Picasso, Braque and Gris learned new tricks from old masters of optical illusion. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new show, they shatter modern art to pieces.
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Paris, and the year is 1910; four years from now Europe will shatter, but painting is already in pieces. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso aren’t even 30 yet, and in their studios in Montmartre they are making paintings that look like nothing that came before. Flat paintings. Fractured paintings. Paintings that boil down human experience to a stew of signs and symbols, and set the 20th century on the path to abstraction.
From their hero Paul Cézanne, they’d learned to break down and reassemble multiple perspectives. Scrutinizing central African sculpture in Paris’s colonial ethnology museum, they’d learned to clarify bodies into pure geometry. Crossing those two wires they jolt the history of western art, and spark a whole new kind of image that, for the first time in 500 years, is done with simulating real life. Not satisfied with revolutionizing painting, they then go on to forge an even more radical form: collage, which contaminated the realm of fine art with detritus from newspapers and the shops.
That, at least, is how the story of Cubism usually goes: a story of an utter break with illusionism. That’s how the textbooks still teach it. That’s how critics like me reflexively narrate it. And that’s the story that is getting an almighty shake-up right now in “Cubism and the Trompe L’Oeil Tradition,” an eye-bending, wonderfully frisky new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What if Picasso and Braque had other aims than shooting the starting pistol for abstract art? What if Cubism, for all its debts to Cézanne and central Africa, also drew on another, lower kind of imagery?
What if our view of Cubism as an art of no illusions was … all an illusion?
The exhibition, seven years in the making, overturns the modernist gameboard by putting these great puzzles of modern Paris — by Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris, many from the transformative gift that the cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder made to the Met in 2013 — alongside several dozen earlier paintings that aimed to tromper l’oeil: to trick the eye.
During the 17th century, trompe l’oeil had fans among both the European aristocracy and a new middle class, who paid top dollar for pictures of letter racks that appear to be stuffed with real envelopes, or wrinkled papers as if they were tacked right to the canvas. Trompe l’oeil artists were also highly in demand in the decorative arts, and wealthy patrons would hire peintres-décorateurs to shellac their drawing rooms with imitation marble and porphyry.
By the time of the Enlightenment, though, trompe l’oeil was badly out of favor: a juvenile amusement, no better than that, with none of the seriousness of high art. (It’s still a kind of image-making with mass appeal. New York has a commercial Museum of Illusions, a tourist attraction in the Meatpacking District whose optical mirages invite visitors to “Trick your eye and entertain your mind!”) Nevertheless trompe l’oeil, which could make cheap canvas look like lustrous stone, which made books and letters appear so real you could grab them, was rarely as simple as a one-liner.
It was a trickery that showcased its trickery. And this show, organized by Emily Braun and Elizabeth Cowling and full of rigorous scholarship and some naughty puns, proposes that the Cubists took lessons from these dissemblers that were decisive for how we see today. They’re lessons that may clarify matters if you’ve never really warmed to Cubism, which, for all its importance, still has an unfortunate reputation as forbidding or insidery. And they’re lessons that underscore just how the Cubists plunged into a new world, without fear, and gave us a vital example for a contemporary culture desperate for its own smashup.
Lesson one: A painting is just a painting. It’s a flat surface slathered with oils, rather than an illusionistic window on the world, and there’s nothing wrong with reminding viewers with a gotcha joke. Look here at one of the earliest Cubist pictures: Braque’s 1909 “Violin and Palette,” loaned from the Guggenheim. The musical instrument and the artist’s implement lie in planes so shallow that space becomes a mosaic. A nail, represented as nothing more than two perpendicular black lines, casts a shadow as bent as a dislocated shoulder. Black outlines give zero sense of depth, and hasty green brushwork in the top-right corner suggests a pulled-back curtain, as if all this is just a stage set.
Braque’s reduction of painterly space from three dimensions to two was a watershed — and even so, he was looking at how trompe l’oeil declined to simulate space via one-point perspective. Fake frames made it clear: The pictures were just pictures. Flat wood panels were painted to appear like … flat wood panels. The Irish-American artist William Michael Harnett, in an 1888 trompe l’oeil panel, depicts a violin and its bow, some sheet music, and even a horseshoe hanging from nails hammered into a wooden door, each stain and grain neurotically detailed.
Lesson two: Humble subjects can have profound meanings. Even still life, once seen as a workaday genre of simple copying, could have the highest philosophical complexity. Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubist still lifes of 1910-12 do away with the Cézannesque fruit bowl and absorb elements from earlier Dutch art, like string instruments, wine goblets and tobacco pipes. When seen alongside these rich 17th-century still lifes — one table with fading flowers, another with a half-burned pipe lighter; none is really trompe l’oeil; all are exactingly detailed — Cubist still life takes on a surprising dimension of melancholy and vanity.
