Post-War Cubism in Paris, Part Two

Cubism After Cubism

Paris Coming to Order, Part Two

There was a second life for Cubism after the Great War. This lingering phase, a further development of an important art style was carried on by the so-called “Salon Cubistes,” who, although they had been away at War, were still famous to the art public, due to their participation in public salons. In the Salon d’Automne, they were scandalous dissidents and horrifying innovators; in the Salon des Indépendants, they were heroes, braving the scorn of critics. When they returned to Paris, one by one, these artists learned that the dominant painters were now Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, both of whom had remained in the city during the war, developing independent styles. Although Pablo Picasso (1871-1973) had taken off in his own many new directions, these former Salon Cubists sought to extend Cubism, now a historical and hence, lucrative art movement. The art scene in Paris had changed and, in the wake of the war, the Salon exhibitions were not the only game in town. The artist-dealer system, used so successfully by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, began to become a major factor. But the players on the market were new.

When War was declared, German national and Cubist dealer to Braque and Picasso, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), was in Switzerland and was unable to return to France. Now that Kahnweiler was an enemy alien, his goods, his paintings, his property—Cubism itself–were sequestered by the French government, and his artists were left without support. Léonce Rosenberg (1879-1947), who collected modern art because it gave him pleasure and because he believed in what he called “l’effort moderne,” took Kahnweiler’s place as the supporter of Cubism. Rosenberg came from a distinguished family of art dealers, which stretched back to the nineteenth century. His father, Alexander (1842-1913), as did most of the art dealers of that century, specialized in the Old Masters, which is why his oldest son, Léonce, was educated in the history of art in European cities and in New York. After studying in London, Berlin, Antwerp and Vienna, he returned take his place in the business. By his side was his younger brother Paul (1881-1959). At the turn of the century, the père Rosenberg had added Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists to his stable. When their father died in 1913, the brothers inherited the gallery and divided the concerns of the enterprise between them. Léonce opened a new avenue for the Rosenberg establishment–contemporary art in his new gallery “Haute Europe”–specializing in the most cutting edged of Cubism. Even before the Great War broke out, there was a competition between the Rosenbergs and Kahnweiler, who was loath to play one buyer off another to get a higher price. According to his granddaughter, Anne Sinclair, Paul handled the nineteenth century and Old Masters part of the business but sold the historical works with an eye towards avant-garde art. As Sinclair relates in My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War, “When Léger came to him and said, “Paul Rosenberg gives me twice what you do,” Kahnweiler replied, “Very well, then, go to Rosenberg.”

Pablo Picasso. Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910)

But Kahnweiler was less sanguine about the activities of the Rosenbergs after the War. The War had destroyed his art business, cutting him off from his lucrative markets in eastern Europe and Russia. By the end of 1914, according to historian Michael Fitzgerald, Kahnweiler, without his business and his products, was unable to honor his contract with Picasso. After the War, the French government had many Picassos that Kahnweiler had not paid for and the artist had severed ties with his former dealer. When Kahnweiler returned to Paris, it was to a gallery emptied by the French government; and he was forced to make a new start without his core of pre-war artists, who were all now valuable cultural producers. As Sinclair wrote, referring to Kahnweiler: “He was probably angry and hurt about the behavior of Paul’s brother Léonce, who had attracted the cubist painters to his gallery while Kahnweiler was exiled in Switzerland during the First World War. Besides, Léonce’s reputation was tarnished by the fact that he had agreed, during the 1920s, to be an expert consultant in the liquidation of Kahnweiler’s property, which had been confiscated by the French because of his German citizenship.” But it was not just Kahnweiler who was disturbed by the actions of the French government.The artists whose work was part of the four sales that were held to dispose of a huge quantity of pre-war avant-garde works, “belonging” to a German national. Art historian John Richardson, the premier biographer of Picasso, discussed the repercussions of this event upon the art world and the artists. These auctions took place in 1921. By this time, Picasso was well into his classical phase and, with his new wife, the daughter of a Russian general, the artist was ensconced into a bourgeois existence, complete with servants. Since he had been, from very early on, part of the marketing of modernism, the packaging of which, as the historian Michael Fitzerald has pointed out, was the making of modern art, Picasso kept a close watch on exchanges within the art world. Kahnweiler’s was not the only sequestered collection up for sale: the properties of German dealers Wilhelm Uhde and Richard Goetz were also on view.

