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Picasso and Braque: Brothers in Art


by Stephen Becker 6 Jun 2011

An exhibition now at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth explores the foundation of Cubism – a style considered revolutionary in the early 20th Century. And a walk through the exhibition shows that it took two artists working as a team to turn the art world upside down.

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Glass on a Table, by Georges Braque, 1909–10, oil on canvas. Tate, London. © 2011 Artists Rights Society

An exhibition now at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth explores the foundation of Cubism – a style considered revolutionary in the early 20th Century. And a walk through the exhibition shows that it took two artists working as a team to turn the art world upside down.

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The first thing you realize after seeing the early Cubist work of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso is that, while each was an artistic master, they were also just regular guys. Their pictures focus on what a lot of guys in their late 20’s are interested in – namely drinking and women.

Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, Pablo Picasso, 1911, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998. © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso

WARNER: “The Cubists sat around a lot in cafes – drinking and talking and having animated discussions of art. And they took what they saw literally in front of them as much of their subject mater.”

Curator Malcolm Warner helped organize “Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment: 1910-1912” for the Kimbell Art Musuem. The exhibition uses 36 prints and paintings from these artistic comrades to try to explain how Cubism came to be.

During the second decade of the 20th Century, Braque and Picasso both lived in Paris. Each wanted to make a name for himself and was ready to take an artistic leap to do so. In smoke-filled cafes, they decided they were finished with trying to realistically represent the world through art because it was impossible to truly capture it. So they developed their own artistic language that really only they understood.

Eik Kahng is the chief curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which organized the exhibition with the Kimbell.

KAHNG: “It was an internalized dialogue that they had with each other alone. They had to see each other every day, they had to see what the other had done before they could go on. But they didn’t really want to include anybody else, and they didn’t believe that anybody could understand or follow what they were doing. And in some respects, they were right.”

Following what they were doing is still difficult today. The pictures are painted in muted colors, and it’s tough to even know what you are looking at. You might even think some of the paintings are abstract. But that’s not the case.

WARNER; “The Cubists always wanted you to feel that there was something from reality embedded in there and to have the pleasure of trying to figure it out.”

Cubism got its name because it was once described as looking like a collection of little cubes. In the pictures, real-life elements are broken down into lines and geometric shapes and then pieced back together to represent objects and human forms.

Still Life with Bottle of Marc, Pablo Picasso, 1911–12, drypoint. The Melamed Family Collection. © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso

Warner points to a Picasso print as an example.

“In a print like this one, the Still Life with a Bottle of Marc, you see them using some of the techniques that still life artists have used through the ages – to create an illusion of a third dimension on a two-dimensional surface, like lines and shading. But in their case, they make it all self-contradictory – in a teasing kind of way that leads you in a little bit to think that you can make out a glass. … But of course, you can’t make the glass completely add up as an object in space. And that’s part of the fun.”

While the Cubists stayed just on this side of abstract art, they are credited with opening the doors to it. Future abstract painters Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, among others, developed their styles partly through exploring Cubism.

Kahng, from the Santa Barbara museum, says this influence is one of Cubism’s legacies.

KAHNG: “In some ways, everything that’s happened since is indebted to this very moment of rupture with the tradition. This breaking point.”

Braque and Picasso often joked that they were two mountaineers tied to one another scaling the mountain of artistic revolution. And in another bit of symbolism, Picasso sometimes referred to Braque as “Willbourg” – the French pronunciation of “Wilbur” in reference to the Wright Brothers, the pioneers of flight.

That comparison is appropriate. While the Wright Brothers were risking their lives in the name of science, Braque and Picasso were risking their careers in the name of artistic progress.

KAHNG: “It is the impulse to be original, to be new, to be something that’s never been done before. To become something that nobody else can recognize. That I think is something that they did aspire to.”

It was a heady time for the artists, and when you look at the works at the Kimbell in that context, it’s easy to understand why liquor bottles, playing cards and some of life’s other comforting vices made their way into the pictures.

The trick, of course, is finding them.

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