Expert Eye

Met Curator Rebecca Rabinow on How Cubism Gave Rise to Contemporary Art

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 Met Curator Rebecca Rabinow on How Cubism Gave Rise to Contemporary Art
Met curator Rebecca Rabinow

In the spring of 2013, when Estee Lauder heir Leonard Lauder announced that he would give his collection of 78 Cubist works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s art landscape underwent a nearly audible tectonic shift. Consisting of over $1 billion worth of art by the greatest practitioners of Cubism—with 33 works by Pablo Picasso, 17 by Georges Braque, 14 by Juan Gris, and 14 by Fernand Léger—the gift elevated the Met’s collection of 20th century art, long a weak spot compared to institutions like MoMA and the Tate, into a world-beating destination overnight. Why? Because the artworks in question, gathered by Lauder and his curator, Emily Braun, over decades of sedulous connoisseurship and indefatigable pursuit, represent the single most important development in the long period we now view as Modern and contemporary art. It’s as if the Hayden Planetarium had acquired the Big Bang.

Currently, Lauder’s collection is the subject of a magisterial exhibition, up through February 16, that employs elegant display and scholarly wall text to elucidate what is widely seen as an exceptionally challenging art movement—one that Picasso and Braque felt was so explosive that, in the early days, they kept it secret from all but their closest intimates. To understand the achievements of Cubism, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Met curator Rebecca Rabinow, who organized the show together with Braun, about how these four artists changed art for all time, why their work is relevant to the contemporary moment, and why Cubism isn’t really all that difficult after all. 

Cubism is famous for its difficulty, and the fact that in the early years of its development, Picasso and Braque treated it as a secret, denying its existence to outsiders. It’s very brown, it’s visually severe, it’s hard to enter. What, exactly, was Cubism?  

I think Cubism has been seen as an intellectual art form that puts off some people, partly because of the way it’s been taught and certainly because of misunderstandings. In working on this exhibition for the past year and a half, I have constantly been surprised by the wit in these works, the play, the sense of humor that these young artists exhibited in these pictures. But Cubism developed at a time in the early 20th century when people were challenging everything that was accepted about the world around them, about how it looked. You had Freud reinterpreting dreams and seeing them as being the key to who we are, you had Einstein’s theories of relativity, you had people who could go up in airplanes and photograph aerial views, so if you saw a picture of a farm, all of a sudden that picture of a farm didn’t look at all like what you would have thought. It was completely flattened and rendered from a different perspective. You also had x-rays showing the innards of people and objects. So, everything was being challenged at this moment, and these young artists—Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger—were aware of what was happening in the sense of its newness.  

You have to remember that it was a time of political chaos, as the Great War was beginning to loom in the distance. It was a time when people were exploring and pushing boundaries and really questioning everything they had accepted as fact up until then, because everything was about to change. With Picasso—as you can see from the second room of the show, from 1909—he was very much looking at the Old Masters, and yet he was depicting them in different ways, challenging them. He was paying homage, and yet he was about to blow them up. There was a sense that traditional perspective was fake, the idea that, “We all know this is a two-dimensional canvas, so why not just be upfront about it?” So these artists would reverse-perspective to make things at the top of the canvas—which we might intellectually think of as meaning that they’re farther away—suddenly appear closer. 

And the color isn’t really gone—often times you see caramels and greens and different colors in these works of art. But how space is represented becomes incredibly important, and as it’s flattened out it fractures into different planes. There’s also a huge importance of light—if you search for the light source while looking at these pictures you suddenly notice shadows and light coming in. People haven’t really written about Cubism in this way, but it’s a very important part of what’s going on, and I think one of the things that’s so exciting about this exhibition is that it presents thematic approaches of looking at these works that are different from how people have looked at them before. It’s not all that difficult in the way that so many of us may have come to think of Cubism, and if you come into this exhibition with fresh eyes you can really get an understanding of this very interesting moment.

