French Artists During the Great War: Braque, Part Two

Georges Braque Post-War

Return to Cubism

The question both during and after the Great War was the fate of Cubism. The forward thrust of the pre-war avant-garde in Paris was abruptly halted by what Barbara Tuchman called “The Guns of August.” Conflict and disruption are never helpful to artists who need peace and prosperity to contemplate their art, find collectors and make a living. The War, however, divided the leading pre-war movement, Cubism, in half: the Cubism before the War and the Cubism after the War. After the War Cubism acquired a totally different character, evolving from an armed rebellion assaulting the sensibilities of the public to a historical movement supported by a new generation of art dealers with respectable clientele. Before the War, Cubism, as a movement, had been divided into two different intellectual concepts, two separate aesthetic visions, one public, the colorful and, according to some, conservative, Salon Cubism, and the other private and studio based, the experimental projects of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Although both strands of Cubism could be traced back to Paul Cézanne, it was the Salon Cubists who emerged as the main “Cubists” after the War. Art history tends to neglect the Salon Cubists, such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and also has the habit of skipping over the way in which Cubism was established as a major force in the art market by these Salon Cubists after the War. In contrast to the Salon Cubists, after expanding its possibilities for his ballet designs with Parade, Picasso abandoned Cubism in a bid for wider acceptance. While Picasso developed a strategy to build his reputation as an ever-flowing artist, moving with each tide, each style and mastering it before moving on, his former partner, Georges Braque took a different road.

Braque, who had been wounded during the War, had almost died but struggled to recover and return to painting. Although Picasso had been solicitous and had visited him in the hospital during his rehabilitation, Braque became aware that their paths had diverged during the War, and, as he contemplated his comeback as an artist, he apparently made the decision to continue develop Cubism. Part of Braque’s transition out of the army and back into painting were two celebratory events, one to honor the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who seemed to have narrowly escaped death, and then a party honoring the painter, also recovering from a head wound and wondering if he would ever paint again. These parties in 1917, marking survival, marked the return of two prominent figures to the art world in the same year as Picasso’s Parade debuted. Picasso’s use of Cubist painting as costumes and sets in this “surreal” ballet were his swan song, his farewell to the style that made his reputation. For him, Cubism provided a way out, an exit to new artistic frontiers. For Braque pre-war Cubism beckoned to him as a way forward. As with Picasso’s work on Parade, Braque’s post-war paintings bear the memory of papier collé, with areas of strong color that were painted instead of large blocks of pasted paper. And, as with Picasso, these paintings use the old subject matter of Analytic Cubism and its characteristic sharp diagonal likes which now emphasize the shapes of the objects rather than fragmenting them. Rather than floating above the support, the segments of color build upon each other, locking each other down.

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Georges Braque. Glass, Pipe, Newspaper (1917)

Interestingly Braque relied upon the audience’s ability to “read” the “clues” of Cubism, a skill that had been developed before the War and not necessarily in Paris. What the potential Parisian collectors could see, however, is a style called “Cubism” as interpreted by its inventor, Georges Braque. As several of his transitions works made during 1917 and 1918 demonstrate, the artist relied heavily upon the papier collé works he was doing at the end of the summer of 1914, especially those which introduced a textured surface.

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Georges Braque. Rum and Guitar (1918)

Perhaps, however, when it comes to the choice of color, a more informative comparison of Braque’s paintings he made during his recuperation would be with Henri Matisse, for, like the former Fauve with whom he once exhibited, Braque went dark. In comparison to the monochrome paintings of the so called “Analytic” stage, these paintings are dark and brooding. In comparison with the open structure of the floating segments of “Synthetic” Cubism, the canvases are filled and closed in. Braque also announced, if you will, the new work with a new motif that would appear for decades in his work, the Guéridon, a small side table dating back to the era of Louis XIV. The top is round, a site where Braque would crowded bits a pieces familiar to those who knew his early studies–musical instruments, sheet music, newspapers, things to eat and drink, all the comforts of home. The Guéridon had made an early appearance in 1910 and then in 1911, with its characteristic curved top was clearly visible as an edge barely supporting a plethora of disintegrating objects.

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Georges Braque. Le Guéridon (1911)

The side table still life paintings would be the center of Braque’s comeback in 1919 at Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery L’Effort moderne, but they were also his version of continuing to develop Cubism. Picasso abandoned Cubism during the post-war years and wandered off, exploring new styles, slipping from one look to another, as if traveling. Once settled in his darkened and sober color scheme, blacks and greens and browns, once he had returned to the comfort of still life motifs, Braque settled back into his own trajectory and stuck with his darkened Cubist perspective. It is possible to read the deep tones as elegiac for all that was wiped away by the War–human lives ended, an entire world of international avant-garde art halted, the nineteenth century itself–for a new century was well and truly underway.

