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Moments in ArtSquare Wars
by Lawrence Jeppson
When art-dealer-to-be Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler faced his Uncle Sigmund’s Grand Inquisitor, who might deny him that dream, he thought, “I wanted to be the dealer who offered for public admiration paintings which the public knew absolutely nothing about and for which it would be necessary to blaze a trail.”
As inventors of what became known as Cubism, Braque and Picasso were virtual equals, and both, drawing from the achievements of Cézanne and Derain, sought new answers to certain esthetic problems.
Picasso searched for his answers in the deep, hot dust of his Bateau-Lavoir studio, where Kahnweiler had found him. Braque, though, had gone to l’Estaque, near Marseille. There was no communication between the two painters, and contrary to legend each was ignorant of what the other was doing. But both were moved by a response to common cultural forces.
Not until the winter of 1908 did they begin to work together, searching and counter-stimulating each other; but again contrary to legend, they never painted side by side or signed each other's canvases. Their collaboration was of ideas.
"When we created Cubism," Picasso said later, "we had no intention of creating Cubism but to express what was in us."
Since the Renaissance artists had been striving in one way or another to paint an illusion of objects on board or canvas. By means of gradations of lights and shadows they simulated three dimensional objects.
Color and perspective contributed to the same deceptive role: there was no actual object in the picture, only its skin, which, engaging in an emotional game with the beholder's memory, induced the beholder to feel he was looking at a real object.
Picasso and Braque, going steps beyond Cézanne's path, sought to depart further from these Italian precedents. They wanted to figure three dimensional things on one flat surface — and to incorporate these objects into that surface, not in the hoary illusion of form produced by light and shadow but in showing all three dimensions by means of a design traced on the plane surface.
To do so meant that the various surfaces of an object would have to be detached one from another and placed side by side.
Pleasant compositions were ripped to pieces, and in their places went more articulated structures of sharp angles and varieties of colors — yellow, red, blue, black — traced with thread lines.
Picasso discovered that trying to manipulate both color and composition to his new vision was too difficult, for color repeatedly became a block. After many frustrating pictures, he dropped color to a secondary role and concentrated on development of his dimensional ideas.
Kahnweiler could see slowly emerging the "habitual consequence" of the conflict between representation and construction: deformation.
Put another way, Picasso and Braque were trying to transmit to the spectator their visual experiences without the illusionist imitation. The spectator would have to think instead of feel. He would be shown several sides of the object at the same time: in the one flat surface of the painting he might see several surfaces of an object (or even the inside), as he might discover if he walked around the object. But in so doing the spectator would have to accept the object not as his memory and emotion reminded him but as the artist wanted him to see, as the object was reconceived in the artist’s imagination.
If you can wrap your mind around that paragraph, you can understand the first basics of Cubism.
Even a hundred years later, to many the concept is arcane.
Matisse might say, "I have painted the body of a woman,"
Picasso, having rendered the same subject, would declare, "I have painted a picture."
"The Cubist painters," said art critic Raynal, "would go all the way to rejoin the ancient idealism of the philosophers in denying the value of the senses as instruments of knowledge."
It was all a new language — and a person could never read it unless he either had remarkable intuitive response or made a determined effort to learn it. Few people wanted to at first. They could not overcome old habits. The distempered Degas snorted, "It seems to me these young people are trying to make something too difficult of painting."
Again, a hundred years later, the sentiment still is echoed by many.
Kahnweiler wrote to Picasso that one of his most loyal followers did not like his most recent things. Picasso wrote back, "It's just like that. He doesn't like it! We'll succeed in disgusting everybody."
Says Kahnweiler, "I had not the slightest doubt, neither as to the esthetic value of these pictures, nor to their importance in the evolution of painting, for though I did not know the commerce of painting, I did know painting."
Kahnweiler was forced to make an exception to his no-special-fuss rule later in 1908, when he gave Braque a one-man show in his cramped gallery. Braque had submitted six canvases — the famous l'Estaque series — to the Salon d'Automne, and the jury had rejected them all.
Two members of the jury, artists Albert Marquet and Charles Guerin, exercised their preemptive admission rights to force acceptance of two of the six, a still life and a landscape. But in brazen violation of salon regulations, which every candidate had agreed automatically to accept when he entered a picture, Braque withdrew the lot.