You mentioned the way photography was providing novel perspectives at the time—how does that relate to the explosion of the pictorial plane? Why, for instance, did these artists begin looking at a still life or figure from all of these multiple angles simultaneously in a way that doesn’t really imply three-dimensionality, but rather something else?

You have to ask yourself, “Why should you represent them with faux-illusionism? What makes that the right way of showing something?” So, yes, with some of these paintings, from the period known as analytic Cubism, you’re seeing the same thing from different perspectives simultaneously. You see a representation of Picasso’s girlfriend Fernande from the side and also frontally, and that was very  new, and some people had a hard time with it. The historic dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who like these artists was in his 20s at the time, represented Picasso and Braque, and he got so tired of people coming into his gallery and pointing out the geometric forms—“Oh there’s a cube, there’s a sphere”—that he encouraged the artists to give their works descriptive titles.

So you’ll find that many of them have titles like “Still life With Bottle and Cup,” and that was so that the viewer could get past this idea of the geometry of it all and jump into the painting. They were never intended to be abstract, and just as Braque and Picasso began to push towards abstraction, they pulled back and added the written word, and that was the first of what Braque referred to as their “certainties,” something in the work that people could recognize as a newspaper masthead, for instance, and that gave the viewer a way in.

Why does this collection focus on these four artists?

Picasso, Braque, Léger, and Gris were the four artists represented by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. They were artists who didn’t show in the Salon exhibitions, but once they signed a contract with Kahnweiler’s gallery they were very secure and could actually create these works of art without fear, or without the need to appease the general public. Kahnweiler sold works to all the early collectors of Cubism, including G.F. Reber, a Swiss collector who believed very much in Kahnweiler’s idea that there were four path-finding Cubists, and that these were the four. That was also a view shared by the collector Douglas Cooper, and Leonard Lauder has felt that way as well. There were many artists who worked in the Cubist idiom, but his belief is that these were the four artists who were essential, who were instrumental, and who led the way before other artists began working in the same mode.

Why does is the show bracketed by the years of 1906 to 1924—why make 1924 the cutoff?

Well, 1924 is the cutoff for works by Léger—he’s the only one of the artists whose postwar work Mr. Lauder has collected. Léger was drafted and sent to the front, where he was digging trenches as people were being shot. It was a horrific experience for him, and there are letters he wrote to friends where he would say, “If I can only survive through this war, I’m going to go back to Paris to embrace all of the modernity that exists there.” So when he came back to Paris after the war, he was still working in a Cubist idiom and began to paint what he saw, which was typography and billboards and mechanics, but he was painting in a very interesting way that spoke directly to his earlier prewar Cubism. But as far as Picasso and Braque are concerned, they underwent a major stylistic change during the war, so their Cubist contributions cease by the end of the war. 

The provenance histories of these works in the catalogue makes it clear that many of the artists’ early collectors were actually Kahnweiler and other dealers, which is a testament to both to the difficulty of the work at the time and also to the importance of this patronage system. But they were disseminated into other collections during the war. How did that happen?

It’s true that Kahnweiler was the critical player here, but he also was selling things quickly to certain collectors who had the vision. Roger Dutilleul, for example, bought so much that he didn’t have room on his walls, so he stacked paintings on his chairs and against the baseboards. But it was a time of great uncertainty because the war was looming, so just as Kahnweiler signed the contract with Léger in 1914 and then left Paris on vacation, war was declared. As a German national he couldn’t get back into France, so he ended up in exile in Switzerland for the war, and although he continued to pay rent on his gallery the French state seized the property of all German nationals after the war to help pay off war debt. So his whole stock was sold in a series of four auctions and then purchased by other people. There was a great dispersal at that moment.  

Fascinatingly, Matisse was involved in coining the term for the greatest achievement of his arch-rival, Picasso. How did “Cubism” come to be?

Well, Braque submitted some Cubist-type landscapes to a Salon exhibition for which Matisse was the head of the jury, and he supposedly criticized them for having cube-like forms in them. He wasn’t coining a term—it was a throwaway phrase, like, “I don’t think these pictures should be in the exhibition, they seem as if they’re composed of cubes.” It was actually an art critic who later picked up the term “Cubism.”

