Cubism, a movement founded by Picasso and his close friend Georges Braque in 1907, was a radical breakthrough in art that undermined nearly five centuries of tradition. The term was coined in a critic’s disparaging review of Braque’s 1908 exhibition at Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s gallery, in which the writer described the paintings as “full of little cubes.” Kahnweiler, who established his gallery in Paris in 1907, became the primary champion of the new art form, representing all of its major artists. Though the principles behind Cubism were somewhat limiting and the movement was eventually abandoned—first by Picasso and then others—it had a radical effect on the course of Modern art.
Cubism was based on the theory that illusionistic perspective, foreshortening, and naturalism—conventions of representation established in the Renaissance—did not accurately represent the act of looking, which is experienced in three-dimensional space. To create an art that would more closely represent the mind’s eye, Picasso and Braque developed a system of analyzing three-dimensional objects and breaking them into geometric planes arranged on a two-dimensional surface using multiple vantage points. Recognizable symbols and features help the viewer coalesce the flattened image into a whole; a sense of depth is created through variations of line and shading. The artists involved in Cubism limited their palette in order to focus attention on the rigorous forms they developed. This early phase is often referred to as Analytic Cubism. Later, collaged elements appear in the work, color became more dominant, and the subject less fragmented—this phase is labeled Synthetic Cubism.
A number of influences and circumstances came together around 1906 that led Picasso to abandon his Rose Period/Saltimbanque work. Inspired by Cézanne’s analytical landscapes and Gauguin’s focus on raw forms, Picasso wanted to find a new mode of representation that would break away from Western conventions. He began to bring elements from African and Oceanic sculpture, as well as pre-historic Iberian sculpture, into his work.
Picasso’s friendship with Georges Braque was formed in the fall of 1907. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a mutual friend, brought Braque to Picasso’s studio to see the Spaniard’s ground-breaking canvas Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art). Picasso had fully realized his vision of an art informed by pre-modern culture in this painting, which he had completed in the summer of the same year. Previously, Braque had been involved with the Fauvist movement led by Matisse, but he immediately understood the significance of Picasso’s direction and recognized an affinity with his own concerns. The two artists were nearly inseparable thereafter as they feverishly developed the principles behind Cubism. Their alliance continued until Braque entered military service for World War I in August of 1914.
Though not commercially successful at the time, printmaking played a significant role in the developing movement, and some historians feel that the linear and tonal limitations of printmaking provided a more rigorous approach to the style.* Picasso purchased his first press in 1907 and he found printmaking to be a ready format in which to develop his rapidly developing ideas. He created a handful of self-printed experimental prints from 1907-1909 that reveal his developing interests. In 1910, Kahnweiler asked Picasso to provide illustrations for a deluxe book edition of the poem Saint Matorel by Max Jacob, a close friend of the artist. The resulting four etchings (Bloch 19 – Bloch 22), particularly La Table (Bloch 20) demonstrate a major leap in the Cubist lexicon in the depiction of space. In the summer of 1911, Picasso and Braque left for Céret, a village in the foothills of the Pyrénées in the south of France, where they created a handful of important Cubist prints together including their seminal drypoints Fox (Braque) and Nature morte. Bouteille (Picasso, Bloch 24). These prints are quite similar in subject and style, and the compositions can be difficult to differentiate upon first glance. They were published in editions of one hundred by Kahnweiler in 1912 but—like the dealer’s previous Cubist publications—were met with little commercial success. As a result, several plates by both artists went unpublished for several decades.
After Braque left to fight in World War I, Picasso briefly continued to work in the Cubist style, however, found it difficult to work consistently during the chaos and poverty of the war years. His printmaking activity dwindled considerably, as copper was a particularly expensive commodity. In addition, the two dealers who had supported his work were both forced to suspend business in the war years. On a personal level, he was deeply affected and shocked at the untimely death of his long-term lover Eva Gouel in 1915. A few years later, in 1917, Picasso found a new direction when a commission brought him to Italy, where he became enthralled with classical sculpture and met his first wife, ballerina Olga Khokhlova. By the early 1920s Picasso had fully abandoned Cubism, turning instead to themes inspired by Classical Greek and Roman art and mythology.
*For full discussion, see Donna Stein and Burr Wallen, The Cubist Print. Santa Barbara: University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1981.