The avant-garde is, perhaps, inherent in modern art, which continually sought to push boundaries and discover new frontiers, but the term first began to be associated with art and culture around the turn of the century as modernism accelerated its escape from art tradition. Impressionism had dominated for some time, and as things shifted into post-impressionism a range of new ideas began to take hold; symbolism, fauvism, expressionism, futurism, and; around 1907, cubism.
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is often cited as the first step towards cubism, and the artist’s work of the time in general inspired a great deal of the movement, but there was also Georges Braque, working on a range of similar concepts. A review of his 1908 exhibition commented that he was “reducing everything… to geometric schemes, to cubes”. Word began to spread of this great simplification of form taking place in the studios of these two artists, and within a few years there was a whole school of cubists including Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Le Fauconnier, and Léger.
The basic premise of cubism was offer a more complete representation of three dimensional space, on a two dimensional canvas. Objects are broken up into smaller pieces, the cubes, and reassembled so as to show multiple perspectives of the same thing. Picasso’s familiar cubist faces would often be painted both from the front and the side at the same time letting us see more than a traditional perspective. Though Picasso and Braque were the founding fathers of the movement, these ideas had begun to be touched upon in the late works of Cézanne also.
Bringing the avant-garde artform to a wider public
The early cubist pioneers were fortunate to find a Paris art dealer willing to support their experiments financially leaving them free to experiment however they wished. Moving into the 1910’s other artists began working with cubist ideas who didn’t have the same level of support, and needed more of a focus on creating work a wider audience understood and responded to. A group often thought of as the Salon cubists, by virtue of their regular exhibiting there, formed including Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay and Léger, they regularly met at le Fauconnier’s studio to discuss ideas and a focus on researching form over colour, which the neo-Impressionists had their attention on.
This began the process of cubism reaching a wider audience; moving further into the decade a brace of experimental avant-garde art movements from Europe began to be noticed in the US, including fauvism, futurism, and cubism. The cubist works attracted a huge amount of attention, with one review asking, “What do they mean? Have those responsible for them taken leave of their senses? Is it art or madness? Who knows?”
Cubism was perhaps one of the first examples of surprise turning to scorn amongst the public and reviewers; many people simply didn’t understand it, even some cubists took issue with some examples of cubism. Unsurprisingly there were blurred edges and blends between the various styles of the time as well, often leading to questions of which movement a piece belonged within, and what it’s merit was accordingly.
Evolutions of style and the ultimate legacy of Cubism
Cubism fired experimental spirit in its practitioners who quickly began to evolve and diverge. Abstractionism rapidly developed amongst cubist artists, then orphism which connected into fauvism. Movements like purism, futurism, suprematism, dada, constructivism, vorticism, De Stijl, and art deco all advanced or developed in response to cubism, which itself drew from these styles to evolve further into geometric flat planes of colour overlapping each other.
As this geometric cubism began to give way to surrealism towards the end of the decade, many artists moved on into the new forms of style emerging. Cubism would occasionally re-emerge, but it’s key work was done; amongst a great deal of fresh and visionary avant-garde modern art at the time, it helped expand horizons and possibilities, and triggered incredible creativity and curiosity in everyone who encountered it.