Walking Tour through the History of Cubism


FRANKLY, I'd prefer not to write about the new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art here - at least not yet. I'd rather go back a few times, think about it some more, and then wait for the appropriate words to come together in their proper time and order. It's not that the art in ``Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism'' is new to me. It isn't. I've studied and been haunted by it for over 40 years.

In fact, while still in high school, several examples of it helped me grasp (once C'ezanne had given me the first clue) the underlying principles of what we used to call modern art. And then, as I evolved from student of art and art-history to artist and then to critic, it was to Cubism that I most often turned whenever I needed proof that 20th-century art had, indeed, produced something substantive and lasting.

No, my reluctance to tackle the show has to do, instead, with its size and impact. Nothing had prepared me for its depth and scope. To see 15 or 20 Cubist paintings in a single exhibition is one thing. To be confronted by 390 major paintings, drawings, construction sculptures, collages, papier coll'es (pasted papers), and prints at one time is quite another. It is a supremely exciting event.

The show is arranged chronologically, beginning with Picasso's pivotal masterwork, ``Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,'' and then moving on to examine every phase of Picasso's and Braque's involvement with Cubism from 1907, when the artists first met, to 1914, when Braque went off to war.

Nothing is left out, from the chunky and still tentatively fragmented figure studies, still lifes and landscapes produced between 1907 and 1909 to the more relaxed, colorful, and decorative pieces of 1913 and '14. And if that weren't enough, the Museum of Modern Art has issued a richly illustrated, 460-page catalog, with an introduction by William Rubin, organizer of the exhibition.

By now almost everyone must know about the six-year collaboration between Picasso and Braque that resulted in the invention of Cubism, the most radical revolution in art since Caravaggio decided (c. 1600) that High Renaissance methods no longer applied to that day's ``modern'' vision. Braque commented that during those years he and Picasso were as close as ``two mountaineers roped together.'' And Picasso said, ``Almost every evening I went to Braque's studio or he came to mine. Each of us had to see what the other had done during the day.''

By the summer of 1911, Picasso's and Braque's creative interaction had become so intense that their densely faceted, nearly monochromatic paintings of that year and the next are still often difficult to distinguish from one another.

But what was it that drew these two extraordinary artists of very different talents and temperaments together and held their undivided attention for six intense, hard-working years?

Quite simply, it was a totally new approach to painting, one that C'ezanne had laid the groundwork for in his late canvases and that was predicated on the elimination of the kind of three-dimensional spatial illusionism that had served everyone from Giotto to the Impressionists.

The picture surface, the canvas, in this new approach, was no longer to be a transparent ``window'' opening into deep space, within which objects were arranged according to the laws of linear or aerial perspective. Instead, it was to be a flat, solid surface upon which the objects depicted would be re-assembled, piece by piece, not as they would appear to a camera, but as they might look if viewed from several different viewpoints at once.

The secret lay in the re-assembly, the reconstruction, of the viewed objects as a perfectly flat, non-illusionistic image that still retained the quality, the ``aura,'' of what was depicted.

Picasso's 1910 ``Portrait of Ambrose Vollard'' is a good example. In it, we ``read'' Vollard's form and identity (it's an excellent likeness, by the way), even though everything in it is made up of angles and cubes.

Picasso and Braque's extraordinary creative ``dialogue'' not only revolutionized 20th-century art but made traditionalists like Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth a bit more careful about their compositions.

It's that ``dialogue'' that lies at the heart of this exhibition and that makes it so special. Moving from Braque's 1908 ``Road near L'Estaque'' and Picasso's 1909 ``Landscape with Bridge,'' to such classic high ``Analytic'' Cubist masterworks as Braque's ``The Emigrant'' and Picasso's ``Ma Jolie,'' and then on to the final ``Synthetic'' Cubist paintings (of which Braque's ``Glass, Bottle, and Newpaper'' is a good example) is very much like being present in these artists' studios and during their evening discussions.

In a sense, visitors to ``Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism'' are present at an historic event. If they look closely enough, they can follow the evolution of an idea from its first tentative formulation to its final realization as significant art. That in itself is a special treat, but to have it take place in the context of so important a movement as Cubism is a rare opportunity indeed.

The exhibition continues at the Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 16, 1990. Special same-day tickets are required.

Visitors should enter the Museum's 53rd Street entrance and proceed to ``Picasso and Braque'' ticket booths in the lobby.

Tickets are $7 for adults, $4.50 for students, and $4 for senior citizens.

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