Cubism and Futurism Abstract Art
These are the two movements, with more or less abstract tendencies, that first influenced the majority of
experimental artists in this country, beginning about 1913 when both movements were at their height.
Cubism and Futurism, both of which had a great influence in the United States derives from the researches of
Cezanne and Seurat. The beginnings of Cubism date back to about 1908 under the twin aegis of Picasso and
In the case of Cubism, the primitivist, instinctual content of Gauguin's and van Goh's paintings and the later
discovery of the barbaric, expressive power of Negro sculpture played an important part in such an early cubist
picture of Picasso's as his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. And however much Picasso and his cubist followers tended to
limit their researches to the still life, they never divorced themselves completely from the sentimental, even
romantic, implications of their chosen subject matters the paraphernalia of the studio, musical instruments, the
guitar, mandolin and violin and the characters out of the old commedia dell'arte associated with such instruments,
Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot.
Despite such emotional or non-rational elements in cubist painting, however, its rational motivation must still
be said to have remained uppermQst. It consisted in a process of analytical abstraction of several planes of an
object to present a synthetic, simultaneous view of it.
And by directing the formal planes of this synthetic view towards the observer rather than making them retreat
by traditional perspective principles into an illusionistic space, the picture frame no longer acted as a window
leading the eye into the distance but as a boundary enclosing a limited area of canvas or panel. In the so-called
analytical phase of Cubism, painting tended also to be monochromatic, presumably to avoid as much as possible any
sensuous or naturalistic reference to color.
The leading Cubists, Picasso and Braque, refused to take abstraction further than this point and actually in
time climbed down from their pinnacle of analytical experiment to a more decorative, sensuous plateau. They left
the final step of total geometrical abstraction to others.
Another proto-abstract movement, an anti-rational offshoot of Cubism, Futurism was launched by the Italian
Futurists about 1910. Rebelling against the cubist analysis of static form, the Futurists were above all inspired
by the dynamism of the machine, which they proceeded to glorify and to make a central tenet in their artistic
credo. Man to the Futurist must accept the machine and emulate its ruthless power. By way of emulation they
attempted to paint movement by indicating abstract lines of force and schematic stages in the progress of a moving
image. And furthermore, in some instances they sought to involve the observer in their pictures by viewing movement
from an interior position-the inside of a trolley car, for example-thus denying, as the Cubists did, formal laws of
Where the Cubists strove to eliminate three-dimensional space and thus bring the image in the picture closer to
the observer, although still at a distance, the Futurists attempted to suck the observer into a pictorial vortex.
The greatest difference between these two proto-abstract movements, however, is that the one, Cubism, is concerned
with forms in static relationships while Futurism is concerned with them in a kinetic state.
Furthermore, the Cubists, with few exceptions, paid no attention to the machine, as such, while the Futurists,
as we have said, glorified it.
The cubist movement, significantly, had no overt political implications and indulged in no manifestoes.
The Futurists, on the other hand, worshipped naked energy for its own sake and in their writings pointed forward
to the power-drunk ideology of Fascism.
The Cubists, it may be said, immured themselves from any contact with the public by shutting themselves up in
their studio laboratories.
The Futurists came out into the market place and demagogically attempted to appeal to the man in the trolley
car. If their pictures today seem dry and doctrinaire to some of us, the ideological appeal of Futurism and its
political partner, Fascism, was, we are all uncomfortably aware, quite the reverse.
Furthermore, the generally rational-minded Cubist contented himself as we have noted with the still-life
materials of his studio for subject matter and abstract dissection, whereas the futurist picture falls mainly into
the category of landscape and figure compositions, however urban and mechanical the emphasis.
Davis' Lucky Strike abstract art from 1921 is a good example