Post-War Cubism in Paris, Part One

Cubism After Cubism

Paris Coming to Order, Part One

What happened to Cubism? Before the Great War broke out, the movement seemed to be dominant, even hegemonic in Paris, but after the War was over, Cubism was history. In other words, the Great War nothing would ever be the same, the culture had been moved, as if by a gigantic quake, out of the lingering nineteenth century. By 1918, almost twenty years too late, the shock of the modern pushed the decade into the early twentieth century. While the larger culture, the wider society adapted to the presence of technology and accelerated change, accepting the present and even the uncertain future, the art world in Paris turned inward and went backward and became conservative. The rising poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) coined a term that became the phrase for the retreat that characterized the 1920s in Paris. He called for a rappel à l’ordre, or a recall to order, a return to the order of classicism in his 1923 book Le Rappel à lordre. As early as 1920, Cocteau discovered, while reading the poets. who lived before Baudelaire’s profound transformation of poetry, the virtues of rhyming, simplicity, and figuration rather than Symbolist evocation. Working with his creative partner, Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923), the poet sought to create a timeless style. The couple began a short-lived magazine Le Coq in 1920 and the goal of the six issues was a “return” to the past in reaction to the post-war fascination with the “machine.” “Return to Poetry. Disappearance of the Skyscraper. Reappearance of the Rose” was their slogan.

Jean Cocteau. Self-Portrait in A Letter To Paul Valéry (1924)

The “return to order,” sometimes termed the “recall to order,” was based upon the confused conviction on the part of the public that Cubism itself was German. The anti-Cubist wave was intensified during the War and, after the War, Cubism was stranded on the hill of anti-German sentiments. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) himself appeared to be adjusting to the new current and during the War, moved away from Cubism. The avant-garde artists held what historian Larry Witham termed “a patriotic exhibition” in 1916. As he pointed out in Picasso and the Chess Player: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and the Battle for the Soul of Modern Art, although the former art audience was largely uninterested in art and consumed with the War itself, the exhibition “The Modern Art in France,” was notable for the first public appearance of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Those few who attended the show were uninterested in this now-famous work. After the war, the anti-Cubism sentiment was symptomatic of and part of a larger push towards conservative politics and Cocteau fashioned himself as “right wing.” While Cocteau was an odd messenger for conservativism— in 1915, he ingratiated himself to Picasso by dressing like a Harlequin for a studio visit—by 1920 he was a notorious and rebellious poet, whose demand for a “return” to poetic traditions summed up the post-war mood. After every war, there is always a sentiment of longing and nostalgia for the familiarity of the past before the world was irrevocably altered, and Cocteau’s sentiments seemed to be a recipe for healing. Based upon logic and order and rational thinking, the classicism of which he spoke was considered distinctly and uniquely French, the kind of classicism familiar in the Baroque paintings of Poussin.

Fernand Léger. Three Women (1921-2)

During the war, the Cubist artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955) had served in the engineering corps on the front at Verdun, where he was gassed. Hospitalized for two years, he worked through his battlefield traumas with art, which became more figurative and more conservative to graphically convey the horrors of the battlefield. In her book, When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends, Mary McAuliffe wrote of this artist and his mood at the end of the War:

“Peace,” the painter Fernand Léger exultantly wrote his good friend, the painter André Mare. Léger had been severely gassed while serving at Verdun, and Mare was badly wounded on the Picardy front while camouflaging artillery with Cubist designs. “Finally,” Léger went on, “after four long years, exasperated, keyed-up, depersonalized man opens his eyes, takes a look, relaxes and rediscovers life, gripped by a wild desire to dance, let off steam, scream, at long last stand upright, shout, scream and squander.” Keenly attuned to the moment, he added, “A hurricane of life forces fills the world.”

