Cubism was the great dice game of art history, the first movement of the avant-garde that deserved this name and that turned the understanding of art on its head, not just during its own time. The mind, not the eye, determined the representation; the inner perspective replaced the outer.
The time was ripe for something new in art: the once sensational Impressionism had itself become an academic institution and held the artworld tightly in its grip, whilst the emerging photography proved to be serious competition for painting. One of the aspiring revolutionaries was the young Spanish painter Pablo Picasso who lived in Montmartre in Paris. After tentative initial successes with distinctive colouring and brushstrokes, he began to consistently break up the body proportions of his models, inspired by the picture La Bain turc (The Turkish Bath) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Whilst his contemporaries were initially shocked by the resulting over two-metre-high picture, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the key image of Cubism which transcribed the simultaneous panoramic views onto the surface. Picasso worked on this epochal work for more than two years. During this time, he discovered his passion for African and Indian art, enthusiastically collected sculptures and masks, considered himself a shaman, medicine man and sorcerer who gave form to the inexpressible with his art, mediating between the tangible and the intangible.
Picasso wasn’t alone in his search for new forms of expression: around the same time, the French painter Georges Braque, of the same age as Picasso, was fascinated with the wildness of Henri Matisse and the art of Fauvism. Paul Cézanne inspired Braque to break with classical perspective; he put into practice Cézanne’s declaration that all forms in nature ultimately stem from geometry and thus wished to unite several perspectives in one picture, to break out of the canvas and to overcome academicism. In his early work he opted for bright colours and free brushwork, pursuing the ambitious goal of depicting several pictures in one through a sophisticated play with form and viewpoint. For his oil painting Maisons à l’Estaque (Houses in L’Estaque), he reduces the silhouettes of the small fishing village of L’Estaque near Marseille to cubic shapes. He thus stands as the godfather of Cubism, the name of which is derived from the French word for cube. Having made their first steps towards Cubism independently of one another, Braque and Picasso developed a close friendship, at times meeting every day to exchange ideas and converging in their subjects.
The young art innovators were patronised by the German gallerist Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler – his parents had wanted him to become a banker, but he opted instead for a career as an art dealer. Not yet established, Kahnweiler focused on hopeful emerging artists – and Kahnweiler placed more hope in Picasso than any other, enthusiastic about the artist’s Demoiselles d’Avignon in a manner as exuberant as it was far-sighted. The gallerist became a great and deciding patron of Cubism: when Braque was rejected by the Salon d’Automne, Kahnweiler provided him his own solo exhibition in the gallery, he purchased many pictures from Picasso, and arranged exclusive contracts for the Cubists. Despite this, the new art movement found little acceptance. This however also prompted Kahnweiler to write extensively about Cubism, the name of which was derived from the scorn of its opponents, namely Henri Matisse, who accused the artists involved of simply assembling their pictures out of cubes.
Picasso and Braque, the founders and masterminds of Cubism, owed their acquaintance to the journalist and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who was also on the look out for new shores, dedicated several poems to Picasso who, in turn, saluted him with friendly caricatures. The intertwining of Braque and Picasso’s artistic dispositions was so close that their contemporaries sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between their works. The first pictures in the Cubist style provoked scandals and intense reactions from conservative critics who saw incomprehensible “picture puzzles” in the Cubist works. Apollinaire in particular responded to the public accusations in the papers with a sharp tongue and a sharp knife, unflinchingly challenging an overly impertinent journalist to a duel. The duel, however, did not take place as the less energetic Picasso shied away from acting as a second. Apollinaire’s efforts fell short of their target: the Cubists around their gallerist Kahnweiler decided to withhold their pictures from the public and only to present to select collectors such as Wilhelm Uhde and Gertrude Stein.
Whilst early Cubism was predominantly carried by Picasso and Braque, further artists joined the movement in later years including Juan Gris, but also Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Robert Delauney, Henri Le Fauconnier, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Fernand Léger. With a public exhibition in the Salon des Indépendants, the Cubist painters celebrated their breakthrough as a movement. Ironically, the forerunners Braque and Picasso were missing from the so-called “Salon Cubists”, distancing themselves as “gallery Cubists” from the other artists. This was also linked to the development from analytical to synthetic Cubism: while the motifs were dissected analytically from their geometric forms in the early years, the new painting style now approached abstraction even more by additionally rotating and rearranging individual elements. Only singular signs and symbols now alluded to the original subject. At the same time, the Cubists employed the then new and revolutionary technique of collage.
While the American gallerist Alfred Stieglitz popularised the Cubists in the USA, Picasso and Braque alienated themselves further from their earlier companions. A rift also ensued with Apollinaire, by whom the painter friends no longer felt sufficiently understood and appreciated. Like his comrades, Picasso had always found the designation of Cubism inappropriate and ridiculous, and clearly separated himself from the movement in his further career. Many of the young Cubists were conscripted in the First World War and lost contact with each other on the battlefields, became estranged from their previous understanding of art, and, like Braque and Apollinaire, suffered serious injuries. The Cubists turned their back on geometric abstraction, returned to objectivity, and from then on went their different ways. Even the great artist friendship between Picasso and Braque was shattered and came to its final end, as did the circa seven-year Cubist era.
The contemporary dispute over Cubist painting is hard to comprehend from today’s perspective. The great cultural and historical significance of this epoch has burnt itself into our consciousness as a matter of course. This also reflects the active interest that auctions of Cubist artists generate at Auction House Lempertz: the signed oil painting Le moulin à café by Georges Braque, in which the painter approached a Cubist depiction of the world in his characteristic fantastic way without a rigid concept or clear iconography, achieved a result of over one million euro, almost double the original estimate. Contraste de Formes, the Cubist play of forms from the studio of Fernand Léger, was also well received, equally surpassing expectations with its result of 1,249,500 million euro. Cubist masters such as Picasso, Gleizes, Szobotka, Archipenko and others repeatedly perform successfully at auctions, with Kunsthaus Lempertz ensuring the professional environment necessary for the appropriate presentation of one of the most important epochs in art.
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