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Georges Braque. Guitar and Glass (1917)

However, unlike Fernand Léger, Braque did not let his experience as a machine gunner penetrate into his art. Instead, his art was about being back home, at home, safe in a charmingly cluttered interior, surrounded by timeless and familiar objects. The three legged table symbolized peace and safety. Although Braque returned to the familiar stacking technique of Cubism, in which space was flattened by the tilting forward of the objects which offered themselves to the viewer, the confrontation with building blocks of color and pattern might take on a different significance post-war, becoming signifiers of an urge to recommit to all things familiar and insignificant and close to hand. In a very interesting article, ‘Trench Warfare on the Western Front, 1914-18,” Dorothee Brantz wrote of the odd vantage points and the unusual experiences with space and landscape for those, who, like Braque, lived in trenches:

Trench warfare forced soldiers to develop a new relationship with space, including intensified sense perceptions. To some soldiers, going to war, might initially have looked like an adventure, but they quickly realized the life at the front was nothing like tourism. For one thing, there was little to see. Trench warfare no longer privileged sight,particularly when it came to locating the enemy. Not only was the landscaper increasingly unrecognizable due to military destruction, most soldiers spent large amounts of time close to or even below ground, where their field of vision was limited to the boundaries of the trenches, creating a particular perspective. As a result, battlefields looked empty even thought they were actually saturated with bodies, both living and dead. Even inside the trenches, soldiers often could not see very far because of the trenches’ zig-zag construction. The view across no-man’s land was obstructed by barbed wire and upturned earth, and during a barrage this field of vision was even future reduced with smoke or poison gas filled the air.

This landscape had been were Georges Braque had spent almost two years of his life. It is no wonder that he surrounded himself, wrapped himself in traditional still lives, places at a distance where he could see them, study them, and revel in their simple existence. In contrast to the semiotic fragments of early Cubism that provided a narration of a visit to a café, for example, the post-war still lives are rendered in full, redolent with decorative, celebratory details. The verticality now takes on a different connotation when contrasted to the dangerous flatness of a non-landscape stripped of all identifying markers but dead bodies and barbed wire. The new distance, allowing for a full view of a still life on a graceful table or even including the table itself, allows for a verticality, indeed, even the possibility of the act of standing upright-a posture that would mean instant death for the inexperienced soldier.

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Georges Braque. Still Life on a Table (1918)

Having survived when so many did not, Braque, according to Alex Danchev, regarded his former confrères who did not serve, such as Marcel Duchamp, or who managed to cut their service short, such as Albert Gleizes, with a certain contempt. Picasso, in his opinion, simply sold out and of his post war life, Braque said, “Je dos connaître ce monsieur.” The paintings of Braque demonstrated how cleanly the artistic break with Picasso had been: Picasso became a celebrity, Braque remained the historical champion of Cubism and its future; Picasso frolicked on the Cote d’Azur with movie stars and prominent members of the rich and famous class, Braque stayed at home and painted objects arranged and rearranged over the decades. Early on, as with Musician, his 1917 return to painting, and La Joueuse de mandolin of the same year, Braque insisted on continuity and these paintings, like the Guéridon, had previous versions in his former life.

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Georges Braque. Musician (1917)

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Georges Braque. La Joueuse de mandoline (1917)

Braque’s return to public exhibition at L’Effort moderne in 1919 and the review of his new work was penned by Blaise Cendres whose right arm had been amputated. Centers, a Swiss national, had served in the French Foreign and Cendres (FrédéricLouis Sauser), like Braque, was recovering from his wartime experiences, as were Luigi Russolo, who also had a head wound that was trepanned, and Fernand Léger, who had been gassed. Raymond Duchamp-Villon died in the service of his country. It is in the face of the sacrifices of the avant-garde artists during the Great War that Cubism, once spelled “Kubism” with a “K” to damn it in its supposed German-ness, that Cubism finally became French, part of the French tradition. Braque chose to remain within this continuity, established by Léonce Rosenberg who was both taking advantage of the Cubist artists and promoting their art for mutual benefit.

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In A Companion to World War I, John House quoted Fernand Léger, who said, “To all those idiots who wonder if I am a or will still be a Cubist when I return, you can tell them that, yes, for more than ever. There is nothing more ‘Cubist’ than a war like this one which splits a chap up more or less cleanly into several bits and flings him out to the the four points of the compass.” But how should we read these key transitional works from Georges Braque, a recovering veteran of a war he would seldom mention and seemed to repress? One hundred years after Braque was called into service, Karen K. Butler wrote of “Georges Braque. Artilleryman” in Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged. As she pointed out the working process of Braque was largely “internal” and that his philosophy of art was to divorce his work from the real world. In writing of his experience with trench warfare, Butler commented, upon a statement by Braque:

“Visual space separates objects form one another. Tactile space separates us from the objects. VS (visual space): the tourist looks at the site. TS (tactile space): the artilleryman hits the target..It is my position the some of the irreconcilable aspects of Braque’s war experience that are found in this statement–a kind of perceptual gap between distance and presence, as well as an emphasis on tactility and physical experience before the mechanization war–find a way into his post-war paintings.

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Georges Braque. Still Life on Table (1918)

Butler concluded,

..it is difficult to connect these still lifes and interiors in any overt way wot the war. And yet it is worth considering whether the serial nature of these canvases ,which return again and again to the same motif with only slight variations in subject or perspective, is in some way suggestive of a psychological response to trauma–a response that is both a repression of the experience of war and an unconscious reiteration of its tactile space. For Braque, who, strives to hit his target like the artilleryman, I propose that his emphasis on the material qualities of the artwork is deeply tied to the devastating encounter with industrialized mass destruction that emerged in the trench warfare of World War I.

