Two Who Made a Revolution

Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism 24, 1989, to January 6, 1990

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City September

Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism

catalog of the exhibition and William Rubin
Museum of Modern Art (distributed by Little, Brown), 460 pp., $70.00

The exhibition entitled “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism,” mounted last September at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and currently on view in a very modified form at the Kunstmuseum in Basel (and with a somewhat modified title: “Picasso und Braque: Die Geburt des Kubismus“) demonstrated yet again the Museum of Modern Art’s supremacy. Some 350 works by Picasso and Braque were brought together in one of the most magisterial of the museum’s many triumphs. Despite the legendary closeness of the collaboration between the two artists, most of the works on view had never been seen together before, and they never will be seen together in this way again. Many of the works were on the restricted lists of other museums and were thus in theory not free to travel; others were in the hands of private collectors who do not normally lend their pictures. The exhibition was conceived and organized by William Rubin, director emeritus of the department of painting and sculpture; seldom can a retiring museum official have achieved a comparable apotheosis.

Inevitably the exhibition was introduced by the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which continues to look completely different every time one confronts it. When the celebrated canvas served as the focal point of the exhibition dedicated to it a few years ago, it looked simultaneously grave and apocalyptic; and for the first time, to my eyes at least, strangely benign, as if history had finally succeeded in embracing and taming it. Here it was displayed on its own and in such a way that spectators, after having looked at it, had to move around it in order to get into the rest of the exhibition beyond it. The picture once more looked menacing, and because of its isolation perhaps more aggressive than ever.

I approached the exhibition with a certain amount of trepidation, wondering whether with the passage of more than three quarters of a century of prewar Cubism might somehow have lost some of its challenge. I needn’t have worried, for despite the extraordinary visual delight that it can offer, Cubism remains as baffling, as difficult as ever. When I published a book on the subject, more than thirty years ago, I felt that I had to a certain extent at least come to terms with it. I continue to enjoy looking at Cubist pictures as much as I ever did, but I have come increasingly to realize that I do not really understand them, and I am not sure that anyone else does either. I have even come to believe that for the artists themselves many of their most significant and memorable achievements were begun as voyages of discovery, the final destinations of which were not known or appreciated until they had been reached.

The first rooms of the exhibition made one aware as never before of the disparity between Picasso and Braque’s natural gifts. And one of the most moving aspects of the exhibition as a whole is that it tells the story of how…

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