BWW Reviews: Reconstructing a Revolution with CUBISM: THE LEONARD A. LAUDER COLLECTION
Any art history survey will tell you that Cubism revolutionized painting, but few will show you what it was like to be on the Cubist frontline. That is where Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection rises to the occasion. As presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and curated by Rebecca Rabinow and Emily Braun, Cubism is a seven-room, eighty-work explosion of line and color and cleverness. What most unites the four artists in this showcase--Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso--and unites them even more than their stylistic similarities, is their shared sense of excitement. The Met show doesn't so much progress as barrel forward, leading from one burst of formal innovation to another, then another, each new breakthrough as bold as the last.
Part of the excitement is watching the Lauder Collection overturn the easiest assumptions about the Cubist movement. Not all of them, of course: all four of the major artists here are almost universally respected, and Picasso--the most universally respected of them all--has more canvases on display than anyone else. Even Braque gets only 34 to Picasso's 17--an odd choice (considering Braque's crucial role in Cubism's 1907-1918 flourishing) but an understandable one (considering that Picasso is Picasso). While it doesn't summon a new Cubist forward guard, this exhibition confidently defeats the idea that Cubism was an experiment for experimentation's sake--an idea that has persisted, in some form or other, since 1908 or thereabouts. That year, Henri Matisse famously observed Braque's Houses at L'Estaque and brushed it off as a collection of "little cubes." Such criticisms can still be lobbed at individual Cubist paintings, many of which can come off as jokey or harmless or simply pointless on their own; mass this many together, though, and you will end with a truer picture of the cumulative intelligence and drive of Picasso and his comrades.
Cubism also bespeaks Mr. Lauder's own tact and sharpness. The Chairman Emeritus of Estée Lauder, he has approached art collecting both as a higher-order diversion and as a superlative legacy; as Lauder explains in a beautifully coordinated catalog interview, he explains how he first began acquiring "a hodgepodge of artists and things that I liked" but eventually decided to "create an important collection that would give me great pleasure and allow me the opportunity to conserve something for the future." To do so, Lauder sought the advice of the finest curators available, including Braun herself. There isn't a genuinely bad canvas among his choices, which cover all periods of the Cubist saga--an impressive feat of selection, since not all stages of Cubism have aged equally well. And where future installation is concerned, the Met is at liberty to arrange the Lauder canvases however it pleases--no real strictures on how or where they can be displayed, whether or not they can be separated. Considering the judicious staging of Cubism, such trust is well placed.
While the big theoretical selling point of Cubism has always been its approach to shape and form--its fragmentation of everyday objects, its reconstitution of reality using lines and planes and tongue-in-cheek allusions--this Cubist survey begins with works that astound not with shape, but with color. Wall sized-photographs of the Lauder Collection as arranged in Mr. Lauder's apartment usher you in: these are fine foreshadowings of what Picasso, Braque, and especially Léger could do with well-chosen hues. And the first in-the-flesh paintings you will see are Braque's Terrace at the Hôtel Mistral and (nod to Matisse here) Trees at L'Estaque. With its rose tones and dark outlines, the first of these could almost be executed in stained glass. It is the second, with its skewed perspective and stern contours, that points the Cubist way forward. One room over, Picasso begins to dominate the show, and does so with paintings and sculptures that underscore the fundamental Cubist influences more decisively that either of those Braques--African masks, European statuary, Cézanne. That the most astonishing selection here is a sculpture--the 1909 Head of a Woman--shows how hard Picasso was striving for a new synthesis in his canvases. And not striving with complete success, either. The "painting of a sculpture" gimmick that runs riot here was starting to tire out by 1910, and Picasso seemed to know it.