Fragmented: The Human Form in Early Cubism

Described as the most influential art movement of the early twentieth century, Cubism artists rejected the traditional techniques of perspective and three-dimensionality and interpreted their surroundings in fragmented, geometric forms that explored the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Leading the movement, Pablo Picasso (1881-1873) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) challenged viewers to respond to “everyday” subject matter in their most basic forms. Cubist painters during this time often used multiple points of perspective, monochromatic colours, and mixed media to further explore their subject matter. This online exhibition will explore important early Cubist painters, under the influence of Picasso and Braque, and their approach to a classic subject matter: the human form. Highlighting works from Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, Roger de La Fresnaye, and Robert Delaunay, this exhibition will reveal the early works that exerted a profound influence on future painters pursuing complete abstraction. Created as a temporary exhibition for the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, France.

Only six years after Juan Gris arrived in Paris in 1906, he was known as a "disciple" of Picasso and a key player in the early Cubism movement. In this work, Gris deconstructs his subject, Picasso, and reduces the head, neck and torso to simple geometric forms arranged in a composition that still "reads" as the subject. Gris further simplified the composition by limiting the colour palette to a monochromatic range of cool blue, brown, and grey tones. Gris respected Picasso as a painter and leader of Cubism, and chose to depict him with palette in hand. Gris exhibited this portrait at the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1912.
Atypical to his later Cubist works of still-life, portraiture and collage in a deep warm colour palette, Aux Courses des Longchamps features a grouping of figures. This work demonstrates Gris' handling of a different medium - ink, gouache and coloured pencil. His colour palette is soft and cool and he renders a subtle depth of field in the composition.
Known for his early Cubist sculptural works in 1910, this drawing by Otto Gutfreund shows in its simplest form the Cubist rendering of a bust. The geometric forms are clear and there is a use of shadow that shows the artist rendering at work.
Similar to Juan Gris, Rivera moved to Paris shortly after his arrival to Europe in 1907 in hopes of becoming more immersed in the avant-garde artists of Montparnasse. From 1913 to 1917, under the influence of painters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Diego painted around 200 highly abstracted paintings. Completed during this time, this work exemplifies the experimental abstraction and early signs of Cubism including the monochromatic colour palette and his use of mixed media. Not uncommon in Cubist works, Rivera used mixed media, such as the sand in this work, to create varying textures on the surface on the canvas.
This portrait of Swiss painter Jean Louis Gampert was completed only two years before La Fresnaye ceased painting after contracting tuberculosis in the French Army in World War I. This work shows his departure from a Cubist approach including a divergence from his use of colour, as influenced by Picasso and Braque just years prior. In his final paintings, La Fresnaye embraced a less structured and more painterly style, as seen in this later work. Although La Fresnaye had a shift stylistically in his work, the monochromatic colour palette and rigid facial features hint at lingering Cubist practices.
As a recurring theme in this exhibition, this work exemplifies the Cubist approach to the seated nude, through a portrait of Juan Gris’ partner, Josette. The shadow cast from the seated figure gives an illusion of depth which is rarely seen in early Cubist works and scholars have noted this work is a result of a cross between the combined influences of Corot and Cézanne. This work highlights a darker monochromatic colour palette that works as a stark contrast against the Delaunay work however the Cubist stylistic elements remain apparent.
Completed the same year as the Portrait of Josette Gris, 1916 marked an important year in the development of Cubism - the start of Synthetic Cubism. Diego Rivera's Composition with Bust is an early work in his oeuvre and highlights his achievements in the Cubist style. His use of strong colours align with that of Delaunay and his exploration of the bust with geometric forms is particularly new.
Although highly associated with Cubism, Delaunay cofounded the Orphism art movement, which was noted for its use of strong colours and geometric shapes. His later works were more abstract and his bold use of a prismatic colour palette was highly influential on other Cubist painters such as the later works of Roger de La Fresnaye. Delaunay was highly experimental and his interest in depth and tone aligned with that of the Cubists. In Nude Woman Reading, his preference toward the figurative is clear in his rendering of the human form however his shallow composition and distorted use of perspective are reminiscent of the Cubist style.
This work is part of Delaunay's City of Paris series, dating from 1911-1912. This work was completed the year before Delaunay shifted his body of work into a more abstracted style. Delaunay's interest in colour and light were sustained in this earlier work and his figures remain subtly geometric and abstracted. The Eiffel Tower is seen in the background, with a typical two-dimensionality to the composition.
Although heavily influenced by Picasso and Braque, La Fresnaye's Cubist works were far more literal and figurative. La Fresnaye predominantly painted figures, as seen in The Fourteenth of July, and used an extensive colour palette which supported his reputation as a highly experimental artist.
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