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 one of the most protean of all artists was prepared temporarily to accept the support and the stimulus offered to him by a fellow artist so much less talented than himself, and of how that artist accepted the challenge involved and in the process transformed himself into a major painter, who not only during the Cubist years, but at many other subsequent periods in his career, achieved true greatness. Virtually everything that Picasso touched is informed by his genius; Braque on the other hand remained throughout his life an uneven artist, and this is apparent in the current exhibition, despite the care with which the works have been selected.
Another problem that faced Rubin and his colleagues was that Braque was so much less prolific than Picasso; even during the Cubist years when Picasso was working at what was for him a fairly measured pace, his output was between three to four times greater than that of Braque. The exhibition has settled on a ratio of approximately two Picassos to every Braque. Periodically, in New York, individual works by each were brought into striking juxtaposition, but more often the artists were given alternating sections of wall space so that we became aware both of the collaborative aspect of their Cubism during its formative, early, and subsequent high, classical phases—from 1908 through until the closing months of 1912—and also of their individual trajectories.
In Basel, where approximately half the number of works are on display that were on view at the Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition also includes some two dozen works that were not in New York. I am told that the feeling of confrontation, of comradeship and rivalry, is much less present. The hanging is more spacious, the works better lit. The exhibition as a whole looks more beautiful but aestheticized, calmer but less exhilarating.
The works by Picasso that follow the Demoiselles and that reflect the first wave of his admiration for tribal art are among the most immediate and powerful that he ever produced. Many of them look as if they had been chiseled and carved rather than painted; contours of bodies and objects fuse and in the process bind the strongly volumetric forms to the surface. The bonding of objects and their immediate surroundings also induces dislocations of shapes, and these in turn often already carry with them implications of the multiple viewpoints of Cubist perspective. The Braques of these years by contrast look either weak and tentative or else somewhat schematic; outlines of objects arch over toward each other but seldom meet or touch, so that forms seem to float and flutter. It is hard to imagine what it was that was beginning to draw these artists, so very different in temperament and approach, toward each other.
Quite obviously it was the attraction of opposites; the German dealer Wilhelm Uhde, who was among the first to buy Cubist pictures, and who became a friend to both painters, wrote: “Braque’s temperament was limpid, precise and bourgeois; Picasso’s somber, excessive and revolutionary.”
A shared interest in the art of Cézanne must have helped, although here again their attitude toward him was entirely different. The various landscapes done at L’Estaque, territory that Cézanne had made very much his own, show Braque submitting himself very candidly to Cézanne’s example; the least arrogant of men, Braque nevertheless gives the impression of inheriting or assuming the mantle. The earliest of these works already have about them an analytic, reductive quality.
In the Demoiselles Picasso had approached Cézanne’s canvases of bathers not so much in a spirit of inquiry as in a mood of aggression, even rivalry. Picasso’s outlook was wider than that of Braque and his ambitions infinitely greater. If Cézanne had sought to reinterpret Poussin by way of nature, it might be fair to say that at certain moments in the creation of Cubism Picasso sought to reinvent certain great artists of the past—Raphael, El Greco, Ingres (as well as, of course, a host of anonymous tribal carvers)—by way of Cézanne. There can be little doubt that if Picasso encouraged Braque to draw more radical conclusions from his study of Cézanne and to confront his mentor less passively, Braque in turn persuaded Picasso to put more thoughtfully to Cézanne’s art some of the questions it was waiting to be asked: questions about the implications of Cézanne’s constant breaking and subsequent reaffirming of the contours of things, for example, the way in which the surfaces of his canvases seem to pulsate with life, while the subject itself remains so monolithic, so very still. In doing so Braque helped to bring Picasso more squarely into mainstream of Post-impressionist art, using the term in its broadest sense. In preceding years Picasso had already been recognized, along with Matisse, as one of the most important forces in young French art; but had it not been for his relationship with Braque he might have remained much more of an outsider on the contemporary Parisian scene, and his subsequent influence and dominance over it of a different order and nature.
