Taking a Wrench to Reality

Julian Bell
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What happened in Paris in 1910 can be thanked or blamed for almost everything in art that came later that century.

Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection - an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 20, 2014–February 16, 2015

The man who did the most to give Cubism a cohesive identity was Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. In early 1907, this progressive-minded twenty-two-year-old used funds from his German banking family to open a little gallery in the rue Vignon, just off the grands boulevards of Paris. He had an eye for the innovatory, and soon canvases by André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck were hanging on his walls. Two years earlier at the Salon d’Automne, the big event in the contemporary art calendar, these painters had been linked to Henri Matisse under the label les Fauves. But any group allegiance was now disintegrating. Matisse, serving on the 1908 Salon jury, rejected the latest work of another associate of les Fauves, Georges Braque, complaining that it was composed of “little cubes.” Kahnweiler promptly offered Braque a solo show.

Braque’s recently acquired friend Pablo Picasso was meanwhile starting to depend on purchases by Kahnweiler. The German was reliable: he made sure his painters had sufficient funds to continue with their artistic researches. Moreover, he was fastidious. By 1911 self-described “Cubists” had popped up all over Paris and were crowding out the Matisse contingent at the Salon, but of these only one, Fernand Léger, was let into the rue Vignon. Juan Gris, a personal protégé of Picasso’s, made it through the door soon after. Kahnweiler discouraged his exhibitors from submitting to the annual Salon, which he regarded as an occasion for contrived controversy. The sheer discretion of his operation gave it unique cachet, and the fortunes of all involved rose.

When war was declared in 1914, the French government impounded the gallery stock of this enemy alien. Stuck in neutral Switzerland, Kahnweiler composed Der Weg zum Kubismus (The Rise of Cubism), a philosophically reasoned advocacy of the work of Picasso, Braque, and Léger, his three “pathfinders of Cubism.” (Gris he favored with a later monograph.) In 1921, a year after it was published, word came down from the Elysée that the stock sequestered during the war must all be sold off. The market became flooded with hundreds of pre-war Cubist canvases, with the result that prices for them suffered a twenty-year slump. A chief beneficiary of this was a young and moneyed British aesthete, Douglas Cooper, who was able to acquire 137 Cubist pieces by the time the next war started.

Cooper, like the revered Kahnweiler, became an authority on early-twentieth-century artistic developments. “The Essential Cubism,” a major exhibition mounted in London in 1983 to present his interpretations, hailed Braque, Picasso, Léger, and Gris as the movement’s “essential” quadrumvirate. When Cooper died soon afterward, the first view of the artworks in his estate was given to Leonard A. Lauder. Lauder, who started seriously collecting art during the 1960s, has leaned on his income as chief executive of his family’s cosmetics empire, which has enabled him to think big: moreover, his acquisitive projects have been driven by a keen interest in history. Of the eighty-one Cubist pieces that he is now donating to the Met—a gift the museum is currently celebrating with a special exhibition—roughly half were once in the Cooper collection. A line of transmission is thus upheld across a century, and the same four artists who frequented the rue Vignon up to 1914 have become, for the purposes of this upgrade of the Met’s modern holdings, the only Cubists left standing.

Lauder knows where to find advice—Emily Braun, the art historian who curates his collection, contributes fine essays to the show’s imposing catalog, as well as an interview with her employer—and at the same time his own eye as a purchaser has been bold and decisive. Rarely publicized items mingle with others that are famous, but nothing looks a mere makeweight, bought only for the name. Lauder and his advisers have done their best to represent as many aspects of the four artists’ work during the crucial few years as possible and, assisted by a shrewd presentation, the result is a show that is absorbing and provoking as well as notable historically. What, then, is the character of the art that it displays?