By 1920, a calm seems to have descended upon Léger who smoothed the waters of his early agitated Cubism with a new and elegant classicism. The most famous work of this new direction was Le Grand Dejeuner of 1921, a direct homage to Ingres and the French tradition of the grande nu. Constructed on a frankly expressed grid, the painting is stilled and rational, imposing order upon a complex and cluttered modern interior where three inexplicably naked women are having lunch. The work of a wounded veteran recovering from battle, this painting exemplified Léger’s return to order and society’s slow settling into a period of peace following a time of turmoil. Picasso, however, was not impressed with this strange combination of the classical with the new Machine Aesthetic, and, almost as if he was frozen in transition, did very little painting during the War. Picasso was not alone and there were allies in Rome. As Charlene Spretnak related in The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present, Mario Broglio, a painter, began a magazine of “plastic values” called Valori plastici in Rome. Broglio demanded a return to realism, figuration, the timeless topics of still lives and landscapes based in the timelessness of classicism. The classicism referred to was literally a resumption of the antique classical art of the Greco-Roman tradition and Witham noted Picasso’s friendship with Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), the Italian Metaphysical artist. Their friendship had begun before the War while the Italian artist was living and working in Paris and resumed during the War when de Chirico returned, after escaping the clutches of the Italian army. The “returns” to classicism were, of course, different in France than in Italy. In Italy the term “valori plastici” meant exactly how it translates–“plastic values” referring the strong forms of the early Italian Renaissance, such as those of Giotto. If the reaction against the avant-garde in Paris was a rejection of Cubism and pre-war disorder, in Rome, the abandonment of Futurism was a refusal to accept the eclectic historicism and diluted and misused classicism of the Vittorio Emanuele wedding cake at the heart of Rome and the disorderly avant-garde art that sought to replace the past.

Giorgio de Chirico. The Soothsayer’s Recompense (1913)

Picasso’s move to classicism began as a slow turning away from Cubism even before the War, and it is generally conceded that Picasso and Braque were leaving atelier experimentation behind in favor of a version of Cubism that was more “decorative.” The last few months of their partnership was marked by a series of paintings that were delightfully dotted and frankly charming, in a rococo fashion. This final flourish of their partnership predicted that the real future of the second stage of Cubism would be the realization of its decorative potentials, played out in Art Deco. In 1917, Picasso began the exploration of Cubism as design or an applied art when he joined the group of outstanding performing artists participating in a revolutionary wartime production of the Ballets Russes in Rome. Presented by Sergei Diaghilev, based on a story by Jean Cocteau, with music by Eric Satie and choreography by Léonid Messine, Parade was a modern ballet made remarkable by Picasso’s set designs, his extraordinary stage curtain, and his inventive costumes. The Harlequin, once part of his Rose Period, returned as a building as if to announce a rethinking and the artist’s embarkation on a new style. Set in Paris, Parade was Picasso’s final farewell to Cubism, and his definitive parting from Braque, who was operating a machine gun on the Western Front. The costumes of the characters, human and animal, were Cubist collages manifested in three dimensions and set in motion. The revolutionary and whimsical play debuted on May 18, 1917, Théâtre de Châtelet and at a loss for words, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire termed the performance “surrealist.” For Picasso, Parade was a way out of Cubism, for the Salon Cubists, this new direction towards design was a way back into Cubism—Cubism could become an applied art.

Pablo Picasso. The American Manager (1917)

Before the war Cubism had been divided into parts: those artists who showed in the public salons, the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, and were therefore called the “Salon Cubists;” and Picasso and Braque who used their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to sell directly to clients, usually in Germany or Russia. The Salon Cubists and Kahnweiler’s artists, whom he insisted were not “Cubists,” were separated from their colleagues by where they showed their art. Braque and Picasso showed in Kahnweiler’s small gallery and the Salon Cubists, as the name implies, exhibited in the large sprawling salons open to the public. Thanks to the ample newspaper coverage that accompanied the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indepenéants, in the pre-war years, the Salon Cubists were famous, even heroes, standing firm against critical disdain and public protest, but the War scattered them to the four winds. Fernand Léger and Georges Braque (1882-1963) both served in the French Army, engaged in active combat, while many of their colleagues were in the camouflage corps. Albert Gleizes served for one year and then spent the rest of the war in New York City where he joined Marcel Duchamp, who had earlier taken himself out of the art game. Duchamp’s brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon was in the military and died of blood poisoning at the end of the war. His other brother, Jacques Villon, whose real name was Gaston Duchamp, also served in the army, as did Jean Metzinger. However, Henri le Fauconnier went to Holland and waited for the conflict to end, staying in the neutral nation well beyond the end of the War. Two major artists remained in Paris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Like Juan Gris, who also remained in place, Picasso was from Spain and therefore outside the reach of the French draft. Matisse was simply too old for service. These artists continued their work, enjoying an uninterrupted stretch of creative development. Both Picasso and Matisse moved beyond Cubism and Fauvism, running ahead of the artists who were away at war. When the War was over, their former colleagues had to pick up their careers and put their lives back together, and they did so in the shadows of Picasso and Matisse, now major artists, stars who now outranked them and had moved on to new ideas. Picasso and Léger away from Cubism signaled the return to the order of classicism, while the Salon Cubists sought to revive pre-war Cubism and make it respectable. The route the rebirth of Cubism was a monetary one.

