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Cubism influencing modernism

In this essay, we were instructed to tell of how the Cubism art movement came to be, as well as how the futurist movement influenced the modernist art that we commonly see today. Using examples, artists and works, I will attempt to link cubism and futurism to modernist art.

Cubism began as an intellectual revolt against the artistic expression of previous eras. In this they were trying to break through the traditional imitation of nature type works that were currently being produced.

In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form — instead of rendering objects from a single fixed angle, the artist depicts the subject from multiple angles simultaneously as an attempt to present the subject in the most complete manner. Often the surfaces of the facets, or planes, intersect at angles that show no recognizable depth. The background and object (or figure) planes interpenetrate one another creating the ambiguous shallow space characteristic of cubism. It was a complete and clearly defined aesthetic.

Tamon Miki of the National Museum of Modern Art,Tokyo believes that the actual year that the movement began was in 1907. It was in this year that Apollinaire (the poet) introduced Picasso to Braque. It is well known that at that time both artists were influenced greatly by Cezanne.

Picasso and Braque basically started the movement when they followed the advice of Paul Cézanne, who in 1904 said artists should treat nature “in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone.”Braque later described his and Picaso’s relationship as being like ‘two mountaineers roped together’. Picasso’s painting of the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered essential in the development of the movement, even though it is not considered to be a cubist work. In the painting, Picasso first experimented with seeing the same thing from various angles. Impressed by the painting, Braque experimented further with this idea. The developments of both men in the field would lead to what would be cubism.

There were three phases in the development of Cubism: Facet Cubism, Analytic Cubism, and Synthetic Cubism.

Picasso and Braque worked together to develop their ideas into what was later called and what we now know it as, “analytical cubism.” This style was incredibly busy and near-monochromatic, the colours mostly being black, browns, grays, and off-whites. The cubists sought to show everyday objects as the mind, not the eye.The canvases consisted of incomplete directional linear and modeled forms that were rigidly geometric and were constantly playing against each other. The compositions were subtle and intricateSome art historians believe that there was a secondary phase in this analytical period, namely the “Hermetic” phase. In this phase the works are monochromatic and more difficult to decipher. The painters gave clues as to what is portrayed by leaving some identifiable object. During this time the cubists neared abstraction. Some alphabetic letters were introduced to the works during this phase, to also serve as clues. Braque introduced these which gave immediate connection to everyday objects like a bottle of rum or a newspaper. This was later noted as an influence to modernist art.

The second phase of cubism, began in 1912 and is known as synthetic cubism.

The works of art in this phase are made up of of distinct superimposed parts which are painted or often pasted onto the canvas. They are also characterized by brighter colours, something that the artists had tried to reintroduce in the later parts of the analytical phase, but were unsuccessful in doing so in a smooth transitory way. What made synthetic cubism different to analytic cubism, is where by analytical cubism fragmented objects into its composing parts or facets, synthetic cubism attempted more to bring different objects together to create new forms.

This phase led to the birth of the collage and of papier collé. Picasso introduced collage with his Still Life with Chair Caning, in which he pasted a patch of oil cloth with a chair-caning design painted on it to the canvas of the piece. Braque, liking Picasso’s technique, went on to use papier collé in his piece Fruitdish and Glass. Papier collé, very similar to collage, employs the technique of pasting onto the canvas, except the shape of the patches are objects themselves. For example, the glass on the left in Fruitdish and Glass is a piece of newspaper cut into the shape of a glass.

Collage led to the introduction of various concrete items onto the surface of the canvas,and opened a completely new area in art. Needless to say “tableau-object”, or “the painting as object” meant a departure from the traditional concept of space in painting. It is also well known that collage, via Dada and Surrealism, is strongly linked with modern art.

While Braque had previously used lettering, his and Picasso’s synthetic works began to take the idea to a new extreme. Letters that had hinted to the objects, became objects themselves. The most common items the artists pasted to their canvases were newspaper scraps. They went further by adding paper with a wood print, or other types of scraps. Later they pasted advertisements onto their canvases as well. This all was a huge influence on modern graphic designBesides using mixed media, Picasso and Braque used other paint techniques such as combing, faux graining and adding sand for texture. They often drew objects and added shadows with graphite or charcoal, mixing drawing and painting techniques. Picasso especially used of pointillism and dot patterns to suggest transparent planes and to differentiate space.

