Pace Wildenstein April 20 – June 23, 2007
Whatever you think you know about Cubism, well, think again. Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism, which continues at PaceWildenstein’s East 57th Street location through June 23rd, not only gathers together a staggering collection of masterworks from what is arguably the most important movement in modern art—it knocks a century’s worth of received wisdom on its ear.
Bernice Rose, who curated the exhibition from (to quote the press release) “an original concept proposed by Arne Glimcher,” has written a book-length catalogue essay drawing connections between early film and the paintings made by Picasso and Braque from 1907 to 1914. But a sidelong glance at the movies projected in discreet corners of the gallery is really all you need to get it. Like the drop of water that turns absinthe from mint green to milky opalescence, the exhibition’s premise transforms your reception of the paintings in a single stroke.
While the PaceWildenstein press release seems to hedge its bets, stating that “early film played a catalytic role in the development of Cubism, but as an added layer of reference that does not displace the canonical descriptions and analysis,” the evidence of the exhibition itself returns a quite different verdict. For one, it undermines the historical account (enshrined, it would seem, in the very term Analytical Cubism) that Picasso, under the influence of Cezanne’s monumental late paintings and Braque’s abstemious frame of mind, temporarily abandoned his backsliding penchant for popular culture and visual gags to create a string of Apollonian masterpieces. This exhibition suggests instead that Picasso was always Picasso, snickering at slapstick one-reelers and elbowing poor Braque in the dark, then heading off to the studio to paint what he saw. The genius of Cubism, to follow this line of thought, was that it adopted the projected image as both content and form. In this shifted context, the Cubist subject, be it a portrait or still life, no longer feels like an obsessive examination of form in space, but the trajectory of an image flashing past the eye too quickly to be recorded in conventional terms. Cubism’s characteristic brushstroke—dashed off, short and rectangular—rather than referring to Cezanne’s faceting of volume, seems to echo the dazzling speed of frames running through the projector’s gate. In this sense, Cubism anticipates Futurism but goes it one better. Rather than celebrating the literal velocity of machines hurtling through space as the symbol of a new century, it establishes a far deeper, more metaphysical paradigm—that the real subject of art in the modern era is the anxious blur of time.
It is startling to see how much the cinematograph, the earliest version of a movie projector, several examples of which are on display, resembles a Cubist head. But this is a sideshow compared with the formal and philosophical symbiosis between painting and film, established at cinema’s infancy, that the exhibition implies. While the early clips from Edison, the Lumière brothers, Méliès et alia included in the show may seem quaint, simplistic and more than a little silly, the sense of wonder that enthralled their creators and audiences alike feels embedded in their silver nitrate glow. These are flickering patterns of light endowed with a Promethean power to manipulate human emotions—reflections of raw reality comfortably contained within a physical and social framework. In this regard, we might view the collage element of Cubism, especially the use of newspaper scraps, as mirroring the shock of cinema’s unmediated images of everyday life. We might also infer that Picasso and Braque, exhilarated and challenged by the dynamics of film, assimilated the new medium by inverting it, from an illusion of space that exists only in time, to an illusion of time existing in pictorial and physical space. Taking this interpretation a step further, cinema can be seen as painting’s Platonic ideal, and, in its invention of a new form to express the very slipperiness of that ideal, Cubism becomes a manifestation of meta-painting.
Beyond the electrical charge delivered by its premise, Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism is an extraordinary opportunity to bask in the sheer visual delight of some of Picasso and Braque’s most astounding works. Even if you don’t buy its concept, the exhibition’s cinematic dimension transports a style of painting commonly considered austere and forbidding into something that’s lyrical and buoyant, even fun. With an off-the-charts ratio of masterworks per square foot of wall space, and a handsome, hardcover catalogue, this show would be considered museum quality if only most museum exhibits were this original, or this damn good.