Confronting you across the lobby as you enter are three landscapes by Braque from successive years, the centerpiece being Trees at L’Estaque, one of the canvases that fell foul of Matisse in 1908. Subsequently, Braque would gain a reputation for Zen cool and debonair craftsmanship, but the twenty-five-year-old at work here seems quite a different proposition. What we encounter is a truculent young bruiser—one who told an interviewer that year that he was preoccupied by a “search for violence”—donning a deceased champion’s cloak as he thrust his way into the avant-garde arena. The brushwork thumps, the palette is darkened. Cézanne had died in 1906, just as he was becoming the talk of all Paris, a status cemented by a retrospective in the 1907 Salon d’Automne. The following summer Braque headed down to L’Estaque, the port where Cézanne had liked to work three decades before. The inner diamond shape, or mandorla, of his 1908 landscape features L’Estaque’s cypresses and red tile roofs. But the hefty trunks framing that mandorla appear to be lifted (though the curators do not mention this) from The Big Trees, a canvas Cézanne painted in a lane outside Aix in 1904, now in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

In his artistic researches, Cézanne had been intent to paw at the boundary between his personal visual sensations and the “Nature” (or “the real world,” as we might now say) that he could walk through and handle and inhabit. But, the junior contender seems to claim, I can go beyond that. I can take a wrench to reality. Look, my brush lays hold on the angled planes of the object world, its facets; look, it locates the edges on which Nature must turn; see me unfasten the presented scene, open it up, seize it by a firm and encompassing grip.

And yet at the same time, this claim is avowedly a feint. It is Braque who is at the further remove from Nature, adapting in the studio what his predecessor had painted en plein air. The unalikeness of art to Nature might be something Cézanne liked to ponder, alone in the woods of Provence; but for Braque in Paris, submitting the landscapes to the 1908 Salon, art meant the immediate political agenda of staking out independence from Matisse, a campaign in which this canvas formed a skirmish. Besides, could it really be supposed that Nature had authorized this cat’s cradle of edges, this contraption that gives the canvas its dynamism?

The impetus for that stylistic device lay in the art of Braque’s new Spanish friend: specifically, in the criss-cross facets of the monumental Three Women, which Picasso had painted earlier in 1908. Whereas Three Women remains in the Hermitage, at the Met the first room after the lobby displays fifteen items produced by Picasso in the same studio from 1906 to 1909. Braque and he were not obvious soulmates. The Frenchman’s art seldom tangled with human bodies, whereas they were the primal stuff of Picasso’s. Two walls of figure work confirm that Picasso in his late twenties, as both in his youth and in his later years, yearned to deliver an art that stopped the viewer’s attention with a hieratic or tragic weight of meaning, and that his readiest vehicles were portraiture and variations on history painting.

But this will to deliver a static icon was pitted against a great slide sideways. For Picasso was also compulsively curious about anything that other artists might do and about where their systems of graphic notation might lead. A 1909 canvas called Two Nudes, for instance, interprets an Ingres-like figure composition in the manner of Akati Akpele Kendo, a Dahomean metal constructor whose sculpture in the Musée du Trocadéro had impressed Picasso. The paired female figures with their African crispness of edge come together as a central diamond on the canvas, comparable to Braque’s. Yet what the image intends remains strangely elusive: it’s as if the figures were stranded in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a cue.

Instead, the experiment points to another question—one that looms still larger in other works by Picasso such as a quickly abandoned Nude Woman with Guitar, lightly charcoaled on canvas. How are represented bodies and rectangular pictures supposed to interrelate? Picasso’s clashing impulses drive him toward difficulty. A frontal, iconic head in the manner of a Senufo mask might be fine to fill a sheet of paper, but if expanded to a bolder scale, negative spaces start to snag the attention.

A proliferation of imaginary edges was one way to address the problem, as in the desperate drapery apparatus of the 1907 Demoiselles d’Avignon. Lauder’s collection of pre-1910 Picassos mostly serves to introduce to New York a further batch of mesmerizing misfires to complement that most fascinating problem picture of all. The only item here that Picasso brought to complete resolution was the myriad-faceted head of Fernande Olivier that he sculpted in 1909, but this was a venture the artist did not choose to build on. We see him heading sideways into other genres, no doubt influenced by his friendship with Braque: there is a charming little landscape of interlocking planes from 1909, The Oil Mill, and some bantering variations on Cézannian still life.

