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.
Ah, but the next few rooms--those are where the substance, the difficulty, and the versatility of Cubism become manifest. Always at his best when subjecting everyday sights to creative torsion, Braque applied the obscuring, decentralizing, regularizing tactics of Analytic Cubism--the movement's first major stage--to instruments and still lifes. These works are collected in a single gallery, a joyous passage despite the dour earth tones of these canvases and of Analytic Cubism as a whole. Picasso returns to the picture in the subsequent room, where he and Braque abjure sculptural tones and painted mass for new materials and new effects--wood veneer, newsprint, exposed white ground, obvious black lines that are at once cartoonish and commanding. Here, the two artists are at their mutual best, creating canvases that at once speak to one another and herald Synthetic Cubism--the movement's second major stage. We know where we're headed, but the next gallery is still a knockout: Picasso and Braque exit temporarily, and Juan Gris races into view with paintings that are both controlled and concussive. Overloaded in detail, baroque in composition, hallucinatory in color, paintings such as Pears and Grapes on a Table and Still Life with Checked Tablecloth prove that Gris is this show's secret weapon.
Around 1912, Picasso and Braque decided it was time for a little stylistic overload of their own. Just not too much: round canvases, stippled dots, and patches of brash color became part of their repertoire, as Cubism revisited its austere Analytic roots. The tension between these whimsical devices and the older conventions yielded some of the best selections in Cubism, including Braque's Mozart Kubelick and Picasso's The Scallop Shell. Color and whimsy eventually won out, as Synthetic Cubism--colored planes, discernible figures, few genuine specimens in the Lauder Collection--became the new mode. In some ways, Fernand Leger makes a good representative of the Synthetic stage: he gravitated to ensemble scenes, primary colors, and clean outlines, as evidenced by the Léger entries in the exhibition's final room. Yet he is also a bit of an odd man out where the Lauder Collection as a whole is concerned. While Picasso and Braque preferred challenging perspectives and everyday textures, Léger gravitated to cylinders, wheels, suggestions of rotating, interlocking dynamism. He isn't so much Cubism refined as Cubism cleaned up and repurposed. Indeed, Léger's enormous The Typographer (1918-1919) leads you out of the show in a grand fashion, in part because its parts work together and cancel out the kind of tensions that Braque and Picasso, in their canvases, force you to puzzle over. With this one, just be impressed, then head toward the gift shop.
Although they aren't the finish I had been hoping for, those Léger canvases point the way forward; the machine-age bombast of the Italian Futurists and Russian Constructivists is closer to what Léger was up to than to anything Picasso, Braque, or Gris devised. And compared to the movements that came after it, what a strange affair Cubism was. It had few clear political aspirations, few easy tie-ins to design or architecture, and little structure, unless "Picasso and Braque painting side-by-side" or "Juan Gris trying to get a dealer" is your idea of structure. It produced few (or no?) manifestos of note and yielded only a few capital-M Masterpieces, and most of those--Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Three Musicians (1921) come to mind--were produced right on the margins of the Cubist heyday. It nonetheless set itself a lot to achieve, and proved able to constantly reinvent and reconfigure itself. There is little surprise that Lauder, a man versed in the highest achievements of modern enterprise, has given such a portion of wealth, energy, and devotion to Cubism: it wasn't so much a movement as an adventure.