Week 7 / March 13: Cubism

Pablo Picasso Cubist-style paiting of a nude in an armchair

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), Nude in an Armchair, summer 1909, oil on canvas; 36 1/4 × 28 3/4 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art
LINK: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/490587


Developed by Pablo Picasso and George Braque, Cubism is one of the most significant developments in the history of modern art.

Pablo Picasso’s route to Cubism began with the simplification of forms inspired by African masks and ancient sculpture. The painter George Braque, associated with the Fauves, was deeply interested in the work of Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist who relied on pure areas of blocky color rather than clearly defined linear forms that he then organized within the canvas disregarding perspectival accuracy.

The collaboration between Picasso and Braque in the development of Cubism is legendary in the history of art. Their intense working relationship lasted months in which the artists visited each other daily to discuss their work. Soon, they stopped signing their individual works and only declared a painting finished when both agreed. Recognizing that what they were doing was the creation of something wholly new and modern, Picasso and Braque referred to each other jokingly as Orville and Wilbur Wright, the American brothers who pioneered the development of flight a few years ahead of the development of Cubism.

  • For Cubism, download and use the ‘Cubism worksheet (Word)‘ while doing the readings in the order listed below. This worksheet will take you through each reading and video helping to gather, define and organize key information to understand Cubism. As you are reading, fill in information on the ‘Cubism worksheet.’ Bring your completed worksheet to class for in-class review.
  • Start with the short essay on the Met’s website, giving you an overview of Cubism: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cube/hd_cube.htm 
  • Read another short essay that defines some key terms related to Cubism. Look up these terms on dictionary.com: simultaneity, conceptual and perceptional if you are unclear about their exact meaning. LINK: http://arthistory.about.com/od/modernarthistory/a/cubism_10one.htm

Next, you are going to read various material relating to Cubism on the Khan Academy website, including:

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon:

Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is extremely significant for the development of Cubism. Some ideas about Cubism are developed here, including the abbreviations of form influenced by African masks and sculptures and the beginning use of multiple visual perspectives or multiple points of view of the same object brought together within one image. Other equally significant aspects of Cubism only come later after continued experimentation and collaboration with Braque.




On the worksheet, add any relevant terms to the area about Synthetic Cubism.

For class next week – summary of the 1 required thing to do:

  1. Read and take notes on Cubism using the worksheet. Bring the completed Cubism worksheet to class for in-class peer review.
  2. OPTIONAL: Read the information below about Orphic Cubism.

 Robert Delaunay (French, 1885 – 1941), Homage to Bleriot, 1914, oil on canvas, 250 x 250 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland (Bleriot was the pilot of the first airline flight across the English Channel from Britain to France.)

Orphic Cubism (skim this material to see the visual influence of Cubism)

Orphic Cubism refers to several different artists. We will read and watch short videos about Robert and Sonia Delaunay, František Kupka, Fernand Leger (primarily considered a Cubist), and Francis Picabia.

  • Read overview about Orphic Cubism on Encyclopedia Brittanica online:


Keep notes on the most important information and concepts.



  • Read short text about Sonia Delaunay on Tate Museum website: LINK:


Read the following short discussions of Sonia Delaunay, František Kupka and Francis Picabia that focus specifically on the development of these artists’ Orphic Cubist works in terms of their interests in music.

Consider how music helped them find an equivalent in their visual imagery. Remember our discussion of the German Expressionist Vasily Kandinsky and his interest in the connections between abstraction and music?

The artworks referenced in these short essays are all included in the powerpoint for reference.

Sonia Delaunay

Born in the Ukraine in 1885 to a bourgeois family, Sonia Terk moved to Germany to study painting and in 1906, settled in Paris, where she met and married the painter Robert Delaunay. In 1911, she made a quilted blanket from small scraps of fabric in an abstract arrangement for their newborn son Charles. Sonia’s believe in craft as not separate from or less important than the fine arts meant she subjected her most humble embroideries and quilts to the same rigorous color theory that she and her husband did in their paintings.

For the Delaunays, the constantly shifting play of light and color in their urban surroundings was the central component of their art. By purifying their images of overtly recognizable forms and focusing solely on this interplay, they were able to evoke the constant dynamism of optical stimulus in the modern city, which they called the ‘law of simultaneous contrasts’ or simultaneity.

The poet and modern art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (who was a close friend of Picasso), became the spokesperson for the Delaunay’s variation of Cubism, calling it Orphism after the ancient Greek hero who was a legendary musician and poet associated with divine and captivating music.