Then in 1910, the two associates, who had already pushed one another into a puritanical narrowing of the palette, locked themselves into an altogether more demanding to-and-fro. The rules of the game switched. The autumn before, as Still Life with Metronome witnesses, Braque was still twisting his wrench to disassemble the scene he was looking at into diamond-faceted chunks. But the sharp edges and tilted planes on which such an operation relied had always been essentially abstract contrivances, not inherent in the object. If one had to use such abstractions to represent Nature in a picture, then—the new logic went—one should not confuse them with Nature. They should be treated as functions or subdivisions of the picture space. Only the relations between them should allude to the object.

Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York - Pablo Picasso: Standing Female Nude, summer 1910

On the one hand, there would be a grid aligned with the picture edge, or something quite near to it; on the other, the thing itself, the purpose of the picture. A sketch from the summer of 1910—one of eight leading up to a large canvas—shows Picasso rehearsing the acrobatic and paradoxical challenge he had just set himself. Let there be a standing female nude, he is saying with every pen scratch, and yet let her be something other than these marks: they shall never touch down on the bounding outline of her body (see right).

To have represented an object without imitating it: to have “pierced the closed form,” fusing body and picture into a new type of indivisibility: for Kahnweiler, writing up his philosophized account of Cubism during the war, this constituted “the great step.” As of 1910, however, this extreme exactingness daunted Kahnweiler—he declined to buy the new work—and Picasso would turn away from it also. But rather than back down from their newly achieved grammar of art, he and Braque reached out to expand the vocabulary it could deploy.

Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris - Georges Braque: Still Life on a Table: ‘Duo pour Flute,’ 1913–1914

The exhibition includes two café tabletop images from the following summer: in one, Picasso’s brushwork studiously replicates a newspaper masthead; in the other, Braque’s charcoal inscribes excerpts from a printed wine list and the faces of a pair of dice. The new Cubist logic gave leave to the artists to overlay such eye-catching hooks on their grids, for letters and numbers did not induce illusion. Rather, they were signs that pointed to objects beyond themselves, leaving the stuff of the real world elsewhere.

Or was it rather that in places, paradoxically, the stuff of the real world itself had the quality of a sign? Lauder’s collection includes the original papier collé, the famous Fruit Dish and Glass of 1912, in which Braque inserted cuts of grained wallpaper into another barroom scene. Picasso’s riposte was to paste his drawings with sections of newspaper text. Building on this line of inquiry, there is his giddily restructured little 1914 sculpture of an absinthe glass, incorporating an actual absinthe spoon such as a café would supply.

Barroom tabletops and convivial glasses: it’s a fond and cheerful world into which the two artists sidestepped from the turn of the century’s second decade. For all the novelty of their new representational structure, it afforded endless room for good humor and sly banter, and Picasso’s laconically minimal sign drawing of the Head of a Man with a Moustache over a newspaper advertising SCRUBB’S AMMONIA still raises smiles a century onward. There was also room for lyrical sweetness. Still Life on a Table: “Duo pour flute,” a Braque canvas of 1913–1914 that is less than twenty-two inches wide, resounds through the gallery it occupies like a speaker cabinet mounted on the wall: its nested, studded entanglement of objects vibrates beneficently, assuming a new object status all its own. Its four-part color music draws the viewer into the “one another’s best” romance that (to go by the title and the discreet heart shapes) the painting is presumably intended to celebrate. Braque, here, had already arrived at his distinctive terrain, to settle in as the twentieth century’s Chardin, its sage of still life. It’s an agenda he would pursue for a further fifty years.

