Le Cubisme, the new show on cubism at the Pompidou Center in Paris, is breathtaking. It has most of the best things from this very short period in art. Cube by cone by cylinder, so to speak, we learn cubism’s rules. We see why the movement lasted for such a brief time. It started in 1907 amid fanfare and disdain–both frenzied—and collapsed around 1914 when the First World War started. Cubism’s goals were so precise and simple, it exhausted itself. It’s a big show, of about 300 objects. The curators seem to love cubism so much that they overlooked how quickly the fireworks ended.
That said, cubism opened endless doors to artists. It shattered “the window on the world,” replacing fake parroting of reality with a new truth, one that penetrated surfaces and kept faith with the materials used to make art.
There’s much to see, and I fear it might get lost amid the ongoing political demonstrations in Paris and the show about Pablo Picasso’s blue and rose periods at the Musee d’Orsay, which offers more conventionally beautiful work. The two shows, mounted coincidentally at the same time, are really partners. The Orsay show and themes lead directly to cubism.
For Western art, cubism was a bolt of lightning: quick, widely observed, and deeply felt. Who could doubt Georges Braque’s Grand Nude from 1907 was new and radical? Or was it insane? Was cubism a marketing hoax? What was it?
It was a new language of seeing. Braque’s Violin and Pitcher from 1910 is one of many stars of the show and a fully realized cubist painting. The artist conveyed the objects through multiple perspectives. It’s less sensual than analytical. He fragmented the forms into moving, geometric parts suggesting volume, line, and weight. He condenses what he sees into a form-driven essence, eliminating narrative, symbolism, and color that evokes emotion.
People are treated no differently than coffee pots. Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-1906) gives us a subject who is, however fragmented, still recognizable. By 1910, Picasso has microscopically diced and parsed art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to the point that he is something altogether above and beyond a mere mortal. It’s intensely cerebral. It drains everything from the subject—blood, lust, history, romance, ambition, pomp, anger—to reach a core structure.
It’s a gorgeous thing. Though painted in calm, cool grays, browns, and greens, it’s intense. It’s not inhuman. The surface is rich and painterly. I thought of a sumptuous X-ray. One of the catalogue’s great merits is its attention to Kahnweiler as more muse than marketer, though as cubism’s salesman, he was cunning and adept.
There are many subplots, which the show impressively explores cubism, because it was a different way of describing the subject, invited new inspirations, among them African, primitive, and archaic art. Cubism, anti-historicist as it is, had a history in the work of Cezanne, who Picasso called “the father of us all.” It heralded a revolution in materials. Cubism asked, “what is art made from?” The answer, “canvas and paint,” meant forgetting illusionistic depth and phony special effects using color. The image became flat as a blueprint, the paint treated as a viscous material not to be disguised. Collage joined the mainstream. Cubism was an urban phenomenon, since in an age of speed and in city life, we tend to see things in fragments. Everything, especially people, could be reduced to a sign. Once dispelling color as an emotive distraction, artists who considered themselves avant-garde cubists soon brought it back.
What started as a rigorous experiment—to see how far the artist and his materials could go toward essentialism—became a movement with many acolytes and then a decorative style and finally a much-degraded tip of the hat toward a geometric look. There’s plenty of early work by Fernand Leger, Robert Delaunay, and Juan Gris. Very quickly, there were cubist salons. Sculpture and collage used the basic cubist vocabulary of forms. Does the show make too much of art that is derivative, “cubist” in name only? Possibly. It’s still a pleasure to watch Picasso’s and Braque’s work became a magnet for so many talented young artists.
The start of the war in 1914 scattered the movement. Kahnweiler, a German, was declared an enemy alien. Artists became soldiers, and some died. Taste became more conservative in the wake of upheaval. Yet, cubism put primitive art, reduction, simplification, and geometry at the forefront of an artist’s priorities. The show ends not with Picasso and Braque, who went in their own directions, all marked by bumps in the road. It ends with Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, and Piet Mondrian. What they did with the cubist moment was the future.
Le Cubisme is on view at the Pompidou Center in Paris to February 25.