If Picasso was the more dynamic and unquestionably the more vivid personality in the partnership, the exhibition demonstrates time and again that at many key moments Braque’s approach to Cubism was different from Picasso’s, and that it was often he who solved the technical problems that inevitably arose in what ultimately became a reinvention of the vocabulary of painting. In doing so he often pointed the way ahead. Braque’s major obsession, as he was to insist throughout his life, was with pictorial space. His first major contribution to Cubism was the creation of that “tactile” or “manual” space which he glimpsed in Cézanne, and which he experienced or sensed in the natural and material world around him—“tactile” in the sense that the space that surrounds and separates objects becomes as important, as palpable, as the objects themselves. It was his desire to control and explore this space more rigorously that led him virtually to abandon landscape, and turned him into one of the archetypal painters of still life.
Picasso’s approach to adopting the multi-viewpoint perspective that was central to Cubism was more incisive and daring than Braque’s. But when in the latter part of 1909 the surfaces of Picasso’s paintings began to breathe more freely, and when the figures and objects within them began to partake of their environments more openly, they were acknowledging a debt to Braque. Up until 1909 Picasso’s career had been punctuated by large, ambitious canvases, in which are concentrated the distinctive characteristics of his various periods or manners. Subsequently, and as the collaboration with Braque intensified, he became increasingly concerned with the processes of painting, so that one painting seems imperceptibly to flow into the next.
A comparison of the works executed during 1910 demonstrates how much more abstract Braque’s vision was at the time. In the landscapes executed during the summer and in some of the subsequent still lifes he sometimes empties out the corners of his paintings and leaves them almost blank so that the internal relationships of forms become more fluid and precarious but also more self-sufficient in that they are not conditioned by the picture’s outer edges; hence the fascination with the oval format. In other works the transparent planes by which objects and the spaces around them were now being rendered tend to align themselves on a subliminal vertical and horizontal framework.
If Picasso, with his bolder and more linear approach, was subsequently to give more explicit definition to the celebrated Cubist grids or scaffoldings, and characteristically to push these new methods of pictorial construction to more extreme conclusions, the general move toward greater abstraction was anticipated by Braque. Braque’s work of 1910 is also informed by new sensations of light that reinforce the tactility of his space; in previous years and as he moved toward a more monochromatic palette his pictures had been bathed in a powdery, often cool light—even his siennas and ochres tend toward gray. Now the works themselves emit a silvery, poetic light. Picasso’s use of light is more descriptive and factual; lights are juxtaposed to darks in a more traditional way, to engender a sensation of relief and to detach forms from their surroundings. It is now, too, that some of Braque’s canvases begin to rival Picasso’s in their accomplishment and presence.
Picasso’s unfinished Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier) of the spring of 1910 reminds us that his engagement with the image was much stronger than Braque’s and that his approach remained more volumetric. This is confirmed by the three portraits of his dealers—Vollard, Uhde, and Kahnweiler—memorably displayed next to each other on a single wall. The idea of a Cubist portrait by Braque is virtually inconceivable (although it has been suggested that his Girl with a Cross of the spring of 1911 may represent his wife Marcelle). And yet it is equally characteristc of Picasso that the works which he produced when he was working on his own at Cadaqués during the summer of 1910 were some of the most daring and abstract of all Cubist canvases.
Kahnweiler tells us that Picasso was dissatisfied with them, and yet they are the prelude to what was in certain respects Cubism’s highest period—the “look-alike” years between the autumn of 1910 and the autumn of 1912, when the similarities between the work of Picasso and Braque are so great that even the trained and experienced eye has occasionally to pause and blink. This was a moment of intense visual excitement and experiment and yet also one of perfect poise and equilibrium, probably because it was also the moment of total harmony between the two painters, when the dialogue between them was one of trust and acknowledged equality. It must have been now that the painters had those private, secret conversations into which no third person could have possibly intruded, and to which both Picasso and Braque alluded in later life.
