The pre-war discourse on Cubism had been written by artists, such as Gleizes and Metzinger, and by art critics, like Guillaume Apollinaire, and this pre-war body of work was developed from the perspective of those “present at the creation.” The seeds of the linking of Cubism to tradition in France can be traced back to the pre-war work of Gleizes and Metzinger, who sough to place Cubism in a classical French lineage. Now that the movement had been valorized as “historical” and had become part of the fabric of French art, it could be re-defined as that which was quintessentially modern, related to the new machine. The post-war discourse was largely the work of Rosenberg’s Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne, a significant site for the creation of the post-war discourse re-evaluating Cubism. The logic and rational construction of Cubism was constructed as both “classical” and modern. 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 for the understanding of Cubism. In his 1920 essay, “Cubism and Tradition,” Léonce Rosenberg argued that “cubist artists tend towards the constant and the absolute.” In writing of Cubism, he said, “There is nothing arbitrary in its architecture; on the contrary, everything in it is the consequence of a feeling, and is subject to the enteral laws of equilibrium.”
In the essay, “Rosenberg and de Chirico,” Michele Tavola wrote of the dealer’s rethinking of post-war Cubism: “Rosenberg’s deep and articulate critical thought, is his essay dedicated to the Cubist painting of 1920, Cubisme et tradition (Cubism and Tradition). This essay can be considered his most structured and richest critical piece. In this text, Rosenberg tackles the issue of modern art in a systematic way, providing a definition of it and explaining what he thinks is its deep meaning. This reflection departs from the contraposition, typical of any era, between the conservatives and the representatives of what the author calls “action.” A high spiritual value is given to tradition whilst the conservatives are the people who, believing that they are defending tradition, take shelter in tired, codified formulas. Amongst the exponents of the new artistic trends, on the other hand, there is a type of artist who throws himself against the establishment in order to obtain his own success: such artists are defined as “demolishers”. Their role is seen positively, in that they prepare the ground for those who follow them, or rather for those artists able to create a new tradition and make modern art which materialises the Beautiful: in other words the ‘Constructors.’ For Rosenberg, in the 1920s, this mission was fulfilled by the Cubist painters, who were unfairly accused of making anarchic art because they had subverted the rules of the representation of reality that had been valid since the Renaissance period. On the contrary, he presents them as creators of a new order. It is up to them, and in general to the genus of constructors, to find lost tradition and make this tradition live again in forms as yet unknown. The crucial theme of the essay concerns the essence of art itself which, being such, must “create” and not “imitate”. The ultimate aim is not to reproduce nature but to give life to a creation of the spirit. We see the author’s opinion in full in a central passage in which he refers to the activity of Cubist painters: Instead of recreating an aspect of nature, they try to create the plastic equivalents of natural objects and the pictorial result produced in this way becomes an aspect that is created by the spirit. Construction realised in this way does not have a comparative value but a strictly intrinsic value or, to use a platonic expression, it is ‘beautiful in itself’.”
When Braqaue was able to paint again, the war was banished from his paintings and when he took up his post-war Cubism again, it was with the support of Léonce Rosenberg with whom he signed a contract in 1916. But the agreement was a cautious one, committing the dealer to a minimum purchase each month. Due to the sale of the Kahnweiler cache, the already low prices for Cubism plunged and desperate and impoverished Cubist painters turned their oeuvre over to Rosenberg, who proceeded to redesign Cubism according to his own artistic principles. While Rosenberg can be faulted for being less interested in providing aesthetic nurturing, like that of Kahnweiler, for his artists, he did systematically provide the foundation for a history of the individual Cubist artists. After he had sufficiently recovered, Georges Braque had his second exhibition as an individual artist in 1919 at Rosenberg’s Galerie de L’Effort Moderne. As Alex Danchev noted, “The exhibition was a succès d’estime et morale. Blaise Cendrars wrote the review stating, “Monsieur Georges Braque is a pure man. He has only one thing in mind: quality. M. Georges Braque is the quality Cubist painter. He is the artist who reviewed all the Cubist theories and who chastised each of them for their excesses. He had questioned, interrogated, heard confession. Each Cubist painter had been led, in turn, before this austere figure, and has received from him a strict sermon. Through his authority and his insistence, he has succeeded in subduing those over-enthusiastic painters. He has arrested their growth, breaking off any tendentious branches and pruning the youngest shoots, which he called parasites. This puritan is a hard man who has ended up imposing his own laws, who has kept the entire order subjected to his will. What, then, is his discipline? The doctrine of quality.”
In 1920, on the occasion of an exhibition of a Georges Braque exhibition, Roger Bissière wrote, “Notes on the Art of Braque.” Danchev quoted part of this essay:” Braque is perhaps the first among the moderns to have glimpsed the poetry that comes from the beau métier, from a body of work made with love and patience, without the interference of a preconceived sensibility. He has understood that humane work, long caressed, ultimately bears the imprint of the care which surrounded his (painter-decorator) beginnings, and yields a moving humanity I cannot describe. Instead of letting himself go with the seductive effects of a brush stroke, with the endless tricks of the palette, instead of abandoning himself to his indefinable gifts, he is wary of them and wants to abide by the strictest of disciplines..”
Both of these early essays on Georges Braque, presage Rosenberg’s 1920 writing on the relation between Cubism and tradition. In 1919, Cendrars established Braque as the serious and paternalistic Cubist leader, while implicitly acknowledging Picasso’s absence. The 1920 essay by Bissière is a word salad of classicism and conservatism. The avant-garde the existed before the War is over, put to death by soothing post-war words, assuring the reader of the artist’s sense of obligation to the tradition of painting qua quality, over shock. In point of fact, Braque held the line for Cubism, making of it serious art, and, as he did so, it was probably in reaction to Picasso who was exploring new styles in the 1920s.
Picasso’s virtuosity and facile transference of his talents among a variety of styles from classicism to realism to one of his last Cubist works, Three Musicians (1921), as if Cubism were only another passing style, and not a movement that changed the avant-garde, laying the foundations for modern art. As Jonathan Gilmore explained it in his book, The Life of a Style: Beginnings and Endings in the Narrative History of Art, in his discussion of Picasso’s post-war work, “..while the cubist paintings reveal a consistent repertoire of forms, subjects, and techniques from 1908 to 1914, and exhibit a kind of development toward certain cubist ends, Picasso’s cubist paintings after 1914, when considered in a context that includes his contemporaneous ‘neoclassical’ and realist works, seem to bear no developmental structure at all. There may be a development in Picasso’s own style—however supervenient that is on the appropriated styles of others–after 1914, a style in which he sometimes uses cubist structures and motifs. But such a development is no longer a development of Picasso’s cubism, when that style is understood as more than merely the employment of a certain readily available stock of techniques and forms.”
So what happened to Cubism and where did it go?