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Cubism and Its Legacy

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2013
Sarah Powers, Curator for Special Projects

I n 1907, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque met through a mutual friend, the avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The two artists would become creative and intellectual partners in the creation of a radical art movement known as cubism. From their meeting until the advent of World War I in 1914, Picasso and Braque worked in tandem to develop a new pictorial language that challenged and defied the traditional Renaissance notion that painting should represent an illusionistic window onto the world by revolutionizing the representation of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface. The innovations of cubism—the organization of painting into a linear, gridlike framework, the merging of objects with their surroundings, and the combination of various views of an object into a single image—would forever change expectations about art and influence countless artists throughout the twentieth century.

One of the highlights of the Hood Museum of Art’s present engagement with the movement is Picasso’s 1912 painting Guitar on a Table. Working within the format of a tabletop still-life arrangement, Picasso dissected his subject into its elemental textures, colors, volumes, and geometric planes. The tabletop and guitar were in fact both emblematic motifs of cubism that were often employed by Picasso, Braque, and their followers to evoke the sights and sounds of a café, an important venue of avant-garde artistic exchange at the time. This painting was owned by Gertrude Stein, the American modernist writer and art collector who hosted a weekly salon for American and European avant-garde writers and artists in Paris. Guitar on a Table can be seen hanging on her salon wall among her extensive collection of modern art in a photograph by Man Ray that is also on view in the Hood’s exhibition.

The exhibition includes work by other European artists impacted by the innovations of cubism as well, including the painters Maria Blanchard, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and Jacques Villon and the sculptors Jacques Lipchitz and Henri Laurens. Cubism’s reordering of reality also appealed to American artists such as Stuart Davis, George L. K. Morris, and Preston Dickinson, all of whom experimented with cubist pictorial devices in the years following World War I. These artists applied the lessons of cubist construction to their modernist images of the American cityscape and industrial sites. In Composition—Times Square, for example, Morris overlaid the planes and grid of cubism onto lines that suggest a street map of New York, while signage bearing the names of streets, movie houses, and grand hotels seen in Times Square reflect the ubiquitous presence of advertising as a driving force of the modern city.

During the 1940s and 1950s, American painters like Adolf Gottlieb and Mark Rothko developed a new form of abstract painting that came to be known as abstract expressionism. Although these artists eventually moved away from recognizable subject matter, they remained faithful to cubism’s efforts to flatten space and reassert the picture plane. Arguably the most important and influential art movement of the twentieth century, cubism inspired artists and their audiences to question assumptions about art and embrace the possibilities of challenging convention.

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