In 1996 the historian and art historian Philippe Dragen wrote Le silence des peintres: les artistes face à la Grande Guerre, taking an interesting stance, particularly when it comes to the French avant-garde artists. While the English artists rose to the occasion, looked the war directly into the eye of this first modern war and created, out of the avant-garde vocabulary, a language to express the death and devastation, the destruction of an entire swarth of landscape and the desolation that followed the loss of a generation upon which the future had once depended, the French artists looked away. As will be discussed in the next post, the vast bulk of French art was prints and posters, with almost none of the major pre-war artists approaching the war in any fashion expect indirectly at best. It is difficult to account for such a vast difference–eloquence on one hand and repression on the other, but it should be remembered during the first month of the War, France was delivered a death blow which was still bleeding in 1940, when on a fine day in June, the Germans once again marched down the Champs Elysees.

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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.

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Picasso and Parade, Making Art during Wartime, Part Two

Making Parade. Ballet réaliste (1917)

Pablo Picasso during the Great War

Part Two

When Guillaume Apollinaire (1888-1918) scribbled the word, “Surrealism” on his program for the new ballet, Parade (1917), on May 18, 1917, he added a new word to the art dictionary. He later included a substantive definition, of sorts: “When man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg. Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.” The poet liked the term and all that it implied and used the terminology again for his own play of the same year, Les Mamelles de Tiresias. As his biographer Wayne Andrews explained, Apollinaire himself had origins one could describe only a surreal. His mother was Russian but his father was mysterious and unknown, but he may have been “the illegitimate son of the duke of Reichstadt, the only child or Napoléon I and Marie-Louise of Austria.” His mother Angelica took Guillaume and his brother, also of unknown origins to Monte Carlo with her latest lover, who later took his makeshift family to Belgium. When the mother and children were abandoned, they left then spa hotel without paying the bill and, when they arrived in Paris, the police promptly arrested them. The charges were eventually dropped and Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki, now Guillaume Apollinaire, a budding poet, worked as a bank clerk, a pornographer and author of Mirely (1900), and a tutor. By 1911 he was established as an art critic and as a poet but somehow he was entangled in the theft of the Mona Lisa, because he had stolen two Iberian heads from the Louvre as gifts for his friend Pablo Picasso, who wisely returned the sculptures to the museum. Apollinaire briefly went to jail and Picasso pretended not to know the light-fingered poet.

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Their friendship recovered from this rather strange setback, and the two misfit, one Russian and one Spanish, artists in Paris remained friends to the end, which sadly came soon. Guillaume Apollinaire weakened by a head wound, died of influenza in November of 1918. In his article, “I Seem to be at a Great Feast: the War Pomes of Guillaume Apollinaire,” TonyHoagland, described the odd circumstances of his being struck by stray shrapnel: “In March 1916, while reading a Paris newspaper in the trench, he was struck by a flying piece of shrapnel that pierced his helmet. He realized he had been wounded only when blood dripped onto his paper. The shrapnel was extracted, but his condition complicated; he was trepanned at a battlefield hospital and eventually sent back to Paris.” Thanks to this event, Apollinaire could return to his former career as poet and critic and could be present at the performance of Parade at the Théâtre de Châtelet that May evening in time to view a new art form. The ballet Parade combined disparate musical tendencies, clashing but totally au courante, a jarring experience described by Christopher Schiff as “a compromise of French theatrical music and Futurist noise.”

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The unlikely concoction, a mash-up of avant-garde impulses in art and music, Parade was Picasso’s opportunity to get out of a Paris, darkened by a lingering war, and to test himself in a new discipline, theater. The performance, for which Picasso did the theater curtain or the rideau rouge, the costumes and the sets, established him as a contradiction in terms, a successful avant-garde artist. Before the Great War, the avant-garde artists in Paris lived precariously, dependent upon a few art dealers willing to attempt to sell their wares. The most famous or infamous Cubists in Paris were the Salon Cubists, who did handsome paintings, colorful interpretations of the late works of Paul Cézanne. Long scorned by art history, which officially labeled them as “minor Cubists,” these artists were, in fact the ones who carried the burden of the outrage of Cubism through their public exhibitions, while Picasso and his partner, Georges Braque, were able to work in their studios in private, supported by their German art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. To the mainstream art audience which frequented the Salon des Indépendents and the Salon d’Automne, Picasso and Braque were better known through their reputations for being advanced than for their actual works. But when the Great War began in August 1914, Picasso abruptly lost his German dealer and his German clientele. As was discussed in the previous post, he was forced to find Parisian support, but perhaps most importantly, the artist, a Spaniard, did not have to serve in the military. While the lives and careers of the other avant-garde artists were interrupted–indeed, some of these artists never came home–Picasso, protected by his nationality, was able to continue to develop his art.

Moving fluidly to a tamed and commercial version of Cubism, Picasso redefined himself as a more marketable artist to his Parisian dealer, Léonce Rosenberg. But parallel to the new conservative and decorative turn in his Cubism, Picasso was experimenting with a return to an Ingres-like classicism, signaling that he was bored with Cubism and wanted to move on. One could make a case that Parade is the last great statement on Cubism from Pablo Picasso and that it is his farewell to his former life, before he began a new stage for his career. The Ballet Russes was no stranger to scandalous ballets and it might be suspected that impresario Sergei Diaghilev used the occasional whiff of frisson as counter punctual shocks to his more conventional performances. Dressed as a Harlequin, Jean Cocteau had approached the famous Cubist artist Pablo Picasso paying homage to Picasso’s recent painting in hopes of assembling a truly avant-garde group of artists to attract the attention of Diaghilev. Cocteau wanted his own scandal, and, apparently, so did the composer Eric Satie, who was his co-creator of Parade. The ballet, on the strength of a one page script, would be put together in Rome.