The works of this high, analytic, crystalline phase of Cubism are to me also the most mysterious; and I have come to believe that during their invention of a new pictorial language the two painters were now being carried along by forces beyond their own control. Invention involved restatement and consolidation, but simultaneously every new statement was a reinvention. The Surrealist critic Max Morice was to speak of these works as giving the painter “the opportunity to photograph his thoughts.” Of a particular one of them, Picasso’s Man with a Clarinette of the summer of 1911 (not in the exhibition), André Breton was to write that it “remains a tangible proof of our unwavering proposition that the mind talks to us of a future continent and that everyone has the power to accompany an ever more beautiful Alice into Wonderland.” These faceted, glinting, powerful, and yet strangely insubstantial works were indeed the looking glass through which artists like Mondrian and Delaunay stepped into abstraction and Léger and the Futurists into a dynamic, fragmented vision of a new mechanized world. These paintings, and the way they were displayed in New York, also remind one of how the highest moments of art are often held in precarious balance. The perfect poise and stability of the Italian High Renaissance was not all that long-lived either, and neither was Impressionism as a contained, cohesive movement.
During this, the most beautiful and hermetic phase of Cubism, it is in the figure pieces that the differences between the artists continue to reveal themselves, partly for the very simple reason that Picasso was above all else a painter of the human form and Braque was not. When Picasso had produced such startling, abstract, and at times disturbing works at Cadaqués in 1910 it was because he was pushing new methods of work, new technical devices, to extreme conclusions, just as he was to do again some two and a half years later. The figures of the intervening years, however abstract and homogeneous they might at first seem, are informed by a centralized, pyramidal weight and density that make one aware of them immediately as solid, bodily presences; despite their similarities many of these figures are strongly characterized.
The Accordionist, executed at Céret in the summer of 1911, is seen by many as Picasso at his most Braque-like; but it has about it an incisiveness and a stylistic self-awareness that are very alien to Braque and that remind one of Picasso’s passion for Ingres. A second, companion piece, The Poet, also done at Céret, has about it a decidedly reflective air, while a third of the series, The Man with a Pipe, has a more forthright quality than either of the others. Braque’s Man with a Guitar, executed once again at Céret during this miraculous summer of artistic communion, was hung next to Picasso’s Accordionist in New York and does indeed show Braque at his most solid and Picassoesque.
But in other contemporary and companion pieces of Braque’s the centralized, triangular compositional areas tend to become pale or to fade, and the denser more impacted passages of paint are drawn out to the painting’s outer edges, so that eventually, in a work like Man with a Violin of the spring of 1912, the figure becomes ghostlike and apparitional; in a sense we identify it through its absence. While Picasso’s figures remain very much images, Braque’s become presences. Although in all the works of this period, figure pieces and still lifes alike, the proportions of the things depicted remain more or less naturalistic, it is now in my view dangerous to try to reconstruct their subject matter too literally, doubly so in the case of Braque.
It is revealing within the history of Cubism that in the spring of 1912 Picasso should have invented collage, a technique that was to become so central to the visual products of Dada and Surrealism, while in September of that year Braque should have produced the first papier collé, in which pieces of woodgrained paper were incorporated into a picture, assuming a representational role yet remaining identifiable as pieces of paper. Papier collé is itself a form of collage but it is less adaptable to subversive effects, and more purely formalistic in its implications. It has long been recognized that with these new procedures there came about a change in the climate of Cubism and that now Picasso and Braque began increasingly to go their separate ways; and in the case of Picasso a great many separate ways. The geography of the exhibition spaces at the Museum of Modern Art, divided into two floors, with the later works gathered into the lower floor, made the break even more dramatic than in reality it was. Given the increasing diversity of Picasso’s production the ratio of works necessary to document it increases over that of Braque’s, whose path was not so much narrower as more self-contained. Many felt that in these lower spaces Braque, as it were, went under; and at the official opening of the show members of the Picasso family were heard remarking, in loud voices, “But where is Braque?” meaning, of course, that he was nowhere at all.
