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  Cubism, one of the quintessential styles of 20th-century Western painting, was prefigured in the late, increasingly geometric works of Cézanne, and was energetically developed in the 1900s and 1910s by Braque and Picasso (whose Les demoiselles d\'Avignon (1907) is generally cited as one of the first ‘official’ cubist pictures). Cubism aimed to restructure representation through a redefinition of realism, to show the solid reality of objects and not merely their appearance. Its technical starting point, the division of the objects the artist wishes to depict (houses, trees, fruit, musical instruments, faces, whatever) into planes of light and colour, is identical to that of any earlier art. In cubism, however, the planes are stressed, separated one from another and even outlined until geometric shapes dominate the finished picture. (As well as the cubes which give the style its name, cylinders, pyramids and spheres are common.) Thus, in its first phase, ‘Analytical Cubism’ (1908-12), cubism abandoned the conventions of Renaissance pictorial space in favour of a multi-viewpoint exploration of the motif, showing from many different angles objects disposed in shallow picture space, articulated through overlapping and interlocking planes which respect the planimentric nature of the picture surface. In its second phase, ‘Synthetic Cubism’, it moved away from the representation of the object in Nature to focus on the material nature of the object in relation to other objects or materials. Synthetic Cubism emphasizes its non-illusionistic agenda through the inclusion of ‘real’ elements, such as fragments of wallpaper or journals of photographs. (Thus Braque\'s Still Life on a Table (1913) includes a strip of newspaper, the primary meaning of which is the fact that it is a newspaper, but one which by extension ‘represents’ a newspaper in a painting, and lastly provides a structuring device within the picture space.)

At its most extreme (for example, in Picasso\'s Man Smoking a Pipe or Duchamp\'s Nude Descending a Staircase), a cubist picture can seem to the unconvinced observer little more than a tumble of shapes which are difficult to relate to the picture\'s title. At its most representational (for example, in the check tablecloths, plates and fruit of a Gris still life), a cubist work can be little more than a pleasant emphasis of form over content. Although at its finest (for instance, in Picasso\'s 1930s and 1940s portraits of Jacqueline) it becomes just as much the means towards an end as, say perspective was in the hands of the Old Masters. Its importance resides in its potential to construct works of art that no longer hold up Nature as an ultimate appeal, but in which relationships between the constituent parts are central to the meaning. In this, it confirmed the general direction of modernism in fine art from Manet onwards, and anticipated the development of abstraction and Clement Greenberg\'s ideas on ‘pure’ painting. There is little cubist sculpture, and what there is—such as the work of Lipchitz—suggests that paint on a flat surface remains the ideal vehicle for this apparently three-dimensional style. PD MG KMcL

Further reading R. Rosenblum, Cubism and 20th-century Art.



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