New York

“Cubist Illustrated Books In Context”

Franklin Furnace

Though hardly a novel notion, recognition of the importance of graphic media in spreading artistic ideas has only come into its own in recent examinations of early-20th-century “isms.” Through the ’60s, the American approach stressed painting and sculpture as the main signposts of visual development, and relegated drawing, prints, and particularly the design media to the back burners. All this began to change with the emergence of the issues of the ’70s; as contemporary concerns shifted toward the alternative media, we started to look for new things in the past.

One of the major legacies of the ’70s has been the recognition and support of contemporary artists’ publications, and a side-effect of that legacy was the receptive climate for this examination of Cubist books. The show, curated by Donna Stein, was a persuasive display of the passion and commitment underscoring Cubism. It covered the range of Cubist publications from books about Cubism, through catalogues of Cubist exhibitions, to deluxe, lavish, color-plate monographs—the examples on Sonia Delaunay, Natalia Goncharova, and Mikhail Larionov are knockouts in this regard; and it surveyed Cubist graphic expression from the declarative representations of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Léger, through the studious, scaffoldlike treatments of Louis Marcoussis and the soft Cubistcum-realist renderings of Jean-Emile Laboureur, to an abstraction Alexandra Exter did for the cover of the first Russian monograph on Picasso.

Other documents provided a vivid sense of the context in which Cubism developed: among the most humorous was a satirical cartoon by the popular American illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, entitled “If Whistler had only been a Cubist,” executed in 1913–14. In the texts in the catalogue accompanying this show, which was part of a dual exhibition with Cubist prints held at the Aldis Browne gallery, Stein discusses such topics as the collaborative relationships between artists and writers of the period and the role of such publishers as dealer Henry Kahnweiler in making the work of his artists available in the accessible forms of books and prints. At issue here is nothing less than the transformation of Cubism, the artistic style, into Cubism, the cultural sensibility.

A fascinating case in point is offered by Picasso’s etchings for Max Jacob’s prose poem Saint Matorel, published by Kahnweiler in 1911. In this set of illustrations Picasso made his style, which loomed so rich, complex, and difficult in his analytical-Cubist paintings of the time, approachable in crisp, specific images. This publication was must buying for artists both in and outside Paris; one image from it, Mademoiselle Léonie, played a significant role in the study of Cubism by the Russian avant-garde. With its precise composition of curved and straight lines, the 1910 etching represented what Kasimir Malevich was to call the “additional element,” in other words, that which makes Cubism Cubism and not, say, Futurism. Malevich, in fact, included this work as an exemplar of Cubism in the teaching charts he developed at the Institute of Artistic Culture in Leningrad in the ’20s.

Again, Mademoiselle Léonie is notable for its anonymous, public look, its engineer’s-drawing character, which affected not only the Russians but Cubist-disposed artists in general. Picasso provided them with a method they could use as a hammer to reshape the world. With certain artists, particularly Goncharova and Larionov, it is hard to distinguish the influence of Cubism from other sources important to the dynamic approach to color and form both applied in their theater work; and where there is Cubism, of course, can Futurism be far behind? In this show the context was filled out with striking examples of Futurist and Futurist-influenced periodicals, from Lacerba, the main mouthpiece of the first-generation Futurists, to Ma, the Hungarian journal, one of the so-called “little magazines” of the ’20s.

Ronny Cohen