Although Picasso became so much the larger artist, I feel that he slightly suffers in the Lauder selection if his oil paintings are compared to Braque’s. Picasso’s most mysterious and beautiful canvases of 1910 and 1911 are not to be found here. Only in a still life done in the fateful summer of 1914—and hence bearing crossed tricolors, the Spaniard protesting his loyalties—does Picasso succeed in inhabiting his medium as gracefully as his friend. From two years before, there is the likewise tricolor-brandishing The Scallop Shell: “Notre Avenir est dans l’Air,” in which the reproduced cover of a nationalistic pamphlet injects a blast of color into the dim tones of an oval still life: but this, like several other small-scale Picasso canvases, is a clotted, fiddly, uncomfortable performance, from a painter who seems to have no liking for his paint. Then there is Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair—one of Lauder’s larger purchases, and surely one of his bolder, since his wife is quoted in the catalog as saying that she “hated” it.

Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York- Pablo Picasso: Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair, late 1913–early 1914

On one level, this nearly five-foot-high canvas from the turn of 1914 shows Picasso’s desire to get back, after a long and exhilarating detour into questions of form, to the more directly challenging figure painting he had last attempted with the Demoiselles. Once again he would stare at female flesh and get female flesh to stare back at him. If the Cubist armature could support signs connoting coziness, booziness, and the stuff in the newspapers, it could surely also be hung with cues for lust.

This, it would seem, was Picasso’s project, and Braun suggests that it was pursued with soft-porn postcards for picture reference. Parallel to the painting’s pun that turns the chemise into the very labia it conceals, she points to comparable wink-wink allusions in Braques of a similar date. “The boys were having fun.” The girls—the adults, one might say, Mrs. Lauder included—may well have no taste for the joke. What offends me personally is its programmatic listlessness. A tube of magenta, Picasso has decided, will procure me just the accent of vulgarity I require. How vilely it interacts with his blacks and his earth colors, in prairies of thin, bored modeling.

The boys were having fun, and there might be room to pull up a third chair to the table. In his delectably ingenious collages, Juan Gris liked to highlight the small print about taxes on the inserted tobacco wrappers: contributions indirectes. This was, Braun suggests, Gris’s self-deferential self-positioning with regard to the senior artists whose lead he followed from 1911. In the Met exhibition, as at Kahnweiler’s, this second Spanish immigrant to Montmartre earns his place in the company by a tone of address that is not so much intimate as conspiratorial. We see him taking the radical new syntax bludgeoned out by his predecessors and refining it into an arcane code, governed by algorithms.

Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection - Juan Gris: Pears and Grapes on a Table, autumn 1913

The precision of his rulebook allowed Gris to co-opt a wider palette than they could handle, yet the intense reds and yellows of canvases such as Pears and Grapes on a Table take their places in pictorial schemes that are shadowy and, as Braun explains, deliberately louche: the catalog explores Gris’s devotion to Fantômas, the master criminal of the era’s pulp fiction. On one level Gris’s enticements are as comfortably diverting as a good murder mystery. On another, one senses the overlap between nerdiness and violence. In the catalog, Harry Cooper writes of a little canvas in which Gris took his Cubist wrench to a family photo: “Before exclaiming ‘What an awful thing to do to one’s mother!’ we should register the tenderness of touch that suffuses the whole….” But I can’t decide whether that’s the right way around.

Another type of mystery, from this distance, is just how Kahnweiler decided what he wanted to include in Cubism and what he did not. This exhibition headlined “Cubism” lets us forget that there were many dozens of painters in the Paris of 1910 suddenly flocking to that banner: and it is beyond its remit to speculate what kind of broader cultural shift that involved. The so-called Salon Cubists, those who stole the show from the Matisseans, have had such a terrible press for so long that few of their canvases remain visible these days. Yet if I wander through the Met to Gallery 908 and to Roger de la Fresnaye’s Artillery of 1911, I find it hard to say why this painter should have been excluded and Fernand Léger ushered in.

Neither artist was willing to settle for the café table: each was determined to think big, as a modern tricolor-waving patriot. De la Fresnaye, painting a cannon parade, took his structuring planes from the first cubisant painting most people encountered, Picasso’s 1908 Three Women. Léger, depicting organic French communities as seen from the futuristic airplane in 1914, took Cézanne’s precept about treating Nature “in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone” for a cue to reduce all forms to a homogeneous buoyancy.1 His color-labeling is jollier than that of de la Fresnaye, but his quality of attention is slacker, his drawing more banal.

Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris - Fernand Léger: Composition (The Typographer), 1918–1919

To be sure, in the outcome Kahnweiler’s choice made sense. Both patriots went to the front, but de la Fresnaye came back with his health wrecked and stopped painting, whereas Léger returned with his imperturbably positive outlook reinforced. Within a year of the war’s end he was painting Lauder’s largest acquisition, the six-foot-high Composition (The Typographer). Its slabs of thick-laden red, crimson, yellow, and black blare out on the final wall of a color-parched show, a galumphingly upbeat climax. To what end those slabs are slotted together is not immediately obvious. What first catches the eye is a big stenciled letter R, and it is only later that one can make out the worker who has set that letter in place. In the picture, as in its title, the individual has been almost entirely subsumed in an abstracted salute to modern mass production.

Does this forceful finale represent some kind of triumph of Cubism? I’m tempted to say that the problem with Léger is that there is no problem with Léger. When it comes to his fifteen works in the Lauder collection, what we see is a graphic language intent to demonstrate that the world is all of one weave and that there exists a modern method to process it pictorially. In Léger’s writings—he was voluble as a theorist, but then so were many Salon Cubists; it was Picasso and Braque who stayed quiet—one can read much about “the object,” but in Léger’s pictures one never senses that there might be an external, resistant reality, independent of his looking. He simply contributes further public effects to a world already full of public effects, commercial and political. One might wish to say that in all this, he is fundamentally at odds with Picasso’s experiments of 1910, which lie at the very heart of Cubism.

But that might be bad history. Cultural genealogies go every which way. What happened in Paris in the seven years up to 1914 can be thanked or blamed for almost anything you like in the later art of the century. The 382-page exhibition catalog with its panoply of distinguished scholarly contributions does not—perhaps wisely—attempt such a long view: it is all trees and no forest.

Yet the exhibition could be inert if it didn’t in some way provoke. Various evident legacies of Cubism resonated as I walked away, some more attractive than others. There were the possibilities of abstraction that Mondrian teased so productively out of the turn toward the grid, even though Picasso and Kahnweiler came to insist that this was a perverse reading of an art focused on the real. There were the silly period charms of the chunky look and the “armed with incomprehensible fins” look (to quote a critic of the Cubists2), as developed by trend followers from Futurism down to Art Deco. The after-echoes that hit most nearly home came from the arch, conspiratorial wordplay in some of the pictures. Pictorial style has ages since washed its hands of Cubism’s facets, but art-world style still wallows in its facetiousness. Smirkism, that’s what we contend with now.

This reflects back on the actual work of the rue Vignon exhibitors insofar as it was textured by male café-table camaraderie. Refracted through that smoky prism, emotions were liable to come out stale and sour, to paraphrase my responses to Picasso’s Woman in a Chemise. It wasn’t simply color that I felt starved of by the end, it was fresh air. As it happens, further downtown, concurrent to this show, MoMA is offering the perfect antidote, exhibiting Matisse’s radiantly joyful Cut-Outs—the alternatives of 1908 now reanimated. What would be the best case for opting for the Met? It might be to insist that Cubism’s craziest proposition, its most blatant feint, has a claim on our attention: to insist, in other words, that Cubism has truth value. Pictures want to be bodies, pictures want to be objects, but they aren’t, and they can’t be. The edge where one color meets another can never be the edge where a solid meets space. That is the truth, but is it a truth that painting can point to? Cubism opened up the question, leaving it to dangle every time a brush is raised a hundred years on.

1. The Letters of Paul Cézanne, edited and translated by Alex Danchev (Thames and Hudson, 2013), p. 334. ↩
2. Jacques Rivière, “Present Tendencies in Painting,” 1912, translated by E. Fry, in Art in Theory 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell, 1992), p. 187.
Cover Image: Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Georges Braque: Trees at L’Estaque, summer 1908