"We only wanted to express what was in us..."

“When we discovered Cubism, we did not have the aim of discovering Cubism. We only wanted to express what was in us... The goal I proposed myself in making cubism? To paint and nothing more... with a method linked only to my thought... Neither the good nor the true; neither the useful nor the useless.” - Pablo Picasso

Paul Cézanne said that painting was painful to him, that the intensity of the real world beat on his senses. And true to his word, Cézanne’s paintings often vibrate with color. A simple still life with apples look like they might shake themselves off the canvas.

In 1907, a year after Cézanne’s death, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque visited a posthumous retrospective of the impressionist giant at the Salon d'Automne. Cézanne’s simple, intense forms made a powerful impression on Picasso and Braque, and over the next three years they began a series of experiments to push their artwork even further. As usual, Picasso kicked things off with a bang, shocking his friends and compatriots with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a portrait of five prostitutes in aggressive postures with bodies distorted to near abstraction. Braque countered with landscapes where pyramids and cubes replaced the trees. It was Braque’s landscapes that caught the eye of the French art critic Louis Vauxcelles, who described the work as reducing the world to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes’ coining the now famous term. Braque and Picasso were officially ‘Cubists.’

Like many new ideas, cubism evolved very quickly at first. At first, Picasso and Braque’s explorations were figurative. It was still possible to discern the person or object that was being exploded into geometry. Other artists began to catch on, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, and Piet Mondrian all contributed to the new movement. But Picasso and Braque were in the zone, and as cubism grew in popularity the two artists pushed its conceptual limits. Living in the bohemian Paris neighborhood of Montmartre, Picasso and Braque worked so closely it’s still nearly impossible to distinguish one artist’s work from the other. They explored cubism like scientists, reducing it to its essence, now referred to as ‘Analytical Cubism’. Muted fields of geometric shapes and shadow in browns and grays.

By 1913, Cubism evolved again. In Russia, avant-garde painters Liobov Popova and Natalie Goncharova pushed cubism toward new forms of expression: Suprematism and Rayonism. And Picasso and Braque integrated collage, adding snippets of newspaper in simpler compositions that came to be called Synthetic Cubism.

Cubism was a catalyst. Using geometry to see an object from many angles at once forced artists to question how they saw their subjects, a question that drives artists to this day.


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Reed Enger, "Cubism, "We only wanted to express what was in us..."," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 27, 2015; last modified November 08, 2022,

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Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Pablo Picasso, 1907

Girl with a Mandolin (Portrait of Fanny Tellier), Pablo Picasso

Girl with a Mandolin (Portrait of Fanny Tellier) Pablo Picasso, 1910

The Elegant Ball, the Country Dance, Marie Laurencin

The Elegant Ball, the Country Dance Marie Laurencin, 1910

Woman in an Armchair, Pablo Picasso

Woman in an Armchair Pablo Picasso, 1909 – 1910

Woman with Phlox, Albert Gleizes

Woman with Phlox Albert Gleizes, 1910

Gray Tree, Piet Mondrian

Gray Tree Piet Mondrian, 1911

I and the Village, Marc Chagall

I and the Village Marc Chagall, 1911

Portrait de Jacques Nayral, Albert Gleizes

Portrait de Jacques Nayral Albert Gleizes, 1911

Tea Time, Jean Metzinger

Tea Time Jean Metzinger, 1911

I condemn without hesitation the position of the Knave of Diamonds, which has replaced creative activity with theorizing.

Cubism — a Diatribe Natalia Goncharova, 1912

Dancer, Gino Severini

Dancer Gino Severini, 1912

Dancer in a Café, Jean Metzinger

Dancer in a Café Jean Metzinger, 1912

There is nothing real outside ourselves; there is nothing real except the coincidence of a sensation and an individual mental direction.