The Bal Bullier was a popular dance-hall located in the Latin Quarter where the Delaunays were regulars. It opened in the 1850s, was rebuilt after sustaining damages during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and outfitted with electric lighting at the turn of the century. When Sonia made her ambitious painting of the dance-hall, the Argentine tango and the American shimmy were especially popular dances. She recalled how “the continuing and undulating rhythm of the tango incited my colors to move.”[i] Dancing couples appear underneath the electric lights with their simplified geometric forms recognizable by the dark colors representing the men’s suits and the colorful overlapping forms of their female partners moving in pairs across the long horizontal canvas inspired by the vast expanse of the club’s dance floor. To fully explore these visual effects, Sonia also made ‘simultaneous’ dresses and waistcoats to wear to the Bal Bullier and later, she made these available for sale in local boutiques.

After Robert’s death in 1941, Sonia continued to explore abstraction in textile designs and clothing sold at fashionable department stores through the 1950s. She devoted many artworks to the subject of jazz explored through the rhythm of color combinations.

The Delaunay’s son Charles grew up to be a jazz devotee who founded the Hot Club de France, with a band that featured gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Charles founded a magazine called Le Jazz Hot with the first edition printed up on the back of a program for a performance by American saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in February 1935.[ii] During World War II, the Hot Club organized concerts to raise money for out of work musicians.

František Kupka

František Kupka was a Czech-born artist who studied in Prague and Vienna, before making Paris his home in 1896. Like Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, who also became leading abstract painters, Kupka expressed a philosophical and spiritual belief system with his non-representational imagery. The three artists were adherents of Theosophy, which sought to unite aspects of Western philosophy and Eastern religion to realize a universal harmony or utopian alternative to capitalist dystopia and divisive nationalism through the theosophical belief in a pervasive life force that is manifest specifically in nature and in abstraction.

The painting Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors, 1912, was Kupka’s breakout painting and arguably the first entirely non-representational artwork to be exhibited in Paris. Kupka selected the title to dissuade viewers from seeking literal subject matter with the interwoven melodies of a musical fugue translated into the abstract relationship between the blue and red repeating circular forms that reflect Kupka’s interest in regeneration. Like Kandinsky, who also relinquished clearly recognizable motifs in his work at this time, Kupka felt that emotions, colors and music had synesthetic correspondences with the rhythm of an abstract composition being as pure and expressive as music in promoting a heightened spiritual state of being.

Later, Kupka’s work changed to encompass machines and mechanization. He harnessed the tempo and energy of hot jazz and big band swing in the 1920s and 1930s, making paintings that reflect the effortless functionality of modern machinery with forms that appear livelier and bouncier than those representing the languid Baroque fugue. Kupka’s paintings Jazz-Hot, no. 1 and Jazz-Hot, no. II, both 1935, reflect his awareness of the hot jazz scene in Montmartre that developed in the 1920s, ‘the Jazz Age’ so-named by American expatriate writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In the 1920s, hot jazz ensembles began featuring improvisatory solos within the larger composition that evoked the choreographed efficiency of machines working in-synch. For Kupka, these improvisatory solos were related to intuition, the key indication of a true artist who contributed something authentic to the pervasive life force that permeates all living things.

Francis Picabia

Francis Picabia was a leading member of the Parisian avant-garde as well as an international bon vivant with an oversized zest for life. Born in Paris in 1879, he was raised in an affluent bourgeois family. Initially, his work developed in line with the legacy of the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists before Picabia set out to radicalize his work using the vocabulary of Cubism.

Picabia arrived in New York in January 1913 as a participant in the Armory Show, the landmark exhibition that brought modern art to American viewers for the first time. The exhibition featured over 300 artworks by leading European and American artists attracting over 250,000 visitors. Picabia’s wife Gabrielle, a music student when they met, recalled being awed by the city’s suspension bridges, dizzying skyscrapers, bustling traffic and crowded sidewalks. She recalled: “No sooner had we arrived than we became part of a motley international band which turned night into day, conscientious objectors of all nationalities and walks of life living in an inconceivable orgy of sexuality, jazz and alcohol…we believed at first that we had returned to the blessed times of complete freedom of thought and action.”[iii]

It was at this time that Picabia first heard authentic American ragtime music performed live in a club. The music’s effect is seen in a series of small watercolor paintings made in 1913 showing how Picabia successfully interprets the rhythmic sound of the music into an interlocking Cubist vocabulary. In a newspaper interview given that year, Picabia explained how the music and urban stimulus of the city came together in his paintings: “I absorb these impressions. I am in no hurry to put them on canvas. I let them remain in my brain, and then when the spirit of creation is at flood-tide, I improvise my pictures as a musician improvises music.”[iv]


[i] Anne Montfort, ed., Sonia Delaunay exhibition catalogue (London: Tate, 2015).

[ii] William A. Shack, Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story between the Great Wars (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2001), 96.

[iii] Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, “Some Memories of Pre-Dada: Picabia and Duchamp” (1949), included in Robert Motherwell, ed., The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, second edition (Cambridge & London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981), 259.

[iv] Francis Picabia, “How New York Looks To Me,” in New York American, magazine section (March 30, 1913), 11; quoted in William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 48.