During the turbulent decades of the early twentieth century, which included political unrest in Russia; renewed alliances between Russia, France, and Great Britain; and the devastation of World War I, European and American avant-garde artists made works that express a profound philosophical, cultural, political, and pictorial rupture with nineteenth-century conventions. While the late nineteenth century revolutionized the depiction of light and color, the early twentieth century revolutionized the depiction of space and time. These transformations were spurred by technological changes such as the development of both lightweight, inexpensive still cameras and moving pictures, by scientific discoveries such as the theory of relativity, and by demographic shifts, as groups of émigrés and pilgrims gathered in the capitals of Europe and America, exchanging ideas and images.
The rapid changes in artistic approach that mark this period were sometimes sequential, but more often simultaneous or overlapping, creating an expanding network of influences. The more muted palette of Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s early cubist landscapes followed fauvism’s fantastically chromatic anti-naturalist approach to the same subject, whereas Juan Gris continued to employ bright color in his slightly later interpretation of cubism. These incremental phases of cubism’s radical rethinking of spatial and temporal representation, which took place primarily in France, were echoed by developments in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the USSR. The early modernist embrace of the perceived authenticity of “primitive” art—medieval, peasant, folk, and African—found expression in all media, but is particularly evident in sculpture. Paintings, sculpture, and works on paper all underscore the early modernist allegiance to pictorial explorations of the relativity of perception, memory, and movement.