Georges Braque. The Round Table (1929)

The end of the war meant that the previous dissension over avant-garde art was now a settled matter and the once-unfamiliar art had acquired value. The idea that innovative art was valuable in the financial sense gave rise to a healthy art market in Paris after the War, and this was the real order that settled over the art world. Art should appeal to the now willing collectors, who wanted to invest in the avant-garde, but what they wanted was the work of a major artist that was recognizable, in other words, the signature style should be present, but what was disruptive before the war needed to be tamed for this growing audience. For the returning Cubist artists, modern art was Cubism and they carried on as they had before the War. Their stance may have seemed regressive, but their post-war Cubism continued with what was now a historical style. Their efforts were, in effect, a “return to order.” To return to order, post-war Cubism had to become more “classical” or more conservative to appeal to new patrons. When Georges Braque returned to the Parisian art scene, it was after serving on the front, being gravely wounded, and after undergoing a long recovery. The partnership with Picasso was broken, simply because the two men could no longer share their experiences. Their lives had gone in two different directions. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque no longer existed. While Picasso turned to the classical and conservative in the 1920s and Braque settled on a variation of Cubist collage, painting the elements instead of pasting paper on a support. As if seeking comfort in the familiar, for the rest of his life Braque painted endless variations on the still life on the guéridon, a small circular top table. It was Braque along with the Salon Cubists who inherited Cubism and carried it on to its new destiny in the years between the Wars. But this rescue was not the work of the artists on their own; they had the able help of the Rosenberg brothers–Paul and Léonce–the art dealers who knew how to market the past and make historical art valuable again.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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French Artists During the Great War: Braque, Part One

George Braque at War

Recovering from War

On August 3rd, 1914, Germany declared war on France and, oddly enough, France never declared war on Germany. The last days of July and the first days of August were like tumbling dice, with the Russians starting the roll of Germany through Belgium and into France on July 20 when the Tsar issued orders to mobilize. In so doing, without being aware of the consequences of what seemed to be a prudent move, the Tsar unwittingly activated Germany’s carefully developed Schlieffen Plan. This famous plan called for Germany, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to attack, not Russia, but France. Count Alfred von Schlieffen devised the German strategy for conquering France, basing it on assumptions, all of which proved to be false: Russia would take weeks to mobilize and during those weeks the German army would simply walk through a compliant Belgium and cut through France, driving towards Paris. The Schlieffen Plan was a six week operation in which Britain hung back and allowed the Germans to take over two entire nations before turning and attack a third, Russia. As is well know today, this fantasy based battle plan went awry immediately, the Belgians fought back and held the Germans at bay, Russia mobilized and very quickly turned the new war into a two front conflict, and France swiftly called out its troops on August 1st, On the 3rd, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The next day, Great Britain declared war on Germany. And so the dominos fell, one by one.

The young men of France, carrying the collective memory of the defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the scar of Germans occupying their native country, responded to the imminent threat from Germany with alacrity. Occupations were put aside, as were political differences, as men of all walks of life marched off to a War that would change them forever–if they came home, if they returned. The radical avant-garde artists of France immediately sprang into action, placing their carefully honed careers on the shelf, and signing up. Georges Braque (1882-1963) joined the French army on August 2nd, a day after general mobilization was declared. His artistic partner and his aesthetic collaborator, Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard from a neutral country, famously said, “On 2 August 1914, I took Braque and Derain to the station at Avignon. I never saw them again.” Picasso’s statement was not literal, of course, both Braque and André Derain (1880-1954) survived the Great War, but both men would be profoundly altered as human beings and as artists. The cost to the French artists in terms of the growth and development of their art can be seen in their post-war work, which would be conservative and safe and familiar. Once suspended, their forward mobility was never to be resumed as a new generation took the place of the “Cubist heroes,” such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and became the School of Paris. The artists who stayed behind, Picasso and Henri Matisse, were able to continue to evolve their art, taking it into new directions. For Georges Braque, Picasso’s new direction away from Cubism and his military experiences in the trenches, culminating in a life-threatening wound, meant that their work together and their personal connection could never be resumed.

