There is much fine writing and intellectual vigour available on the web. One such piece is Jonathan Jones' very fine ntroduction to the new "Cubism and Its Legacy" exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London.
The show celebrates the canvasses painted by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907 and the First World War.
"The paintings are brown and grey, with spaces of white canvas turned cream with time ... their difficulty is not of a type that recedes with familiarity. Cubism is like a maths exam at the gateway to modern art. The paintings are uniquely unyielding."Jones states the problem clearly:
"Paradoxically, cubism is difficult not because it is abstract but because it is descriptive. If it were abstract, we could let go, relax, be moved. But Picasso and Braque were not abstract painters, and cubism claims not to be beautiful, but true ...Jones reminds us of Arthur I. Miller's recent book which revealed just how closely Picasso mimiced the deepest science of the day.
Most modern painting is stylish. It uses geometrical forms rhetorically. In revolutionary Russia, black squares and suprematist constellations of bars and pyramids became a shorthand for a new society. In Mussolini's Italy, futurist images of bodies hurtling through space became icons of militarism. Today, such modern geometries are as likely to be found on an album cover as in an art gallery. Cubism was never a style in that sense. It was an inquiry."
"Picasso learned about [Henri Poincare's relativism] through the mathematician Maurice Princet, who was a regular at Montmartre cafe tables. Picasso's friend André Salmon wrote that Princet "preoccupies himself especially with painters who disdain ancient perspective. He praises them for no longer trusting the illusory optics of not long ago... " Mathematicians, philosophers and physicists at the beginning of the 20th century were recognising that many absolute truths were convenient caricatures of a universe that might be far stranger, far further from common sense than anyone thought."From this, the two painters developed their artistic creativity:
"Picasso's first essay in the new painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), associates the death of the picture with sexual aggression and "primitive" release. It is an overturning of civilised lies, one of which is the neat illusion of perspective. Braque put his anger into words. "The whole Renaissance tradition is antipathetic to me," he said. "The hard-and-fast rules of perspective, which it succeeded in imposing on art, were a ghastly mistake... "Of course, we still haven't reached the point in our development where such strangeness can be accommodated repeatedly. As noted above, most modern art -- through abstract expressionism and super-realism and all the other isms -- reverted to the search for a style, leaving Cubism as an original and unique expression of a special kind of reality.
A Waste of Waste
Last week I posted about the possibility that Picasso's Garcon a la pipe would be auctioned for more than $100 million. Well it happened, of course. $104 million including the buyer's premium.
But the point here appears not to be enjoyment of the object at all. If the BBC is to be believed, the painting is likely to end up next to Van Gogh's Docteur Gachet in the sterile blankness of a Swiss bank vault, considered as an investment as if it were nothing more than a pile of gold bars.
"Destination-wise, much of the world's privately-held art ends up in the cash-rich US, or in Switzerland, where taxes and death duties are lower - a prime consideration for the super-rich. "Switzerland, broadly speaking, is the best place in the world to drop dead by a very long distance," says Mr Barker. And for the eagle-eyed seeking old masters, the bank vaults in that country's Zug region, where inheritance tax is zero, would be a very good place to start looking."Thus, a small coterie of billionaires circulate huge sums of money between themselves and, at the same time, they remove objects of beauty and utility from the gaze of the hoi polloi.
This coming Wednesday, it is anticipated that Picasso's Garcon a la pipe will be sold for more than $100 million. At the very least, it seems certain to beat the current world record price of $82.5 million set in 1990 by van Gogh's Portrait of Doctor Gachet. I hope that strikes you as disgusting as it does me. I am glad to know I am not alone.
"I don't think any painting in the world is worth $100-million," said Picasso biographer John Richardson. He suggested the extraordinary projected price for Garçon à la pipe says more about the current makeup of the art market than about the quality of the art itself.The seller is interesting. According to the story in the "Globe":
"I think that a lot of very rich people long to have a very fine Picasso, but they don't like Cubist paintings, they don't particularly like the later paintings, which are very sexual or very distorted." The Blue and Rose period paintings are safe and, "sort of scream Picasso from the wall. For a lot of very rich people, this is exactly the kind of painting they would like to have."
"The paintings are the property of the Greentree Foundation, a charitable institute dedicated to peace, human rights and international co-operation. It was created in 1982 by the philanthropist Betsey Cushing Whitney upon the death of her husband, John Hay Whitney, who had been the U.S. ambassador to Britain as well as the editor-in-chief and last publisher of The New York Herald Tribune. Mrs. Whitney died in 1998. She willed the paintings, along with the Whitney home in Manhasset, Long Island, to the foundation."The foundation had assets of $286 million in 2001. They have worked with Nature Conservancy to protect significant refuges in Georgia, and I found their name attached to endless numbers of good works programs and initiatives. So maybe the money won't entirely go to waste. But goddamn it, $100 million for a painting is still obscene.