Given the nationality of the Ballet Russes, its leaders and its dancers, it was impossible to return to Russia, and, for the duration of the War, the company was exiled, so to speak, in Rome. When Picasso, not a great traveler, arrived in the city, he was thirty five years old, ready to settle down as a married and respectable artist. However, his most recent liaisons, after the death of Eva, were not exactly women of virtue. Instead Gaby Lespinasse and Irène Lagut, culled from the ranks of artists’ mistresses, loved him and left him, moving on to other destinies. It was by chance that Picasso found himself in Rome, without a current lover, and was offered an opportunity to marry beyond his station, something artists seldom managed to do. Always open to new women, Picasso set his sights on one of the dancers, Olga Khokhlova, the daughter of a colonel, an engineer for the Russian railroad. As John Richardson, Picasso’s premier biographer noted, Olga was a “lady” to be courted, wooed and wed, in a proper fashion, because, as the author said, she was “unbearable.” In the midst of flirting with Olga, Picasso had to learn how to be a set designer. Most of his Cubist paintings were of modest size, following his larger earlier works, such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). By 1915, the size of his paintings again increased as did the intensity of the color, but the art of working for a viewer who would be close the the work was quite different from creating costumes, for example, that had to be read at a distance. The gifted costume and set designer, Léon Bakst, of an entirely different generation and state of mind from Picasso, nevertheless taught him which colors worked best on stage.

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Picasso and his assistants, working on the theater curtain

Picasso also worked with the young second-generation Futurists, Enrico Prampolini and Fortunate Depero, who would become Fascist artist of aeropittura after the War. Their decorative and graphic combination of Cubism and Futurism, easy to read and suitable for mass audiences, gave Picasso an idea of the fate of avant-garde art in the future but also suggested a way to capture the attention of the resistant ballet goers. Indeed, one can find traces of Futurism in Parade. When Futurism was first introduced in Paris in 1912, the Italian entry into the avant-garde stakes, was summarily rejected by the Cubists. But in Picasso’s work for the ballet, Futurism, far more than the rather staid and static Cubism, was better suited to the energetic circus theme.

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According to Roland Penrose, Picasso had always been receptive to Futurism and was fond of Boccioni who, by the time, he was in Rome, had died in battle. Between tours of Rome and Naples, viewing works of ancient and classical and Renaissance art that would inform his work of the 1920s, Picasso began to make Parade his own, boldly changing Cocteau’s ideas, including stripping spoken dialogue in favor of pantomime. He added three Managers and a Horse, challenging the poet at every turn. Picasso took over the curtain that was to be closed during a rather long prelude composed by Satie, realizing that it had to be more interesting than Cocteau’s ideas that the drape be emblazoned with the names of the performers, like a still in a film. Indeed the entire ballet is an homage to popular culture, the circus and the music hall, vaudeville, Wild West shows and even American silent films, especially those of Charlie Chaplin.

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Satie wove in ordinary songs sung by everyone, popular ragtime, all punctuated by unexpected noises, trains, dynamos, planes. Picasso was fascinated by puppet shows and street theater in Italy, particularly in Naples, and began including local Italian elements. As Satie, his collaborator in thwarting Cocteau, wrote, “Parade is changing, for the better, behind Cocteau! Picasso has ideas that please me better than those our Jean! And Cocteau doesn’t know it!” Of course, Cocteau did not remain in the dark and came to accept Picasso’s perspective on his libretto which, to be truthful, really rested upon the vision of Picasso.

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The now-famous curtain was a case in point. When the ballet finally opened in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet, in May, the news from the Western front was terrible. The battles of the Somme and Verdun had caused massive casualties and France was bleeding young men, as an entire generation was being wiped out. In such an atmosphere, the audience, already hostile to Cubism and to Picasso, expected to be disrespected and confronted with a style they had been taught to hate. Due to the nationality of Cubism’s dealer, Kahnweiler and his main clients, Cubism was thought of as not French, but German, and the audience in wartime were bristling in anticipation. But the rideau surprised and calmed them. The great drop of cloth recalled a French circus poster, referenced Edgar Degas, Georges Seurat, and Toulouse Lautrec, who were on the verge of being acceptable to mainstream culture mavens. Instead of a Cubist assault, the audience was treated to a fairy tale version of an enchanted circus, like the Cirque Médrano, something loved and remembered from their childhoods. In fact, Parade, as the name suggested, was inspired by the fête foraine, an annual event in which a group of circus performers would execute a few short scenes, according to musicologist Nancy Perloff, on a platform or small stage, a parade. Although this kind of entertainment was long extinct, it had survived in the form of advertising and the word “parade” implied a spectacle, a concept that inspired Cocteau, Satie and Picasso. So at first, the audience could enjoy a comforting nostalgia, the faint perfume of the past.

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However, once the curtain rose, Cubism, accompanied by Satie’s now lively music, laced with modern sounds, such as typewriters and refrains borrowed from jazz, appears. The three Managers, so large they constituted moving scenery, asserted themselves. The ballet dancers inside were miserable, and the audience, outraged at the Cubist designs, found their worst fears realized. Shouts of “Go back to Berlin” and accusations of “Shirkers” and “Draft dodgers” rocked the theater. Massine’s deliberately awkward choreography did little to calm the outraged reactions, and the audience threw oranges.

