Wild men! Lunatics! Prophets! With jeers and cheers the pioneers of Modern Art were damned, derided or praised during the opening decade of the Twentieth Century.
The public conception of the new art was almost always defined in terms of the individuality of the artists, which the artists were often quick to exploit. But not everyone saw, or at least remembered, it that way. Looking back at the invention of Cubism, Georges Braque evoked the image of a pair of mountain climbers to convey the process through which this new form of depicting reality was achieved. Braque said that he and a painting comrade acted in tandem “like two mountaineers roped together,” aiding and encouraging each other to bring their work to new heights of achievement.
Braque’s fellow “mountaineer” was, of course, Pablo Ruiz y Picasso.
An impressive new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris, focuses on Picasso, Braque, Chagall and other artists who blazed a trail that is still being followed today, over a century later.
The exhibition opens with a signature work, almost always on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Picasso’s “tough-guy” Self-Portrait with Palette. This strikingly self-confident work shows Picasso dressed in a loose fitting shirt like a working man from the streets of Paris. But if his attire reveals Picasso’s sense of identity with the laboring class, the Self-Portrait with Palette is also a defiant affirmation of his Spanish roots. It is a self-portrait of the first of the “outsiders” who would remake the Parisian avant-garde into a global school of modernity.
Often called the School of Paris, the group of artists who gathered around Picasso brought insights, memories and techniques from the four corners of the world, particularly from Eastern Europe. Several galleries in the exhibition focus on the ways that artists from regions little touched by European classicism, like Marc Chagall and Constantin Brancusi, helped shift the current of Modern Art in new, unexplored, directions.
Picasso painted Self-Portrait with Palette in 1906, as he was emerging from the depression occasioned by the suicide of his friend, Carlos Casagemas. With his “Blue Period” behind him, Picasso asserted himself as an artist from a nation with a rich cultural history. Many 19th century artists like Eduard Manet would have agreed with him. But where Manet had studied 17th century Spanish masters like Diego Velazquez, Picasso came to Paris bringing with him a more primal awareness of Spain’s creative heritage, dating back to the recently discovered cave paintings at Altamira.
Picasso became fascinated with an exhibition at the Louvre in 1906 of sculptures from his native land dating to the pre-Roman period, c.500 B.C. These limestone portraits of deities or tribal nobles had recently been excavated at Osuna in the south of Spain about fifty miles from Malaga where Picasso was born in 1881. Picasso paid homage to the almond shaped eyes and jutting jaw lines of these ancient Iberian portrait busts in the way he portrays his own facial features in the Self-Portrait with Palette. He would reprise these, even more famously, in the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. At the same time as he was working on his self-portrait, Picasso had begun preliminary sketches for his controversial depiction of a brothel in Barcelona, one of which, a water color, is on display in the Philadelphia exhibition.
Spanish to his core, Picasso movingly depicted the almost North African ethos of the peasant life in his native Andalusia. His lyrical Woman with Loaves, painted the same year as his self-portrait, conveys both Picasso’s love for Spain and the sense of exoticism and mystery which his county still exudes. Spain, while a European nation, had remained aloof for much of the 19th century from the European cultural mainstream. Sublimated in this painting, too, is Spain’s Catholic faith, little touched by modern ideas of progress and industry. The loaves of bread balanced on the veiled head of a young, nun-like, woman recall the sacred mysteries of Christian scripture which still had great resonance in Spanish culture. In this remembrance of Spain, Picasso showed that he could paint madonnas as well as prostitutes.
But shortly after he painted these pictures and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, Picasso and Braque launched the unprecedented venture of Cubism. Their deconstructions of objective reality shockingly departed from every canon of Western art in a way that not even Cezanne and Matisse had done. In the five galleries devoted to Cubism, the Philadelphia exhibition demonstrates how Picasso and Braque explored and perfected their new techniques in a process that was both collaborative and competitive
Beginning with an examination of how Picasso and Braque, “roped-together,” created a new pictorial language, the exhibition traces the evolution of Cubism’s phases, Analytical (1908-1912) and Synthetic (1912-1914). The technique of collage, another joint innovation of Picasso and Braque, is examined, but with special emphasis on the contributions of Juan Gris, a fellow Spaniard, who joined in this unique process of cutting and pasting bits of everyday reality, newspaper clippings and the like, thus blurring the line between art and life.
Braque’s role in Cubism is especially significant because he recorded a number of cogent comments on the aims and efforts that went into this revolution in visual art. The breaking down of the component parts of an object — into “cubes,” which initially was a derisive comment rather than a descriptive term chosen by the artists — was, Braque said, “a means of getting closer to objects within the limits that painting would allow.”
With Cubism, Picasso and Braque dissolved the outward structural form of the subjects they painted to achieve new ways of representing reality. Cubism was launched just as the recent invention of X-ray technology enabled the bones and internal organs of living people to be studied for the first time. Likewise, the introduction of the cinema ended forever the static nature of narrative art. The inner and active lives of people and the structure of objects could now be investigated and portrayed, not merely recorded. The Cubist painters, as can be seen in Picasso’s Man with a Guitar, were leading the charge to explore the constantly shifting perceptions of reality that life in the new Twentieth Century was making possible.
“There was no question of starting from an object; we went towards it,” Braque said. “And what concerned us was the path one had to follow in order to be able to go towards objects.”
While Picasso and Braque blazed new trails for Cubism, a more conservative wing of the French art elite sought to ground it in the still vibrant social norms of the Belle Époque. In a gallery that can only be described as a “show stopper,” the curators of the Philadelphia exhibition recreated the display of Cubist paintings and modern sculpture at the 1912 Salon d’Automne in October 1912.
