Types of Cubism: What is Synthetic Cubism by Picasso & Braque

Synthetic cubism begins approximately in the spring of 1912 with a color change of monochrome refined cubist compositions of the previous two years of the analytical type, phase, stage or period, and about one year of Picasso’s African Period, otherwise known as Cezanne cubism.

In April 1912, Picasso gets back from a small journey and brings his new work named “Souvenir from Havre” with him. That painting differed from his other works and Braque instantly noticed it by saying that it was a real change of “weapons”.

Pablo Picasso - Souvenir du Havre (1912) (synthetic cubism)
   Pablo Picasso – Souvenir du Havre (1912)

Return of Color and the Use of Objects in Synthetic Cubism

The reason for saying that was the first time appearance of color in cubism, which since that time, becomes much more cheerful and concrete. Not only the color but also the texture of the materials were added to the old abstract compositions.

Braque inserts a jug, a mug and a perfectly realistic image of the nail in his semi-abstract cubist composition. From that point, they began to actively enliven their works with new recognizable details, distinctive signs which were quite definitely implying and suggesting the viewer the real objects.

The founders of cubism didn’t want to make their paintings abstract, that’s why these concrete and recognizable objects appear in their canvases more and more – a piece of a curtain hints at the window, a key, sticking out from the chest, alludes to a chest of drawers.

Other “talking” parts included a slice of lemon, a tube, a bottle, a glass. Soon the letters and the whole words appear on the canvas – the name of wine, magazine, tavern, the name of the beloved. Finally, Picasso pastes into a picture a real postage stamp. It’s pretty obvious that synthetic cubism was highly influenced by the collage art technique.

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Through the use of large color surfaces, cut out of the paper, the color returned to the paintings in the form of colored patches, which greatly differed from the color created purely by pictorial means and the touch of the brush.

The color was long held in reserve during all the period of analytical cubism, which was characterized by its deficiency. But now the color had to come back – not to display the lighting or the relief surface of the object, but for the pleasure of feeling the color itself.

The Card Player by Picasso (Synthetic Cubism)
         The Card Player by Picasso (1913-1914)

In the big Picasso’s painting “The Card-Player”, written in the winter of 1913-1914, old methods of analytical cubism revived because the breakdown of the surface started to be performed by large, color-filled areas, each of which was given a special spatial significance in relation to adjacent one.

All of them were securely mounted into a complete three-dimensional composition. The arabesque of decorative motifs borrowed from the wallpaper was painted with imitations of wood and marble. Soon Braque’s and Picasso’s canvases transformed into some sort of decorative collages.

Examples of Most Famous Synthetic Cubism Paintings

In 1912, Picasso creates the work called “Still-Life with Chair Caning”. He inserts an oilcloth with a pattern that simulates bars of the chair in the oval composition of the painting, the oval itself being bordered by a thick twine – it’s a “frame” of the picture. The prototype of all ready-made experiments of the 20th century was created.

In the same year, during their joint visit to Sorgue (France), Braque invents a so-called paper collage – the three-dimensional picture, spatial composition, original and peculiar sculptures out of paper. Picasso immediately responds to this invention with great enthusiasm and also creates a huge amount of paper compositions.

Still-Life With Chair Caning by Picasso (1912) (synthetic-cubism)
                   Still-Life With Chair Caning by Picasso (1912)

His series called “Guitars” is the most popular one. He uses a newspaper, music sheets,  wallpaper, fabric, cardboard. Besides that, he works on the textured surface pattern by adding to the paint sand and sawdust. By trying to achieve a complete image, he uses charcoal, a pencil, an oil, wax, wood and other ready-made foreign objects such as teaspoons in a single composition.

By doing it, he connects the things that were incompatible in painting before. This period of cubism was called synthetic not by accident. By creating their own miniature collages, cubist artists as if “synthesize” artistic reality from the symbols of the present reality.

The Guitar By Pablo Picasso (synthetic cubism)
             The Guitar By Pablo Picasso (1913)

       Techniques of Synthetic Cubism

While the preference was given to the most simple things, sometimes cubist artists were using some extremely unexpected materials in their works. The magic lies in giving the value to any object which is usually neglected. However, a transition from the analytical to the synthetic cubism was not so sudden and abrupt.

Already in 1912, in the “glued papers” that were created in Sorgue, a clearly preferred use of large flat surfaces can be seen, but paintings of that period also include objects that are treated analytically.

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Over the next year, there was created a great number of works, in which both styles peacefully coexist side by side. At the same time, a sensual pleasure delivered by a tangible surface of the texture started to be valued higher.

The use of sand stuck on the canvas as if invites us to touch the rough, brightly colored surfaces and enjoy the very fact of their existence, not taking into account some of their deeper and representative meaning. Moreover, thanks to a special method of the refraction of light, rough surfaces form wonderful priming for paint, which is being slightly applied by a brush.

A cubist painting from Picasso's Guitar period (synthetic cubism)
A cubist painting from Picasso’s Guitar     period

There is a significant difference between the analytical and synthetic stages of cubism from a pictorial space point of view. The analytical cubism retains some sort of depth – painted surface functions like a window through which we still perceive the remains of the familiar perspective of Renaissance space.

This space, although fragmented and recomposed, lies behind the plane of the picture and does not have the visible limits. Potentially, there may be some things that are invisible to our eyes. In synthetic cubism, it’s the other way around – the space of the picture is in front of the plane.

Space is not created with the help of such illusionistic techniques as modeling or perspective image but by the actual use of several layers of glued materials. The integrity of space is not being disrupted without the perspective.

For example, in the work “Le Courrier” by Georges  Braque (1914), overlaying the shadows in some parts stresses the thickness of the materials, their separation from each other. As you can see, in synthetic cubism, the first time since Masaccio, we deal with a completely new space model which is a real landmark in the history of painting.

Le Courrier by Georges Braque (1913-1914) (Synthetic Cubism)
          Le Courrier by Georges Braque (1913-1914)

Soon Picasso and Braque realized that new pictorial space can be saved without the use of glued materials – by writing on the canvas in the same manner as they did collages. However, the outbreak of World War II put an end to cooperation between the two artists and interrupted the further development of synthetic cubism, which reached its peak in the next decade.

If you want to know even more about cubism, I suggest you check out this outstanding book by Leonard A. Loader.  Thank you for your attention. Good luck!



3 thoughts on “Types of Cubism: What is Synthetic Cubism by Picasso & Braque

  1. Hi there,

    Are you able to provide citation/location/date information for the painting “Cubist Guitar” on this page? I can’t seem to find it anywhere.


    1. Hi Tricia. You’ve asked a very good question. Picasso and Braque were extremely prolific painters and they did have many works that looked almost the same or had several versions. That’s why I know it myself, that sometimes, it can be really confusing. But this is not the case. I’ve done a little research and found out that the painting you’re talking about is called “Still life with guitar” by modern artist Emanuel Mirel Ologeanu who also enjoys cubism. (here’s his profile: https://www.saatchiart.com/account/profile/416032). I will correct this. Thank you for pointing this out and visiting my site. Thanks.

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