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When Apollinaire rose in his sky blue uniform, his head bandaged in the honor of France and pleaded for calm, some order was restored. The plot itself was simple: a Chinese magician, a young America girl, inspired by Mary Pickford, and an acrobat from the Rose period, street performers, worked onto boulevard to lure the public into the circus.

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The Managers, with skyscrapers on their heads, were their exploiters and the villains of the piece. For Cocteau, the meaning was symbolic, for the audience the meaning was lost in the presence of the dreaded Cubism, for the critics, Parade was shark meat and they spiritedly attacked in a pack. Satie, who had been slapped by a member of the audience, was accused of bochisme (being German) and his exchanges with his critics resulted in lawsuits that bankrupted him.

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The accusations of being a traitor to France were unjust for Satie’s music included and consisted of the sounds of modern Paris itself. As Barbara L. Kelly noted inMusic and Ultra-modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913-1939,

Parade confirmed Satie’s central role as a harbinger of the new. It marked a shift in musical priorities from a focus on sonority and exoticism to a search for inspiration in the mainly Parisian everyday. In common with many of his peers, the ballet also represents a move away from narrative towards abstraction, a tendency that was becoming increasingly important in the dramatic ventures of Stravinsky and Diaghilev..

Of course, in time, Parade would become recognized as one of the great avant-garde ballets of the twentieth century, a classic, the first Cubist theatrical event, but on the 18th of May, 1917, once again, only Apollinaire was capable of rising to the defense of the collision between fine art and popular culture, France and America, sophisticated music and ordinary sound, poetry and farce, delivered in the spirit of the new visual invention, film. As he wrote for L’excelsior, contemplating his own notes on the program, about the idea of “surrealism,” which he understood in terms of a Gesamtkunstwerk, or a new realism:

From this new alliance, for until now stage sets and costumes on one said and the choreographer on the other side had only a sham bond between them, there has come about, in Parade, a kind of super-realism (sur-réalisme), in which I see the starting point of a series of manifestations of this new spirit (esprit nouveau), which, finding today the opportunity to reveal itself, will not fail to deuce the elite, and which promises to modify arts and manners from top to bottom for the wold’s delight, since it is only common sense to wish that arts and manners reach at least to the same height as scientific and industrial progress.

The result was a layering of literature, painting, dance, and music, each coming from a different sphere, far removed from the traditions of classic ballet. Parade dragged dance into the modern world, laid the foundation for artists like John Cage to reconsider the role of noise, and provided Picasso with the caché in world of the Right Bank. He was now a suitable match for the highly ranked Olga. For Picasso, Parade had served its purpose.

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The bad reviews, the elimination of the ballet from the repertoire of the Ballet Russes, Satie’s quarrels with his detractors were mere backdrops to his eventual marriage to Olga and his entrance into bourgeoisie life. Apollinaire died two days before the Armistice, and Parade would be revived in 1920. According to Mary E. Davis in Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism, Americans loved Parade and, even after its disastrous Parisian premier, the young nation responded positively to a ballet that displayed such unabashed love of American culture. Unlike his former partner, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso emerged from the War, a prominent artist, ready to preside over the post-war art world, an old master before he was forty. His dealer was Paul Rosenberg, who found him and his elegant wife suitable lodgings in the rue de la Boëtie. By the end of the War, the Spanish avant-garde artist had found his place in Paris at last.

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Picasso and Parade, Making Art during Wartime, Part One

Making Parade (1917)

Pablo Picasso during the Great War

Part One

Pablo Picasso was bored. Paris was empty of the stimulating company he had grown accustomed to. His partner in Cubism, its invention, its evolution and its four year development, Georges Braque, had patriotically enlisted and was fighting in the trenches, using guns instead of paint brushes. His German art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had been declared an enemy alien, his merchandise, including many works by Picasso himself and Braque, had been sequestered by the French government. Albert Gleizes, not necessarily a good friend, but who was at least a fellow artist, had done his time for his country and had mustered out in 1915, spending the rest of the War in New York, joining Marcel Duchamp in exile. The elder Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villion was also serving as a medic, taking care of the war wounded. Most keenly felt was the absence of his supporter in print, the art writer and poet, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), who was actually Polish and Russian and rather old for the military at age thirty five, but had patriotically gone to war to fight for France.

Apollinaire had been the center of the pre-war avant-garde, organizing the artists and creating a discourse on their art out of his studio visits and café conversations with them. Now he was in the 38th artillery regiment, handling the big guns, the famed Canon de 75 modèle, invented in 1897. Now he was part of a team of twelve, six men, each with a specific task, and six horses with one job–tow the wheeled gun. Apollinaire reveled in the physicality of the labor and found enough private time to produce a body of war time poetry. “I so love art, he said, “I joined the artillery.” Picasso was not so inspired. While others had sacrificed their art careers for an uncertain future on the battlefields, Picasso remained behind, continuing his own artistic endeavors–alone. His remaining confident, Gertrude Stein, American poet and art collector, received word of his unhappiness about the absence of his companions. “Will it not be awful, when Braque and Derain and all the rest of them put their wooden legs up on a chair and tell about the fighting?” he asked her, not understanding the realities of war at all.

