically new way of looking at spacial cues and structure. 


    Cubism has been critisized since its origin.  It wasn't until the 1920's that it was actually viewed and studied as art. Many detested Cubism, dismissing the artists as vulgar and the art as chaotic. One critic described the work as a "method of mutilation," and another said it resembled "a field of broken glass." Interestingly though, many cubist painters accepted this latter metaphor for their art, recognizing that there was a method behind the many distortions and destructions.


     After World War II, there was a period of disillusionment, where many no longer found meaning behind human endeavors.  This period shaped how Cubism was viewed, as pre-WWII, critics would speak of "the artist's vision" or the meaning behind a Cubist work of art, but post-WWII, Cubism was viewed as a "means of constructing a picture by taking the object as a pictorial element only." Any speculation about meanings or motivations behind the work had been lost, and, unfortunately to some, this view of Cubism dominated in the following decades. The only people to counter these arguments after the war were the Dadaists and the Surrealists, which could stem from their belief in meaning behind their own art.


Futurism, constructivism, and precisionism all began (at least in part) as responses to cubism, and some Surrealists may have seen Cubists as a precursor to them.




Picasso: Landscape with Bridge 1909   




Analytical Cubism (1909 - 1912): During the period of Analytical Cubism, artists began to stray away from the bright colors of the earlier period and replaced them with earth tones. The objective in using less color was to focus more on the actual structure of the piece. During this period, the main goal of Cubism came to fruition as artists began to depict different viewpoints simultaneously. However, such innovation ran the risk of being incomprehensible to the viewer.


Braque: Man with Guitar 1911



Synthetic Cubism (1912 - 1919): The Synthetic period began as artists became tired of the analytical work and felt the need for even more new and innovative ideas. They attempted to recover some of the reality lost during the initial cubism movement by using real-life objects, pasted on to the surface of their works. This style became known as collage, from the French word coller, meaning to glue.  Notice, for example, in Juan Gris' oil painting, Harlequin with the Guitar, that the image of the guitar and the musician's upper torso are much more easily perceptible than in Georges Braque's analytical cubist painting, Man with Guitar.  Not only is the overall image more complete, but the colors are more varied, bright, and contrasting than in Picasso's and Braque's works above. 



Gris: Harlequin with Guitar, 1919




Cubism and American Modernism-

   Cubism was introduced to America through a group of American artists in New York City called The Eight in 1913 at an Armory Show. The American audience was generally shocked, but American cubism grew and became more developed as the modernism gained momentum.


    Stuart Davis(1892-1964) was one of the first Americans to use European cubism. He felt that America had been portrayed in 19th century techniques for a long time and there needed to be a change. Stuart felt that city life would best be expressed through cubist means. By adapting english words, American logos and by giving his scenes a jumpy but rhythmic design, Stuart adapted cubism into American culture. In 1922, Stuart wrote that he would "begin a series of paintings that shall be rigorously logical American, not French. America has had her scientists, her inventors, now she will have her artist." After this, he produced art that imitated European cubism, but replaced all foreign objects with American ones.

    Aaron Douglas (1898-1979) developed American cubism in his art as he divided the visual space and overlapping planes. One of his more famous techniques was the use of circular shapes, representing the simultaneousness of our life experience. He painted mostly in browns and greens and had a strong focus on breaking down traditional African styles. Douglas' art greatly influenced African American muralists, who adapted cubism in their work as seen below.


Carlos Lopez, Bounty, Paw Paw, Michigan




Cubism in literature: Poets of the Modernist time also applied the theories of cubism to their writing. For instance, Wallace Stevens' apparently fragmented poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" views a blackbird from a number of perspectives: some of the stanzas describe a blackbird directly, while others merely allude to the imagined image of a blackbird or the emotion connected with a blackbird. He also shifts narrative point-of-view from one stanza to another as a more literary application of the visual art technique of changing perspectives. Working in this form, Stevens seems to be giving the reader a sort of cubist picture of a blackbird: he approaches it from many angles in an attempt to give us a more comprehensive idea of what the blackbird means. 


Likewise, the work of poet William Carlos Williams bears many similarities to cubism. Seemingly unrelated words and images are juxtaposed in "Spring and All," forming a verbal and pictorial collage (Wrede 39):

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast- a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen (lines 1-6).
Although Williams presents a variety of images, the reader's interpretations of the images still play an integral part in determining the poem's meaning.


Vorticism: This smaller and shorter lived movement came out of cubism and is related to Futurism in its celebration of "the new," the excitement and dynamicity of the age of machinery. Vorticism was an almost exclusively British movement, as opposed to the more cosmopolitan Cubism and Futurism.  As its name (coined by Ezra Pound) implies, it was concerned with the power and speed of the modern age. The vorticist manifesto, "Blast," was supposed to be a serial, but appeared in only one edition as the movement quickly spun out of existence.









Works Cited


Carrier, David. "Artist's Intentions and Art Historians' Interpretation of the Artwork." Leonardo 19 (1986): 337-342. JSTOR. Messiah College, Murray Lib. 22 Apr. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>


Fry, Edward B. “Picasso, Cubism, and Reflexivity.” Art Journal 53.1 (1998): 97 Academic Search Premier. 27 March 2007.


Leighten, Patricia. "Revising Cubism." Art Journal 47 (1988): 269-272. JSTOR. Messiah College, Murray Lib. 22 Apr. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>


Robbins, Daniel. "Abbreviated Historiography of Cubism." Art Journal 47 (1988): 277-283. JSTOR. Messiah College, Murray Lib. 22 Apr. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>


Wrede, Theda.  "A New Beginning: William Carlos Williams' Cubist Technique in Spring and All." Interdisciplinary Humanities  22 (Fall2005): 35-52. full text  












Back to Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature

Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 11:04 am on Mar 14, 2007

I like the images and the links to other pages. I would encourage you to attach cubism to the literature is some specific ways. Stevens and in a different Way WCW both saw themselves working out of cubist principles.

Anonymous said

at 6:45 pm on Apr 22, 2007

I don't know if you need internal citations or not...something to think about. oh, and three of your pictures are not showing up--the last three under Analytical Cubism.

Anonymous said

at 7:29 am on Apr 25, 2007

BJ, include titles for the web pages you reference rather than just listing the URLs. You could probably expand your use of links a bit. Why not find a good page that references constructivism, for instance, so interested parties could link to it if they want to do so.

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