Cubism and Tradition

John Haber
in New York City

Georges Braque and Picasso Drawings

Would Cubism have had the same influence if it were a movement? The question must sound preposterous—but what if Cubism was all about two painters, and what if neither of them had only a vision?

For a while, in fact, they refused one, in favor of a wider range of ideas and sensation, it gives special beauty to a gallery retrospective of Georges Braque. As one Cubist news clipping wryly observes, le puis exquis, le puis puissant. The most exquisite, the most powerful, and just happening to lie there not quite before one's eyes. Georges Braque's Guitar and Glass (Kroller-Muller Museum/ARS, 1917)

If Braque could paint without merely seeing, could Pablo Picasso draw like Ingres? The Frick speaks of his "Reinventing Tradition," but almost every artist tries, and some feel compelled. Raphael moved in his short life from precocity and sweetness through the High Renaissance to Mannerism without missing a beat. Observation of past art did not go out of fashion with Modernism either. Willem de Kooning had plenty of skill and training, and his artful quotation can make him look downright postmodern. Nor should Picasso look reverent or anything less than modern, but a compact survey of his drawings allows him to flirt with both.


Modern art makes one think of visionaries. You name it: Blue Rider or Surrealism, Russian Constructivism or the Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art—they all swept artists up in something both greater than and deeply within any of them. Call it the spiritual or a dream, a revolution or reform, postwar America or consumer society, or maybe just a downtown bar. Cubism touches every corner of Modernism like nothing else, and it did so by turning vision inside-out. From the mind to mass culture, it turned inside and out into objects before one's eyes.

Actually, people tend to remember Cubism as multiple visions within the same painting. Even a writer as radical as John Berger—and a critic of anything by Pablo Picasso before or after Cubism—called his popular history Ways of Seeing. When a musical score echoes the jagged lines of guitar strings, the edge of a table, and real or simulated wood grain, they combine vision, sound, texture, tactile sensation, and their representation. When the top of a glass becomes the shape of an eye, in a diamond like a playing card, it combines object, transparency, their vision, and a token in a game. When the JOUR of journal, for newspaper, floats across charcoal and wallpaper, it combines objects with their destruction and the remains of the day. Even when a woman's profile in black crosses her willowy pose for the artist in flesh tones, she combines not just points of view but darkness and desire.

Georges Braque had a share in all of these. With a little over forty paintings on two floors, the show feels larger still. Curated by Dieter Buchhart, it covers much of his career, with museum loans to bolster privately held work. It refuses to fill out full-scale paintings with casual studies. Then again, with mixed media like this, Braque did more than anyone to upend the distinction. With his dedication to craft and style, he did more even than Pablo Picasso to puzzle over the future of European painting.

Actually, to the extent that Cubism was a movement, with some less than memorable followers, it was already a style. And to the extent that Juan Gris had his own style, it was other than a movement. The relationship between Braque and Picasso is still more fun to puzzle out. Picasso shocked Paris with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and Picasso's women have feminist critics arguing even now. He confused his closest friends and supporters with a makeshift stiff-paper guitar, and he has found a public eager for shocks ever since. When he was experimenting and confronting, Braque was just painting.

Then again, when Picasso was wallowing, Braque was experimenting. While the first was still working his way out of realism, the latter was already a modernist. He came up with the very first papier collé. Even in his early painting, he was more radical than at first appears. Amid the sunshine of Fauvism, trees tensely gather and cross, while elsewhere a trunk snakes out of a fence before running into the loose parallels of soil, leaves, walls, and houses. Surface and depth collide and reinforce, as both vision and obstacles to vision.

He had discovered Paul Cézanne—and indeed the 1917 playing card transforms Cézanne Card Players. In other words, while Picasso was helping introduce African art to Modernism, Braque was helping introduce Modernism to Picasso. And, as they say, the rest is history. Then, too, Braque's refusal to indulge in "primitivism" may sound downright progressive today, much like his refusal of Picasso's early sentiment or late sexism. When Picasso once compared Braque to his wife, he may have revealed more about himself. Fortunately, the divorce was amicable.

Schooling Paris

Braque himself compared them to mountain climbers roped together, which seems closer—always advancing and never quite side by side. As it happens, Braque may have had his own take on matters. Before collage and Synthetic Cubism came broken visions at their most rigorous, in Analytic Cubism, but just as impure as ever. Violin and Glass, from 1913 or so, has wood grain, staff lines, and pointillist dots that anticipate the turn to decorative fillips in Picasso a few years later. It also has the word salad of Duos, Pron, and Pers. Call them a pair, a personage, a fragment, or the pronoun standing for one. A still life's warm brown from those years slides perfectly into human absence.

Well, almost perfectly. Step back from an apparent abstraction, already something Picasso shunned, and a figure emerges. Unlike for Picasso, too, males are at home in Braque's universe, down to the leisure of late pool players. At the same time, when it comes to women, Braque seems more reluctant to share anger or love. The closest he comes is that seated woman in profile—although a palette in a Studio from as late as the 1950s has its own curves and flesh tones. And that seated woman from 1936 is independent enough to hold her own palette and to paint.

Braque pays a price for his sanity. For one thing, it has has kept him from Picasso's degree of attention. It also made him the model for the elegance of the School of Paris between the wars, as at the Pompidou Center or the Guggenheim. His reserve and his architecture may be clearer still when the cracks start to show. His pace slows drastically for nearly twenty years once he and Picasso start working apart again. Then, too, Cubism was about letting the cracks show all along.

