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Art: Patrons and Roped Climbers

6 minute read
Robert Hughes

In retrospect, the sturdy figure of Gertrude Stein looms over the cultural landscape of pre-World War I Paris like an old-fashioned radio—squat, massive, dark and droning out an endless stream of words. But if her words were sometimes tedious, her eye was seldom wrong. In fact, no American expatriate was a shrewder judge of Paris’ radical new art. The Stein family, which came to be known as les Americains, made a powerful buying unit; it helped keep some of the best young artists in Europe alive. Gertrude’s brother Leo (an aesthete of some pretension, some understanding and much enthusiasm) graduated to modern art via Cezanne, whose work he began to buy in 1904. Her second brother Michael concentrated on the paintings and bronzes of Henri Matisse. Gertrude herself liked Picasso and Juan Gris. “Americans can understand Spaniards,” she wrote. “Cubism is a purely Spanish conception, and only Spaniards can be Cubists” —thus cheerfully disregarding Braque.

Daemon of History. However eccentric Gertrude Stein’s theories, the flat she shared with Leo at 27 Rue de Fleurus was a salon through which the best artists and writers in France passed each Saturday. Throughout their ten years together at Rue deFleurus, Leo and Gertrude kept buying. One of their first major purchases was Young Girl with Basket of Flowers, a big blue-period Picasso nude for which they paid 150 francs ($29). Soon Gertrude owned more early Picassos than anybody else in France. Picasso dashed off a small Homage to Gertrude, 1909, a parody of Baroque ceiling painting, complete with curtain, clouds and trumpeting angels, which she tacked to the ceiling above her bed. As time wore on, Gertrude came to think of Picasso as her spiritual brother. In 1913, Leo moved out, taking his favorite pictures with him. “Cezanne and Matisse,” he noted sternly, “have permanently interesting qualities. Picasso might have had—if he had developed his gifts instead of exploiting those that he did not possess. The general situation of painting here is loathsome with its Cubico-futuristic tommy rotting.” The Stein collection was farther dispersed after the deaths of Leo and Gertrude. As a tribute to a vanished era, Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art has temporarily brought it together again: it includes seven Cezannes, ten Gris, 75 Matisses and 110 Picassos.

Among the Picassos is the 1912 Still Life, a classic example of Cubico-futuristic tommy rotting. Leo, the man of taste, hated it; Gertrude, the illogical intuitive, loved it. Perhaps neither recognized that it represented a major change in human visual experience. Just how emphatic that change was can be seen in a huge retrospective of the history of Cubism opening this week at the Los Angeles County Museum.

If Picasso’s early pictures of harlequins, whores and melancholy absinthe drinkers had never been painted, the history of modern art would show a slight gap—but its structure would be the same. It was only with the invention of Cubism that Picasso emerged as a daemon of history; in eight years, between 1906 and 1914, Picasso and Georges Braque changed the look and function of painted surfaces radically and forever. Ever since, modern art has tended to define itself in terms of Cubism, either by what later artists developed out of the movement, or by their struggle to find a way past it.

The show in Los Angeles was organized by Art Historian Douglas Cooper, a major collector and close friend of Picasso, Braque and Leger. The movement, he argues, aimed to restore reality to art, to discover a way of representing “the solid tangible reality” of things. This sense of reality and tangibility, says Cooper, had been lost to French painting in the late 19th century, amid the theorizing of the Symbolists and the opalescent shimmers of Impressionism. In classical art the aim is to represent a real world: but in this trompe-l’oeil reality, the thing which is not real is the painting itself. The canvas dissolves and contradicts its own nature as a two-dimensional surface; it becomes a window opening on a view. The Cubists proposed to construct an undivided reality that would involve no such fictions: to put a tangible world on a flat, tangible surface.

Buckled Planes. Thus, with incredible bravado, Picasso and Braque (neither had yet turned 30) set out to displace a history of visual representation that had lasted more than 500 years. Every element of art had to be rethought in terms of a new function—line, color, light, volume, space. Thus the solidity of the rocks, lighthouse and boats in Braque’s Harbor in Normandy, 1909, is not achieved through light-and-shade modeling, still less by perspective; instead, each form begins to buckle into planes and projections, and every shape is evenly compressed against the eye. Even space, which in Renaissance tradition was basically a void, becomes an object, blue and dense and faceted.

Although Cubism had an immense latter-day effect on abstract painting, it was not abstraction, nor did it want to be. Even in Picasso’s Still Life, 1912, which must have struck its first viewers as an incomprehensible assemblage of planes and lines, the viewer’s eye is drawn deep into reality—captured first by the fragments of newsprint, then finding the stem and bowl of a glass, the-edge of a table, the curve of a pipe.

The Cubists’ subject matter was drawn from the life they lived as virtually penniless men—in studios, on the street, or swigging a marc at some cafe. The packet of cigarette papers in a Braque, the jug in a Juan Gris or the boxy village houses hemmed by bulging trees that Leger painted in 1914 could be taken for granted as subjects; their anonymity not only connected them to ordinary life but also focused a viewer’s attention on what was happening within a new language of painting.

Roped Climbers. Cubism was the last classicism, the last successful attempt by art to discover a mode of looking at the world that could be “scientifically” applied, as method, to all visual experiences. Braque likened his relationship with Picasso to mountaineers on a rope. But each man had his own style of climbing. Any definition of Cubism has to include not only the suave, melodious painterliness of Braque and Picasso’s thrusting energies, but also the cool, precise overlapping of such works by Gris as Portrait of Josette, 1916, where spatial ambiguities of positive and negative, the superimposition of transparent and opaque shapes, are played off against expectations of what a figure really “looks like.” A painting like Lyonel Feininger’s Markwippach, 1917, shows how far a minor artist could transcend his limits when the Cubist impetus played through them.

After 1920, neither Picasso nor Braque worked roped to each other, or to anyone else, again. The vocabulary remained rich and supple for them, more and more academic in other men’s work. And though Cubism has been officially dead for 50 years, the issues it raised remain central to the fate of easel painting in our time. The best paintings it left have not been surpassed.

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