History of Art: Historical Perspective on Contemporary Art Taster Session

As the beginning of the 20th century saw so many changes in the way artists chose to represent the world they lived in, this has been seen to be of critical importance to our understanding of Contemporary Art. Artists were looking for new forms of expressing their thoughts and feelings, and to find different ways to represent an object on the flat plane of a painted canvas. If they no longer needed to produce photographic likenesses of a subject, how could they define volume, space and perspective?

An important question to consider is, therefore:

In what way were artists influenced by the development of Cubist approaches of Picasso and Braque in the early part of 20th century?

For example, the image below is a portrait by Picasso produced in 1938. It clearly has strong Cubist elements of his earliest works yet retains enough specific detail for us to recognise the person depicted.  

  • Search online – google images/ BBC Your Paintings/ galleries such as Tate Modern – and find earlier Cubist portraits by Picasso.
  • Compare the style/ techniques used/ colour palettes with this later portrait.

Pablo Picasso “Dora Maas Seated

Pablo Picasso “Dora Maas Seated” 1938 Mixed media. [Reproduced from “Study of Art and Art History” distance learning module included there with kind permission of The Tate, London for educational purposes © 2012]


There are many more examples of later artists who were influenced by the cubist approach to representing various views of an object as a flat image. For example, a flat relief work by Henri Laurens from 1920 “Head of a Boxer” is much closer to the early collage works of Cubists.(see image at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/laurens-head-of-a-boxer-t06833)

A significant artist to look at for clear evidence of Cubist influences is David Hockney – again, see a range of images at www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks especially “An Image of Ken” and “An Image of Gregory” produced in 1984-85.

Choose 1-2 of David Hockney’s portraits from this period and compare them with the Picasso image of Dora Maas.

  • In what way is the image similar to that of Picasso’s? Where are the differences?
  • How important is the use of colour for Hockney and how does this differ from Picasso?
  • What objects are used to represent this individual in a recognisable way, generally so that those who know the person can instantly see what they expect to see?

Less likely to be seen as directly influenced by Cubism is the more brightly-coloured images produced by Robert Delaunay - look at his painting from 1912 Tours de Laon (this can be seen online). It depicts a Gothic church above the town of Laon. Look closely at the way he has presented the shapes and surfaces of the buildings, the flat planes. How has he suggested that forms are solid and recede into the background? How has he used colour? Make a note of your observations.

 Also look at the work by Piet Mondrian Still Life with Ginger Pot ii 1911 and make similar observations. For example, how he has used flat planes and surfaces, noting his use of definite outlines and colour to suggest solid forms? Again, make notes on your observations.

Discussion points

When you look closely at work of various artists, there are clear indications that they have been influenced by elements of fragmentation and simplification, especially the stylistic approach of the Cubist compositions by Picasso and Braque at the turn of the century.

The “Head of a Boxer” is a good example of the earlier techniques used to suggest shape and form, in this case as a shallow relief piece rather than a painting. However, the influences can still be seen clearly.

 David Hockney has certainly incorporated a range of approaches to present various viewpoints of the figure while still retaining significant features of that individual. His use of colour is more vibrant than that of the earlier Cubist works but, of course, Picasso brings in more intense colours in his later works such as “Weeping Woman” 1937 and “Bust of a Woman” 1944 (see www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks)

The buildings in Tours de Laon are geometric, fragmented and the towers distorted, with some similarities in the way distance is suggested. However, Delaunay was passionate about colour so his composition is filled with intense, vivid colours far removed from the subdued tints used by Picasso or Braque. He specifically used contrasting colours to suggest the edges of surfaces in the buildings depicted.

Mondrian, on the other hand, has reduced his colour palette in a similar way to Braque although differences in colour and tone are used to emphasise elements of the composition. The recognisable shape of the Ginger Pot is echoed through the composition, but is surrounded by a flat arrangement of lines and shapes that become less recognisable. Both Mondrian and Hockney have incorporated darker outlines to give a structure to the individual objects that make up the composition.


As we can see, there are strong links between the work of earlier artists and the way others have developed concepts further. Although initially Delaunay used the geometric shapes of Cubism to bring structure and drama to his work, colour was his passion. Mondrian continued to experiment to take his ideas of abstraction further believing ‘Modern Art’ would become something else and use a different ‘language’ to suggest flat forms and ‘dynamic tension’.

So, it appears that while the Cubism of Picasso and Braque initially influenced the works of Delaunay, Mondrian and Hockney, amongst others, each artist went on to search for deeper meanings in their own approach to painting. As a response to the historical context for its development, Cubism is often considered to be one of the most influential styles of the early 20th century.