When Cubism Was News

John Haber
in New York City

The Leonard A. Lauder Collection

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque loved the news, and why not? They were making news every day.

"Almost every evening, either I went to Braque's studio or he came to mine," Picasso recalled. "Each of us had to see what the other had done during the day." They shocked one another, Braque related. They even shocked themselves. It was just those repeated shocks and discoveries, Leonard A. Lauder says, that drove him to collect Cubism. The news still comes fast and furious in Lauder's Cubist collection, as a promised gift to the Met. Pablo Picasso's The Scallop Shell: Notre Avenir Est dans l'Air (Leonard A. Lauder Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1912)

It is news of their years together and at their best, from 1908 to 1914. It is news of their greatest emulators and collaborators, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris, who helped carry Cubism past a world war, while adding primary colors and a raking light. In an unusually large and flat composition crossed by text, one can see Léger's repertoire of tubular shapes taking shape. It is news, too, of the upheavals in art that brought them together—and the upheavals in Europe that tore them apart. It is news of the high and low culture, from classical music to the breakfast table, that kept them reading the headlines. Most of all, though, it is news of Picasso and Braque.

Could Braque's 1907 tumble of houses nestled beneath an arch of trees at l'Estaque, a port near Marseilles, have been the first Cubist painting? Could his slip of pretend wood wallpaper from 1912 have been the first papier collé, or collage? Could Picasso's Still Life with Fan from the year before have been the first to insert lettering with a brush? Maybe, or maybe at least the first question hardly even makes sense when Cubism had to reinvent itself every day. One thing for sure—Picasso took those letters from L'Indépendant, a local paper in the Pyrenees, where he and Fernande Olivier were enjoying a break and new possibilities. This art was employing signs of its possibilities to declare its independence.

The love of the game

Their love of news spilled over into newsprint. It survives in the letters of journal, or "newspaper," clipped from the masthead or hand-lettered in cunning simulation of the real thing. It survives in stories literally ripped from the headlines along the run-up to war. One can imagine the discoveries coming alone at a bar where the remains of the day had been saved for regulars or cast aside. One can imagine them coming first thing over breakfast in the morning light. Braque called the plain letters their "certainties," in a Modernism that would ever after traffic in the uncertain.

It could make do quite well with only a fragment of a certainty, like the letters jour, for "day." Cubism thrived on the everyday, in familiar objects with barely a hint of the moralism that casts its shadows over Dutch still life in the age of Rembrandt. For half a millennium, Western art had conveyed deep space in a single act of vision. Now that vantage point had a become a moment in time—the moment of the scent of a chocolate pot, the taste of a sugar cube, the heard melody from a guitar, the touch of the sound holes in a wind instrument or the knob of a drawer jutting forward into the viewer's hand. Time could be present in the ticking of a metronome, even as single-point perspective was shattering to pieces from the motion of its hand. Notre Avenir Est dans l'Air reads part of a title from 1912, or "our future is in the air," with Picasso nicknamed Orville to Braque's Wilbur Wright.

It could and often did abridge still further, to urnal for a comic student's thoughts of a urinal or simply to jou, or "play." One plays music, like the music of all those guitars, mandolins, and violins. One plays a game, like dice for Braque or chess for Picasso, the pieces hard to discern and yet so very much at play. Picasso paints his aviation news into the work as Notre Ave Est dans l'A—perhaps because our avenue, our way forward, is through a playing card, the ace. He would always, it seems, have still another ace in the hole, including Picasso sculpture, or maybe l'A is just the letter A, like a return of art and representation to square one. Group Zero in Germany of the early 1960s had nothing on these guys.

One can fear another game as well, the game of public markets and private treasures. Collectors and curators have a habit of circling one another, with an eye to prices and reputations. When a museum exhibits a private collection, like the Nasher sculpture collection at the Guggenheim in 1997, one can see it jacking up market values while angling for donations. When it enshrines a collection with a reserved wing, like too many at the Met (or, for that matter, the Ronald and Evelyn Lauder galleries at the Whitney), egos soar at the expense of the museum's integrity and the public's experience of art and history. This exhibition has the bad timing to follow a lengthy remake of the Met's fountain plaza, mostly to add the names of the Koch brothers to what you were sure was public space along Fifth Avenue. Besides, it had to be a little late to enter the game of building a collection like this in 1976, fifty years after MoMA had wrapped Modernism up, right?

Maybe not. Lauder has amassed quite something, with some fifty works by Picasso and Braque alongside thirty more by Gris and Léger. Cubism can easily discourage people, much the way people fail to finish James Joyce or Marcel Proust. They see the difficulty and miss the exhilaration of taking flight. There is always a more dreamlike Surrealism or a nice Jewish boy like Marc Chagall. Apparently, that left an opportunity for Lauder, his fortune rooted in the family cosmetics business.