From the perspective of Picasso, a supremely self-centered individual, the list of those absent was too long. It was as if Paris had been emptied out of its fabled art world, leaving Picasso, a citizen of a neutral nation, Spain, in the city, bereft of suitable companionship.To add to his sadness, his most recent lover Eva Gouel (1885-1915) , died in 1915. When she arrived in Paris, Gruel had taken a new name, Marcelle Humbert, but returned to her birth name at Picasso’s instigation. Part of a complex plot of secret affairs, Eva had been a friend of Picasso’ current lover, Fernande Olivier, who was having a clandestine affair on the side with a Futurist painter, Umbaldo Oppi. It is difficult to sort out the complications but according to one account, Fernande asked Eva, the mistress of Marcoussis, to keep her secret. Eva, instead, embarked on her own secret liaison–with Picasso. One of Picasso’s most salient works of pre-war Cubism was Ma Jolie of 1911, in which he sent a coded announcement of his new mistress. Fernande and Picasso predictably went their separate ways, and he wrote to Braque, “Fernande left today with a Futurist painter, what shall I do with the dog?” Once he and Eva moved in together, Picasso began taking Russian lessons from a Baroness Helene d’Oettingen, who demanded a great deal of his time, leaving Eva at home and coughing. When she was admitted to the hospital, where she would die of tuberculous, Picasso visited her by day and entertained himself with a new mistress at night. When she died in mid December of 1915, he wrote to Stein, “My poor Eva is dead.. she was so good to me.”

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Pablo Picasso. Ma Jolie (1911)

Other deaths would follow, but after Eva’s passing, Picasso needed distractions. Without the avant-garde artists within the Cubist circles to compete with, without Braque to collaborate with, he embarked on a new brand of Cubism. This new Cubism, Picasso’s alone, was pure painting, but this phase bore traces of the now discarded experiments with collage and are material acknowledgments of his changed circumstances. First, Kahnweiler was no longer his dealer and, because of the War, the traffic in Cubism flowing east to German clients ended; and, second, once Kahnweiler went into exile in Switzerland, Picasso needed a new dealer to look out for his interests. The problem for Picasso was that many of Kahnweiler’s clients were not French, or to put it another way, there were almost no collectors in France for Cubism in 1915. The Steins had moved on, disliking Picasso’s new works years before the War, leaving Léonce Rosenberg (1879-1947) and André Level (1863-1947) as almost the lone supporters available for Picasso. In their own ways, both men were very significant to the next phase of the artist’s career. It was Level who had masterminded the famous Peau d”Ours auction in the spring of 1914. In this auction, a pre-Cubist work by Picasso fetched the highest price, but the true implication of the event was not that Picasso could be a bankable artist but that avant-garde art itself could be a profitable enterprise. Keeping in mind that Parisian buyers were inherently conservative and historically hostile to Cubism, it appears that Picasso made a decision to tame Cubism for financial reasons. One can deduce the process simply by noting the evolution of his art after Braque went off to war in August of 1914 in terms of what he did not do–mixed media–and what he actually executed–paintings that began to resemble painted collages, large blocks of color offset with stippled textures. In other words, Picasso began doing “Cubism” for prospective collectors and “Picassos” for wary buyers. His experimental period was over, and Picasso would remain cautious about being too avant-garde until he was was well established as a successful artist. One can see his desire to reap the rewards of his years of innovation with an eye as to what prospective buyers would want.

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Pablo Picasso with Self-Portrait with Portrait of a Man and Roofs of Barcelona at the Rue Schoelcher Studio, Paris (1915-1916)

Indeed, Kahnweiler’s Cubist artists, now “abandoned,” as Rosenberg would have it, were in dire straits, needing to be rescued by a new dealer with deep pockets. Level did not have the funds but Kahnweiler’s only Parisian collector, Léonce Rosenberg, founder of L’Effort moderne, an enterprise dedicated to promoting Cubism, was able to step into the breech and assist Picasso. Although history would consider Léonce a less serious collector compared to his brother, Paul, a prominent art dealer, during the War, his support was pivotal for Picasso and the Cubists. However, it should be stressed that, before the War, the Cubism of Picasso and Braque was available only in Kahnweiler’s now closed gallery, mostly sold east, and thus was more of a rumor than reality to the the Parisians. For this art audience, compared to that of Berlin, the “Cubists” were the Salon Cubists, led by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, who excelled in a colorful and conservative version of “Cubism” that the traditionalists absolutely hated. Apparently understanding the already formed tastes of the potential clients, whether he wanted to acknowledge them or not, Picasso veered in the direction of the Salon Cubists and it is out of this wartime enterprise that his work for Parade (1917) is to be understood.