To protect Braque’s reputation and to capitalize on the scandal, Kahnweiler hung all six, along with 21 other paintings of the series, in his gallery.
The dates, 9-28 November, were an important turning point in art history.
The opening was austere enough: except for a modest catalog, which contained a preface by poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Kahnweiler had yet to spend that first sou on publicity. But Louis Vauxcelles, art critic for Gil Blas, who had invented the term fauves two or three years earlier, attended.
On 14 November 1908, he wrote, "Braque paints in small cubes," a terminology suggested previously by Henri Matisse, who also had been a member of the jury and had tried to explain to Vauxcelles what Braque had done.
Six months later Vauxcelles wrote of "Cubism" in conjunction with the Salon des Independents, and thus the term was given currency, a quite different story later put forth by careless-with-the-truth Apollinaire notwithstanding.
Despite the esthetic uproar that had been set loose and only modest material blessing, life these seminal years was calm and delightful for all the principals. (The generation of Europeans who knew Europe from the turn of the century until after the Second World War were almost unanimously insistent that living in Europe had been the very best prior to World War I, and these feelings were not mere nostalgia for lost youth.)
Not many people came into Galerie Vignon, but enough did to keep it viable.
In the mornings Kahnweiler would visit his artists and watch them work. After lunch he played chess with Derain and Vlaminck. Braque and Picasso had their studios in Montmartre, and often at five in the afternoon they dropped their brushes and walked down the hill to pass the rest of the day in the gallery.
Gertrude Stein said that when she saw Picasso surrounded by the tall, wide-shouldered, well-dressed, somewhat-dandyish Derain, Vlaminck, and Braque, he had the air of Napoleon surrounded by his marshals.
Much as he distasted nightlife, Kahnweiler accompanied Picasso on forays into Montmartre nightclubs — such as Le Rat Mort (The Dead Rat): "It was a sordid place, however, which should have pleased Picasso because it was reminding him of the brothels of Barcelona, I suppose" — and in other ways sought to be a friend as much as dealer to his artists.
Picasso, Braque, and Daniel-Henry became habitues at Le Lapin Agile (The Agile Rabbit), where "Frede, with his huge beard, played the guitar and sang… Our life was a simple life without worry because we were sure of victory, and we were sure of ourselves."
Fridays they went to the Medrano Circus. But none of the painters went with their dealer to the theater, for which they had scant taste.
With Vlaminck Kahnweiler became joint owner of an outboard motorboat, l'Enchanteur, and a sailboat, Saint Matorel, which they moored on the Seine.
On Sundays when the pair did not go boating they went out of Paris to Rueil to pass the day with Vlaminck's family.
Prices improved steadily, and each year dealer and artists became a little better off. Kahnweiler's circle included poets, many of whom were not yet published. Vollard had enhanced his reputation by having old texts illustrated by his artists. Kahnweiler decided to publish the young poets — Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy — illustrated with original graphics by their friends.
The editions were strictly limited — never more than 100 copies — but they became strong vehicles for advancing the careers of these poets, with considerable benefit, too, to their illustrators.
Kahnweiler met Fernand Léger in 1910. Léger had destroyed almost all his earlier works, which had been Impressionist and Fauve, and had hung a big painting, Nus dans le Forêt (Nudes in the Forest), in the Salon des Independents and created a sensation. Vauxcelles dubbed it "tube-ism," and Picasso told Kahnweiler, "See — there is a fellow who brings something new, because they don't give him the same name as us."
After a number of studio visits, Kahnweiler persuaded Léger to sign a contract. When Léger dangled the written document before the eyes of his aged Norman peasant mother to show that he could indeed earn his living with palette and brush, she so disbelieved the evidence that she took the contract to an uncle who was a notary for verification.
Through Picasso Kahnweiler met another Spaniard, Juan Gris, three years younger than the dealer, who had come to Paris in 1906 to avoid conscription into the Spanish army. Gris’s work as a satirical magazine illustrator for l'Assiette au Beurre (The Butter Plate), Le Charivari (Chivaree), and Le Temoin (The Witness) left him in poverty worse than Picasso's ever had been.
