Fort Worth

“Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910–1912”

Almost two dozen years after “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” wowed visitors at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and California’s Santa Barbara Museum of Art have come together to mount “Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910–1912.” With this show, the two institutions couldn’t have hatched a cheekier project. Just consider the metrics. moma’s extravaganza featured nearly 400 oil paintings, collages, papiers collés, ink drawings, and sculptures executed between 1907 and 1914, with masterpieces borrowed from points around the globe, including the Soviet Union. The latest exhibition comprises only sixteen paintings and twenty prints, mostly from American collections. Amid its many solid examples, the current exhibition features several pieces that the Modern didn’t A-list. Yet here, such modest offerings allowed us to dwell longer and to savor each work in greater detail.

At the Kimbell this summer, works by the Spanish and French colleagues were hung (as Picasso/Braque pairings so often are) side by side to allow viewers to grasp how, in Braque’s words, “it seemed almost as if we were two mountain climbers hanging from a single rope.” And indeed, at close range, the differences between the masters’ hands were hard to discern. But stepping back from the paintings—ten paces, say—one found that the figures and still lifes wrought by Braque remained the same, representational elements mixed among geometric shapes. Meanwhile, viewed at the same distance, Picasso’s portraits and tabletop arrangements suddenly emerged as though rendered in bas-relief, seen through a pair of 3-D glasses. Backlighting his compositions with softer tones—as he did in Female Nude, 1910, and Man with a Pipe, 1911—Picasso caused his multifaceted individuals and objects to grow more volumetric, his still lifes at times even coming to resemble townscapes on tables.

In several instances, “The Cubist Experiment” called attention to how improvisational Picasso and Braque were at this critical juncture, more confident with the visual language they’d pioneered. Despite Picasso’s tendency toward illusionistic kinetics, both artists were known to have made drastic changes after they’d already drawn their outlines and even once they’d begun painting. This is evident in Picasso’s Man with a Pipe, which was originally a still life. And it’s not hard to imagine the curls worn by Braque’s Girl with a Cross, 1911, as a bunch of Cubist grapes; meanwhile, in Picasso’s Fan, Pipe, and Wineglass, 1911, it’s clear that a figure once sat, however briefly, beside the table.

If Picasso’s greatest Cubist masterpieces—canvases such as Ma Jolie, 1911–12, and Portrait of D. H. Kahnweiler, 1910—were wholly absent from this show, the lack was turned to advantage, allowing us to see Braque’s works for their nuance and for the great influence they too exerted. With little trouble, you can identify the qualities and painterly strategies that other artists, from Juan Gris to Piet Mondrian, and indeed, Picasso cribbed from Braque, and appreciate his clear, if manic, articulation of forms. With Braque, it’s easier than with Picasso to decipher quasi-camouflaged objects on tabletops and assorted musical instruments; the French artist, rather than veering toward abstraction, went the opposite direction, depicting so many glasses and bottles in a still life from spring 1912, you’d think he was the sorcerer’s apprentice. Then, too, there are his numerous, oft-overlooked innovations: It was Braque who introduced the tondo format to modernism; who (among the Cubists) first painted the shadow of an illusionistic nail on a canvas as if it were a wall; who (as a former Fauve) dared to enliven monochromatic surfaces with a modicum of color; who debuted paper sculptures; and who added papier collé elements to the painting’s hitherto flat surface.

Scanning the Kimbell’s tightly focused installation, you glimpsed the possibility that Picasso may have understood Braque’s innovations more fully than Braque himself. It’s a classic example of which is more important—being the first or being the greatest? Ironically, in many of the turgid essays in the exhibition’s catalogue, what Braque had to say about Cubism is cited to explicate Picasso’s intentions. If the Frenchman truly understood what he’d initiated, he’d have achieved more with his own ideas than Picasso did. Sadly, you can’t mount a show of artworks by Braque that’s as wondrous as the one moma recently devoted to Picasso’s Guitars. But the next best thing has been done: “Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experience 1910–1912.” Sometimes a little goes a long way.

Phyllis Tuchman