Cubisme à la française at the Centre Pompidou: Cubism at Home at Last!

Cubisme à la française at the Centre Pompidou: Cubism at Home at Last!
Centre Pompidou curators Brigitte Leal, Christian Briend, and Adrianne Coulondre have organized a spectacular exhibition for the maddeningly complex movement Cubism. Enormous, exhausting and exhilarating, the exhibit displays over 300 objects (art and artifacts) along a prescribed pathway that spreads over 13 sections. What is your reward for slogging through such an immense undertaking? A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience an epiphany. For here in Paris—rather than in New York, London or Philadelphia (cities that have hosted exceptional surveys of Cubism in recent years)—we come face-to-face with an indisputable fact: Cubism truly belongs to Paris. It began in Paris, it thrived in Paris and it gave birth to numerous other movements from its home in Paris. In the able hands of these curators, the history of Cubism explodes with the youthful vigor of this modernist revolution. “Yuck!,” you might say. “Cubism is so ugly, so confusing. The title claims there’s a man with a guitar, but where’s the guy? Where’s the guitar? I really hate Cubism.” Okay, I hear you. The very word “Cubism” is a turn off. It sounds like math. It sounds boring. However, this show might surprise you. Yes, you may feel mystified by Picasso and Braque’s smoky gray “Analytic” paintings from 1909-1912 (my favorites). However, once you detect the head, shoulders and hands, you’ll figure out the whole composition. Just remember to stand far away from the painting so that you see the planes project and recede from your eyes, like a pop-up card.  Also notice in Georges Braque’s Pitcher and Violin (1909-10) the nail at the top of the composition. This legible “attribute” indicates how the light falls on the objects from a specific direction, a fairly conventional consideration for a well-trained artist. Now study the overall interpretation of objects assembled within a given space (a table, a landscape, a studio, etc). As you hunt for each item announced in the title, think about the Cubists’ notion of simultaneity, the referencing of the different sides of an object on one plane. From the pas de deux of the “Gallery Cubists” Picasso and Braque, we move on to Section 6: “Salon Cubism.” Behold another vision for Cubism! Bold, radiant and large, “Salon Cubism” asserts itself in terms of size and color. This parallel strain of Cubism, also known as “Epic Cubism,” viscerally celebrates modern life in a more energized visual vocabulary, expressing its enthusiastic optimism for its beloved city, Paris, the epicenter of the artists’ world. The most important feature in the Centre Pompidou exhibition is its generous display of the “Salon Cubists” who often appear as secondary in the predominately Picasso and Braque narrative. Make no mistake, the Centre Pompidiou show exhibits plenty of Picassos and Braques. However, the revelation for this New Yorker was the sheer quantity of huge “Salon Cubist” paintings, especially those that rarely travel to our shores. In Room 8, the installation of three large works by “Salon Cubists” Sonia Delaunay, Robert Delaunay and Albert Gleizes in one corner helps us imagine the artists’ fascination with early 20th-century innovations: technology (in this case, electricity) and various sports teams. This group demonstrates not only Cubism’s interpenetration of planes in space, but also the Cubists’ belief in the fluid intersection of everyday life and art, what Apollinaire called the poetry of circumstance. What were the differences within the Cubist movement? Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris, known in scholarly literature as the “Gallery Cubists,” exhibited exclusively in Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s small space at 28 rue Vignon. The “Gallery Cubists” received a stipend from Kahnweiler, which may account for the greater quantity of their production. Their work reached the select few who frequented their studios and/or Kahnweiler’s gallery. Henri Le Fauconnier, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Fernande Léger, and many others are called the “Salon Cubists,” because they exhibited in the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants (Spring Salon), which brought in the general public. “Salon Cubism” was the public face of the movement. Therefore, the works by these artists established the public’s understanding of the Cubist brand. (Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger furthered this publicity by teaching the Cubist method at their Académie de La Palette in Montmartre, beginning in 1912.) The two Cubist camps attracted different audiences and different markets, according to David…

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.