How Cubists Used Illusions to Break and Redo Paint

‘Still life with compote and glass’ by Pablo Picasso (1914-1915) © Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS

Cubism made its appearance in the first years of the last century, crying out its break with the past. The three leaders of the movement – Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris – took a hatchet from the conventions of perception. They cut out the nude, deconstructed the portrait and exploded nature into planes that clash and intersect. They made the reality strange and the painting unrecognizable. The arts press responded by calling them charlatans, incompetents, and provocateurs; the critic Camille Mauclair fumed that the Cubists were “madmen” whose “mental illness” endangered the “moral health” of the public.

However, the main vector of all this explosive radicalism is a genre that dates back to antiquity: the still life. Since Roman times, it has been a distinctly second-hand form. Even before a brush touches a palette, the artist arranges fragments of nature and society – fruits, birds, pottery, flowers, household objects, reading material – into an aesthetic whole. To paint such a table composition is to layer artifice upon artifice, bewitching the eye with virtuosity and creating an image that is obviously fake but also bewilderingly vivid.

Cubism and Trompe l’Oeil Tradition, an awkward title for a sparkling new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, investigates the volatile relationship between the revolutionary trio and the realism they seemed to reject. The cubists advanced by looking back.

‘Still Life – Violin and Music’ by William Michael Harnett (1888)

‘Breakfast’ by Juan Gris (1914)

The Guitar: ‘Statue of Terror’ by Georges Braque (1913) © ARS

You can see it in the way they processed the grapes. Dutch still life specialists have elevated the humble fruit into a refined gem. The 17th century Spanish Baroque painter El Labrador placed bouquets of these against dark backgrounds to give them a dramatic presence. This kind of hyper-illusionism asks the eye to call upon other senses: the jet of acidity and sugar on the tongue. But he also has a moral agenda, equating sumptuousness and desire with the ephemeral.

A Cubist Grape was a gloss on this gloss, a wry, worldly commentary on the tradition of reading food for spiritual meaning. Braque and co laid bunches on tables and surrounded them with wine glasses, pipes and newspapers, but they were less interested in what grapes meant than in how we see them or think we do.

The idea that the Cubists were really classics with a soft spot for old masters and old traditions is not new. Numerous studies have documented their debt to the past and their admiration for Corot, Ingres and Cézanne. But the Met show, hosted by Emily Braun and Elizabeth Cowling, more closely follows the Cubist fascination with a trickster impulse in painting that dates back to the Renaissance. They parody, flirt with and pay homage to European and American artwork intended to deceive the eye. “Art is a lie”, said Picasso. It’s also a game, and he and his buddies wanted to participate.

Picasso’s ‘Fruit-Plat with Raisins’ (1914) © Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS

Curators relish the intergenerational competitiveness of illusionist art. Pliny the Elder tells how it started, with a contest between two artists in the 5th century BC. Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes, yes, so realistic that it attracted hungry birds. He looked at the work of his rival Parrhasius, saw that it was covered with a curtain and asked to see what was underneath. Of course, the curtain was the paint, and it fooled not just a flock of fowl, but the sharp-eyed Zeuxis himself.

Curtains play a prominent role in trick painting iconography, both because they are difficult to put up and because they both reveal and obscure. In 1658, two Dutch artists staged an epic update to Pliny’s tale, but instead of trying to outdo each other, they joined forces. Frans van Mieris designed a curtain of blue taffeta halfway over an incredibly opulent floral arrangement by Adriaen van der Spelt. The result is a magical spectacle.

‘Still life with violin, ewer and bouquet of flowers’ by JS Bernard (1657)

In 1909, Braque painted a curtain of green felt, pulled to the side to reveal a violin that was both three-dimensional and abstract. The neck juts forward, while the body dissolves into a jumble of planes, so the instrument expands and contracts as it produces music. We see ourselves heard.

The show clearly shows how often and with what fidelity Cubists traveled through the past to learn such sorcery techniques. In 1665, Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts painted a portrait of a painting: a corner of the canvas has peeled away from its frame and curls downward, revealing that the incredibly realistic concoction of violin, sheet music, candlestick and ribbon that seems to slip off a marble table top is really just a veneer. Inside the image, gravity is an illusion; outside, it pulls the whole world down.

“The Painter’s Attributes” by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (1665)

Cubists relished the interplay of content and frame, past and present, object and image, all of which they compressed into their complex spaces. But they were less inclined than their ancestors to accept the limits of nature. In 1912, Picasso painted two oval canvases, like coffee tables seen from above. Both include the usual pipe, glass, and newspaper. One depicts a Michelin pamphlet decorated in the colors of the French flag and bearing the hashed but still decipherable motto “Our future is in the air”. It’s a take-off statement. Picasso envisioned an artistic movement headed in the same direction as the Wright brothers’ experiments: into the clear blue promise of infinite possibility.

In the accompanying piece, he enhanced the ancient act of magic by incorporating physical objects into spaces composed solely of paint and light. In “Still Life with Chair Caning” (1912), he glued a piece of machine-printed oilcloth to the canvas to resemble the rattan weave of the chair. This is not a caning sample, but an industrial representation applied over another representation. Then he traced the oval in a length of rope (purchased, unpainted), echoing the curve of the café chair and mocking the pretensions of traditional carved frames. The whole thing is an ingenious mix of dimensions. (The work, owned by the Musée national Picasso in Paris, is coming to the United States for the first time in 30 years.)

‘Still Life with Caning’ by Picasso (1912) © Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS

If the show has one flaw, it’s over-enthusiasm. Curators repeatedly make the same point, propping up their case with an excess of Cubist works, which begin to fade after a while. Still, there are worse sins than packing too much good art.

Before the end, we are confronted with a provocation in the form of a mirror – in particular, the fragment which Gris glued to the surface of “The Marble Console” in 1914. Until then, spectators relied on the artist to interpret the world. and seduce the eye with a selective, publicized and fixed version of reality. Gray’s piece of glass adds the elements of luck and change, and a new level of trickery. You may think you are looking at a simple painting. Instead, you stare at a disjointed fragment of something flashing that you can’t quite identify: a Cubist version of yourself. I cheated on you.

As of January 22, metmuseum.org

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