It also fills a real need at the Met (despite, just for starters, one of the best drip paintings by Jackson Pollock). With the Whitney's departure from Madison Avenue for a new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District, the Met has room to rehang its modern wing and to grow. It is also just showing off another acquisition, murals by Thomas Hart Benton, and two works from Lauder have already entered the collection. He has the modesty to contribute his name not to a wing for his gift but to a new research center instead. The entrance to this exhibition has a photo of work as it hangs in his home, over an old-fashioned sofa in a way that Gertrude and Leo Stein in Paris might have recognized, and the catalog has twenty essays on aspects of Cubism. With luck, research and education are just beginning.

Up in the air

The exhibition starts with Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso apart, in 1907, just past twenty-five and busy modernizing themselves. Braque had been following Fauvism (in case one had any doubt that Henri Matisse, too, led art into the twentieth century), while Picasso had been working his way out of a gentler, more conservative style through Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and "the primitive." For both the path lay through the blue and brown mosaic of Paul Cézanne, and for both it pushed deep space into the tactile dimension of the picture plane. One can almost feel Picasso running his hand over a bronze bust of Fernande in 1909, and one can feel him looking at the shadows of an African mask and seeing nothing behind. As ever, Braque is the denser and more accomplished, with warm, glowing browns pushing right up to the edges of the composition, while Picasso has his crude hands and laconic line. Someone who remembers only Braque's elegance and Picasso's sexism has forgotten how much they helped one another to laugh.

"We criticized each other's work," said Picasso. "A canvas wasn't finished until both of us felt it was," but that meant a radical understanding of finish. Perspective became just one sign among many, along with the cartoon tassel of a tablecloth, the letter B from a newspaper for an ear, or a musical score for the sound. As space became the space of an oval tabletop, that left the puzzle of what to do with the corners, so why not leave them unpainted or cut them away? In the space of the hand as well as the eye, negative spaces matter more anyway. A mandolin neck is palpable, but then so is the sound hole.

The show's heart is Analytic Cubism, the style of roughly 1909 to 1912, in its dizzying fragmentation of objects and space. It lingers over musical instruments as signs of art and play, starting with Fernande at full length leaning on a guitar, and letters as signs of the time. All along, though, it should help to dispel the cliché that Cubism is a concatenation of points of view, rather than of signs for every one of the senses. It relies on conventions even as they break apart. Textures can arise from a cabinet maker's comb used to simulate them, from sand on unprimed canvas, from oil so dry as to roughen pigment, from the white silhouette of a clay pipe, from the painted or real crumpled paper of a scholar's cap, or from newsprint itself. If the paper is turning brown with age, all the more convincing.

The show includes collage, but the peaking of three dimensions in Synthetic Cubism, like Picasso's guitars in cardboard or an absinthe glass with a real cube for its sugar, is a bit of an afterthought, and by then the artists had begun to drift apart. World War I had displaced Russian nationals like Wassily Kandinsky in Paris and altered the invention of abstraction, and it isolated these artists as well. They still track closely at first, with decorative patterns in color, but mass culture and mass reproduction were implicit well before. Picasso discovers the red, white, and blue of the French flag that he cannot personally defend, while Braque lends a deep purple to his love of art and music—where Jan Kubelik, the violinist, supplies the "cube" and Mozart the "art." The letters BAR drift through, perhaps their growing bar on collaboration, as if floating on memory or the air. Picasso shows the stress or the longings in 1914, with a faceless woman's pendant and pointed breasts.

He looks forward here to Surrealism and already subjects it to comedy. It took Juan Gris, though, to make things plainer and more treacherous. Gris packs more to the edges, while leaving things bare and glimmering in an otherworldly light. Tabletops have the colors of a bar as the morning lights begin to rake on the remains of the previous day. A woman with her face in seemingly mirrored shards may be Madame Cézanne or his own mother. And then one has Fernand Léger at his very closest to Cubism, for all his bright colors, tubular forms, acrobats and robotic soldiers, curling clouds of smoke, and echoes of Futurism.

The moment had run its course, and so thankfully had a war, but art had fully entered a new century, with an influence that has never left. As a borrowed headline boasts for Gris (referring to a fingerprint scheme for art authentication), on ne truquera plus les oeuvres d'art: one can no longer play false with works of art. Then again, maybe now one must play false whenever one claims it as one's own. Exhibitions have surveyed every aspect of Picasso's career, gamesmanship, and rivalry with Matisse, but they may never focus so single-mindedly again on just how he made news. With Cubism, art had come down to earth as never before, but its future was still up in the air.

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"Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 16, 2015.


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