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One of the best known works of the wartime oeuvre was Harlequin (1915) clearly indebted to collage, with its large areas of color blocks, the assertive diamond pattern. At first glance, this work is a nod to Picasso’s conservative and acceptable past, the Harlequin paintings of his Rose Period. The now strong and intense colors put him more in line with the Salon Cubists, while Matisse, during this same time, went dark, giving up his former bright colors as if fasting for the War. However, it is also clear that the clown is also the artist, saddened by the end of a productive phase in Picasso’s artistic life and lonely without his “band” of supporters. However ambiguous, the return of the character, Harlequin, would attract another admirer, the poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). According the Michael FitzGerald’s Making Modernism. Picasso and the creation the Market for Twentieth-Century Art (1996), Picasso was uncomfortable with being associated with Rosenberg’s Salon Cubists, and Cocteau pulled him towards a more eclectic destiny. Cocteau, like many young French men, served in the military as a medic, a posting that seemed to allow him to continue his work as a theatrical producer during the War. Working with Cubists artists, Albert Gleizes and André Lhote on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a venture that did not take place, Cocteau revealed a willingness to work with avant-garde artists and turned his attentions to Picasso himself. Once he was out of the army in 1916, he joined forces with composer Eric Satie and they imagined a new and thoroughly modern spectacle, Parade, a ballet with American references. In order to make the proposition of a contemporary ballet attractive to the Ballet Russes, Cocteau courted Picasso, who was ripe for new experiences, and pulled him into the ballet project. By the fall of 1916, all the pieces were falling into place, with Serge Diaghilev, approving the group of artists–Léonide Massine, the choreographer, Cocteau, the playwright, Picasso, the costume and set designer, Satie the composer– and their ideas for what would become a Cubist ballet. In a letter, Cocteau noted that Apollinaire was “helping” Picasso, who was moving to a new abode in a suburb of Paris. Picasso was becoming mainstream.

In A Day with Picasso (1986), Billy Klüver described how Parade forced Paris to accept Cubism: “There was a growing acceptance on the Right Bank of the music of Satie..and of the new poetry of Apollinaire and Reverdy, but Right Bank resistance to cubist painting was still strong..” Klüver quoted Cocteau as saying, “A dictatorship hung heavy over Montmartre and Montparnasse. Cubism was going though its austere phase..To paint a stage set for a Russian ballet was a crime..” Klüver continued,

Cocteau in his collaboration with Picasso introduced cubism to the Right Bank in such as way that it could not be ignored. In May 1917, the aristocratic patrons of the Ballet Russes were still not ready to accept the cubist sets and costumes with open arms and Parade created a scandal when it premiered. But the ice was broken, and Parade set the stage for wholesale acceptance of these modern masters after the war..It was through his involvement with Cocteau and Parade that he moved into circles around Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes and into personal contact with the dynamic and influential group around art patrons like Comete Etienne de Beaumont and Mme. Eugénia Errazuziz. They began to acquire his work, and about a year later the quintessential Right Bank dealer Paul Rosenberg began to buy paintings.

This famous ballet, Parade, was described as a “ballet réaliste” by Cocteau and Satie. Short, in comparison to its subsequent fame, twenty minutes of modernity, sandwiched between Les Sylphides, Petrouchka, and Le Soleil de nuit. The company dancers had to switch corporeal and psychological gears from one style of choreography to another. Despite its modern theme, the mood for Parade, a rather antic ballet, was a nostalgic one of lost innocence. The ballet juxtaposed modern corporations and the world created by dull business, especially in modern cities–mainly New York and its emerging skyscrapers–to the unbridled joy and absurdity of the old fashioned circus. As Juliet Bellow pointed out in Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-garde (2013), the characters of the Managers in Parade was analogous to the lecturer for old fashioned slide lecture, speaking in relation to a visual image, explaining its meaning. She wrote,

If reads as film exhibitors or lecturers, Picasso’s Managers further destabilized the relation of reality to representation in Parade. At first glance, these manifestly artificial constructions contest with the “real” (that is non-Cubist) bodies whose performances they announce. But as film exhibitors, the Managers would constitute the live portion of the program, transforming the parade numbers into moving pictures. Without their spoken dialogue, however–which to reiterate, Picasso insisted on removing–the Managers could not securely occupy this role. Moreover, Picasso’s flattening costumes, Satie’s caricatural accompaniment and Massine’s stilted choreography refused any body onstage full presence. Even if the dancers were taken to be live performers (which of course, they were), the artifice foregrounded in this production estranged hem from coherent embodiment. The entire production became a hall of mirrors, a proliferation of corporeal copies that challenged he integrity of the original.

Sitting in the audience opening night, the poet Apollinaire, watched the ballet in amazement and scribbled the new word, “Surrealism,” on his program. The next post will continue the examination of Parade and its layers of realities, so dense that a new term was coined.

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Podcast 59: Pablo Picasso and the Making of the Art Market

Pablo Picasso, Part One

Although we accept Picasso as one of the great artists of the twentieth century, he was not born a famous artist, he was “made.” This podcast discusses the role of the Great War and the creation of the post-war market in buying and selling avant-garde art. In order to be successful, Picasso had to be polished as an artist and Cubism had to be tamed as an art market suitable for collectors.

 

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Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

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School of Paris: The Historical Context

The School of Paris

Recall to Order

After the Great War, the fabric of European society was in tatters. An entire generation of young men had been killed in a senseless slaughter on the Western Front. A generation of young women would never find mates and a generation of children would grow up without a father. The men who survived were often physically and mentally wounded, and, in those days, had no support from the very nations that had sent them off to war. Although there could be no return to the way things were, the cultural impulse in France was a desire to Return to Order—“retour à l’ordre,” to resume life in a sane and safe fashion.