As has been pointed out in previous posts, the Great War was a mobile one for only a month. By the end of September, both sides were paralyzed into lines that would quickly become trenches, stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland. The credit for slowing the German invasion belonged to the heroic Belgium army which held off the Germans, slowing down its advance through the neutral country for almost a month. The French army moved quickly towards–not Belgium–but towards their long lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine, attacking on August 7, only to be repulsed and driven out by the Germans. The French determination to take back these border lands was the basis for their answer to the Schlieffen Plan, Plan XVII, and the quest quickly devolved into two major battles, the Battle of Mulhouse, Battle of Mons and the Battle of the Frontiers. Although the British joined the French in these early clashes, it was the French who suffered losses so great that it can be argued that the nation never recovered from the shocking blow. As Brian Best wrote in his book Reporting from the Front: War Reporters During the Great War, The Mons battle, which compared with the subsequent battles was more like a skirmish, was one of what became known as the Battle of the Frontiers. It was the French plan to recapture Alsace-Lorrians attack the Germans at the Belgium border. The battles took place at Mulhouse, Colmar, the Ardennes and 13 September, the French suffered about 30o,000 casualties, of which 75,000 were fatal. On 22 August, 27,000 were killed, making it a day to rival the first battle of the Somme for bloodshed. As Romain Leick of Spiegle Online International elaborated,

On Aug. 22, 1914, the French army experienced a disaster of historic proportions. In a series of battles near the town of Rossignol in the Belgian Ardennes Mountains, near the border with France, 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a single day, four times as many as at the Battle of Waterloo a century earlier. It was a slaughter without compare, in both the past and the future of the country’s long military history.

Like all able-bodied young French men, Georges Braque had been subject to conscription or the draft. According to the 1913 Three Years Law, a man had to be ready to go to war if called. In 1911, Braque was photographed in his uniform at Picasso’s studio at boulevard de Clichy, and the twin photograph showed Picasso trying on Braque’s uniform.

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Georges Braque in his uniform

Retroactively, Braque was part of this law or a Troisanniste, being part of a military that was just beginning to recover from the ugly scandal of the Dreyfus Affair. When the War began, the French army was divided, as it were, between competent NCOs who would be swiftly promoted to the officer class and those who were not promoted, the ordinary soldier, considered a form of low life, known individually as Le Poilu, or the “Hairy Beast.” According to Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker in their book, France and the Great War, “Each man had a “class” indicated by the year in which is cohort turned twenty. Elaborate rituals involving parades, bands, costumes, and much else evolved into localities throughout France to celebrate the induction each class to military service. These comprised rites of manhood as much as citizenship.” However, to return to the famous photographs of the artists in uniform, the French military uniform was famous for its dangerous regressiveness. As the authors reported,

Even the French uniforms of August 1914 dark blue jackets and red trousers, dated from the last century. By that time, all of the other Great Powers had abandoned uniforms that presented such obvious targets. Historians have often, but mistakenly, attributed the persistence of the colorful French uniform to stubborn myopia on the part of the French high command. But support for the anachronistic attire really spoke to a more broad-based and ancient notion that soldiers who go off to war should do so as beautifully as appointed as possible. Heroes had to dress the part, most of all in a democracy, in which the army represented the sovereign people at war.

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Uniforms designed by Édouard Detaille and Georges Scott, military artists, in 1912. Detaille’s design for the metal helmet was rejected by the infantry but was accepted by the 3rd Battery of the Horse Artillery. After nearly a decade of debate over military uniforms, the infantry below wears the final choice: dark blue jacket with red trousers.

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There is a direct connection between the impressive French uniform and the enormous losses suffered by the French on August 22nd, for these early battles showed the complete incomprehension of the consequences of modern warfare in which leaders, using Napoleonic tactics, as old as the uniforms styles, marched soldiers, fueled by élan, towards machine guns and long range artillery guns. Being held back at his home base, Le Havre, for training on the machine gun, or the “coffee mill,” Braque was lucky that he missed the first slaughter. As was customary for intelligent enlisted men, he was promoted and became a sub-lieutenant, moving to the front lines on the Somme by mid-November.

