Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910–1912

Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910–1912

May 29, 2011 to August 21, 2011


Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910–1912
united select paintings and nearly all of the prints created by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque during these two exhilarating years of their artistic dialogue. “This small-scale exhibition examines a brief moment with huge implications for the history of art,” commented Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “This show is the first to focus exclusively on this landmark period of intense productivity and adventure for Picasso and Braque.”

This international loan exhibition was organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Kimbell Art Museum and had its debut in Fort Worth.

During the years 1910 through 1912, these two great masters invented a new style that took the basics of traditional European art—modeling in light and shade to suggest roundedness, perspective lines to suggest space, indeed the very idea of making a recognizable description of the real world—and toyed with them irreverently.

“These are beautiful, enigmatic, playful works of art. They’re like conversations in the artist’s studio or favorite café, not to be hurried,” remarked Malcolm Warner, deputy director at the Kimbell Art Museum. “We hope our visitors will take the time to savor them.” Following up on hints they found in the work of Paul Cézanne, and brimming with youthful bravado, Picasso and Braque created pictorial puzzles, comprehensible to a point but full of false leads and contradictions. Viewers pick up a few clues—a figure, a pipe, a mustache, a bottle, a glass, a musical instrument, a newspaper, a playing card—and these start to suggest a reality in three dimensions. The impression is that of a fast, modern world, with glimpses of models, friends, and the paraphernalia of drinking and smoking. But things never fully add up, either in detail or as a whole—and deliberately so. Teasingly elusive, the image is a construction of forms and signs that the artist has put together in a spirit of parody and play. The pleasure for the viewer is to let go of all normal expectations and enter into the game, which is an endlessly intriguing one.

 More than any avant-garde artists before them, Picasso and Braque called into question conventional ideas about art as the imitation of reality. They collaborated so closely and like-mindedly (“roped together like mountain climbers,” in Braque’s own phrase) that their works of this period are sometimes difficult to tell apart. Their radical experiment in picture-making, which came to be known as Analytic Cubism, has been as far-reaching in its implications for art as the theories of Einstein for science.

This choice, intimately scaled exhibition, featuring 16 paintings and 20 etchings and drypoints, was conceived and organized by Eik Kahng, chief curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, in partnership with the Kimbell and Mr. Warner. The Kimbell was a natural collaborator on the project since the Museum’s collection includes an outstanding example of the work of each artist from the Analytic Cubist period, Picasso’s Man with a Pipe and Braque’s Girl with a Cross, both painted in 1911.

In the exhibition these appeared among paintings from a number of other distinguished collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Tate in London, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, and the Robert B. and Mercedes H. Eichholz Collection. The etchings and drypoints were selected from several sources, most notably the extraordinary holdings of Cubist prints in the Melamed Family Collection.

Not surprisingly in light of its importance in the history of art, Cubism has been the subject of numerous museum exhibitions. Some of them have been dauntingly large, especially given the amount of time each of these highly complicated works demands of the viewer. The guiding principle of this exhibition was that less can be more. It offered the kind of small, carefully calibrated selection that invites the viewer to spend time exploring each work in detail.

The inclusion of a good number of etchings and drypoints ensured that printmaking emerged with a proper sense of its importance to Picasso and Braque at this moment in their careers. Other themes suggested by the exhibition and discussed in the accompanying catalogue include the role of format, especially the use of oval-shaped canvases. What part does this play in the Cubists’ pictorial game? How do the visual push and pull of the oval format differ from those of the rectangle or square? How did the artists intend their oval compositions to be framed?

This last question is especially relevant to the Kimbell’s Picasso, an oval canvas that has been lined and framed as a rectangle. In an essay in the catalogue, Kimbell conservators Claire Barry and Bart Devolder present the discovery that this painting appears in an early photograph of the artist’s studio—as a work in progress, much different from its final form, but clearly on an oval stretcher. This, along with results of their research into the materials and techniques of the Cubists, was also presented in a special section of the exhibition.

For over a year, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art worked with California-based MegaVision to capture spectral images of select works in the exhibition. The quality of spectral imaging surpasses that of normal professional photography. Thanks to recent advances in the technology of LEDs (light-emitting diodes), RGB (red, green, and blue) filters have been removed from behind the lens and replaced with LED-produced RGB light, which is aimed directly onto the object that is being photographed. Beyond the visible spectrum, spectral imaging allows options for ultraviolet and infrared, which can reveal features invisible to the human eye. The elimination of the filters in the optical path allows for a higher-quality image, greater accuracy of color, and, especially important in the art world, a huge reduction of harmful light.

The spectral imaging created by MegaVision was incorporated into interactive software that allowed visitors and online users to manipulate and study works with a level of detail and precision never before possible for museum audiences. Produced in partnership with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Kimbell Art Museum, this cutting-edge visual technology introduced new ways to look at and understand the processes, relationships, and stylistic developments of this important movement. Hand-held, touch-screen computers provided mobility and interactive media content to exhibition visitors. For the first time in a museum setting, every visitor had the opportunity to sit in front of an actual painting by Picasso or Braque and independently zoom in on the smallest brush strokes and specks of color. This is just an example of the many explorations that this program made available to visitors.