These death-haunted predecessors give a surprising new sheen to another major Cubist motif: the newspaper, sometimes painted and sometimes pasted, whose mastheads and headlines collide with tables and slide into wine bottles. The received wisdom around Cubism treats these words and letters, especially the J-O-U of the Cubists’ favorite scandal sheet Le Journal, as signs set free of their original meanings. They feel more like a memento mori in this show, a reminder all our lives will one day be yesterday’s news.
Lesson three, the most important: Nothing about culture will ever be pure. High art should not, indeed cannot, be walled off from the world outside. The trompe l’oeil artists loved to paint letters, calling cards, books and etchings; the Cubists, by turn, infected French art with advertisements, sheet music and pulp novels. With the invention of collage in 1912, the Cubists opened a second path for modernism. You could hold to the independence and self-determination that would come to animate abstract art. Or you could give form to the modern world through aggregation, stitch-ups, reuse, misuse.
Picasso, in the bafflingly dense “Still Life with Chair Caning” of 1912, showed what was possible for an artist ready to slip between real and fake, found and painted. It’s another scene of a cafe table, laid with newspaper and glass, on which Picasso pasted what looks like the rattan caning of a cafe chair — but turns to be a commercial tablecloth printed with the image of caning. (This is an epochal Picasso, loaned from Paris to New York for the first time in 30 years.) Braque, the son of a housepainter, had a particular gift at simulating wallpaper, and mixed commercially printed decorations with painted replicas: a copy of a copy, a commodity devalued and revalued.
With its attention to visual trickery, “Cubism and the Trompe L’Oeil Tradition” concentrates mostly on Cubism’s second, more percussive stage, usually referred to as Synthetic Cubism. That focus leaves Picasso in slight shadow, gives Braque his fair due and crowns a new champion of media monkey business and painterly legerdemain. Step forward, Juan Gris: the eternal third wheel in Picasso and Braque’s classic rivalry, who graduates here to the TKO champion of Cubist illusion.
Over and over we see Gris push Cubist deceptions to their outer limits, as he found his way to a new scheme of images for a world moving faster than ever. In Gris’s boisterous 1913 “Violin and Engraving” (given by Lauder to the Met this year), classic Cubist motifs of instrument, wine bottle and wallpaper intersect with an appropriated engraving after Turner; he then painted a broken frame around the pasted picture, and told his dealer that buyers could replace it as they liked. “Flowers” (1914), another new Lauder gift, implies a lovers’ tryst through carefully laid wallpaper with marble and floral motifs.
He pasted in pages from vampire serials, war reporting, tobacco wrappers, even a mirror. He chopped headlines into one another, then sliced them into mismatched scenes, to produce new meaning through wild decontextualization. (Juan Gris: the original memelord.) It’s Gris, whose collages were smoother and more tightly locked up than Picasso’s and Braque’s, who most fully typifies what makes Cubism so important today: its absolute commitment to fashioning a new image worthy of the times, out of the past and the present, out of beauty and trash. He had all the best jokes, too. “We were like mountain climbers roped together,” Braque once said of himself and Picasso. In a still life with a violin, Gris needled their bromance rivalry with a newspaper headline about two adventurers fighting over a discovery: “Explorers at Odds …”
A new age needed new images, and there was no way out but through! Three young men in Montmartre understood that in different ways, but with equal intensity — and the Met’s exhibition, following on a small but important Gris retrospective last year in Baltimore and Dallas, confirms with panache that Cubism’s visual innovations did much more than just reflect a new world. When information got so fast they could hardly keep up, when crises seemed perpetual and war was on the way, the Cubists did something better than representing life; they constituted life through art. They made a whole new culture out of the shards they picked up, and in its pasted pieces — right down to the headline spelling G-R-I-S — they found themselves transformed.
You could say that those times demanded an art of that ambition, but ours do too, and everyone knows it’s not happening. Wars of intolerable brutality. Savage technologies. Epidemics not seen for a century. Climatic upheavals not seen for a whole geological epoch. And against this backdrop of disruption — nothing new? Autofiction and Anna Weyant? Self-esteem and “Stranger Things”? “The goal,” said Braque, “was not to be concerned with the reconstitution of an anecdotal fact, but with the constitution of a pictorial fact.” Who is going to face our time head-on, dive into the wreck, and constitute something new?
Cubism and the Trompe L’Oeil Tradition
Through Jan. 22, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., Manhattan; 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.