The show tells the story pretty well, although paintings do not hang quite chronologically within a room. Fauvism apart from Henri Matisse had more detail, with a more conservative eye to Post-Impressionism. And Braque could easily have gone down as a lesser Fauvist. Still, he had his signs of experiment all along. Boats play off against their more colorful shadows, streaks of sunlight against the progression of earth, and sky against rocks. Sunlight bleaches through a sparer harbor scene from 1909, as a stage toward competing planes, simplification, and Cubism.

More than Picasso, Braque never loses an interest in landscape. A ship's mast supplies a motif that lingers as well. In another Harbor from the same year, one mast roots the painting's foreground and center while another leans along the ground at left. The picture might be falling apart, and the tone could pass for day or night. The same competition of diagonals goes into the pool cues. An abacus keeping score behind them blocks or puns on the window, as if the view into depth were just a game.

Broken lines keep interrupting the calm of a still life in the form of clarinets or guitar necks. One guitar disrupts the diamond of the playing card. Picture frames, real or imagined, also play a role, and one leaves them out of a reproduction at one's peril. In the end, all this art for art's sake may never have the public profile of Picasso's emotions, but it may also be more human because less larger than life. Come to think of it, in a sit com Braque could be the one playing the calm husband to Picasso's outbursts. Braque, however, would hate that—both the condescension and the pop culture that he never knew.

Good artists copy

"When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them." Pablo Picasso may indeed have said something like that, after seeing a show of children's drawings, and it might even be true. Who knows? When you have Picasso's influence perhaps even today, the legends accumulate, and no one did more than Picasso to promote them. Here he appears to boast twice over, most likely in conversation with Roger Penrose, the art historian who profiled him in 1958. He had more native talent than even Raphael, who drew a strikingly youthful self-portrait in his teens and completed an altarpiece at eighteen—and yet he left the past behind.

Pablo Picasso's Yellow Nude (photo by estate of the artist/ARS, Gretchen and John Berggruen, 1907)Maybe so, or maybe just child's play. It is the legend of Modernism as well, as the culmination and utter rejection of Western painting. And the Frick Collection has a stake in at least the culmination part. The rediscovery of Rembrandt or Jan Vermeer were part and parcel of a capitalist's patrician aspirations, and the collection still ends with a less than stellar Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Yet "Picasso Drawings: Reinventing Tradition" insists on its place at the Frick. Says Susan Grace Galassi, who curated the show with Marilyn McCully, "Picasso is nowhere in the Frick, but the Frick is everywhere in Picasso."

The show starts right in with the talent and the tradition. At all of nine, in 1890, Picasso sketches Hercules with Baroque musculature, a pronounced crotch, and a child's swagger. He pays tribute thrice over to academic training—drawing his father (who, like Raphael's, was a minor artist), a studio model, and a cast after the Parthenon. In a self-portrait around twenty, black chalk on watercolor heightens his dark eyes and aura of stardom. Perhaps his best-known pencil on paper, from 1915, shows Ambroise Vollard seated, head erect, the legendary dealer's hands clasped to one side. It sets Cubism aside for precise outlines and confident rhythms that do indeed recall J. A. D. Ingres and French drawing.

The show ends in 1921 with more Neoclassicism, as a visit to Fontainebleau inspires highly finished gouache and pastel of women at a fountain. That still leaves wide open just what the show includes and what it leaves out. The sixty drawings make no attempt to survey a career with all its shocks. They dwell on Picasso's youth in Barcelona, the languor of those first years in Paris, and a few key moments—the discovery of "the primitive," a sketch or two toward Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the roots of Cubism on a summer holiday in Spain, and a distinct turn away through bathers on the Côte d'Azur. One might not know how much of Cubism was about works on paper. One collage in fact puns on papier collé, with apparent wallpaper and linen drawn by hand.

Then again, Picasso is always punning and subverting history, including the history that he invented the week before. It makes the copy of a copy of the Parthenon dated and static, but it allows Fernande Olivier early in their relationship to combine the pastoral, the reclining nude, African masks, and a very personal charm. It allows the shadows behind a yellow nude to become carvings or hair. It allows a woman from the back to have the symmetry of a playing card. It transforms another into a Cubist still life, with her hips the tabletop and her breast the jug of wine. It transforms a forest into an abstraction and nudes into a forest.

Picasso definitely never visited the Frick, and his sources run less to Raphael or Ingres than to Vincent van Gogh (for that self-portrait), Paul Gauguin (for Fernande), Cézanne (for the pines and rocks), and Henri Matisse (for the circle of bathers and his escape from Cubism). Another well-known gouache and watercolor, of sleeping peasants, quotes a print by Jean-François Millet. At its best, this show offers some stunners, dozens of them—and perhaps a counter to another recent focus, on Picasso's last decade. At its worst, its justifications and selection miss what made him modern. As he almost surely said, "Good artists copy. Great artists steal."

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Georges Braque ran at Acquavella through November 30, 2011, "Picasso Drawings: Reinventing Tradition" at The Frick Collection through January 8, 2012. I mention the fine early drawing of Willem de Kooning, in his 2004 Museum of Modern Art retrospective.


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