The term itself supposedly originated with Jean Cocteau, who in 1926, wrote Le rappel à l’ordre,” but the unruly French poet was an unlikely source for such a phrase. Although he was elegantly attired in a uniform custom made by Paul Poiret, Cocteau’s wartime experience was a checkered one, veering wildly from offering to “assist” his fellow soldiers in the shower to being an ambulance driver who walked away from the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Cocteau returned to Paris in time to produce one of the most significant ballets of the century, Parade. The list of the artists who participated on this ballet, Erick Satie, Sergei Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, et. al, reads like a who’s who of the avant-garde. It was after attending the May 1917 premiere of Parade that Guillaume Apollinaire was inspired to use a new term he had recently coined, “Surreality.” But the innovation and experimentation of Parade was perhaps the last gasp of the golden age of pioneering modern forms of art.

Once the war was over and the troops came home, it was clear that the art world could not resume its previous course. One of the reasons why Parade was received with such a combination of bewilderment and hostility is that the ballet was modern and, strangely enough, in Paris all things “modern” were “German.” This small insight gleaned from the reception of Parade clarifies why part of the “Call to Order” campaign was about purification. But before discussing the emergence of a newly conservative set of styles in Paris, it is important to examine the cultural context of the City of Light between the wars.

The move of the avant-garde artists from Montmartre to Montparnasse is indicative of an emerging art market that would allow artists to make decent incomes and be able to live less-impoverished but still colorful lives. Instead of hanging out at the Lapin agile, the intelligentsia took over more elegant cafés and bistros in the territory below the steep hills of the maquis. Montparnasse was where Gertrude Stein invited the artists and writers to her home on rue de Fleurus. Famously, the American writer, Ernest Hemingway made his way to her home to hear her advice to write in a crisp and clean fashion. Fashion photographer, May Ray, returned from New York and began his love affair with his muse, Kiki of Montparnasse. African-American servicemen who found that they could actually get served in Le Dôme began to put together one of the best jazz scenes in the world in Paris.

The move towards respectability was already underway during the Great War, when Picasso began living in Montparnasse with his new wife Olga and a staff of servants. The artists who had gone to war or who had sought refuge in other nations returned to find the pre-war art world turned upside down. The Cubist “heroes,” Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger returned to find Picasso, a reclusive artist in the Salon years, now holding court and riding high. Georges Barque, Picasso’s erstwhile partner in art, was suddenly relegated to a secondary position. It seems clear that the artists who stayed in Paris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and guarded their position and further developed their art benefited after the war. The Cubist “heroes” found themselves consigned to a “minor” status and most slipped into historical oblivion. The Fauves faded even further and the post-war art of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck became retrograde, glum, and entirely forgettable.

The pre-war avant-garde witnessed their movements being re-written into history, not according to actual lived history but according to the marketing strategies of art dealers. On the eve of the war the famous Le peau de l’ours sale of cutting edge work by young artists made vanguard art financially profitable. The investors quadrupled their money in ten years. Art dealers certainly took note, as did the collectors. Avant-garde artists had long reached out to specialized and adventurous collectors, such as the Stein family, and now that pool of buyers was expanding. In order to make “their artists” more commercially viable, dealers wrote books, like Daniel-Henry Khanweiler, or art exhibition catalogues, like Léonce Rosenberg. These books and catalogues, combined with the post-war books on Cubism by critics, such as Maurice Raynal, and artists, such as Juan Gris, formed the bedrock of the history of the pre-war art movements. From the perspective of valuing art, those publications certainly transformed certain avant-garde artists into historically significant figures whose art was of “blue chip” quality.

The presence of an art market with a taste for advance art was a major factor in the tamping down of avant-garde “excesses.” Collectors wanted to buy advanced art, but not too advanced. Keep in mind that our understanding of art history is anachronistic and that the late phase of synthetic Cubism was radical decades after it debuted. As late as the 1920s, there was little public knowledge of mixed media art and even less understanding of collage and assemblage. What the buyers wanted was paintings, not pieces of paper stuck onto another piece of paper. Picasso and Barque translated the lessons of collage into paintings by incorporating the large blocks of color and the juxtaposition of abstract forms into attractive paintings with readable images.

The notion that Cubism could function like a semiotic system was abandoned in favor of a post-war post-Cubist style that “looked like” a form of acceptable watered down “Cubism.” Barque retained this conservative approach for the rest of his career, painting numerous still lives, many positioned on pedestal tables. Picasso produced his own version of a tamed and humbled Cubism with Three Musicians in 1921, but he also developed a parallel style, a form of “classicism” so favored by those who wanted to “return to order.” Picasso proved himself to be an artist of great alacrity and was able to shift with the trends: he moved from his war-time version of Cubism, “Rococo Cubism,” to classicism to his watered down Cubism. Having established himself as a versatile artist who could move among styles, Picasso was free to join the latest style, Surrealist biomorphism, and combine it with Cubism into a colorful curvilinear suite of paintings dedicated to his new lover, Marie Thérèse. The transformation of Cubism into a saleable commodity enabled the Cubist pioneers to live in comfort for the rest of their lives, presiding over the School of Paris.

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Podcast 39 Painting 5: Art Between the Wars

Art Between the Wars

Although art history usually passes over this inter-war period quickly, pausing only for Dada and Surrealism, these decades were significant for the continued development of painting. After decades of avant-garde art, Europeans began to consolidate the innovations and inventions of the new century. While the art scene in Paris returned to conservative market-based art, the experimental mind-set shifted to Berlin, the new capital of art between the wars.

 

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