Lyon - Introduction to Picasso and Braque

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  • A Shared Vision an Introduction to "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism"Author(s): Christopher LyonReviewed work(s):Source: MoMA, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 7-13Published by: The Museum of Modern ArtStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4381090 .Accessed: 02/10/2012 10:56

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  • A Shared Vision

    An Introduction to Picasso and Bra que: Pioneering Cubism

    by Christopher Lyon The dialogue between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque is unique in the history of art for its

    length and for the complexity of the interchange. Painters have worked together, but rarely over so many years, and never in a manner that produced, out of a collaborative give-and-take, an entire style. This style underwent a development of the most extraordinary sort over a period of six years, during which the two artists' contributions became so intermingled that at certain points we can't separate them.

    One of the ironies of art history is that while there is a larger literature on Cubism than on any other modern movement, we actually know less about it in some respects than we do about most movements of modem art. This is particularly true of the relationship between Picasso and Braque. The chronology of their works is often in doubt, particularly in relation to Braque. We know that an intimate dialogue took place between them, but we don't know its precise terms. In their letters and in a few later statements, the artists allude to their frequent discussions, but they don't tell us what was said. So we can only look at the work. In a sense, the exhibition Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism is being mounted in order to answer such questions. Left: Bra que in his studio at 5, impasse de Guelma, c. early 1912. Right: Picasso in his studio at 11, boulevard de Clichy, autumn 1911.

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  • A Closeness of Opposites Picasso and Braque met in the spring of 1907 but their friendship really did not get fully underway until late in 1908. The two painters were even closer in the years 1910 to 1912, a period that represents the height of the collaboration and its most inventive period. In 1913 the dialogue seems to have slowed a bit. World War I brought it to an abrupt finish, though it might have ended soon afterwards under any circumstances.

    The closeness of the two artists during this time was due to the fact that they were sharing the same "painting problems" in the development of the language of Cubism. It wasn't a closeness of similar personalities, but of opposites, who contributed to one another precisely because they were differ- ent. They worked on problems in similar terms, however, and attempted to solve them in ways that transcended their individual personalities. So, for a while, they produced a pictorial language probably more daring and inventive- and certainly different from-what either of them would have produced indi- vidually. The period from 1910 through 1912 provides an especially clear revelation-in the accumulated advances made by each artist in his work, and in the network of linkages between them-of what can be called pictorial thought.

    The discoveries Picasso and Braque had made together during 1911-12 began to lead them in somewhat divergent directions by the end of 1913. When war broke out in 1914, it spelled an end to their collaboration. Braque, a French national, was immediately drafted into the army, left for the front, and shortly after that received a massive head wound. The two saw each other occasionally afterwards, but it wasn't the same. Braque, who resumed painting in 1917, had remained a Cubist; Picasso was exploring neo-classicism and other styles, and had begun to move in a different world, the world of the theatre and ballet. The essential differences in temperaments and personalities came to outweigh what had drawn the two painters together. When Picasso said to his dealer, Daniel- Henry Kahnweiler, that after seeing Braque off in 1914 at the Avignon station, he "never saw him again," Picasso meant, of course, that he never again saw his Braque, the Braque of the Cubist collaboration.

    The two worked together at a moment when there was a tremendous optimism about the possibilities of painting. All the old rules seemed to have been thrown out. That optimism ended when Cubism's pioneer phase ended, with the outbreak of the First World War. The war concluded an entire period in modern intellectual and artistic life, the last phase of which may be better embodied in the work of Picasso and Braque's Cubism than in the work of any other artists.

    Sometimes it is asked whether Braque or Picasso invented Cubism. There is no single answer to this. Two major sources of Cubism were the Africanism of Picasso-that is, the art that Picasso had made in 1907 and early 1908 that was influenced by tribal models of art-and, perhaps even more importantly, the art of Paul Cezanne. To the extent that you consider Cezanne's model the germi- nal element in Cubism, Braque was more its inventor than Picasso. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine Cubism having been created had not Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907 and in one painting, so to say, swept away the whole nineteenth-century tradition.

    Mfricanism and Cezannism would seem to be totally unmixable and yet the two fuse in the crucible of Picasso and Braque's painting of 1908. That's part of what is remarkable about the history of early Cubism. One might say that if it had not been for Braque, Cubism would not have gotten the same structural

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  • underpinning from Cezanne that it did have. On the other hand, if it had not been for Picasso, it might have been just a kind of neo-Cezannism, an intellec- tual Cezannism. So it was necessary for Picasso and Braque to be engaged in this dialectic, in which all solutions were tested, broken apart, and bounced off one another, for the thing to come together as Cubism.

    The difference in temperament between Picasso and Braque can be ex- pressed in many ways, but one of the most evident was certainly the passion of Picasso and the velocity of his actions and his work-the way he approached life and painting-and the meditative detachment of Braque. Braque worked in a slower, more deliberate way, and, as a result, produced far fewer pictures. Despite their differences, Picasso and Braque tried to achieve a kind of anonym- ity in formulating the Cubist language. For at least a few years, they liked to think that their work could not be distinguished as being by one or the other, and they did not sign the front of their canvases during this time. This search for a common language, for a sort of anonymity, had to do with a desire to focus the spectator, not on the personality of the artist, as it comes through in his particular hand, but on the problems of structure and conception that are the common concern of all painters.

    Essentials of Form The name Cubism is a misnomer-but that's not unique. Many art movements have been named inappropriately. "Impressionism," for example, seems to imply a very subjective kind of thing, but in fact Impressionism was a very detached way of looking at the world. "Cubism" is wrong, first of all, in suggesting that the style is more geometric than it really is. It is true that certain early Cubist works have fragments of cubes; it would probably be more accurate to describe these early Cubist pictures as fundamen- tally schematic, simplified, and generally geomet- rical. But insofar as the word "cube" actually suggests a freestanding, three-dimensional form, that is precisely what we do not find in these pictures.

    When an Old Master painter makes a house standing in the middle of a field, he wants to give you the illusion of a freestanding, three-dimen- sional form. The Cubist painter does not want you to feel deep space, but only the projection of forms toward you, the spectator. One may describe this as a kind of "bas-relief" approach to structure and to space, and contrast it with the representation in Old Master painting of figures and buildings, which might be thought of as simulacra of sculp- tures in the round.

    An Old Master painter wants to give you not simply the impression of the forms, but of the relative spaces between the forms. In Cubist painting, these forms elide with one another, meld with one another, and move toward the fore- ground of the picture. If you look at Braque's Houses at L'Estaque ([August] 1908), which is the

    Above: Pablo Picasso. Female Nude. Paris, lautumn-winter 19071. Pencil and watercolor. National Gallery, Prague. Below: Georges Braque. Houses at L'Estaque. L'Estaque, [August! 1908. Oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum Bern. Hermann and Margrit Rupf Foundation.

    16.~~~~~~

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  • picture that actually gave Cubism its name, you don't really sense the backs of the houses or the space between them. The houses seem to elide into one another and into the trees. This space is, finally, more shallow and more elliptical in char- acter than the space of Old Master pictures.

    When Braque presented this painting to the Autumn Salon of 1908, it was rejected. Matisse, who was on the jury, made an unflattering remark about "les petites cubes,"