Excerpts from Du "Cubisme" Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, 1912

Female Figure, Piet Mondrian

Female Figure Piet Mondrian, 1911 – 1912

Harvest Threshing, Albert Gleizes

Harvest Threshing Albert Gleizes, 1912

La Plume Jaune, Jean Metzinger

La Plume Jaune Jean Metzinger, 1912

Man on a Balcony, Albert Gleizes

Man on a Balcony Albert Gleizes, 1912

Nude, Piet Mondrian

Nude Piet Mondrian, 1911 – 1912

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, Marcel Duchamp

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 Marcel Duchamp, 1912

Plastic Synthesis Of Movements Of A Woman, Luigi Russolo

Plastic Synthesis Of Movements Of A Woman Luigi Russolo, 1912

Portrait of Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger

Portrait of Albert Gleizes Jean Metzinger, 1912

Self-Portrait with Straw Boater, Gino Severini

Self-Portrait with Straw Boater Gino Severini, 1912

Still Life with Ginger Jar 1, Piet Mondrian

Still Life with Ginger Jar 1 Piet Mondrian, 1912

Still Life with Ginger Jar 2, Piet Mondrian

Still Life with Ginger Jar 2 Piet Mondrian, 1912

The Passage from Virgin to Bride, Marcel Duchamp

The Passage from Virgin to Bride Marcel Duchamp, 1912

The Rider, Jean Metzinger

The Rider Jean Metzinger, 1911 – 1912

The Smokers, Fernand Henri Léger

The Smokers Fernand Henri Léger, 1911 – 1912

Woman with a Fan, 1912, Jean Metzinger

Woman with a Fan, 1912 Jean Metzinger, 1912

Composition in Grey Blue, Piet Mondrian

Composition in Grey Blue Piet Mondrian, 1912 – 1913

Composition No. 3, Piet Mondrian

Composition No. 3 Piet Mondrian, 1912 – 1913

Composition with Figures, Liubov Popova

Composition with Figures Liubov Popova, 1913

Football Players, Albert Gleizes

Football Players Albert Gleizes, 1912 – 1913

House + Light + Sky Movement, Luigi Russolo

House + Light + Sky Movement Luigi Russolo, 1913

Illustration for Souz Molodyozhi, Olga Rozanova

Illustration for Souz Molodyozhi Olga Rozanova, 1913

Illustration for Souz Molodyozhi, Olga Rozanova

Illustration for Souz Molodyozhi Olga Rozanova, 1913

Man in a Hammock, Albert Gleizes

Man in a Hammock Albert Gleizes, 1913

Man with a Pipe, Jean Metzinger

Man with a Pipe Jean Metzinger, 1913

Nude Model in the Studio, Fernand Henri Léger

Nude Model in the Studio Fernand Henri Léger, 1912 – 1913

Peasants Gathering Grapes, Natalia Goncharova

Peasants Gathering Grapes Natalia Goncharova, 1913

The Cyclist, Natalia Goncharova

The Cyclist Natalia Goncharova, 1913

The Foxes, Franz Marc

The Foxes Franz Marc, 1913

The Knife Grinder or 'Principle of Glittering', Kazimir Malevich

The Knife Grinder or 'Principle of Glittering' Kazimir Malevich, 1912 – 1913

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Umberto Boccioni

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space Umberto Boccioni, 1913

Woman with a Fan, Jean Metzinger

Woman with a Fan Jean Metzinger, 1913

Cards and Dice, Georges Braque

Cards and Dice Georges Braque, 1914

Curtain for Le Coq d'Or: Third Act, Natalia Goncharova

Curtain for Le Coq d'Or: Third Act Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Femmes assises à une fenêtre, Albert Gleizes

Femmes assises à une fenêtre Albert Gleizes, 1914

Interventionist Demonstration, Carlo Carrà

Interventionist Demonstration Carlo Carrà, 1914

Paysage Cubiste (Landscape, Baum und Fluss), Albert Gleizes

Paysage Cubiste (Landscape, Baum und Fluss) Albert Gleizes, 1914

Pier and Ocean, Piet Mondrian

Pier and Ocean Piet Mondrian, 1914

Next Movement
Suprematism, Modernism


Taking refuge in the square.

1913 – 1924

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