Saturday, January 24, 2015

Second Acts

One seldom realizes historic moments have occurred until well after the fact.  Fortunately, there are occasional second acts in life.  The Met's show of the Leonard Lauder Cubist Collection is just such an occasion. One hundred years after Cubism's revolution, visitors to this exhibition can witness history unfolding again in all its radical, inventive glory.

Cubism emerged over a decade, primarily in two studios, and in two stages.  The Lauder collection includes four artists, Braque, Picasso, Gris and Leger, but only the first two were making history.  The other two, along with peripheral figures, were drafting in their wake.

Of course Cubism did not emerge in a vacuum, and Braque and Picasso acknowledged as much with their numerous tributes to Cezanne.  But Cubism's grand gesture, drawing the blinds on the window of Renaissance tradition and convention, was a discreet moment in painting's history and everyone, especially its two heroes, knew it was happening and consciously took credit for it.

Try as we might, the objects and figures referenced in the matter-of-fact titles bestowed on their canvases by Braque and Picasso led the viewer into dead ends.  One could not penetrate the canvas, that is, look through the window.  Even their reductive monochromatic palettes thwarted the expectations built up over four hundred years of painting.  The framed canvas was no window on the world. Modernism's water had broken.

A few years later the second stage emerged as Braque and Picasso began incorporating newspaper clippings or chair caning among other objects in their canvases.  Thus, these masters of representation willingly stepped aside and allowed things to represent themselves.  Modernism was born.  Paintings were indeed flat panels on wood, canvas or other material with paint and things on them.  Pure abstraction was unleashed and Modernism surged ahead.

The Lauder collection is extraordinarily rich in surveying these dramatic moments as they burst onto the scene.  As a bonus since all 81 works in the collection now permanently reside at the Met, the gift not only makes that museum a prime destination for anyone wishing to understand Cubism, but a mere 30 blocks south sits MOMA, which owns the greatest, large-scale triumph of Cubism, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  Thus, the visitor to New York can see the birth of modernism in a single afternoon.

No comments: