Until 1914, the words “cubism” and “avant-garde” seemed to be synonymous, but there were definite differences among the Cubist artists themselves. In the pre-war era, the Salon Cubists responded in a relatively cautious fashion to the examples of Paul Cézanne, while Picasso and Braque advanced beyond Cézanne via two stages, the monochromatic Analytic period and the Synthetic phase of collage and construction. Safe from the intolerant art audience in Paris, Braque and Picasso could innovate at will in the privacy of their ateliers. The Salon Cubists used color and were more legible and less hermeneutic than Kahnweiler’s experimental artists and hence were more accessible to the public. Before the War, the Salon Cubists were famous, even heroes, standing firm against critical disdain and public protest, but the War scattered them to the four winds. 

Fernand Léger and Georges Braque both served in the French Army, engaged in active combat, were wounded and had to recover before they could resume their careers. Many of their colleagues were in the camouflage corps. Albert Gleizes served for one year and then spent the rest of the war in New York City where he joined Marcel Duchamp, who had earlier taken himself out of the art game. Duchamp’s brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon was in the military and died of blood poisoning at the end of the war. His other brother, Jacques Villon, whose real name was Gaston Duchamp, also served in the army, as did Jean Metzinger. However, Henri le Fauconnier went to Holland and waited for the conflict to end, staying in the neutral nation well beyond the end of the War. Two major artists remained in Paris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, where, in safety, they could continue to evolve their art and to further their careers; and the privilege of staying behind would have an impact upon the post-war avant-garde. 

While the Great War disrupted the careers of avant-garde artists and stalled their creative progress, other artists sheltered in place. Like Juan Gris, who was from Spain and could, therefore remain in Paris, Picasso was also from that neutral nation. Henri Matisse was too old for service but he experienced great anxiety during the War, while his family endured a German occupation in northern France. Matisse painted uncharacteristically dark and brooding works until, as though exhausted by his angst, he migrated to southern France and spent the rest of the War in the bright sunshine. Picasso, for his part, missed his absent friends and colleagues but soon filled the vacuum with new individuals, including the poet Jean Cocteau who had popularized the phrase “return to order.” In fact, Picasso had already used classicism or his own version of an academic style with a series of elegant line drawings as early as 1915. The best known drawings are those of prominent dealers, always a focus of the artist’s attention, such as Ambroise Vollard and Léonce Rosenberg. 

In 1916, in a low key exhibition which can be seen in retrospect as the final Cubist show, “Modern Art in Paris.” In the midst of the Great War, it was of little interest that Picasso’s turn to classicism was seen as tantamount to his turning his back on the case for modernity. Even more remarkable was the fact that it was in this exhibition that Picasso finally put Les Demoiselle d’Avignon (1907) on public display. Although today this painting is seen as the opening gun of pre-Cubism, its inclusion made little impact on the scattered art audience. 

Cocteau proposed a collaboration on a new play for which he had written the script. The poet courted Picasso, assuming that the road to success led through two roads, scandal and what was left of Cubism or failing that the last important artist remaining in Paris. Cocteau had brought together a number of big players, the composer Eric Satie, the master of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, not to mention the choreographer, Léonide Massine. Bored and at loose ends Picasso joined the merry band in 1916 to put together a modern ballet called Parade. Cocteau’s plot survived only as a summary on the theater program, describing the play as “a Sunday Fair in Paris. There is a traveling Theater, and three Music Hall turns are employed as Parade. There are the Chinese Conjurer, and American Girl, and a pair of Acrobats. Three Managers are occupied in advertising the show.” The play is about confusion between inside and outside–the Parade was meant to attract the audience to the real performance inside the theater but to no avail. As Cocteau wrote, “..but the Theater remains empty. The Chinaman, the Acrobats, and the American Girl, seeing that the Managers have failed, make a last appeal on their own accoutn. But it is too late.” Daniel Albright explained, “One of the meanings of the French word parade is a kind of ante-theater to a carnival show: a sample of the merchandise designed to lure paying customers. The ballet Parade is constructed entirely around rhythms of advertising..Parade is a parade in vain: the lack of success drives the performers to increasingly frenzied repetitions in order to attract the onlookers, but no one will bite. The ballet is a series of instant replays of itself.” Massine, who played the part of the Chinese Conjuror, pretended to swallow an egg.  

Larry Witham explained, Picasso was to paint a mural for the curtain, design the stage set, and create the costumes for the Ballet. By 1917 Picasso went to Rome where he acquired a new mistress Olga Khokhlova, a ballet dancer and the daughter of a very respectable Russian general, whom he would later marry. Picasso began the exploration of Cubism as Design when he joined the group of outstanding artists participating in a revolutionary wartime production of the Ballets Russes in Rome. Presented by Sergei Diaghilev, based on a story by Cocteau, with music by Eric Satie and choreography by Léonid Messine, Parade was a modern ballet made remarkable by Picasso’s set designs, his extraordinary stage curtain, and his inventive costumes. The Parisian audiences, as demonstrated by the scandal that surrounded the modern ballet Sacre du Printemps in 1913, were not open-minded to anything new. If anything, Sacre du Printemps was more traditional than Parade, so, as Cocteau hoped, his ballet was met with similar howls of conservative fury. As Witham described in Picasso and the Chess Player: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and the Battle for the Soul of Modern Art, when the ballet opened “at the Théâtre du Châtelet, the largest playhouse in Paris, and it caused sufficient scandal to be a success. The strong Cubist costumes reminded some of the theatergoers, once again, of German villainy, and shouts arose at the start. “Go back to Berlin!” came one of many hostile harangues. “Shirkers! Draft dodgers!” Famously, the oversized Apollinaire, having returned from the war front with a head wound, rose in his sky-blue uniform and bandaged head, and spoke eloquently to calm the French audience. “Without Apollinaire,” Cocteau recalled, “women armed with hairpins would have gouged out our eyes.” The music by Satie— an atonal cacophony, not a melody— also jarred nerves. The next day the worst reviews called Cocteau, Satie, and Picasso the three scoundrels. Nevertheless, Parade went down in history as a shift in modern theater. As a wordsmith, Apollinaire would add another new term to the art world. He wrote the program notes for Parade, and for lack of a better way to describe it— he first thought of calling it a “supernaturalist” play— he hit upon the neologism “sur-realism” (beyond realism). He thought the word worked just fine.”

Other critics complained that the ballet was “half-Cubist,” or “only a bit crooked,” lacking the “superimposed geometric forms” they expected. Looking back on that night, May 18. 1917, one can assume that the theater goers were confused by the jarring disjunction between the classical line drawings that covered the fanciful environment covering the surface of the rideau and the costumes which were walking, dancing Cubist collages. The public had not seen Picasso’s collages and the critics and the audience would have been unprepared for the outfits on the Managers, for example, which resembled some of Picasso’s assemblages–also never seen by the art audiences. The Managers–one American and one French–were labeled “chromos with unhuman or superhuman characters” by Cocteau as a contrast to the more human cast members, such as the female acrobat. According to Juliet Bellow in her book, Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde, “The introduction of the Managers thus made Parade Cubist not (or not simply) because of the fragmented planes featured on their cardboard costumes, but more significantly and forcefully through their effect within the larger mise-en-scène. In comparison with the Managers’ hulking cardboard costumes, the ‘real’ characters’ actual bodies looked flat and flimsey, like papier-collés (or as Cocteau also suggested, small and hollow, like puppets).” The audience, already disrupted by Satie’s discordant music, had a difficult time incorporating the numerous themes, especially that of film and carnivals, with sandwich board men, transformed into Managers dressed in Cubism. Bellow included another interpretation, that of the reading of the fragmented Cubist designs worn by the Managers was understood as going beyond avant-garde art. “With eight million French soldiers mobilized and fighting in earshot if not in full view, the war had transformed Paris itself–into, among other things, a sort of macabre stage traversed by millions of wounded soldiers.” She wrote of “Picasso’s Managers–jumbles of body parts, pipes, canes, blowhards, skyscrapers and unidentifiable detritus–” compared to “Parade’s other performers betrayed no such overt signs of violence or corporeal disassembly. Yet in straddling real and virtual existence, they nonetheless evoked the traumatic effects of war–and, even more, the strangely detached experience of witnessing such bloodshed through reproducible media. As the bodies of les grands mutilés walked the streets of Paris and their dead brothers in arms flickered across movie screens in newsreels and fictionalized accounts of war, Parade’s play with corporeal presence and absence took on particularly unsettling resonances.” 