I myself continued to feel that he was very present indeed. The end wall of one of the two central downstairs rooms, which was devoted to his works of the winter of 1912–1913, was for me one of the most beautiful and exhilarating in the entire display. One of the few criticisms that could be leveled at the exhibition as a whole in New York was that it needed more space; often pictures seemed to jostle each other, and because of the low ceilings almost all were badly lit. But these particular Braques seemed to soar and float, not only creating their own internal spaces but opening out and informing the space around them; it must have been to this phase of his Cubism that Braque was referring when he said that before introducing objects into his paintings he had to create spatial complexes in which they could exist. By contrast many of the Picassos in this room looked once more increasingly dense and impacted; others were characterized by an almost aggressively graphic emphasis, as if to remind us once again that he was a natural draftsman while Braque was not.
It was in this gallery that I began to feel that something was missing; and then I realized that it was the presence of Juan Gris. Although Gris was some five years younger than Picasso and Braque and had begun his career very much as a devotee of Picasso’s (his Homage to Picasso of 1911–1912 was the first of his works to bring him significant critical attention) he had matured as a painter very rapidly and it was now, in 1913, that Picasso recognized that his erstwhile follower was a force to be taken into account. Gris seems to have encouraged Picasso to reaffirm the rigors of his draftsmanship, and one senses an awareness of Gris also in the flat, brightly colored areas that inform not only Picasso’s papiers collés of the time but also many of the paintings. The extraordinary Woman in an Armchair (of the autumn of 1913), understandably so revered by the Surrealists, is, in a sense, Picasso’s answer to Gris’s challenge or emergence as a major force in Cubism.
Picasso and Braque’s approaches, working methods, were now analogous but in fact basically very different. Braque insisted that papier collé had been primarily a means of introducing color into Cubist painting; and it is certainly true that although Picasso was at moments using color more boldly, at times almost recklessly, Braque was ultimately more sensitive to its properties. But papier collé also allowed Braque to find new ways of manipulating pictorial space, building up his canvases with interacting, overlapping spatial elements, some of which were qualified in such a way that they become objects, or onto which a subject was superimposed.
Picasso’s methods were much more physical and manipulative, largely as a result of his renewed interest in tribal art, and in particular his obsession with a recently acquired Grebo mask, an artifact that could with a certain amount of justification be described as primitive, but that was indirectly to condition an extraordinarily large percentage of twentieth-century art, much of it of high sophistication and much of it technologically advanced. With Braque, representation and abstraction go hand in hand. Sometimes he begins with a recognizable subject, which is subsequently almost obliterated; at other moments he begins with an abstract spatial complex, which gives birth to the picture’s iconography. With Picasso elements are welded, at times indeed simply willed, into representational entities. But what was now dividing the artists possibly even more fundamentally was that Picasso’s new tribal sources, and the new methods and materials that accompanied them (several of which had been pioneered by Braque), were endowing his art with a strongly anti-aesthetic bias which was totally foreign to Braque’s nature. Picasso now viewed tribal masks and figures not so much as works of art but rather as ritualistic objects, weapons for exorcism. Braque was an inventor, even a revolutionary, but not an iconoclast. Picasso, who was able to tap and rival the resources of the art of the past so much more fluently and directly, was all three of these.
A particular work by Braque, Pedestal Table, painted in Sorgues in the autumn of 1913, more than any other of Braque’s prewar Cubist canvases looks forward to his majestic canvases of the 1930s, in which decorative motifs and visual exhilaration unite with the meta-physical, and above all to the late studio paintings, in my view some of the greatest and most profoundly philosophical pictures to have been produced since the end of World War II.
