January 15, 2015

"Cubism" Captures The Met

It's time for me to make good on a promise to re-visit the wonderful exhibition "Cubism" on view until February 16th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  As I mentioned in my blog post "Metropolitan Miscellany", this show comprises 81 outstanding examples of Cubist Art, as gifted to the museum by the collector and philanthropist Leonard Lauder.  Mr. Lauder, Chairman Emeritus of the Estée Lauder Company, a major cosmetics concern founded by his mother in1946, has been a fixture among the museum patron crowd for quite a while, but with this gift he ascended from mere "donor" to somewhere next to God.

You see, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art is unquestionably one of The great art museums in the world, its modern and contemporary art departments were never quite on a par with the rest of their collections.  To be sure, they had some very important works but there were gaps in the 20th century holdings.  With this most generous gift, Mr. Lauder has filled a void and thereby elevated the Met to a whole new status in the world of Modern Art collections.

Why does this gift make such a difference?  The answer is two-fold.  First, Cubism might very well be considered the most important art movement of the 20th century - a radical departure from traditional art whose influence is felt to this day.  Basically, the Cubists took a subject and broke it down into its most elementary forms, shuffled the forms around and reassembled them into an abstract image.  Often the subject was depicted from a variety of perspectives giving the viewer almost an infinity mirror effect.  The forms were generally very geometric thereby giving the impression of cubes, although they are often more like a "Where's Waldo" puzzle than a recognizable form.  Cubism was effectively the start of Abstract Art and was also influential in the fields of architecture and literature.

The second reason why this gift is so significant is because Mr. Lauder only collected the very best and these 81 examples of paintings, sculpture and works on paper represent the crème de la crème of the field.  Therefore, not only does the Met now have a stock of Cubist Art, but they have the finest examples of Cubist Art in any collection, public or private, anywhere.

The Cubist Art movement began around 1907 and was dominated by four main artists - Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger.  Mr. Lauder chose to concentrate his collecting on just these preeminent artists and acquired major examples from each one.  In this special exhibition to celebrate the gift, the Met has opted to present the entire collection in seven galleries arranged chronologically beginning with Picasso and Braque, the true Fathers of Cubism.

Pablo Picasso
"Still Life with Fan: L'Indépendant", 1911

Georges Braque
"Still Life with Metronome", 1909

Here we see for the very first time a blurring of the line between fine art and popular culture as pieces of newspaper or tobacco wrappers were incorporated into paintings.  Visitors can peruse the influence of Old Masters on the emerging avant garde and the fusion of "certitudes" or "attributes", visual clues, into the finished product.  For me, the most informative discussion was on the differences between Picasso and Braque whose works during this period were almost indistinguishable.  The exhibition wraps up just prior to World War I when color had re-entered the Cubist vocabulary and the images were the purest forms of abstraction.

Fernand Léger
"The Village", 1914

There are gifts and there are GIFTS and Mr. Lauder has bestowed a grant to the Met that will extend beyond the museum walls for many years to come.  It is thanks to the altruism of connoisseurs such as Mr. Lauder that New York lays claim to some of the finest museums in the world - a gift to art lovers everywhere!

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