But certainly, as we tried to show in “The Steins Collect” a few years ago, Matisse and Picasso were absolutely rivals in this moment. At that time Matisse was acknowledged as the leader of the new school of painting, and Picasso—who was much younger, but who knew Matisse from the Steins’ salons and other places—was trying to make his mark. And that really happened, I think, in 1907, when Picasso saw a painting by Matisse, The Blue Nude, and decided to go one better with a figure that shows up in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. There was definite rivalry, but I feel it’s putting a little too much weight on the story to say that Matisse coined the term “Cubism.” I think it was just an aside that was taken up by someone else.

Those early Braque paintings you mentioned were homages to Cezanne’s landscapes, and a lot of late Cezanne has similar cube-like forms and also a similar multiple-perspective element. What is the development that Braque and Picasso introduced that separates late Cezanne from early Cubism?

Certainly, Picasso and Braque were both very interested in Cezanne. To give the context, Cezanne had been basically forgotten until the dealer Ambroise Vollard reestablished his career by having a huge solo show in 1895, and people were blown away, for lack of a better description. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. So, the avant-garde collectors became interested, and certainly the young artists were—Matisse was influenced, and Durand, and soon Picasso and Braque. Cezanne became very important, and after he died in 1906 there was a big retrospective the following year and all of these artists attended it.

Braque paid specific homage right at this moment, which is the time of his memorials to Cezanne. Many other artists were also paying homage to Cezanne, but to make his paintings Braque went to L'Estaque, the place that Cezanne made his own, and he used some of Cezanne’s palette and some of those same geometric shapes that we see in Cezanne’s work. Two pictures that he painted in L’Estaque, one from 1907 and one from 1908, mark the beginning of this exhibition.

However, Braque was interested in pushing it in a different direction, and exploring what it means to take out all sense of perspective, to flatten the space, and to remove some of that color. With Cezanne you often have a differentiated brushstroke that gives texture to the background, and Braque started to eliminate that from his painting. But Cezanne is very much a starting point for Cubism—you see him again and again also not only in Braque but also in Picasso, who gravitated to the charm of the unfinished, the canvas that are left purposefully undone that you see in Cezanne’s work. And that’s one of the joys about having this exhibition here, because we hope our visitors will just go upstairs and see the Cezannes on view.  

In most of the Cezanne landscapes that Braque was looking at there’s this very brownish color in his mountain citadels, and that brown seems to be something carried over into early Cubism. I’ve always thought of it as also being an urban color, the soot of a city. What is the story behind this brown?

As Braque and Picasso became interested in the reduction of forms and their new way of representing subject matter, they found color to be distracting—it seemed too facile, and it took the viewer away from the point they were trying to make. So they removed bright, vivid color as they explored the actual art of depicting, but they kept in texture, and they kept in light. There’s something about the monochrome of these pictures that’s very luxurious, but then when you look again there are caramels and butterscotches and a range of color, so they’re not as monochromatic as one might think.  

Picasso is famous as the Cubist progenitor, but this show makes it clear that it was actually Braque who contributed most of the key transitional points, putting on the first Cubist show and later introducing the found materials that inaugurated the period of Synthetic Cubism. How would you compare Braque and Picasso in terms of their contributions to the advancement of Cubism, and why does Picasso get the lion’s share of credit?

In part, the reason why Picasso is so well known is because his archives are available, and Braque’s simply aren’t. Scholars are always going to be encouraged to work on material that they have access to. But in terms of the working together, they worked together very closely. It’s true that the exhibition that art historians consider the first Cubist exhibition was a 1908 show of works just by Braque, but very soon Braque and Picasso started visinting one and another’s studios all the time, and they did not consider a work of art finished unless the other had seen it. Braque made the comparison that they were like two mountain climbers joined by a rope, so that when one would take a step and the other would as well. I think it was very much a team effort. 

