PARIS — To visit Le Cubisme at the Centre Pompidou — France’s first exhibition devoted to Cubism since 1953 — is to confront modern and contemporary art’s holy of holies. Featuring 300 chronologically displayed masterful works, including Pablo Picasso’s “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” (1906) and Fernand Léger’s “The Wedding” (1911-12), the exhibition makes an argument for Cubism as a revolutionary movement with a far-reaching influence on architecture, literature, philosophy, and the art historical events of Futurism, Dada and Suprematism.
Le Cubisme offers a comprehensive overview of the movement’s history, starting with the early proto-Cubism seeds that germinated in Henri Rousseau’s painted jungles. It then proposes Picasso’s fetishizing approach to Iberian sculpture; the magical sub-Saharan African Art that Paul Guillaume brought to Paris; the “primitivistic” proto-modernism of Paul Gauguin; and, most importantly, Paul Cézanne’s desire to capture the tilted intricacies of human perception. In his late paintings, Cézanne sought to explore the workings of binocular vision by rendering slightly different visual perceptions of the same phenomena, thus illustrating how each of our two eyes see things from slightly different perspectives.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso synthesized these considerably diverse elements into a budding Cubism, first glimpsed in his experimental painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) — which is not included in the show — and then in his “Houses on the Hill, Horta de Ebro” (1909), a painting of the Catalonian town of Horta de San Joan.
Picasso and his close colleague, George Braque, are widely considered to be the inventors of Cubism. But the Centre Pompidou’s exhibit makes clear that they didn’t launch the movement alone: they owed much of their success to a young, relatively unknown art dealer, gallery owner, and book publisher named Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. By purchasing and exhibiting early Cubist works by Picasso and Braque, then André Derain and Juan Gris, Kahnweiler’s small Paris gallery helped jolt painting out of traditional Western perspectivism. Picasso reportedly once remarked, “What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn’t had a business sense?”
Soon, in the Parisian suburbs, the likes of Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Fernand Léger formed a group called the Puteaux circle (also known as Section d’Or) around painter/theoretician/philosopher Albert Gleizes and painter/theoretician/critic/poet Jean Metzinger. Together, the pair wrote the first major text defining Cubism, published by Eugène Figuière. In 1913, Gleizes painted “Editor Eugène Figuière,” a dazzling portrait that mixes flat geometric forms with precise detailing and written fragments. It celebrates the editor/publisher for stepping up and publishing Guillaume Apollinaire’s important manuscript The Cubist Painters, Aesthetic Meditations, which characterized Metzinger as the third Cubist artist, following Picasso and Braque.
One of the best paintings in the show is Léger’s “The Wedding,” a rich, velvety-textured work from 1911. Like many Puteaux cubist compositions, it is so jam-packed with jagged color blocks that, at first glance, it is difficult to decipher the human figures it abstractly depicts. With persistent looking, the eye is drawn into a kaleidoscopic space made up of small interlocking elements evocative of machinery and/or sex. The painting’s central couple fuse with their background into a cascade of complex cubes, lending the work a vivacious visual texture.
The painting is a colorful example of Analytical Cubism — the movement’s earlier phase, also seen in Picasso’s “The Aficionado” (1912) — which sought to demonstrate how human eyes merge countless bits of visual information into a coherent pictorial whole. This goal of representation was philosophically driven by the writings of French mathematician Henri Poincaré and the philosophers William James and Friedrich Nietzsche. It also drew on Henri Bergson’s concept of élan vital — vital force — which Gilles Deleuze elegantly explains in his book Bergsonism.
Of course, any art can and should be considered in relation to its sociopolitical context, but unlike some artists, the Cubists discussed their work as self-consciously political, and many of them were involved in leftist causes. As the Cubist movement emerged, a growing nationalist discourse in France, spurred by the far-right Action Française movement, stood in opposition to the far-left stance favored by Picasso and friends. Critics with right-wing sympathies attacked Cubism, while leftists celebrated its stylistic radicalism as a useful social solvent like opium and hashish.
In 1913 — around the time Synthetic Cubism, the movement’s second phase, was kicking into gear — anarchist theorist André Colomer, together with Gérard de Lacaze-Duthiers and Manuel Devaldès, launched the pro-Cubist anarchist art activist journal L’Action d’Art (Art Action). As contributors like Gleizes and Apollinaire saw it, Synthetic Cubism expressed anarchist ideals through its non-illusionism and its rejection of long-standing pictorial conventions. The journal thus fused avant-garde aesthetic theory with anarchists’ political engagement.
Some Cubist works were explicitly political in content, not just form. For example, in 1912, after moving to Montparnasse, Picasso injected topical anti-militaristic content into his larger collages, which contain readable newspaper clippings about the First Balkan War, among other things.
For the conservatively-minded, Cubism was seen as a celebration of random disorder. But where the bourgeoisie saw threatening disorder, the avant-garde left saw a subversion of academic illusion. It was through such subversion that the Cubist theorists and their anarchist allies intended to transform consciousness and thus society. Le Cubisme’s seamless presentation suggests that they succeeded in this aim, revealing how Cubism ravaged the once sacrosanct Renaissance window-in-the-wall conception of pictorial space forever.
Le Cubisme continues at The Centre Pompidou (Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris) through February 25. The exhibition is curated by Brigitte Leal.