by Roderick Conway Morris

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The many facets of the Cubist revolution

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 16 October 2004
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Still Life by an Open Window Place Ravignan by Juan Gris, 1915



As with Impressionism and Fauvism, Cubism acquired its label from the derogatory description of a critic. Unlike Dada, Futurism and Surrealism, it never produced a manifesto, or took up a political position. The Cubists, like their pictures, were multifaceted, simultaneously presenting to the world a multiplicity of views.

These views are amply demonstrated in 'Cubism: Revolution and Tradition,' an exhibition of 90 expertly selected paintings, sculptures, collages and sketches at the Palazzo dei Diamanti through Jan. 9.

As a full-blown phenomenon, Cubism lasted less than a decade and a half, but its long-term influence was to be felt in fields as diverse as collage and mixed media artworks of every kind, Art Deco tableware, Pop Art and late 20th-century architecture.

Picasso's 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' of 1907, which Braque admitted to finding disturbing, is still seen as a key indicator of the shape of what was to come. In 1908, Braque executed his first Cubist-style views of houses and landscapes at l'Estaque, attracting the sniffy comments from the critic Louis Vauxcelles, which unintentionally supplied the trend with a name. Both artists, originally inspired by Cézanne's innovatory techniques, were striving to find new methods of depicting objects, figures, landscapes, and radically to reform painting in the process.

Braque and Picasso came self-consciously to operate in parallel. As Braque recalled: 'We used to see each other every day and talked a lot. We compared our ideas, our pictures, our techniques. This every so often set one against the other, which at once bore fruit for both of us. Our friendship was always productive in this way. ...It was based on reciprocal independence.'

Soon a growing number of experimental young artists were elaborating their own versions of Cubism, initially following the lead of Picasso and Braque, but also drawing directly on their own interpretations of Cézanne, the Impressionist artist, according to Fernand Léger, who most profoundly 'understood everything that was lacking in the art of the past.'

But Cubism never became a coherent movement, let alone a 'school' in the conventional sense; it consisted of a series of encounters, dialogues and collaborations between loosely related individuals and groups.

This basic fact and the consequent rich variety of Cubist output are displayed in 'Cubism: Revolution and Tradition.' As the curator Marilyn McCully points out, only just over half of the artists represented are French. And as the show reveals, while Paris was the epicenter of Cubism, it became a truly international enterprise.

Picasso, Braque, the Spanish Juan Gris (who deserves and rewards more attention than he has sometimes received) and Léger, were put under contract by the forward-thinking German gallery owner Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. For a time this guaranteed them an annual income and offered them some security to take risks without constantly worrying about sales.

Other aspiring Cubists - Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes - had to rely entirely on the vagaries of the market, hence, in theory though not always in practice, putting pressure on them to satisfy more conservative public tastes. All these took part in the first Cubist group exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1911. Léger was also present, but Picasso and Braque were not.

The so-called Salon Cubists exhibited again at the Salon d'Automne, held at the state-owned Grand Palais. This provoked uproar in certain quarters and, since public money was involved, a debate in Parliament. In response, Gleizes and Metzinger wrote a defense of Cubism, arguing that they and their fellow artists were not, to borrow Ruskin's notorious phrase, merely 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face,' but genuinely trying to find new means of artistic expression and ways of seeing.

As buyers were slow in accepting Cubism, a number of artists, including Picasso, Braque, Villon, Juan Gris, the Italian Ardengo Soffici, the Poles Louis Marcoussis and Henri Hayden, and the Greek Demetrius Galanis made a living at one time or another doing illustrations and cartoons for the plethora of satirical, comic and political magazines then published in Paris. This is the subject of a fascinating essay by Michael Raeburn in the exhibition catalogue, which also delves into the importance for the Cubists of the Munich art scene and the artistically sophisticated periodicals published there. The hack work that the artists found themselves obliged to do was frequently of a high graphic and imaginative quality, although usually miserably paid.

And, as Raeburn shows, it had some curious and enduring knock-on effects on their 'serious' work. For example, the grainy, dotted effect of the images of the popular periodicals, the result of a certain crudity in printing processes, was deliberately transferred to their paintings by artists such as Braque, Juan Gris and others, creating a kind of Cubist Pointillism. And 50 years later, the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was to acknowledge his debt to them as a primary influence in his adoption of this technique.

Louis Marcoussis was an especially egregious case of reluctant slavery in the galleys of popular publishing. He at first received some financial help from his family in Warsaw, but this was not sufficient to maintain his extravagant and demanding girlfriend, Marcelle Humbert. As a consequence, he almost gave up painting altogether for four years, until Marcelle (a.k.a. Eva Gouel) ran off with Picasso in 1912. Marcoussis celebrated his liberation with a cartoon published in 'La Vie Parisienne,' portraying himself gleefully dancing for joy, the leg-irons flying off his ankles, while Picasso slopes off with Marcelle, apparently oblivious of the ball and chain already attached to his foot.

Marcoussis went on to win a commission, along with Juan Gris, to decorate the restaurant 'Chez l'ami Emile,' a popular Cubist hangout, for which he painted a classically striking piece, 'Still Life With a Chessboard.' With his usual wit, the artist depicts the only inevitably 'cubist' object in the room, the chessboard, as a pattern of black and white circular blobs.

In the same year, he did a wicked cartoon of the ideal Cubist living room, with a pair of indistinguishable pictures hanging on the wall, one by 'Pikasso' and the other by 'Brak.' The still-life had migrated to a brothel by 1915, but was saved for the nation by a sharp-eyed dealer and eventually ended up at the Pompidou Center in Paris (which has loaned it for this exhibition).

The activities of the Cubist studios were disrupted by the outbreak of war, with several artists ending up on the front, where Braque and Léger were wounded. But a great deal of important work was produced during the conflict and Cubist ideas continued to reach a wider audience, most famously through the theater in productions staged by Diaghilev's 'Ballets Russes,' for which Picasso did sets and costumes.

By 1918 Louis Vauxcelles was confidently asserting that Cubism was dead, but major exhibitions were still held in 1920. And by this time Cubism had become an indisputable factor in modern art, to which artists, architects and designers have returned again and again.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023