Jean Metzinger. Portrait of Léonce Rosenberg (1924)

As Richardson wrote in A Life of Picasso, “Since over half his cubist output was at stake, Picasso had fought to have the sequestration set aside. He had expected to recover at least the items for which Kahnweiler never paid, but now he had lost hope. Braque, Derain, Léger, and Vlaminck, who work had also been sequestered, were more optimistic than Picasso. As French citizens who had served their country, they felt entitled to preferential treatment: however, the world situation worked against them. Germany was so slow in paying the reparations stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles that the French government decided to convert all the assets they had been able to confiscate for cash. There would be no exceptions.” Richardson was not kind in his assessment of the Rosenberg brothers and their conduct during the series of sales. Noting that “Léonce had managed to get himself appointed expert adviser for the auctions..This, he said, would guarantee the success of the sales and put cubism back on the map as an ongoing movement..This unscrupulous man wanted to prevent Kahnweiler from recovering his prewar stock so that he could crown himself king of Cubism. Paul Rosenberg tacitly supported his brother. The dismemberment of cubism would be to his advantage. However, he was far too canny to appear to have had a hand in things and be tarred with the same brush as Léonce. By flooding the market with the cream of cubism, he effectively devalued it and earned the contempt and distrust of the painters he claimed to be promoting. As Kahnweiler foresaw, the auctions would be a disaster, the prices for paintings by the major cubists would not appreciate for another twenty years.”

Pablo Picasso. Portrait of Paul Rosenberg (1918)

The clash between the artists and the dealers would become a classic one, pitting makers, who cared about their art against businessmen, who cared about profits. There is no doubt that the brothers supported the Cubist painters with the hope of a handsome return on their investment. Richardson’s trenchant account of the auctions should be balanced by the unflagging support from Léonce, who, even though he was in the French army, kept tending to his Cubist artists during the War. As Fitzgerald noted in Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth-century Art, even by 1919 there was still little faith in the value of Cubism when Rosenberg was selling modern art at his gallery on rue de la Baume. “Indeed, during 1915 and 1916, Rosenberg was almost the only person, who bought from Picasso and the other Cubists.” In fact, the author quoted an account of that period from Rosenberg himself, “..Picasso and a mutual friend revealed to me the deprivation that many Cubists found themselves in–abandoned by their dealer, a German–and the hostility and general indifference amid which they lived, and they fired my interest in taking a hand the destinies of a school of painting that deserved all of my efforts. I promised to found, immediately after my demobilization, ‘L’Effort Moderne.’ In the meantime, during the entire duration of the war and even when mobilized, I subsidized, by continuous purchases, the entire Cubist movement.” Clearly, this is a self-serving statement but it is, in the basic facts, quite true.

