Although well known for many of his works, art critics generally consider Picasso’s most important contribution to the history of art to be his development of what is known as Cubism with French painter Georges Braque.
Over a period of roughly ten years, from 1909 to 1919, Picasso and Braque, incorporating elements from Picasso’s previous African-inspired period, started not just a new school of art, but a new way of looking at the world. By the end of the Cubism movement, not only had Picasso and Braque influenced the worlds of painting and sculpture, but also inspired related movements in music and literature as well.
The roots of Cubism are often credited to Paul Cézanne, whose later work displayed two distinct tendencies: Breaking a painting down into small multifaceted areas of paint, emphasizing a pluralistic viewpoint, and simplifying natural forms into basic geometric symbols.
Braque and Picasso took this much further, representing all the surfaces of an object on a single plane, as if all the planes of an object were visible at the same time. While the two of them are credited as developing Cubism together, Picasso is usually credited as influencing Braque to move away from his current period of work called Fauvism. Braque and Picasso were later joined by Juan Gris in spreading the gospel of Cubism. The three of them worked together in developing Cubism until the outbreak of World War One in Europe in 1914.
The term Cubism was coined by Louis Vauxcelles, a French art critic, in describing a painting of Braque’s. The term did not initially gain popularity, however, as the two Cubists themselves did not embrace the term. Art historian Ernst Gombrich described Cubism as “The most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture.” The end result of the labors of the Cubists was to leave no doubt in the mind of the viewer what was being portrayed and how.
By 1911, the term ‘Cubist School’ was being used to refer to students and imitators of Picasso and Braque, who’s initial Cubic works were so similar as to be sometimes difficult to tell apart. Many of the artists who identified with the Cubists, however, did not follow in their footsteps.
Calling themselves the Section d’Or (Golden Section), they were also known as the Puteaux Group, but history identifies them as a loose, collaborative group of artists that are now best known as the Orphists, an offshoot of the Cubist movement, if not actually Cubists themselves.
World War One spelled the death knell for the Cubist movement, although an exhibition of Jacques Villon’s in New York City brought the movement to America, prolonging its life. The influences of Cubism continued until the end of the decade, in 1919, but the effects of two men intentionally starting from scratch and finding a new way of looking at art and the world, has been felt ever since.