Issue 2, Summer 1953
Certain sentries of respectability still cannot accept Cubism. The Musée de l’Art Moderne has scoured the continents for the 231 items in its vast Cubist retrospective (1907-1914); it has assembled documents, photographs and architectural motifs to prove the movement’s overflow into adjacent fields; Jean Cassou penned a eulogy holding it up as the most fundamental renewal since the Renaissance; and still the more reluctant wing of French criticism can only stiffen up and mutter that a split was generated by the movement. This touchy reference to “schisms” prompted the censorious remark that, far from being a departure, Cubism had been central to developments in our century, and that only a barnacled intelligence would insist to the contrary. Whatever the amenities in such critical rips and tears, it remains curious that the gentlemen emitting this repartee did not address themselves to the show itself, the problem of Cubism in general having been such as to demand the very best of their talents.
Admitting that the show includes two whole floors of stimulating works, that it merits many hours of examination, and that is stands as possibly the most complete Cubist resumé ever to come together on this side of the Atlantic, certain gaps and repetitions cannot be overlooked. And it was one of the younger Swiss museum-directors who first called them to my attention. The show as it stands has been relegated to alcoves designed to indicate a year-to-year progression, dates having apparently been given a primary importance. But dates, as the Swiss regisseur pointed out, can prevail at the expense of impact, and he would have preferred, he said, to allocate his material in such a way as to supply the shock originally given by the Cubist detonations. And even if dating be accepted, then once the visitor has descended the stairs to the second floor he becomes confused because many works do not conform to this classification. Perhaps this accounts for the reaction of the young painter Manessier, who averred that he found at least this part of the show “illisible.”
Dates can hardly replace the lack of an idea, and they also can produce more befuddlement than light. Thus, though, the first room provides the authentic thrill of recognition by presenting Picasso’s monumental Demoiselles d’Avignon (from the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and by emphasizing immediately adjacent to Delaunay in the next room. Here it would seem that conflicting pictorial experiences had been conjoined, Braque’s and Picasso’s having implied an inward chromatic, while Delaunay’s surge outward (as it were) involves all colors of the spectrum and reflects magnificent reaches of enthusiasm. Might not the glory of Delaunay have been equally served by demonstrating fully his accomplishment as an Orphist, and allocating canvases accordingly? Similarly, Jaques Villon and his fellow-participants in the Section d’Or not having been assembled together, this particular effort was somewhat slighted. (Villon, in fact, was altogether missing from the first floor, save for a single work committed to a corridor.) Sometimes, to be sure, the hanging made up for these slights by supplying a new emphasis to that prophetic sculptor, Duchamp-Villon, and by setting up enough sculpture to balance the paintings. Furthermore, it did manage to recall the effectiveness of Gleizes (who, by the way, expatiated lengthily on his Montpernasse Cubists as against the Montmartre group in a recent address).
Otherwise considered, the most lasting achievement of the show is that hereafter one can drop those dry and overworked munchings about the “synthetic” and “analytic” aspects of the movement. These terms, however valuable in tracing out the intricacies for the Inviolate Trinity of Picasso, Braque and Gris, have obscured the fact that other men, too, have worked, and that such rubrics say very little about their contribution. How, for instance, do they accredit Delaunay and his color-orchestrations; Gleizes and Metzinger, the movement’s first formal theorizers; Leger, whose roof-tops and syncopated color-blocks still glisten; or Villon, who sat far back as if better to station his findings? These men, and likewise de la Fresnaye, emerge into greater prominence as a result of the exhibition—which almost overcomes one’s misgivings at the chronological stress and the insufficiently elastic title.