Bulletin for L’Effort Moderne, edited by Léonce Rosenberg, 1924

Therefore, for no reason other than a dedication to modern art, Rosenberg signed the German dealer’s artists, with the exception of Picasso and Braque, and continued the exhibition and promotion of Cubism during and after the war. Expecting to reap the rewards of handling Cubism at some point, Rosenberg crafted a new vision of Cubism, seeing it not as a unique style developed by a group of artists influenced by Paul Cézanne, but as part of a new and modern way of thinking that was manifested well beyond the fine arts. This modern world based upon the machine was revealed in a world view that appeared in posters and in advertising, popular culture, and fine art, becoming the visual language of its time. In Rosenberg’s interpretation, Cubism changed, disentangling itself from complex ideas of mobile perspective and becoming more flat and colorful, a strong design that could be moved from painting to advertising even to fashion and architecture. Cubism became the “house style” of Rosenberg’s gallery, “L’Effort modern” and the focus of his publication, Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne, but, despite the strong support from Léonce, Picasso waited to commit until 1918, when he joined Paul Rosenberg, the brother of Léonce. Perennially suspicious of dealers, Picasso had been cautious around Léonce and resisted the dealer’s efforts to bully him into joining the Cubist stable. The final straw seems to have been the refusal of Léonce to support Picasso’s work for Parade (1917). A year later Picasso and Matisse had a joint exhibition at the Galerie Paul Guillaume, but in 1919, Picasso repaid his debt to Léonce and had a large show at the L’Effort moderne. In these early years, just after the War, the status of Cubism was still in doubt. Were there too many copyists? Had the style become too familiar, too academic, too stale? Writing in 1988, Robert Jensen explained Picasso’s position as an avant-garde artist, “The chief paradox of avant-gardism..is that it takes its identity from opposing that which it most relies on: the trade in art.” And, according to Fitzgerald, Rosenberg described Picasso’s attitude towards commerce and the “relations of the artist and dealer as a “class struggle:” “Le marchand–voilà l’ennemi.” In his article, “The Avant-Garde and the Trade in Art,” Jensen wrote, “As the triumphant avant-gardist, who believes he has killed off all his rival, Picasso eventually dismissed the primacy of style over the artist.” In the author quoted Picasso as saying in 1923: “If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them.” Author Malcolm Gee pointed out his 1979 article, “The Avant-Garde Order and the Art Market, 1916-23,” that when the poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) formulated his famous “Recall to Order,” he did so “under the aegis of Picasso’s use of ‘style,’ and the attempts by the editors of L’Espirit Nouveau to codify the achievements of Cubism to place them in a well-defined ‘classical’ tradition in French painting can be seen as part and parcel of a general tendency at this time to assert the values of discipline, reason, and tradition in the arts..”

Pablo Picasso. Harlequin (1915)

It should be pointed out that as early as 1915, Picasso had signaled his retreat from Cubism with his return to a figure of his early years, the Harlequin. By 1918, Picasso was effectively no longer producing Cubist works and would not have fitted into the plans of Léonce. Paul, however, had a broader mission and could incorporate Picasso’s ever-changing directions. It was time for Picasso to move on with his post-war career and his alliance with Paul Rosenberg was a shift away from his Cubist past and into his independent future. Just as Léonce had been a dealer in antiquities, Paul Rosenberg had been a dealer of Impressionism and recognized the coming respectability of Cubism as a collector’s item, even before the infamous auctions of 1921. Although Paul handled other Cubist artists, he was the main support for Picasso, and the artist lived next door to his dealer whose gallery was at 21 rue de la Boétie. Once the Rosenberg brothers had become the dealers for Cubism, the task, which they both seemed to have realized, was now to make of Cubism something historical and valuable. As the art markets returned to post-war stability in the 1920s, Cubism was experiencing an afterglow. The next task was to make the case for the importance of Cubism.

Paul Rosenberg’s Gallery with art by Picasso and Marie Laurencin

The pre-war discourse on Cubism had been written by artists, such as Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, and by art critics, like Guillaume Apollinaire. This pre-war body of work was from the perspective of those who were “present at the creation.” For all intents and purposes, their task had been twofold: to legitimate Cubism and to place it in the mainstream of the history of French art. Now that the movement had been founded and had become part of the fabric of French culture, it was possible to build on this foundation, which had presented the case for Cubism as being “classical,” not radical or aberrant. After the War, Cubism was defined as that which was quintessentially modern, related to the new machine in its logic and rational construction, understood as being “classical.” In other words, the rationality and logic of machine technology could be compared to the logic of classical French tradition in the arts and a post-war congruency was fused. Due to its intellectualism and because of the tireless efforts of its early interpreters to link it to French tradition, Cubism was now worthy of being historicized. The exhibitions at the respective Rosenberg galleries were often accompanied by small catalogs that had the accumulated effect of accruing both financial and symbolic capital to the artists and to the movement. Thus, was Cubism moved from the ranks of the disruptive “isms” to the status of “important” art, readying itself for the art historians.

Catalog for exhibition of Picasso’s Drawings at Paul Rosenberg’s Gallery in 1918

Like many of the artists showed by Rosenberg at L’Effort moderne, history has not been kind to the Salon Cubists, who have been neglected in favor of an emphasis on Picasso. The next post will discuss these post-Cubist Cubist artists in Paris between the Wars.

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

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