Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cezanne and Picasso -- Two Exhibitions

Paul Cezanne, Card Players, Musee d'Orsay, Paris

By Charles Kessler

Just a quick word on two superb shows I was lucky to see just before leaving for vacation: "Cezanne's Card Players" (Metropolitan Museum) and "Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914" (Museum of Modern Art).

The radical change between Cezanne’s paintings and Cubism was not Cubism's greater abstraction, it was the change in the relationship between art and viewer. Cezanne’s paintings of card players, as innovative as they were, remain traditional easel paintings in that they are self-contained, discrete worlds. We are allowed to look at this world, to experience the resonant color and dynamic composition and brushwork, but it all takes place in a separate space from our own. The card players themselves typify this phenomenon: the men don’t interact with us or even with each other but rather exist in their own separate worlds.

Picasso broke away from traditional easel painting beginning with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and the show “Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914,” makes the change explicit.

A blow-up of a photo of Picasso’s studio, a photo mural that aptly serves as an introduction to the show, best serves to illustrate this change.  It shows a real guitar hung in front of a large Cubist painting of a figure whose arms and hands are cut-out pieces of paper attached to the guitar as if playing it. And in front of it all is a real table with a real still life ( a bottle, cup, newspaper, pipe, etc.).

We don’t experience the art in this show as an imaginary world removed from ours -- rather the art has the presence and impact of real things in our world. It inhabits the viewer’s space, and the viewer becomes an active participant. This was Picasso’s great breakthrough and his revolutionary contribution to the art of the twentieth century.
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Photographic composition with Construction with Guitar Player and Violin. Paris, on or after January 25 and before March 10, 1913
Gelatin silver print, 4 5/8 x 3 7/16"  Private collection


Carl Belz said...

Regarding Cezanne and Cubism, you say the key element is the relationship between the art and the viewer, not the fact that Cubism is more abstract. I see it a little differently. The issue in Cezanne is that the demands of the picture and the demands of the visible world, which have been in tension since the middle of the 19th century reach a head-on collision whose import is that one or the other has to give, as though previously the two were able to sustain a kind of equilibrium in which the integrity of each could be maintained but not any longer.

So the visible world yields, which enables Cubism to be developed, insofar as once that happens Picasso and Braque are free to restructure the visible world in way that will enable it to be accommodated to the demands, which is to say the structures of the painting world. The process of restructuring and accommodating turned out to be what we call abstract, but it didn't aim for that, it just "naturally" happened that way, like a byproduct of the process.

And yes, the Cubist picture was indeed meant, and does indeed possess, the "...presence and impact of things in our world...but not just ANY things in our world, not merely ordinary things but, rather, the things we call artworks, or more specifically paintings, whose structure and character and identity are radically unlike the structure and character and identity of objects in our world. What Cubism risked in this enterprise was the impression that its paintings might be mistaken for objects in our world, might be mistaken for ordinary objects that, unlike artworks, possess no meaning.

As evidenced by his gesture of putting an ordinary object on a pedestal, a bottle rack, say, and signing his name to it, Duchamp can be said to have made made that mistake. In recognizing that, however, you must also recognize that art's history often flowers via artists' "mistakes."

Charles Kessler said...

I was remiss in not making it clear that while Cubist paintings have the presence and impact of things in the real world that they are not experienced as MERELY objects in the world but rather as art, i. e. objects with meaning. (And I think, BTW, this also applies to Duchamp’s Readymades.) Where I think we may disagree is I believe the “demands of the picture” at a certain point was driven by the desire to manifest this type of presence and impact, not by the demands inherent to the painting world.

Art Gallery Exhibitions said...

The card players themselves typify this phenomenon: the men don’t interact with us or even with each other but rather exist in their own separate worlds. Very unique and meaningful painting. I love your painting blog.