Because Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the dealer of the Cubist painters, Picasso and Braque, was German, Cubism was thought of as being, not French at all, but German, a misconception that only fueled the ire of the audience. Cubism was often spelled with a “K” to express this point. Just as the “parade” outside of the theater was a play on outside existing to call attention to the inside, the costumes by Picasso were also inversions. As Albright put it in Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts, “Parade was an exercise in recontextualizing high art by reversing planes: instead of a world where normal men and women contemplate pictures assembled out of cubes, we have a world in which walking cubes–the Managers–introduce artifices in the form of normal male and femlae dancers. If people like to look at cubes, cubes seem to like to look like people.” The American Manager was a man who was also a building that walked and the French Manager had trees sprouting out of his back, termed “‘synthetic’ cubist design, that is, the piecing together of imaginary fields of reality through odd collages of ready-made objects, or artful counterfeits of readymade objects,” according ot Albright.

For whatever reason, on 1917, Parade was Picasso’s final farewell to Cubism, and his definitive parting from Braque, who was operating a machine gun on the Western Front. The costumes of the characters, human and animal, were Cubist collages manifested in three dimensions. For Picasso, Parade was a way out of Cubism, for the Salon Cubists, after the War, this new direction towards design was a way back into Cubism—Cubism could become an applied art. Picasso’s final Cubist Painting was his homage to the pre-war years with his poet friends, Three Musicians of 1921. This painted version of Synthetic Cubism showed himself as the Harlequin playing the violin, Guillaume Apollinaire, by then deceased, as Pierrot with an accordion, and the poet Max Jacob, as the Friar. This was a personal painting, one that the artist clung to until 1936 before he sold it to A. E. Gallatin in New York. This version is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art today. But, as if to underline his homage to the past, PIcasso painted a second version in the garage of a villa he rented at Fontainebleau that summer. In this iteration, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the three musicians, characters from the Commedia dell’arte in Italian theater, the players are joined by a dog who peeps out at the viewer between the harlequin’s legs. Is the dog Fricka, the dog who appears in the famous painting by Marie Laurencin’s 1908 painting, The Group of Artists? In this work she and her lover Apollinaire are flanked by Picasso and his current mistress Fernande Olivier. Fricka, a small white dog sits on Picasso’s lap. In the MoMA painting, Pierrot (Apollinaire) plays the clarinet, the Harlequin (Picasso) plays the guitar–an obvious reference to Cubism, and the monk/friar (Jacob) holds sheet music. According to Peter Read in Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory, the three musicians could by ”Satie, Stravinksy, and Falla, the composers with whom Picasso had collaborated on the ballets, Parade, Le Tricorne, and Pulcinella.” However, given that Max Jacob (a Jew) had converted to Catholicism and was then living in an abbey, the identification of Picasso as the Harlequin–an analogy he often used–and Jacob as the Monk is almost certainly the more likely. The third character is almost certainly Apollinaire, given that Picasso was committed, by 1921, to donate a design for his tomb. The ending of eras was clearly on Picasso’s mind when he produced these two paintings: Apollinaire a long time friend and important early supporter died from his war wound, and Jacob, one of his first friends in Paris, a poet with whom he shared poverty in Montmartre, had retreated to the life of a monk, and he, Picasso, was far from being the wandering circus player. Picasso was famous and Cubism, for him, was over.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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