For instance, the story behind Braque’s first collages—and we have two of the very first papier colles—was that he and Picasso were in Sorgue in the South of France near Avignon when one day, when Picasso was gone for a weekend, Braque saw some very inexpensive commercial wallpaper painted in faux-bois in the window of a decorating shop, and he bought it and he cut out pieces and glued them onto his drawings. Our paper conservator Rachel Mustalish has looked at these, and we can actually see drawing underneath the pieces of wallpaper, so the the legend seems to bear out. Supposedly, when Picasso came back, he saw these and was floored—he just couldn’t get over this idea of having brought a real thing into the work of art. And very soon, thereafter, he cuts out pieces of newspaper and begins to incorporate them into his drawings as well. So you see this real give-and-take, and, yes, there were moments where one may have gone ahead of the other, but there was a real dialogue. I very strongly feel that the creation of Cubism, as well as its development, was done in tandem by these two. 

And this was before Duchamp’s readymade.

Absolutely. One of the most radical aspects of Cubism was that these artists introduced the flotsam of everyday life into their art, so you have tobacco wrappers, matchbook covers, newspaper clippings, and rope that they glued into paintings and works on paper, and all of a sudden anything was fair game as an art material. That changed the development of art to this day—going into an art gallery today, it’s almost impossible to remember that this was ever a strange idea, and it all comes back to this moment. That’s one of the exciting things about Cubism, that it’s a historic movement that opened the door to 20th century, but it’s still so relevant. There are a number of artists working today who are still are looking at this, so it remains fresh in many ways.

It’s now a century after the advent of Cubism, and we seem to be undergoing a similar kind of transitional moment in history, with the rise of digital technology and the fragmentation of old orders. I think it’s very interesting that so many artists today are addressing this period using the tools of Braque and Picasso, particularly collage, which mashes up and jumbles imagery and objects in a manner similar to the way the Internet flattens and eliminates the boundaries between things. How would you see the present day’s avant-garde relating to the Cubist period?

I think your point is an excellent one, and whenever I go to galleries downtown or to museum shows to see new art, I can’t help but see it through this lens. There’s a sense of wit in the Cubist pictures that I sometimes see now, and I do feel the Cubist spirit of pushing oneself, of anything goes, of understanding that the real world can be re-appropriated and reintroduced into a work of art. And back then, you didn’t just see it in art, you saw it in dance and couture and writing and poetry too. All of a sudden you would have street sounds or just passing fragments of speech incorporated into a book. This interest in how you can incorporate real world into an art form was something that was very much a concern for them, and it seems to be very much the same case now.

When he was welcoming Leonard Lauder’s Cubist holdings into the collection, Met director Thomas Campbell said it “fills a gap” in the museum’s narrative of the 20th century. Why did the Met miss out on Cubism the first time around?

The Met has always collected contemporary art, but the Met’s acquisition funds are not such that the museum goes out and buys a lot of contemporary art. Instead, we have historically waited for generous collectors—New Yorkers, people who love this museum—to donate works of art to us. The very first woman who was a benefactor to the Met, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, bequeathed her collection of contemporary art to the museum in the 1870s, making it the place to go in America to see new art at that time. Then you get to 1929, when the Havemeyer bequest brought works by Degas, Cassat, and Pissarro to the museum. So this is a strategy that worked great for the museum until the very late 20s, when MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney were founded.

Suddenly, collectors who had amazing collections of avant-garde art had lots of other options, and that’s the moment I see the museum’s collection of Modern and contemporary art becoming more spotty. We still have amazing works of art—and we have wonderful Cubist works that have been donated by generous people over the years—but we never received a gift of this magnitude for this period, and we certainly didn’t have the acquisition funds to belatedly go out and find it. In that sense, Leonard Lauder has arrived on his horse as a knight in shining armor to give us a selection of Cubism that will be a gateway into the 20th century. And what’s so exciting about having that gift here is that, being an encyclopedic museum, we’ll be able to present it within the context of art from around the world and also from different time periods. With any great works of art, there are so many contexts that can add to our understanding of them. In the future we will certainly use this collection to the best of its advantage.

