Unveiling Cubism: Redefining Perception in Art

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Since the Renaissance, when revolutionaries like Giotto and Brunelleschi used one-point perspective to project the seen world onto the canvas, painting was traditionally devoted towards reproducing vision as it's captured by the human eye. The collective aim of the medium was to present scenes from life and history with total realism. Today, however, we take for granted that a canvas does not have to faithfully reflect the way we see the world, and that a painting has its own internal rationality: a vocabulary of colour, shape, and texture that provides a roadmap for the viewer's eye. In other words, the vision that the painter presents his or his work does not have to be a literal one—a leap forward for the potentialities of art. How did this remarkable shift occur?

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In the early 20th century, encouraged by an aesthetic revisiting of what were then still considered "primitive" arts—most prominently those of Africa and Asia—and spurred on by rapid developments in photography in the late 19th century, which alleviated painting of its need to faithfully depict the natural world, European artists began experimenting with abstraction, shattering conventional notions of the function of artistic composition. The artists most closely associated with so-called Cubism's conception are Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who collaboratively (and secretively) developed the concepts behind the movement beginning in 1907…

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Many historians credit Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as the foundational work of Cubism, and, thus, of all Modern Art. It shows a radical shift of perspective, showing two views of a scene at once; this was unprecedented in painting at the time. The achievements of one-point perspective had been a drastic step forward in pictorial representation, and here was Picasso, undoing it all. [Understandably] Matisse called the work "the death of painting."

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... Between 1907 and 1912—the period of so-called Analytic Cubism—Picasso’s and Braque’s paintings became almost indistinguishable as they together developed a street-level colour palette limited to off-whites, greys, browns, and blacks, and stark, angular forms that were meant to appeal to the viewer's intellect rather than to their emotions, emulating the way images are formed in the brain rather than the eye and depicting multiple viewpoints at once. The pair eschewed beauty or idealized forms in favour of an entirely new investigative approach to their medium. It was what Metzinger referred to as a "total emancipation" ('affranchissement fondamentale') of painting.

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Between 1913 and the 1920s, the initial developments of Analytic Cubism were expanded into what came to be called Synthetic Cubism, which emphasized the synthesis of the elements of the composition and introduced the idea of collaging elements onto the canvas—pieces of rope, cigar papers, and so on — and further breaking down the relationship between the surface of the painting and its subject matter.

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…From its entrance onto the global public stage, Cubism was a contentiously debated movement, and as such fully codified art's new function in Modern society: its tendency to get people talking, the more heatedly the better... Cubism, a revolt of the mind against decorative frivolity, left its major legacy in art history in the lasting idea that perception is a fluid, mutable thing that is not only governed by our biology or physiology, but can actually be created anew within, and then projected from, objects of art...

In the early 20th century, European artists, notably Picasso and Braque, initiated Cubism, breaking from traditional realism. This artistic revolution shattered conventions by portraying multiple viewpoints and prioritizing intellectual appeal over emotional resonance. Cubism's evolution, from Analytic to Synthetic phases, embraced abstraction, challenged the relationship between surface and subject, and sparked vigorous debates, leaving a lasting legacy of reshaping perception in art history.
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