“To a new world of gods and monsters” is the promethean pledge from one mad scientist to another in James Whale’s classic Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but it’s easy to imagine the same toast echoing from a Montmartre studio in 1909 as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque raise a glass to the fractured new reality they’d uncovered.
Mary Shelley published her novel, Frankenstein, in 1818, just around the time that Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes embarked on his Black Paintings in the Quinta del Sordo: the burial of the Enlightenment concurrent with the birth of modern painting. Ninety years later, as the twin engines of industrialization and capitalism were gearing up for the cataclysms of World War I, Picasso and Braque were creating unforeseen visions of the world coming apart at the seams.
To reach Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection, the exhibition presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate Lauder’s promised gift of eighty-one paintings, drawings and sculptures by Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger, you have to go through either the Greek and Roman collection or the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Both are fitting. Cubism’s origins in African art are canonical, but the foundational aspect of classicism in the development of Western culture — charting a path from the primacy of humanism in the Renaissance to the Academy’s misuse of tradition in the 19th century — also comes into play.
In one stroke, Cubism quashes the classical ideal as it stakes a foundational claim for the next hundred years of modern art. Picasso and Braque assume control of a universe that places not humanity but the artist/creator at its core: an antipodal realm of endlessly shifting perspectives and scattered signifiers, begetting deconstructed figures — robotic and monstrous — with bodies formed from angular shafts and ruptured planes.
Painting’s pretense of a window on reality is thoroughly exploded; what we see is the sole province of art, a jurisdiction where, paradoxically, actual pieces of reality, in the form of papier collé, are planted in a way that re-confounds our comprehension of the image. Snippets of faux bois — imitation wood grain wallpaper — alongside the masterful simulations of wood grain that Braque made by running a metal comb through the paint (an artisanal skill he acquired as a young man) conjoin mechanical illusion with handmade illusion, entities that are equally true and false.
The paintings by Braque that greet you in the first room are mesmerizing: three landscapes, one each from 1907, 1908 and 1909, moving from the Cézanne-esque, splendidly colored (though dominantly earth-toned) “The Terrace at the Hôtel Mistral,” to the dark and tumultuous “Trees at L’Estaque,” to the ethereal cascades of green, gray, white and beige in “The Castle of La Roche-Guyon.”
Within these three years he takes his leave of Cézanne and dissolves a traditional genre into something both tangible and unapproachable, a fog of impressions that offer no foothold — in reality or in the history of Western painting — for understanding what is being observed. In the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, a painting becomes an alienated object, something we must approach on its own terms.
Cubism’s historical divide falls between Analytic and Synthetic, the former faceted and monochromatic, the latter planar and more varied in color. But this exhibition’s concentrated focus reveals the many nuances of Analytic Cubism, which varies between block-like solidity and freeform spatial experiments. The greatest range, not surprisingly, is found in the work of Picasso, who claims the lion’s share of wall space, with thirty-four pieces on display compared with half that number for Braque and fifteen each for Léger and Gris.
We encounter the first group of Picassos directly after the three Braques at the start of the exhibition. The difference is like night and day. Where the human figure rarely enters Braque’s work (there is one such example in this show, “Head of a Woman” from 1912, in charcoal, gouache and pasted wallpaper), the Picasso selection begins with a Rose Period painting on paper of three nudes from 1906, followed in quick succession by an Iberian standing female nude (1906-7) and an African-derived study for “Les demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). Two of the most radical works are “Head of a Man” (late 1908) in ink and charcoal, in which the man’s eyes are two shields of opaque black, and “Nude Woman with Guitar” (spring 1908) in charcoal on canvas, which looks ahead to the Surrealist paintings Picasso would do once Cubism and the Neo-Classicism that followed it were both done for.
The paintings and drawings from this two-year period are exceptionally dense, with bodies and heads resembling chunks of concrete or scraps of dun-colored sheet metal. Things then loosen up considerably and the fragmented facets emblematic of Cubism’s high-water mark begin to appear.
These extraordinarily inventive works span just a few years for Picasso, 1910 to 1913, and a somewhat wider period for Braque, 1909 to 1914. Either way, it’s startling to witness, especially compared with its outsized influence, how fast a flameout Cubism was.
If the shards of reality Picasso and Braque were painting anticipated the crackup of Western civilization in World War I, they were having a blast doing it. Their freewheeling sensibility saw no distinction between high and low, formalism and caricature, object and representation, or image and text, especially in the roomful of delightfully spare papiers collés under the heading “Word and Image,” which revel in newspapers, advertisements and other artifacts of café culture. There are also self-conscious puns on the word “cube,” such as the (misspelled) “Violin: ‘Mozart Kubelick’” (spring 1912), a still life by Braque alluding to the Czech violinist Jan Kubelík (who was also the father of Rafael, the renowned conductor, pianist, composer and political activist).
The irreverent, adventurous spirit shared by Picasso and Braque comes to an unexpected halt in the rooms holding the works of Gris and Léger. Here, Cubism becomes an application, a methodology for putting a picture together rather than a scrambled playbook with daily updates and deletions. Not that these paintings aren’t handsome, because they are, but here we have two sets of painters, Gris and Léger, who know where they’re going, and Braque and Picasso, who do not.
In 2007, Berenice Rose curated a show at the Pace Gallery called Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism, which put forth the novel premise that much of the inspiration for Analytic Cubism came from the artists’ passion for silent film. As I wrote in a review of that show, the curator’s contention “was that [Cubism] adopted the projected image as both content and form. In this shifted context, the Cubist subject, be it a portrait or still life, no longer feels like an obsessive examination of form in space, but the trajectory of an image flashing past the eye too quickly to be recorded in conventional terms,” suggesting that “the real subject of art in the modern era is the anxious blur of time.”
While the Lauder gift to the Met doesn’t offer an abundance of the kind of spatially ambiguous, briskly brushed, spliced-up imagery (as seen in Braque’s “Violin: ‘Mozart Kubelick’”) that made up the bulk of the Pace show, the concept is nonetheless fascinating, especially in light of Cubism’s incorporation of newspaper clippings as an absorption of the new phenomenon of mass media, which of course included the movies.
From the wall text of the Met’s “Word and Image” room:
The need for illusionistic representation was gone; meaning could be imparted through signs for things or even through fragments of actual objects.
While this description refers to the newspaper and wallpaper papiers collés, couldn’t “meaning […] imparted through signs for things or even through fragments of actual objects” also be applied to the fleeting signifiers of the moving image? In another way of looking at it, film-inspired Cubism can be termed Impressionism with a vengeance (or, taking cues again from Cézanne, Post-Post-Impressionism) in which an impression — a flicker of light, the glimpse of a shape — is all that registers, and everything else is indistinct.
And so a case can be made that Picasso and Braque, in their Cubist explorations, were attempting to do the impossible: carve up the corpse of painting and infuse it with a combustible mix of reality and illusion that comfortably settles on neither, to conjure a sensation of light and motion that’s here for a fraction of a second and then gone.
Perhaps that’s one reason why the works by Picasso and Braque crackle like lit fuses, while those of Gris and Léger settle into decorative and compositional tropes. And why Cubism burned itself out after five or six years. It’s the difference between making a picture and catching lightning in a bottle.
Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 16, 2015.