Led by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, authors of a just published book entitled Du Cubisme, these artists attempted to utilize Cubism’s revolutionary techniques without forsaking the recognizable form of their subjects. Metzinger’s Tea Time (Woman with a Teaspoon) invites immediate comparison with Picasso’s Man with a Guitar. Metzinger’s work was painted with a more vibrant palette, where Picasso’s painting is virtually drained of color, looking like a sepia colored movie still. But that is the only static element about Man with Guitar, apart from a small sherbet cup which Picasso impishly included as a point of reference. Metzinger, on the other hand, depicts a nude woman holding a teaspoon, thereby fixing her pose in an eternal time frame, different from classically painted portraits only in its radical technique.
Gleizes, Metzinger and their associates sought to win approval for Cubism from the French government and art establishment with their display of works that were less cryptic than Picasso’s and Braque’s. As with most half-way measures, the Cubist Gallery at the Salon d’Automne was a dismal failure. Picasso and Braque were conspicuous by their absence because their German art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, wisely steered them away from official exhibitions.
If Salon Cubism pleased nobody in 1912, the recreation of the gallery from the Salon d’Automne in the Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris exhibition is bound to excite the highest praise. The paintings are clustered about the walls, many of them positioned well above the heads of viewers, which presents Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 from an especially striking position. Sculpture busts, including one by Amadeo Modigliani, are stationed in front of the paintings, revealing how displays of different types of art were often closely integrated during the pre-World War I era.
But what really makes this gallery such a standout was the exceptional length to which Michael Taylor, the exhibition’s curator, and his staff went to replicate the wall-color of the original 1912 Salon. In remarks to the press before the exhibition’s opening, Taylor said that floor-to-ceiling samples of a range of colors were painted on the gallery walls, drawing upon descriptions from contemporary newspapers and journals. Selected paintings were then matched with the different samples to attain the most effective color coordination. A shade of dark coral red was eventually chosen that makes this gallery truly a sight to behold.
After the First World War, Cubism had lost much of its radical edge, though it continued to be one of the principal forms of expression in Modern Art. But it was one among many, sharing the stage with a revival of classicism and realism known as the “Return to Order” and Surrealism. Distinctions faded between Synthetic Cubism and the more legible, brightly hued works of the artists who participated in the Salon d’Automne of 1912.
This can be seen in paintings by Braque and Fernand Leger which are displayed in the gallery devoted to Cubism between the world wars. Both artists had served on the Western Front, where Braque had been severely wounded. In his Still Life with a Fruit Dish, Braque arranges typical everyday objects frequently treated in his pre-war Cubist work, a glass, newspaper, pipe and fruit. But he refrains from painting them in the almost secret code format of the early stages of Cubism, instead presenting them in a collage-like work painted in vibrant colors.
Leger had a somewhat different outlook on the First World War than most who served in the trenches. He felt that French society had been invigorated by the unity and sense of purpose created by the war effort. This spirit was very much at odds with the notion of the ‘lost generation” during the 1920′s. Many artists, disillusioned by the war, were returning to “order” with country landscapes and figure studies in the classical tradition. In contrast, Leger’s The City presented a celebration of the vigorous, hard-edged reality of urban life, pulsating to a dynamic, mechanized tempo.
Picasso’s 1921 painting Three Musicians takes a middle ground approach, a rare stance for the fiery Spaniard. This is a colorful and easily recognizable work, a portrait of three characters from the Commedia dell’Arte. It shows that Picasso, like Braque in his Still Life with a Fruit Dish, had moved beyond the muted colors and demanding format of pre-war Cubism. But the tone of Three Musicians is one of wistful regard for the bygone camaraderie of Montparnasse in the days before 1914. It is also, unknowingly, a note of the horror to come.
Three of the stalwarts of the Montparnasse cultural scene are shown: the Italian-born poet of Polish descent, Guillaume Apollinaire, dressed as Pierrot, Max Jacob, mystic, poet and man about town, in the role of the Friar and Picasso as Harlequin, his costume bearing the red and golden hues of the Spanish flag. Here, three outsiders who loved Paris, and each other, pose together one last time. Apollinaire, wounded on the Western Front, died from the Spanish influenza in 1918. Jacob, of Jewish birth, though he converted to Catholicism as a result of his mystical experiences, was arrested by the Gestapo and died in 1944, awaiting transport to a Nazi death camp. Only Picasso survived.
The exhibition concludes with two further galleries of special note. The first shows the works of the many Eastern European artists like Marc Chagall, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine and others who found Paris a refuge from oppressive regimes in that troubled region. Chagall’s vibrant 1911 painting Half Past Three (The Poet) proclaims the artistic freedom he could never have found in Czarist Russia. In this work of brilliant synthesis, Chagall accommodates childhood memories of his native Vitebsk with the spirit of the City of Light, the bold color palette of Eastern Europe applied with the techniques of the modern art of the West.
There was, however, no escaping the Nazi horror. But the era of the School of Paris did not end with the thud of jackboots and the metallic rumble of German tanks down the Avenue des Champs Elysees. Though other artists fled, Picasso remained behind in Paris after 1940. With works both defiant and elegiac, Picasso challenged the German occupiers of France. With his life-size bronze, Man with a Lamb, created in 1943, Picasso recalled both the Good Shepherd of the Christian scriptures and the fortitude exhibited by so many who lived with compassion and courage during those dark years
It is fitting that this outstanding exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, mounted almost entirely from its own collection, should end on this note. The effect of these final works is both troubling and inspirational. No army, regardless of its size or the power of its armaments, can crush a cultural movement that is energized by courage and creative ideals. Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris had plenty of both.
Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris, Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 24 – April 25, 2010