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According to Braque’s biographer Alex Danchev,

“I’m now in the firing line,” he wrote to Picasso on 29 November. “I had my baptism about a week ago…There’s a lot of fighting here and we’ve taken up guard among dead Boches and unfortunately some (French) marines. Now the area is fairly calm. You can’t imagine a battlefield is like with the uprooted trees and the earth dug up by the shells.” Danchev continued quoting Braque when he also wrote to Apollinaire, “I’ve been at the front two months,” he informed Apollinaire, with a touch of pride. “We’ve had some pretty serious engagements with the Germans.” According to Danchev, “The order to attack came on 17 December. Braque led his platoon over the top. In the teeth of the guns he gave a good account of himself, but the attack, like so many attacks, failed. The regiment history speaks of heavy loses. A vigorous officer, commanding hs platoon well, dedicated. Shows wiling. His military dossier is a pean of praise to his drive and his fortitude. Braque had the right temperament for trench warfare..”

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Braque as Soldier in the trenches

However, Braque would not last a year in this war. After his regiment was transferred to the area around Vimy Ridge, and on May 11, 1915 Braque was caught up in an explosion of a shell and went down in no man’s land, where he lay unconscious until stretcher bearers found him. In the interval, he had been “left for dead,” and his family was informed of his death. His lover, Marcelle Lapré refused to accept what turned out to be a false report. Braque survived but was temporarily blind, a terrifying fate for a painter, and his skull had to be trepanned to relieve the pressure on his brain. According to Danchev, “Braque, wounded in the head was awarded the Croix de Guerre, first with bronze star, then with palm, and appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.” The a ward noted that Braque was“An officer full of drive, seriously wounded, leading his platoon with the greatest bravery in the assault n the German trenches.”

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Braque recovering from his wound

Over a two year period, Georges Braque had undergone a sea change. No one could serve in such a war, deep in the front lines, with responsibility for the lives of other human beings, sustain a wound that was almost a dead wound and emerge untouched. It was’t just that he could not paint while he was on active duty, it was a question of what to paint during and after the transition back to civilian life, back to normal. Perhaps because although the friendship with Picasso continued their partnership had broken off, Braque returned to painting, abandoning papier collé. Along with the other Cubist artists, especially the Salon artists, Braque created a recognizable signature Cubist “look.” With Kahnweiler marooned in Switzerland, Braque signed up with the dealer who had stepped forward to rescue the avant-garde artists, who were now marketable in the post-war era, Léonce Rosenberg. By selecting this dealer in 1916, the summer of his demobilization, he gave himself a cushion during his period of reconstruction. Later Braque would join Picasso in the stable of Paul Rosenberg in a more permeant situation, but he began to make tentative steps towards recovering himself as an artist.

Convalescing in Sourges, in Provence in the villa Bel-Air where he, in the summer of 1912, he and Picasso began experimenting with collage. Most accounts give Braque the credit for pasting papers and for passing along the idea to Picasso. In writing of this summer of experimentation, Jean-Pierre Jouffroy in La révolution de Braque et Picasso durant l’été 1912 à Sorgues stated,

Le papier collé – et surtout le papier peint ou imprimé – nous introduit, de force, dans un monde hétérogène. Avec aussi bien des plaisanteries comme ce bout de journal collé par Picasso dans sa Guitare, partition et verre, de novembre 1912, dans le bas de la composition, qui proclame “La bataille s’est engagée .” Picasso et Braque auraient pu se disputer l’antériorité s’ils avaient eu ce mauvais esprit. La nature morte à la chaise cannée, peinte sur un fac-similé de cannage imprimé, date de mai et de Paris. Les lettres au pochoir et l’usage du papier peint, c’est Braque. Cette préfiguration du cubisme synthétique, c’est œuvre commune.

But when Georges Braque returned to the villa in Sourges, he was alone, lacking his long time partner, and recovering from a war that had nearly ended his life. For months, he had not being able to make art, a lack in his life that was ultimately more terrifying than his temporary blindness. Demobilized and finally freed from military obligations, the question Braque faced was nothing less than the future of Cubism and his own future as a Cubist artist. The next post will discuss his return to painting.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]