Museum Blockbuster: Cubism at the Met


The Leonard A. Lauder Collection: Cubism
by Franklin Hill Perrell and Debbie Wells

Cubism is the most important art movement of the 20th century, a game changer. It replaced the renaissance premise of art as a window on the world, which relied on one-point perspective to create spatial illusion. Cubism featured a roving vantage point where objects were viewed from an array of angles. It resulted in increasing pictorial flatness. Space became shallow. Objects, depicted or features of their parts, seemed to be arranged within an implied grid matrix. The first generation cubists learned directly from Cezanne from whom they recognized that the building blocks of pictorial design were geometric solids like the cube, cylinder, or pyramid. 

Cezannesque Cubism: 1906 – 1909
1906 was the year Cezanne died, and the time of a major retrospective of his work which catapulted him to fame. His approach, which differed from Impressionism, was an inspiration to younger artists. In 1908, Braque made the first exhibition where work was recognized as Cubist. Critics saw cube-like blocks in his painting, The Bend in the Road (1908). The Cezannesque phase retained very recognizable objects whose forms were simplified in terms of geometric volume. A transition from colors similar to Cezanne’s palette to one which favored earth tones arose from the artists desire to get away from recording observed color to using color as an ingredient in building up form. The grays and earth tones enabled them to emphasize the spatial, even sculptural, character of form without the distraction of normal color. Faceting of form where rounded shapes are evened out into geometrics: triangles and similar, as in a diamond ring, becomes a strong feature of the art.

Analytical Cubism: 1910 – 1912
Gradually, the artists portrayed the subject more as fragments, emphasizing a caging line and an underlying compositional grid. We see many vertical and horizontal lines with edges of recognizable forms peaking out. The eye can assemble these elements into a figure or still life. It’s called analytical because the artists are investigating a full range of spatial depth, looking at their subjects from many different sides. Works tend to be grey and brown.

Synthetic Cubism: 1913-onward
It starts transitionally with Braque and Picasso introducing words from newspaper headlines and painted illusionistic wood grain: flat elements that disrupt the otherwise deeper penetrating space. Braque pastes printed wallpaper into his composition. Picasso follows with printed newspaper pasted in. These papier colles (glued paper) or “collages” are the first use of this technique to produce fine art. Initially, the caging line and open drawing schematic from the analytic phase is retained, but as more collaged elements are introduced, artists overcome their reluctance about color. Forms in many instance become much more recognizable because they are portrayed as silhouettes which are easier for the eye to read. By around 1914, pointillist techniques are common and color is increasingly varied. Besides pasted paper, artists freely incorporate various trompe l’oeil effects, illusionistically painted wood grain or simulated wallpaper. This style winds down gradually in 1920’s.


Georges Braque & Pablo Picasso
Regarded as the co-discovers of cubism, initially they visited each others’ studios, painted comparable subjects, discussed their work together, and for a time, never regarded a painting as finished until they both approved. At the phase when they were most similar, 1911-12, differences have been observed. Picasso clusters his forms toward the center and paints more heavily. Braque paints more translucently and distributes his forms more evenly throughout the canvas, creating all-over arrangements which continue closer to the edge. Braque also favored a lozenge-shaped compositional motif in which there is specially concentrated pictorial activity either within or outside this dominant form.

Juan Gris
Gris had a shorter career, died young, and was known exclusively as a Cubist. His work is mostly in the synthetic mode, featuring strong use of color and either actual collage or paint used to suggest collage. He was interested in the character “Fantomas” from the pulp detective novels who becomes a type of invisible man protagonist in puzzle pictures which often call upon the viewer to perceive hidden images or double meanings.

Fernand Leger
Leger’s initial cubist phase deals with contrast of forms: linear vs. painted; solid vs. open, round vs. straight. Among the group, he was the most interested in modern industry. His paintings often evoke repetitive motion as in factory production with robotic figures. His painting, the Typographer, 1918, is flatly designed in his own silhouetted version of synthetic cubism using bold broad shapes of black, red, and yellow. By 1925, Leger adapts his Cubist style into a mode called Purism where cubism merges with classism. The French called this trend a “return to order.” The cubist style, as a dominant mode of innovation, becomes supplanted at this time by emerging new art movements. However, throughout the modern era, Cubism remains consistent point of reference, whether from the standpoint of imitation, adaptation, absorption or opposition: every movement that followed had to reckon with its importance. Cubism’s qualities of shallow pictorial space and all-over design, collage, and the incorporation of real elements into art, have been a consistent factor in art over the following century.

About the Collection
Lauder chose to concentrate on Cubism because it was still possible (from the 1980’s on) to find important works and assemble a very meaningful collection. He picked the key artists and his chronology of 1906 to early 1920’s allowed him to focus on them while they were producing their most important works in the Cubist mode. The 81 paintings on display are a promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum which permits them to now have a fine Cubist collection that is in keeping with their ability to portray other movements in art as an encyclopedic museum. The dates given above as start and stop dates of Cubist phases are generic: the phases actually overlap and transition into each other and there are always important exceptions to any broad generalization in art.

One resource was Douglas Cooper, British collector, curator, and author who assembled an important collection at his castle on the Riviera. Lauder secured about 10 major works from this collection. For interesting reading, try John Richardson’s entertaining book about Cooper: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Lauder was also interested in the importance of Daniel Henry Kahnweiler.  Kahnweiler was the first major Cubist dealer and many Lauder pieces can be traced to his gallery. Provenance was of key importance to Lauder, and this is well documented in the exhibition catalogue, very worthwhile, and collectible itself.






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