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Art review: 'Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912'

November 4, 2011 |  1:00 pm

The close and competitive working-relationship between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the radical, game-changing development of Cubist painting is a standard story in the history of Modern art. Braque, conjuring a bit of mountaineer melodrama, said, "We were like climbing partners roped together." Picasso, employing more than a hint of sexist condescension, said that during the most intense period of give-and-take growth, Braque worked as if he were Picasso's "wife."

The last time the story was told in a museum exhibition was more than 20 years ago. New York's Museum of Modern Art pulled out all the stops for "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism," brilliantly untangling a knotty artistic revolution that opened the door wide for work ranging from total abstraction to anti-art Dada. Nearly 400 paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures and prints began with the run-up to 1907's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the Spaniard's manifesto in reaction to Matisse, which blew away Braque when he saw it. The show then went on to survey in exhaustive detail the dialog between them until 1914, when the French painter went off to war and suffered grievous wounds that nearly killed him.

We're unlikely to see anything like that definitive MOMA presentation again anytime soon. But now the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, have joined forces to offer a centennial look centered on the year 1911 -- the most intensive in the two artists' working relationship. "Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912," seen already in Texas and now in California, shines light on the movement's analytical phase. Call it Cubism 101, a primer on the start of something big.

The show is very small -- just nine canvases by Picasso and five by Braque. The inevitable gaps are partly filled by almost all the etchings and drypoint prints they made at the time. Ten prints are by Picasso, exceptionally prolific throughout his long lifetime, while eight are by the more deliberate Braque.

Among this modest selection, however, are some of the finest Cubist paintings either artist made. They  start with Picasso's fresh -- and decidedly strange -- "Man With a Clarinet," loaned from Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and prominently installed on the center wall.

Picasso%20StillLifewithBottleofMarc%207iinchTall and narrow, like the enigmatic figure and his musical instrument, it translates rhythm and doleful sound into fleeting pictorial terms. The picture is constructed on a scaffolding of mostly diagonal lines interrupted by curves and arcs that allude to the musician's rounded, air-filled cheeks and the curved flare at the end of his reed-instrument. On this gangly scaffolding Picasso hung a flickering array of mostly short, horizontal brushstrokes of muted color, like laundry hanging out to dry in the Mediterranean sun.

"Man With a Clarinet" was painted in Paris after the two artists spent a productive summer in Céret, a rural French town in the foothills of the Pyrénées near the Spanish border. The painterly technique derives from Post-Impressionism. With a limited palette dominated by ochres and grays, the prismatic image appears shot through with rays of silvery light. The musician exudes all the tactile solidity of drifting smoke.

A sliver of context for the show comes in several African sculptures, whose powerfully abstracted forms captivated the artists, plus three late-19th century works. An enigmatic fantasy landscape of a moonlit castle by Henri Rousseau, Picasso's buddy, dramatically restricts the range of color that would likewise characterize Analytical Cubism.

A surprisingly mediocre little landscape painting by Paul Cézanne, whose posthumous 1907 Paris retrospective kick-started the Cubist revolution, represents focused scrutiny on the problem of reconciling the two-dimensional canvas with the three-dimensional world and the fourth dimension of time. (In Cubism, look for objects such as playing cards, real things as flat as the painting's surface; women's folded fans, their accordion pleats shifting in dimensional space through time; and written words, inherently two-dimensional abstractions.) Finally, a Cézanne lithograph of ungainly bathers -- denizens of a lost paradise struggling to gain their footing in a rapidly changing new world -- anticipates the Cubist  project of building a new art for a new century. The lithograph also introduces reproduction into the mix, setting up Picasso's and Braque's prints.

Color is the exhibition's real surprise. Usually, Analytical Cubism is synonymous with brown -- one reason it can be tough going for viewers. To be sure, brown is prominent here, along with black and white. (The prints are also in black ink on white paper, sometimes unhinging hatch marks from their traditional printmaking function of creating volume and shadow and here just floating freely as lines on a page.) A surprisingly wide range of tonal effects is possible from mixing this very limited palette.

But French painting had just been through 40 years of art that put color in the forefront -- wave after wave of Impressionism, varieties of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and especially Matisse. Since Picasso and Braque were focused on conceiving  new structural properties for painting, color didn't become a major concern until later -- during the so-called Synthetic Cubist period. Then, what had metaphorically gotten taken apart was put back together in unexpected ways. But Analytical Cubism circa 1910 to 1912 had set all that aside for another day.

Except, not entirely. I didn't expect it, but virtually every painting in this show also incorporates a rich range of greens.

Braque%20BottlesandGlasses%2010inch(1)Why green? That's hard to say. Despite all the cafe tables evoked in these often circular and oval pictures, it's probably not a hangover from all that green absinthe, the anise-flavored herbal alcohol favored in the artists' Montmartre haunts. The French called absinthe la fée verte -- the green fairy. Even Picasso's great figure study, "Man With a Pipe," arguably the exhibition's best-known picture, shows the mustachioed gentleman with his newspaper seated at a table inside a smoke-filled drinking emporium in Céret. Bottoms up.

Perhaps it's a direct legacy of Cézanne, hero of Picasso's and Braque's epochal adventure. Maybe, since all the show's works are figure studies and still-lifes, it's a more general bequest from landscape painting. Without all the blazing color of Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso's rival, Matisse, landscape injects the authority of nature into this radical project.

Whatever the case, green is a common undercurrent of color in these Analytical Cubist canvases, with all their dour, structurally obstinate brown. Maybe because the show is a modest affair, unlike MOMA's 1989 everything-including-the-kitchen-sink extravaganza, the pigment's use lingers in the mind as a prominent if often forgotten aspect of the work.

In Braque's marvelous tabletop array of "Bottles and Glasses," on loan from a local Santa Barbara collection, green even tees up a secondary contrast for a shock of wholly unexpected purple at the upper right, adjacent to the artist's cleverly inserted initials. What the purple patch describes I couldn't say. But the painting dates from 1912, and in no time flat Analytical Cubism would be a thing of the past. The adventure would move on to its swaggering Synthetic phase, with color flooding back in.


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Art review: 'Under the Big Black Sun' at MOCA

-- Christopher Knight, from Santa Barbara

Photos: Pablo Picasso, "Man With a Pipe," 1911, oil on canvas; Pablo Picasso, "Still Life With Bottle of Marc," 1911-12, drypoint; Georges Braque, "Bottle and Glasses," 1912, oil on canvas. Credit: Santa Barbara Museum of Art