Pedestal Table identifies itself immediately as a still life: it contains a newspaper, a glass, a sheet of music. But other objects have begun to lose their individual identities: Is the prominent, palette shape just above the newspaper a bottle, a carafe, or an out-of-scale musical instrument? Immediately to the side of it the decorative architectural scrolls that punctuate the upper areas of the picture all of a sudden seem to detach themselves from their context and to take on a life of their own—or are they the appendages of yet another object? Toward the end of his life Braque was to say,
You see, I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except insofar as a rapport exists between them and myself.
The first steps toward this particular state of consciousness which Braque described both as “intellectual nonexistence” and “perpetual revelation” were taken here.
If in certain Cubist Braques, and increasingly in much of his subsequent work, objects are themselves and yet not themselves, Picasso’s images are themselves and yet simultaneously can evoke analogies with other things. Women’s bodies are like guitars or violins, touchable and strokable; dots or pegs can represent eyes or nipples or navels, or in other contexts appurtenances of bottles or musical instruments. Many aspects of the last phases of Picasso’s prewar Cubism point ahead directly toward Constructivism and Surrealism, whose visual manifestations would have been inconceivable without his example. Braque’s work of the time opens up only into his own development; he was to consult Picasso’s art from time to time, notably when he turned his attention to the human figure. But perhaps it is revealing that if by 1913 Braque was truly upon his individual path, two of the very last Picassos in the exhibition, Wine Glass and Ace of Clubs (Homage to Max Jacob) and Pipe, Violin and Bottle of Bass), both of the spring of 1914, show Picasso looking somewhat wistfully over his shoulder or out of the corner of his eye at Braque’s most recent achievements. Picasso later told Kahnweiler that when, after the declaration of war, he had seen Braque off at the station at Avignon (together with Derain) he had never again been able to find him; he was speaking, of course, metaphorically. But one of the most remarkable collaborations of all time had indeed come to an end.
The catalog of last fall’s New York exhibition (the same one is being used in Basel, where French and German editions are also available) is a handsome, fully illustrated affair (it includes, in fact, a few works which were not on view). William Rubin’s essay, which he modestly entitles “Picasso and Braque: An Introduction,” is indeed relatively short; but it is also remarkably succinct; and, together with the lengthy footnotes, it gives one not only an account of the relationship between the two men, but also a picture of the state of Cubist scholarship today.
A truly fascinating appendix brings to light an important discovery. Archival material in the Musée Picasso, supplemented by that in the possession of the Laurens family (which inherited Braque’s estate) reveals that in 1909 Picasso agreed to produce a “decoration” for the Brooklyn library of an interesting but largely forgotten American painter, critic, and collector, Hamilton Easter Field; the commission was negotiated by Frank Burty Haviland, a friend of Picasso’s and an avid collector of tribal art. The project called for eleven pictures of very different shapes and dimensions, and, as Rubin suggests, Picasso undoubtedly saw the commission as an answer to the decorative triptych that Matisse had recently undertaken for the landings in the stairwell of the Moscow home of one of their greatest mutual patrons, Sergei Shchukin. (Only two of these three masterpieces, Dance and Music, reached their Russian destination; the third, which Matisse reworked over succeeding years, is the great Bathers in a River, now in Chicago.)
The Picasso cycle never materialized; at least one of the largest of the projected panels was destroyed, others were repainted, although in at least two instances Picasso appears to have somewhat arbitrarily added to the dimensions of works that he had produced independently (without the commission in view), in the hope that they could be made to fit into the scheme.
This discovery raises and highlights some of the most basic and interesting questions raised by Cubism, questions which despite the wealth of literature on the subject have never been adequately addressed. Why in view of Picasso’s and Braque’s patently high aims did their Cubism limit itself to such simple and for the most part humble subject matter? Why was the scale on which they worked so unambitious? Why was the very concept of a decorative Cubist ensemble so inconceivable until Cubism had taken on a somewhat different and more accessible face after the war? In the winter of 1908–1909 Picasso had reworked an ambitious multifigure composition, transforming it into a still life, the magnificent Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table, now in Basel. One of the reasons the Field project must have foundered is that it called for five pictures considerably larger than any that Picasso had produced in the years between executing this still life and the outbreak of war.