The cubist break with the traditional of imitation of nature style of art work was completed in the works of Picasso, Braque, and their many followers. While few painters remained faithful to cubism’s exact styles, many learned from its discipline. It provided a new stylistic vocabulary and a technical idiom that remain in use today.

Early 20th century Europe was in many ways at a great turning point, as well as in art, new art movements were appearing one after another all over the continent. These movements included Fauvism in France, a forerunner of Cubism, expressionists such as the Brucke and the Blaue Reiter in Germany, and Futurism in Italy.

Italian Futurism was at first a literary movement created by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a lawyer, who was the leader of the group. He saw the past as old-fashioned and wanted to shape the future by publishing a proposal. The Futurists were basically a political movement until after world war one. In 1909, Marinetti created the manifesto, Le Futurisme. His intentions with this manifesto were to wake-up Marinetti’s countrymen to make them aware that they had been ‘wearing second-hand clothes for too long.’ It was time for them to create a new art for themselves, forged out of the beauty of speed and a glorification of war. The fact that the manifesto was first written in French and published in Parisian newspaper before any of the new Futurist art existed, typified Marinetti’s understanding of the power of the media to work for him and to broadcast his ideas. It was perhaps the first movement in the history of art to be engineered and managed like a business. From the beginning, Futurism was very close to the world of advertising and, like a business, promoted its product to a wide audience.

Futurism, contrasting to Cubism, was essentially a visual movement and found its roots in poetry and in a whole renewal of language, and featured the concept of the New Typography that is still in use today. However, Marinetti took a group of Italian painters to Paris to show them how they should be painting and particularly expose them to Cubism.

Marinetti’s theories were so influential that they resulted in the production of hundreds of books by many Futurists. The books were often characterized by nearly anonymous covers with exciting inner pages where often traditional typefaces were absent in favor of newly designed typefaces that spread over the pages without any respect to the rules of layout. These new “alphabets” were designed in order to express different states of mind, and often were put together to form various and odd shapes, and suddenly, word became image. A perfect example of this movement is Francesco Cangiullo’s book Caffè-Concerto – Alfabeto a sorpresa (Café-Chantant – Surprising Alphabet).. Cangiullo used words in different typefaces to form images of scenery, landscapes, and even human bodies, which is a technique commonly used by today’s graphic designers.

The first attempt in the 20th century to reinvent life as it was being engrossed by new technologies was through Futurism. Futurism briefly repeated a similar set of ideas which echoed all through a number of forms in 20th century art expression. These were ideas which were already in the air, many filtering up through the Symbolist and Expressionistic poets of the 19th century.

Futurist literary theory was aiming to increase the expressivity of language. Just like a machine gun firing bullets, a Futurist poet would project words from the page. This they did using several techniques both visually and sonically. The poets were especially interested in the methods which would blur the borderline between the dimensions to create a mood and thus, by evoking all of the senses, the work would have a more intense impact.

The poetry of the futurists contained no adjectives, adverbs, finite verbs, punctuation, namely anything that would slow it down. It was mostly a collage of nouns, and this form of their poetry was intended to be an uninterrupted sequence of new images.

During the first two decades of the 1900’s, Futurist book-making was devoted mainly to such typographic experiments in “words-in-freedom” which were finally summarized in the book Les mots en liberté futuristes (The Futurist Words-In-Freedom) by Marinetti in 1919. In the 1920s, Futurism’s new direction of emphasizing the “mechanic age” gave new energy to the movement. The highlight of this decade is definitely the famous bolted book, created by Fortunato Depero in 1927. But if the binding itself was a real mechanic manifesto, the layout was a revolution in book-making. The vibrant text is printed on different kinds of paper, in typefaces of varying shapes and sizes that give life to dynamic geometric shapes. The book has neither up nor down, right nor left; not one but many virtual layouts, so that in order to read the text, the book has to be turned round and round again.

In the early 1930s, Marinetti published another book, which also became famous, Parole in Libertà Futuriste, olfattive, tattili, termiche (The Words-in-freedom, Futurist, Olfactive, Tactilist, Thermal). It was printed by a lithographic process in many colors on metal sheets, and with a metal binding.

The Bauhaus opened with a utopian definition: “The building of the future.” The aim of it was to combine all the arts in model unity and this required a new, unique type of artist beyond any academic specialization, for whom the Bauhaus would offer sufficient education. In order to do this, the founder, Walter Gropius, saw that it was necessary to develop new teaching methods and was convinced that the root for any art was to be found in handcraft: “the school will gradually turn into a workshop”. So not only artists but also craftsmen taught classes and production together at the Bauhaus in Weimar. This was intended to remove any distinction between fine arts and applied arts.

