top of page

A Mind-blowing “ISM” of 20th Century Art

Pablo Picasso, I must confess, is not at the top of my favorite artists list. Is it because I am a realist painter? Was it his portrayal as a womanizer in the National Geographic documentary series, “Genius” that turned me off ? Or the “Is there a plastic surgeon in the house” approach to painting women? Yet, the tradition-breaking style he co-founded with Georges Braque known as Cubism continues to attract and intrigue me for its contribution to seeing the world in astonishing new ways.


In this aspect, I regard him as a certified genius. Cubism opened infinite new possibilities for the treatment of visual reality in art and was the starting point for many later abstract and non-representational styles, including his own 1937 masterpiece, Guernica, which I truly admire for its graphic ability to communicate terror, confusion, and loss.


Picasso’s celebrated 1907 proto-Cubistic painting Les Demoiselles D’Avignon anticipated the full development of Cubism. The work completely shattered conventional ideas of beauty and figurative representation that had been in place for over four hundred years.


So why, even more than 100 years later, does it look so strange? After seeing African masks on display at the Ethnography Museum in Paris for the first time, Picasso went back to his studio and reworked the faces in Les Demoiselles to reflect the raw primitivism and spirituality that struck him at the exhibition.


Les Demoiselles marked a revolutionary break with the Western approach of creating space from a fixed viewpoint using linear perspective and chiaroscuro (light/dark modeling). In this assortment of prostitutes from Barcelona’s red-light district, we see the face on the left in profile with a full-frontal eye inspired by the ancient Egyptian convention and the influence of African masks for all the female faces. The two women on the right look especially menacing because their faces have completely morphed into masks. One figure’s back is to the viewer, yet her head is positioned frontally. Logic-defying ambiguous space can be seen in the flatness of the figures, the sharp angled planes and the disorienting bird’s eye view of the table and fruit. Where are these figures in spatial terms?


Picasso blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Cézanne and Gauguin. The resulting pictorial flatness, vivid color palette, and fragmented geometric shapes helped to define early modernism.


Cubism developed in two distinct phases: analytical and synthetic Cubism. Analytical Cubism (1908-12) is the initial and more austere phase. Fragmented planes are severely angled and interwoven in a complex organization of shapes, lines and muted tones of blacks, greys and ochres. Synthetic Cubism (1912 -14) is the later phase characterized by simpler shapes, brighter colors, and the use of real elements such as newspapers and wallpaper. The application of these items to two-dimensional art was one of the most important inventions in modern art: the collage technique.


That’s all very interesting and innovative. But what is truly mind-blowing to me about Picasso’s breakthrough is the perceived connection between Cubism and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, published in 1905. Einstein reveals that a mass of objects moving at the speed of light becomes infinite and time flows differently. The world would look very different from the world we know in which we are either standing still or traveling at limited speeds such as in a car or an airplane. In Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, Picasso seems to capture this concept visually by depicting the subject from multiple viewpoints simultaneously, as though we are seeing Monsieur Vollard while traveling at the speed of light.


A true connection such as hard evidence that Picasso read Einstein’s paper doesn’t exist. However, in an unlikely synchronicity, Einstein and Picasso were both inspired by the same best-selling book, Science and Hypothesis, by French mathematician Henri Poincaré, published in 1902.


According to Einstein, Poincaré realized the truth of the relation of everyday experience to scientific concepts. Einstein built on the idea and the result was his theory of relativity, a scientific breakthrough in how we view reality. Likewise, Picasso was struck by Poincaré's view of the fourth dimension: if we could transport ourselves into it, we would see an object from every perspective simultaneously. Following that inspiration, Cubism represents a revolutionary artistic breakthrough in representing reality and truly blows my mind!

Written by Denise Laurin, a fine artist and art historian who holds an M.A. in art history. Through her art practice, Denise Laurin Visual Art, she focuses on the universal idea of moving from darkness into light expressed through the human form and explores the duality between the physical body and the spiritual soul. She accepts portrait commissions and provides engaging presentations to organizations on a wide variety of art-related topics.


21 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page