What steps is the museum taking to ensure that a gap like this doesn’t open up in the collection again when it comes to contemporary art? 

Sheena Wagstaff, the chair of our Modern and contemporary art department, is really phenomenal—she’s brilliant, she has a lot of energy, and she has a really exceptional acquisition strategy. But it also comes down to money. You know, the reality is that there are a lot of departments in this museum and there are limited acquisition funds. So, if anyone out there is feeling generous or is interested in donating new work…. Part of what makes the Met so great as the people’s museum are the donations from collectors wanting to share their collections—they know that we’ll do right by their donations, not just in how they’re presented but in terms of conservation. In the last two years we’ve had over six million people per year come to the museum, and that’s not even including the people who explore the collection online, so it’s a tremendously effective way of sharing works of art.  

You are the director of the new Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art. Could you tell me a bit about the center? 

The research center was created with support from both Leonard Lauder and museum trustees to further scholarship in early Modern art with an initial focus on Cubism. We have special fellowships for two-year periods, and I wanted something where people felt that they didn’t have to choose between research and writing—that they could actually do both while they were here. There will also be opportunities for senior scholars, and we have a number of initiatives that have already begun online, like a feature where you can zoom in on the backs of the paintings in this collection so you can see that Braque stretched his own canvas and Picasso didn’t, and you can see the labels and understand the lives of these pictures as they moved from exhibition to exhibition. 

Also, for the microsite, I’ve asked conservators here at the museum to take closer looks at individual works of art, and we have great zoomable photography there too as they point out some of the special things that you wouldn’t see with the naked eye. Then, on December 1st, we’ll roll out our index of historic collectors and dealers of Cubism, which will be augmented every month. We really want this to be a resource for scholars also for anyone who’s interested in the history of this period, because often the people who were buying art were involved in the arts or business of that period. And there’s still a lot of work to be done on Cubism.

The history of art as expressed in New York’s museums has traditionally been very Eurocentric, and MoMA currently looking back through the history of Modernism to chronicle and collect works from the same period that were being made in Latin America and Asia. Is there a similar diaspora of Cubism-influenced art, and will the center have that kind of international perspective? 

Yes, is the easy answer to that. In fact, in February before the show closes, two young art historians are organizing an art symposium where scholars from Eastern Europe will be coming to talk about how Cubism spread in that area. And we’re certainly interested in looking at other places, because Cubism had a major influence not only in the United States, where it’s impact is very well known, but also in Latin America. The impact spread around the world and is still being felt today, so it’s something that we intend to explore further.

How did Cubism spread?

It spread through people people like Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, who opened their home in Paris every Saturday to to a crowd that included their American friends, their German friends, dealers, young artists, and two Russian collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. Anyone with a recommendation could come in. And a lot of the dissemination happened before the war, through people like Schukin who would travel to Paris and buy things and then bring them back to Moscow, where he would open up his mansion to young Russian artists. Then, during the war, when Kahnweiler was in exile, he wrote a really important book called Der Weg Zum Kubismus that helped the movement spread through the written word. But it was mainly through dealers and collectors who would buy works of art and bring them back to Germany, to Scandinavia, to Russia, to America, to Latin America, and then invite artists into their homes to see the work. There was a ripple effect.

What would you say is the most surprising discovery you have made recently while exploring the Lauder collection?

Well, if you put a light behind a work of art, sometimes you can see something else completely emerge. Braque’s Bottle of Rum has a completely different composition underneath, and sometimes Gris wouldn’t prime his canvases, so if you hold light behind it, it suddenly looks like lace. But in terms of wider discoveries, for me the most important is the sense of humor and play in these works of art that I mentioned in the beginning. I think many people simply have not appreciated that. These works might seem hard to enter, but the biggest discovery for me is how rewarding they are if you’re willing to give them the time. I can think of no other artworks that reward close looking in the way that these do.

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