With technical civilization however being very real, requirements could not only be fulfilled by a revalorization of handcraft. In 1923, the Bauhaus changed and ‘improved’ their learning program, by marking its future image under the motto: “art and technology – a new unity”. Industrial potentials were applied to satisfactory design standards, regarding both functional and aesthetic aspects. The Bauhaus workshops produced prototypes for mass production: from a single lamp to complete residences.

In 1923, after studying Law in Budapest and serving in the First World War, László Moholy-Nagy replaced Johannes Itten as the instructor of the preliminary course at the Bauhaus. This effectively moved the school closer towards its original aim as a school of design and industrial integration. The Bauhaus had become known for the versatiliy of its artists and Moholy-Nagy was no exception. Throughout his career he became skilled in the fields of photography, typography, sculpture, painting, and industrial design. One of his main focuses was on photography. He used the term “the New Vision,” for his belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the world that the human eye could not. His theory of art and teaching was summed up in the book The New Vision, from Material to Architecture. He experimented with the photographic process of exposing light sensitive paper with objects overlaid on top of it, called photogram.

Moholy-Nagy resigned from the Bauhaus in 1928 and worked in film and stage design in Berlin and then in Paris before moving to London in 1935. In England Moholy-Nagy formed part of the circle of emigre artists and intellectuals who based themselves in Hampstead. In 1936 he was commissioned by the film producer Alexander Korda to design special effects for “Things to Come.” Moholy-Nagy created kinetic sculptures and abstract light effects but they were rejected by the film’s Director. In 1937, Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago to become the director of the New Bauhaus. The aim of the school was basically unchanged from that of the original.

Unfortunately, the school had to be closed fter only a year of opening due to the loss of financial backing of its supporters.. In 1939, Moholy-Nagy opened the School of Design. In 1944, this became the Institute of Design. He wrote about his efforts to develop the curriculum of the School of Design in his book Vision in Motion.

The history of the Bauhaus is by no means straight forward. The changes in directorship and amongst the teachers, artistic influence from far and wide, in combination with the political situation in which the Bauhaus experiment was staged, led to permanent transformation. The numerous consequences of this experiment still today flow into contemporary life.

The Modernist Movement first made it self noticed in the mid-19th century in France and believed that, similarly to the cubists and futurists, “traditional” forms of art, literature, social organization and daily life had become outdated, and that it was thus necessary to put them behind us, and to start over. Modernism encouraged the re-examination of every part of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the aim of finding that which was preventing development, and replacing it with new, and theoretically better, ways of reaching the same end. In essence, the Modern Movement argued that the new realities of the 20th century were permanent and coming up soon, and that people should adapt their view of the world to accept that what was new was also good and beautiful.

A growing tension and unease with the social order began to break through on the eve of World War1. There was increasing disturbance of “radical” parties, and an increasing number of works which either drastically simplified or rejected previous practice. In 1913, young painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse had only recently begun causing a shock with their rejection of traditional perspective as the means of structuring paintings, something that none of the Impressionists, not even Cézanne, had done.

This began to give a new meaning to what was termed ‘Modernism’. At its core was the embracing of disruption, and a rejection of simple Realism in literature and art and design. In the 19th century, artists had tended to believe in ‘progress’, though what that word meant changed dramatically, and the importance of the artist’s contributing positively to the values of society. Modernism, while it was still “progressive” increasingly saw traditional forms and traditional social arrangements as holding back progress, and therefore the artist became an activist, overthrowing rather than enlightening.

An example of this trend was to be found in Futurism, when Marinetti’s first manifesto was published in the Parisian newspaper in 1909, a group of painters quickly co-signed The Manifesto of Futurist Painting. Futurism should be seen as part of the general trend of the Modernist explanation of disruption.

Over all modernist artists drew a lot of inspiration from the previous art movements in that like the futurists, they wanted to discard all tradition ‘old fashioned’ techniques and come up with crazy new ones. Poets changed the way they wrote, using type to create a mood in their writing, similarly to Picasso and Braque in the synthetic cubism phase.

Posters were designed using more bright colours and new typographic alphabets that were different to the ones that had been traditionally used as was done by the futurists. Images were broken up and composed in such a way that society recoiled completely and revolted before they were eventually accepted, just like the cubists.


Philllip Meggs – A history of Graphic design, third edition, Pg 231-248David Raizman
- History of modern design.