Thursday, December 4, 2014

Taking a Wrench to Reality

by Julian Bell

New York Review of Books

December 4, 2014

The man who did the most to give Cubism a cohesive identity was Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. In early 1907, this progressive-minded twenty-two-year-old used funds from his German banking family to open a little gallery in the rue Vignon, just off the grands boulevards of Paris. He had an eye for the innovatory, and soon canvases by André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck were hanging on his walls. Two years earlier at the Salon d’Automne, the big event in the contemporary art calendar, these painters had been linked to Henri Matisse under the label les Fauves. But any group allegiance was now disintegrating. Matisse, serving on the 1908 Salon jury, rejected the latest work of another associate of les Fauves, Georges Braque, complaining that it was composed of “little cubes.” Kahnweiler promptly offered Braque a solo show.

Braque’s recently acquired friend Pablo Picasso was meanwhile starting to depend on purchases by Kahnweiler. The German was reliable: he made sure his painters had sufficient funds to continue with their artistic researches. Moreover, he was fastidious. By 1911 self-described “Cubists” had popped up all over Paris and were crowding out the Matisse contingent at the Salon, but of these only one, Fernand Léger, was let into the rue Vignon. Juan Gris, a personal protégé of Picasso’s, made it through the door soon after. Kahnweiler discouraged his exhibitors from submitting to the annual Salon, which he regarded as an occasion for contrived controversy. The sheer discretion of his operation gave it unique cachet, and the fortunes of all involved rose.

When war was declared in 1914, the French government impounded the gallery stock of this enemy alien. Stuck in neutral Switzerland, Kahnweiler composed Der Weg zum Kubismus (The Rise of Cubism), a philosophically reasoned advocacy of the work of Picasso, Braque, and Léger, his three “pathfinders of Cubism.” (Gris he favored with a later monograph.) In 1921, a year after it was published, word came down from the Elysée that the stock sequestered during the war must all be sold off. The market became flooded with hundreds of pre-war Cubist canvases, with the result that prices for them suffered a twenty-year slump. A chief beneficiary of this was a young and moneyed British aesthete, Douglas Cooper, who was able to acquire 137 Cubist pieces by the time the next war started.


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