Cubism: Taking a Wrench to Reality

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Julian Bell takes an extensive look at the development of Cubism, through the works on view in the exhibition Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (through February 16, 2014).

Bell writes of Georges Braque's Trees at L’Estaque (1908), a painting in the first gallery: "In his artistic researches, Cézanne had been intent to paw at the boundary between his personal visual sensations and the 'Nature' (or 'the real world,' as we might now say) that he could walk through and handle and inhabit. But, the junior contender [Braque] seems to claim, I can go beyond that. I can take a wrench to reality. Look, my brush lays hold on the angled planes of the object world, its facets; look, it locates the edges on which Nature must turn; see me unfasten the presented scene, open it up, seize it by a firm and encompassing grip. And yet at the same time, this claim is avowedly a feint. It is Braque who is at the further remove from Nature, adapting in the studio what his predecessor had painted en plein air. "

Ultimately, Bell concludes, "Cubism’s craziest proposition, its most blatant feint, has a claim on our attention: to insist, in other words, that Cubism has truth value. Pictures want to be bodies, pictures want to be objects, but they aren’t, and they can’t be. The edge where one color meets another can never be the edge where a solid meets space. That is the truth, but is it a truth that painting can point to? Cubism opened up the question, leaving it to dangle every time a brush is raised a hundred years on."

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