Cubism? This Tate; the Arts

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

WITH Tate Modern's brief announcement some months ago that the gallery was to mount an exhibition with the title Cubism and its Legacy, my eyes widened with excitement and anticipation.

Picasso at his most exploratory and intelligent, I thought, with logical Braque at his shoulder to tame his wilder excesses, Leger edging from Cubism to Tubism, Juan Gris on the sidelines, bringing the ideas of his elders to the bar of his judgment and adjusting them. Are we to fill the gaps so evident in the Matisse-Picasso exhibition last year that drew half a million visitors to Bankside? Or are we to have a retrospective look at one of the old Tate's greatest exhibitions, The Essential Cubism of 1983?

Twenty-one years on, it is time that another generation had a crack at Cubism, for as we now understand it, it is the invention of art historians - men who, by and large, have little idea of the mysterious processes by which a vision in the mind's eye becomes a vision on the canvas, and who prefer the neatly ordered pigeonholing of art's developments to the realities of ebb and flow, flux and reflux, mainstream and backwater.

We should not be surprised that in its early days Cubism fragmented into Orthodox, Heretical, Cezannien, Scientific, Physical, Orphic and Instructive, and for once the art historian must be forgiven for rearranging this cabinet of curiosities in other little Cubist boxes labelled Analytical, Synthetic and Hermetic, even though the two latter have been little understood. It is, nevertheless, greatly to be regretted that in this reordering we have lost Pre-Cubism, with its suggestion of foreplay, Cubo-Futurism and, most absurd of all, the Crumbling Cubism conceived by Blaise Cendrars, Leger's admiring friend.

I should, however, have read Tate Modern's announcement with greater care.

Speed-reading (I open 300 envelopes a week), my eye caught the name Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the German art dealer based in Paris who was the great marketeer and propagandist for Cubism in its infancy, a prime source and the perfect provenance for Cubist pictures, a "brewer of affairs", as Sickert put it, who controlled the winds of taste from his cellars full of paintings.

I saw the name of Alfred Flechtheim too, the most distinguished of German dealers in Germany in the Twenties, based in D'sseldorf, placing wonderful paintings in the hands of millionaire industrialists in the Ruhrgebiet - another perfect provenance, and rather less unscrupulous. And then there was another Kahnweiler, Gustav, Daniel-Henry's little brother, who worked for Flechtheim as a director of his Frankfurt branch and who came to England in the winter of 1935-6, settled in Cambridge and became more English than an Englishman.

My eye should have taken greater care when it came to the paragraph beginning, "Fifty-five works from Gustav's collection entered the Tate Collection in 1994 -" but my imagination had by then taken flight, for Cubism is a Hydra-headed monster, often of great beauty and even greater intellectual puzzlement, and those who love the art of painting relish battling with it.

Alas, what we see on Tate Modern's walls is not Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, the ugly but beautiful and unresolved picture that more or less marks the birth of Cubism, nor anything to match it, but only the small things from the collection of Gustav Kahnweiler.

Though this came to the Tate a decade ago, only last year was it given substance with Braque's Billiard Table of 1945, bought partly with his money.

A Braque so late, a painting executed a quarter of a century after Cubism drifted into desuetude, stretches too far the concept of legacy; it has no theoretical base but seems inherently decorative and almost recognisable, as though he is attempting a synthesis of styles and mannerisms remembered, triggered by things seen, perhaps in a real public billiard room. …