Gris lived in the apartment on the left of the entrance to the Bateau-Lavoir, and Kahnweiler had often seen him through the front windows when he called on Picasso. The apartment had once belonged to Kees Van Dongen and was "the most dilapidated in the shambling building."
Too poor to buy a bouncing chair for their boy, Gris's first wife hung the baby by his diapers to the cross-bar on the window so he could get some fresh air.
Of medium stature and a face animated by "great black eyes of a gypsy", Gris was rude and antisocial, probably because he could not afford to join other painters in their haunts. He was seen nowhere and was known by almost no one — so much was his anonymity that one day he was hustled by the police as a member of the Bonnot gang and was released from jail only when Derain came in to vouch for him.
Not until 1911 did Gris begin to paint seriously, first watercolors and then oils. His art education, in Madrid, had been thorough, and it took a long time for him to break out of its academic casting. During his five years in Paris he had assimilated all the Cubist talk, and after he began to paint he did it so well that his works were soon hung in the Galerie Vignon.
"Juan Gris, who knew perfectly well the insufficiency of his gifts," says Raynal in De Picasso au Surrealisme (From Picasso to Surrealism), "was blessed, by contrast, with a sort of fanaticism of knowledge by which he seemed to seek compensations for the ineptitude against which he raged. At the time of the Renaissance he would have been one of those numerous artists who acquired all knowledge. In a scientific manner he endeavored to deepen the least question that aroused his attention."
Though Gris and Picasso were friends, Pablo could never fully accept Juan as a painter. He argued with Gertrude Stein, "Why do you defend Gris's painting? You know very well you don't like it."
To prove him wrong, Gertrude wrote a book about Gris. Its completion cooled the friendship between her and Picasso,
By 1912, then, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was the picture dealer for the four great painters of Cubism: Picasso, Braque, Leger, and Gris. By then other painters were on the scene who were learning the lessons of Braque and Picasso and painting in the new fashion: Robert Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Lyonel Feininger, Albert Gleizes, Henri Hayden, Henri Le Fauconnier, André Lhote, Roger de la Fresnaye, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Villon, and a host of lesser lights. Their Cubism had been well represented in rooms set apart at the Salon d'Automne of 1911.
Their esthetic parentage was not so much Cézanne as van Gogh and Gauguin. They were, as a group, more decorative and less philosophically idealist. They were, says Raynal, obsessed with the old respect for nature.
Kahnweiler earned the enmity of them and their dealers by dismissing them as "pseudo-Cubists" or Minor Cubists." He called them a new academism, quoted Picasso's declaration that "Michelangelo was not responsible for the Renaissance smorgasbord," and declared that his "four greats" were "probably the only Cubists."
Besides the civil war among the Cubists themselves, there was the war against the establishment.
In October of 1921, Villon, Duohamp, Picabia, Gleizes and others staged the Salon de la Section d'Or (Salon of the Golden Mean), in which they included Marie Laurencin, Léger, Marcoussis, Metzinger, La Fresnaye, and others.
After this and the Cubists' participation at the Salon d'Automne, a plot was concocted to bar the cubists from any future exhibiting in government buildings.
The municipal lawyer, Lampne, who happened to be an amateur painter, led the assault, which was carried to the Senate by Jules-Louis Breton and to the Chamber of Deputies, where Marcel Sembat, backed by the Under Secretary for Fine Arts, contended that artists must have freedom of expression and successfully beat back the attack.
Many of these new Cubists were exhibited in the upstairs gallery of Léonce Rosenberg on rue de la Baume, and bitter rivalry marked the two dealers for the leadership of Cubism.
Rosenberg added painters Gino Severini, Auguste Herbin, and Valmier to those mentioned, and sculptors Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Laurens, Csarky, and Lambert-Ruchi. Many of these artists pondered the theories expounded by Gris, whose scientific formation at the School of Arts and Industries in Madrid was worth reckoning with.
Gleizes and Metzinger published a book, Du Cubisme, on theory in 1912; and the painters and sculptors gradually evolved their individual personalities.
Some of Kahnweiler's partisans had friends in both camps. Max Jacob, for example, was an admirer of the now undeservedly obscure Henri Hayden, whom he called "The Renoir of Cubism."
But the bloodiest battle between Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg lay still a few years in the future.
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