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Written by Enakshi Sharma
For a movement that barely lasted a couple of decades, Cubism has been exceptionally influential. It has impacted the craft of generations of painters and other artists and the main protagonists of the movement such as Picasso remain among the best known painters in the world even after a century. While you can always go and study verbose theories and interpretations about cubism, here are five best works of cubism by five of its greatest exponents as a primer to this delightful movement.
1. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon)
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas
Well, Picasso is inseparable with cubism and he is recognized by everyone including people who are not even into arts. Besides he has so many masterpieces that it is hard to choose one of them. But we are picking something that actually precedes actual cubism. This painting is from his African period but it had most of the cubist elements and considered to be a stepping stone towards the new movement.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is primarily painted in pink and consists of five nude women, presumably prostitutes. The angular shapes that were the cornerstone of cubism were distinctly visible here too. This choice of form makes the women menacing rather than alluring. Also, while they look similar from a distance, every figure reveals a different face on a closer look. It represents conflicting ideas of beauty and ugliness and according to some critics, it represents the painter’s own conflicts between is fear and craving for the female form that probably even reflected in the multitude of affairs that he had throughout his life.
Georges Braque, La Mandore, 1909–10, Oil on canvas, 711 x 559 mm
Mandora is yet another early Cubist experimentation. Braque was in the process of formalizing and setting the tone for the movement and he choose to focus on something very tiny, a certain type of lute due to his general interest in musical instruments. He kept the colours subdued drew from Cezanne’s geometric compositions to arrive at something that was going to set the tone for rest of the decade.
What is noteworthy here is the selection of the subject and his affinity towards manufactured studio settings rather than slice of life scenes from the street. He chose an object that was a part of his life and explored it from multiple perspectives, which was a prerequisite for any cubist work.
Juan Gris, Fantômas, 1915, Oil on canvas, 23 9/16 × 28 7/8 in
Fantomas represents the next level of cubism. While working with maestros like Picasso and Braque, Gris developed his own style while remaining within the stylistic confines of cubism by experimenting with collages using newspaper cuttings and other random items. However with Fantomas he chooses to paint the same collection of disjoint objects on oil.
Fantomas shows a pipe and several magazines including a pop-culture favourite crime periodical Fantomas, which lends its name to the painting. Gris plays with the arrangement of the items of the collage, presumably in real life itself before painting it. He builds conflict and tension with the lines by arranging them in different conflicting patterns. He even breaks away to some extent from early cubist trends by using brighter colours. He adds abstract elements while using commonplace items, thus introducing the complexity that is characteristic of cubism.
4. La Femme au Cheval (Woman with Horse)
Jean Metzinger, La Femme au Cheval (Woman with a Horse), 1911-12, oil on canvas, 162 cm × 130.5 cm
As the name suggests, this painting depicts a woman and a horse, two favourite entities that have been used over the ages by the painters to represent passion and virility. The woman is wearing nothing but a pearl necklace and the landscape at the backdrop is full of vegetation although the colours are subdued as expected from pure cubist works.
It is one of the finest examples of the primary cubist principle of exploring a subject from different perspectives. It basically tries to paint something that that one would achieve by superimposing several images of the subject taken from several angles by moving around it. It is a technical achievement of sorts as it Metzinger perfects the cubist craft and creates an art that requires the viewer to actually spend some time with it to get the rough the maze of multiple perspectives and actually identify the subject.
5. L’Homme au Balcon (Man on a Balcony)
Albert Gleizes, l’Homme au Balcon, 1912, oil on canvas, 195.6 x 114.9 cm
It is another iconic work by another cubist icon Gleizes. It shows a man on a balcony and if you have a closer look, the entire landscape of the city can be visible, as one can see from a balcony of a higher floor. So, it tries to provide a unique visual sensation while staying within the stylistic confines of cubism.
It is also noteworthy that Gleizes tries to experiment further by playing with classical cubist angles with curvilinear forms on certain parts of the human figure, thus representing a conflict of opposites which is central to the very idea of cubist movement.