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It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that cubism is one of the most characteristic and well-known avant-garde artistic movements and, more often than not, the very notion of avant-garde in terms of artistic endeavor is associated with cubism first and foremost. There are, of course, scores of other movements falling under the definition, but most of them are far less known and their study generally remains the prerogative of experts and professional art historians. No matter whether you like it or not, cubism is still the most well-known and one of the most easily recognizable artistic movements of the 20th century.
The element of avant-garde in cubism is clear and obvious even for people who have little or no knowledge of art – it doesn’t change the subject matter, or the manner in which the artist utilizes colors, or the way of using brushstrokes. It modifies the very perception of the world, creates new principle for painting in general. Instead of depicting objects in their entirety, from a single point of view, as it is normal for the majority of art trends, cubist painting is supposed to show one and the same object from multiple viewpoints, thus giving the artist a unique possibility to display the object in a broader context – all within the boundaries of a single painting.
There is most commonly no easily definable object plane or background in cubist works – they penetrate each other, the boundaries between the objects are dissolved, in process creating ambiguous space typical for this art trend. It is often said that cubist painters looked for inspiration in natural world, namely, in the ability of many animals that have their eyes placed on opposite sides of their heads, to cover different areas with each eye. Thus it may be said that cubism utilizes this plural viewpoint, allowing the onlooker to see the world in a way similar to the way it is seen through multiple eyes at once. As it logically follows from the cubists’ obsession with form, they deemphasized color, making yet another step away from conventional depiction of reality.
Most artists try to achieve a likeness between what they try to depict and what they actually paint; the goal of cubism is somewhat different – here the artist strives to decompose the subject matter into simpler elements, most commonly – geometric forms, and such an approach is about as avant-garde as you can get. Maybe it is one of the reasons why cubism didn’t join all the other short-lived art movements that sprang into life in the beginning of the 20th century just to plunge into obscurity even faster. Unlike many other trends, cubism still remains one of the most notable movements.
Avant-garde may be perceived as a movement that always introduces something new; it is not necessarily so, and cubism proves it. One of the most important sources of inspiration for early cubism was primitivism and African, Native American and Micronesian tribal art, from which cubists borrowed both the simplicity (as, for example, in flattened faces of African masks) and specific power of depiction.
As it is easily seen, cubism combines the elements of both extremely new and ancient notions: primitivism manner and highly complex work with geometric forms, angles of vision, multiple surfaces of the same object and so on – and it is what makes it so unusual.