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Abstraction & the Principles of Cubism

Abstraction & the Principles of Cubism
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  • 0:01 Knights of the…
  • 1:03 What is Abstraction?
  • 2:33 Origins & Periods of Cubism
  • 4:13 Influences
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the works of Pablo Picasso, George Braques, and other Cubist artists. Learn about the philosophy driving Cubist artists and how they paved the way for a new art of the 20th century. Examine the influences and cultural ramifications of Cubism.

Knights of the Isosceles Triangle

When Americans first laid eyes on the avant garde Expressionist and Cubist art coming out of Europe in the first decade of the 20th century, it was met in New York with much derision and bafflement. Among them was Teddy Roosevelt, who jokingly called them 'The Knights of the Isosceles Triangle,' mocking the pretension and absurdity of the Cubists. Because abstract art does not seek to represent recognizable shapes and figures from the everyday world, it can rub people the wrong way; but the key to understanding and appreciating abstract Expressionism and Cubism rests in first understanding the underlying philosophy of its form.

What's the purpose behind painting a shape as opposed to a landscape or a portrait? How do artists expect to convey meaning through abstract shapes and colors? We will look at the answers to these and other questions in this lesson as we investigate the tenets of Cubism in early 20th century art.

What Is Abstraction?

Coalescing in the beginning of the 20th century, the style of abstraction in art uses geometry, form and color to convey meaning and expression as opposed to recognizable depictions of familiar objects. In response to earlier styles of Realism and Impressionism, abstract art drew attention to the painting as a two-dimensional canvas. It can be seen both as a style of visual art and as a meta- or self-referential contemplation on the nature of art.

Abstract artists were also renowned for their treatises and philosophical writings, making passionate statements in favor of art for the sake of expression of a subjective way of seeing as opposed to 'spectacle' or 'empathetic emotional response'. For example, an early proponent of Abstract Expressionism, German art historian and philosopher Wilhelm Worringer presented his doctoral thesis in 1912 to much enthusiasm from the avant garde, relating new forms of abstract art to ancient Greek art, calling upon its simplicity and the primitive.

Worringer's explanation of abstract art was adopted as a philosophical basis for the Cubists. His book explained the appreciation and attraction of simplistic form for its spiritual and expressive value, and that was contrasted against the empathy and emotional response created through representational art, such as Realism.

Origins and Periods in Cubism

The style of Cubism derives from Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and his associate French artist George Braque, who were inspired by the paintings of Paul Cezanne in Paris in the first decade of the 20th century. Picasso and Braque sought to push the limits of the then popular style of Post-Impressionism, characterized by emotional use of colors, simplicity, and a trend toward abstraction.

As Cubism evolved out of Post-Impressionism, the compositions became more and more abstract. For example, in some early Cubist paintings, the figures and objects can be made out, but the abstractions became more severe as the style progressed to complete abstraction of form, shape and color.

Mondrian's later series of paintings, called 'The Tree Series,' shows how a recognizable form can degenerate into the simplicity and abstract form of just lines and shapes: pure form. Instead of the landscapes most celebrated by the Impressionist, Cubists favored the form of the human body and everyday objects, like stairs, musical instruments and newspapers.

Later Cubist works, into the teens, were leached of color, consisting of an overtly brown palette. Moving away from representation and toward simplicity with the aim of making the viewer recognize the two-dimensionality of the canvas, Cubism descended to collage. Picasso and Braque would cut and paste newspapers, disassemble and reassemble musical instruments, combining disparate found objects into a new creative composition.

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