Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Cubism is the name given to a form of painting originated and practiced by Georges Braques and Pablo Picasso between 1908 and 1913 and developed further by them, Juan Gris and Fernand Leger until c. 1920.

explanatory context

The work of these four was the centre of a cubist movement centred on Paris prior to the First World War.


The name cubism derived from comments of critics to the early cubist paintings, in which figures and houses were reduced to geometric outlines, as composed of ‘petits cubes’ or ‘bizarreries cubiques’.


Renaissance naturalism supposed a single, fixed viewpoint. Cubism, Gris argued, represented a new realism that abandoned this rule in its representation of a three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. Further, cubism, like all modernist art, took another step towards abandoning illusionism without becoming completely abstract.


Cubism is seen as having several phases; analytical cubism, high cubism, cubist collage, synthetic cubism, and late cubism.


Analytical cubism builds on Cezanne’s late work in which he painted solid form without traditional modelling and perspective through the juxtaposition of planes of colour. The cubists saw this as a means of analytically fragmenting (deconstructing) objects so that they could be used as building blocks of the composition. In this kind of Cubist painting the artist appears to imagine the object as having a geometric, faceted form that can be recombined into a composition.


High cubism saw the fragmentation becoming more and more abstract and, to counteract this, Braque and Picasso either drew in specific identifiable details or added words to identify facets of the composition or added imitation wood grain to indicate wooden surfaces.


Cubist collage initially incorporated ready-made elements into the traditional oil paint on canvas medium (such as chair-caning) and developed into virtually paint-free collage and drawing compositions.


Synthetic cubism involved the reintroduction of oil paint into cubist collage. Unlike analytical cubism, which fragmented, in synthetic cubism the image is built up from pre-existing elements of different colour, shape and texture. These pictures tend to be brighter, lighter and more decorative and have been referred to as rococo cubism. Synthetic cubism appears flatter than analytical cubism.


Late cubism saw Braque and Picasso developing in different directions, Braque adopted a looser, richer more colourful approach while Picasso continued in a semi-abstract style before moving away from cubism altogether after 1921.


It has been argued that cubism was the most important and influential innovation in the early history of modern art as it gave artists the freedom to deal with reality in any way they chose.

analytical review

Rewald (2004) wrote:

Cubism was one of the most influential visual art styles of the early twentieth century. It was created by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) and Georges Braque (French, 1882–1963) in Paris between 1907 and 1914. The French art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term Cubism after seeing the landscapes Braque had painted in 1908 at L'Estaque in emulation of Cézanne. Vauxcelles called the geometric forms in the highly abstracted works "cubes." Other influences on early Cubism have been linked to Primitivism and non-Western sources. The stylization and distortion of Picasso's ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (Museum of Modern Art, New York), painted in 1907, came from African art. Picasso had first seen African art when, in May or June 1907, he visited the ethnographic museum in the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris.

The Cubist painters rejected the inherited concept that art should copy nature, or that they should adopt the traditional techniques of perspective, modeling, and foreshortening. They wanted instead to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas. So they reduced and fractured objects into geometric forms, and then realigned these within a shallow, relieflike space. They also used multiple or contrasting vantage points.


Tate Gallery (undated):

Cubism was a revolutionary new approach to representing reality invented in around 1907–08 by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. They brought different views of subjects (usually objects or figures) together in the same picture, resulting in paintings that appear fragmented and abstracted.

Cubism was one of the most influential styles of the twentieth century. It is generally agreed to have begun around 1907 with Picasso's celebrated painting Demoiselles D'Avignon which included elements of cubist style. The name 'cubism' seems to have derived from a comment made by the critic Louis Vauxcelles who, on seeing some of Georges Braque's paintings exhibited in Paris in 1908, described them as reducing everything to 'geometric outlines, to cubes'.

Cubism opened up almost infinite new possibilities for the treatment of visual reality in art and was the starting point for many later abstract styles including constructivism and neo-plasticism.

By breaking objects and figures down into distinct areas – or planes – the artists aimed to show different viewpoints at the same time and within the same space and so suggest their three dimensional form. In doing so they also emphasized the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas instead of creating the illusion of depth. This marked a revolutionary break with the European tradition of creating the illusion of real space from a fixed viewpoint using devices such as linear perspective, which had dominated representation from the Renaissance onwards....

Cubism can be seen to have developed in two distinct phases: the initial and more austere analytical cubism, and a later phase of cubism known as synthetic cubism.

  • Analytical cubism ran from 1908–12. Its artworks look more severe and are made up of an interweaving of planes and lines in muted tones of blacks, greys and ochres.
  • Synthetic cubism is the later phase of cubism, generally considered to date from about 1912 to 1914, and characterised by simpler shapes and brighter colours. Synthetic cubist works also often include collaged real elements such as newspapers. The inclusion of real objects directly in art was the start of one of the most important ideas in modern art.

Artists in the Tate Gallery collection can be looked up here (accessed 10 June 2019)

associated issues


related areas

See also



Rewald, S., 2004, 'Cubism' in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000– , available at, accessed 4 Februatry 2013, still available 2 June 2019.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Cubism', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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