Braque, Picasso and Early Cubism

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, November 6, 1989 | Go to article overview

Braque, Picasso and Early Cubism


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Braque, Picasso and Early Cubism

Braque's name sounds like a fusion of brique and bloque, so if there is the deep connection between name and nature entailed by Nomen est Omen, his artistic destiny lay with right-angled polyhedra. As a matter of history, he was clearly the first to paint if not cubes then cubelike forms, and was hence the first Cubist to the degree that his implicit theory of painting ideologizes angular solids as exemplified by the cube. The standing anecdote is that the term came from Matisse, who made up the third member of a jury that rejected all Braque's entries for the Salon d'Automne of 1908.

But the paintings evidently made sufficient impression that Matisse told the critic Louis Vauxcelles that "Braque has just sent a painting made of small cubes." When, not long after, Braque exhibited at the Kahnweiler gallery, Vauxcelles wrote that the artist "reduces all, sites, figures, and houses, to geometrical schema, to cubes." "Cubism" had become art world jargon in Paris by the following year, though the cube itself is not especially privileged as a geometrical form in most of the early works.

Such priorities notwithstanding, the exhibition on current view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City carries the title "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism." Since the order of names is not alphabetical, the implication is that Picasso was the chief pioneer. In truth, as the organizer of this remarkable exhibition, William Rubin, has himself written, "Braque had already evolved significantly in the direction of Cubism before he met Picasso." Even more strongly, "The earliest form of Cubism was less a 'joint creation' of Picasso and Braque than an invention of Braque alone."

I would go further. The two artists whose convergence is magnificently documented in this exhibition came from such different directions that almost all the innovative moves had to come from Braque, with Picasso making adjustments to what in his case was a manner rather than a style, since the premises of Cubism were alien to his original impulses as an artist. The implication of this is that, where there are resemblances between the two artists, they are more or less outward, and disguise altogether different artistic agendas. In any case, if Cubism, in name and artistic substance, emerged only in 1908, then the legendary wonderwork Les demoiselles d'Avignon clearly cannot be the "first Cubist work," since it was done early in the summer of 1907. It was not even proto-Cubist. But because it was retrospectively seen as Cubist, it became a docent's commonplace to describe it in terms of geometry, a chill exercise in curves and planes and angles -- "a purely formal figure composition," as Alfred Barr described it in an influential book. "Can we be looking at the same canvas?" Leo Steinberg wrote in the first essay I know of that sees the work as "a tidal wave of female aggression" and a complex image of acute eroticism in which women beckon, hoot, squat suggestively and lift their skirts. "Demoiselle" is one of the synonyms for prostitute, and The Avignon was a Barcelona whorehouse. The crossed readings of the stunning work, which opens the show, could not more vividly illustrate the philosophical point that we typically see what we are told to see in art, unless something as powerful as Steinberg's sense for the erotic drives the mists away from the received interpretation and allows us to see that a work believed to illustrate one artistic vision in fact illustrates its opposite.

Once we acknowledge the powerful sexuality of Les Demoiselles, we have to acknowledge the deep primitivism of Picasso's work in the period just before and leading up to his Cubism, however much (and irrelevantly) the latter may at times look like Braque's. Braque's was l'esprit de geometrie, to use Pascal's famous expression. Picasso's was l'esprit de finesse. One was driven by a sense of order, reduction and simplification, for which geometry is a natural metaphor. …

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