Presumably Picasso and Braque had to limit themselves to single-figure pieces—there is one exception, Picasso’s Soldier and Girl of 1911—because the analytic complexities and rigors of a new method of representing solid forms and the spaces between them on a two-dimensional surface induced them to restrict their range of subject matter, just as it forced them temporarily to abandon color. But the abandonment of color also reinforces the militantly anti-decorative nature of almost all prewar Cubism; these are paintings that can seduce the eye but that constantly challenge, and sometimes trouble the mind, in a way that truly decorative art does not. When color reasserts itself after 1912, and when decorative motifs (often architectural) begin to inform the paintings, they continue to be used in an intimate, private way.
In Picasso’s case, his use of brighter color and lively pointillist dotting or stippling is allied to his rejection of accepted or traditional canons of pictorial beauty and is related to his unorthodox use of materials, not only the cheap newspapers, simulated woodgraining, and wallpapers, used by Braque as well, but also Ripolin and enamel paint. The more truly decorative aspects of some of Picasso’s work of 1914—what Alfred Barr termed his “rococo” Cubism—have about them in fact a popularizing, jocular down-to-earth quality. If Cubism of the previous years had been “easelsized,” it was also informed by an anti-“easel” aesthetic, by the concept of what the painters themselves called “le tableau objet“—the picture as object. Despite the fact that during the years under discussion the Cubism of Picasso and Braque was on the whole unpunctuated by particular works that stand out strongly from the rest, each single picture works very much as an individual entity, a self-contained world. Possibly it was this as much as anything else that prevented Picasso from fulfilling Field’s hopes. Rubin hopes to pursue the subject of the commission, and I hope he does.
Although I was unable to attend the Museum of Modern Art’s symposium, the institution has most generously provided me with copies of the papers that were given, and with transcripts of the general discussion that took place. Obviously these interventions were spontaneous and participants will want to check and edit their individual contributions to the proceedings before they are published in a second volume of the catalog. It would be wrong to comment on them at length here except to say that while a conscious attempt was made to balance fairly the contributions made to Cubism by Picasso and Braque, in my view at least, Braque still came out of the proceedings with his colors at lower mast than they deserve to be. Of the two artists Picasso was, of course, unquestionably the greater and the more important. But it is also much easier to talk about him, because his work is so much more diverse, his intellect so much more immediately lively and appealing and provocative. Such was the power of his personality that, for all the difficulties with which his Cubism presents us, he forces us to engage with him and his creations in a confrontational way, in a manner that Braque, so much more reticent and contemplative, does not.
It is undoubtedly further proof of the scope of Picasso’s genius and achievement that his work can accept such a multiplicity of interpretation and approach. Two of the papers delivered at the MoMA symposium, for example, used semiology to try to look at Picasso’s Cubism from a new and different perspective, misguidedly it might be argued by some of us who believe that pictorial meaning and linguistic meaning are two very different things, but in one instance at least with notable brilliance and style; Rosalind Krauss’s paper, “The Motivation of the Sign,” did indeed suggest new ways of looking at some of Picasso’s inventions. But poor Braque, whose work cannot easily be brought under the semiological umbrella, remains, so to speak, out in the rain. Similarly his Cubism, even more than that of Picasso, tends to resist social commentary other than the acknowledgment that the art is an intimate one, centered on the life of the studio and the café. Still, and as the exhibition demonstrated so brilliantly, Cubism could not have looked so magnificent as it does without him; and he went on to paint some of the most beautiful and deeply reflective and intellectually challenging works of our time. Not a negligible achievement.
May 31, 1990