Occupying the same gallery space as the recent Van Gogh to Munch show, this important exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque follows the story of Paris as a center for innovation in art to its climax in the high noon of analytic cubism, an extraordinarily recognizable way of painting that began the single most influential development in 20th-century visual art.
While cubism was widely imitated, Picasso and Braque, who worked closely together and conferred daily in their Paris studios between 1910 and 1912, remain the only painters ever to perfect it in this original state. Images from these crucial years have been a lively subject among art historians and appreciators for decades, and the fine catalogue assembled for the exhibition by curator Eik Kahng makes a strong contribution to that conversation.
The show comes to SBMA after an initial stint earlier in the year at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Exhbition curator Kahng remarked that in that Louis Kahn space, which is spare, white, and open, “You could really see the larger pieces unfold.” Here in Santa Barbara, where other strengths prevail, the approach to the installation takes a different tack. “We looked at the studio photographs from the period and became interested in the vintage textiles we saw in them,” said Kahng, pointing to a larger-than-life wall panel photo of Picasso sitting on a sofa. “Look at the couch — it’s burgundy. These paintings were created in rooms that were filled with the furnishings, colors, and textures of the late 19th century — heavy ornate fabrics and gilt frames. So that’s what we tried to re-create in a subtle way with the installation,” Kahng said, indicating a bump-out panel in dark red with a barely noticeable gold arabesque pattern that holds several framed cubist prints.
Kahng described this show as an attempt to highlight a specific instance of daring artistic adventure. “It’s a tight focus — just two years,” she said, “but the moment it describes, when Picasso and Braque were tied together like mountain climbers assaulting a summit, remains among the most decisive in the history of art. Their intent was clear,” she continued. “They set out to make images that had nothing to do with tradition, and that were not windows onto the world, but rather objects in their own right, and unlike any others.” The cubist painter no longer places objects in space, but rather releases, within a deliberately restrained palette of silver, brown, and ochre, a shifting set of marks associated with shallow relief. It’s partly the technique of Cézanne’s “passage,” according to Kahng, in which you see a kind of leakage between planes, and it’s partly the strong contour lines of Henri Rousseau, but minus his bright color.
While the artists were operating as a two-person collective, with a unified and ostensibly anonymous style as their goal, a certain amount of time spent with these images reveals that there are ways of telling Picasso and Braque apart. As with abstraction in musical composition, even when limits are reached, lingering traces of the individual hand or voice remain. Beyond the satisfaction of identification lay the deeper pleasures of discerning sequences and progressions within these creations, something the catalog and the exhibition’s marvelous accompanying iPad app are both very helpful in assisting you to do. Above all, one senses that these artists sought to resist the final leap into pure abstraction, and that their activity remains focused throughout on laying bare the rhetoric of representation rather than moving entirely beyond it.