Behind the Scenes at the DAM

The Reasoning Behind Fracture: Cubism & After

The Chambers and Grant Gallery on level three of the Hamilton Building provides great opportunity for a focused presentation. Its intimate size mandates a careful selection of works so that each relates to the others in meaningful ways. Unlike some of our larger galleries, this one offers a quiet conversation between works one can see in a single sweep of vision.

I had several goals in mind when I decided on Fracture: Cubism and After. Over the last several years, many of the DAM’s modern paintings have been installed as part of the thematic groupings in the painting and sculpture galleries. I thought it important to bring a selection of those early twentieth-century paintings back to our modern and contemporary galleries, to show them in a different light, in the context of what would follow.

Many seminal ideas of cubism became the foundation of later art. In fact, we now know that cubism was one of the major transformations in all of Western art. It made a great break with artistic principles that had prevailed for centuries, and its influence continues today—sometimes in works of art that might surprise even Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque!

Cubism & “realism”

Cubist artists understood that paintings were not just windows through which one could view the world, but they were, in fact, flat painted objects that did not have to mimic what was in sight. They also proposed that an object painted with "realistic" perspective was no more "real" than an abstraction of that object on a flat surface.

The influence of cubism

Though cubist painters abstracted from the visual world, they always based their works on things from the world they could see. Some later artists used cubist styles to venture beyond cubist intentions; they made works of art not based on any subject or object in the world. We see several of these non-representational works in the gallery. These compositions are sometimes called non-objective.

Two young American artists who lived in Paris during the early years of the twentieth century co-founded a movement that took its cue from cubism but went well beyond it. Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell developed the movement called synchromism in Paris in the early 1900s. Macdonald-Wright described it as painting that was based “not in objectivity, but in form produced in color.” Both artists continued throughout their lives to make luminous and rhythmic paintings that respond to cubist precedents, but with bright prismatic color in compositions free of descriptive function. 

Three works to look for in the gallery

When we look at Braque’s loosely handled paint surface in Still Life with Grapes, painted shortly after the artist returned from World War I, we can see a variety of surfaces that he painted to “fool the eye.”  His early training as a painter-decorator taught him the skills to make faux surfaces. In the panel at far right, he combed lines in wet pigment to imitate not only wood grain, but imitation-wood wallpaper— an imitation of an imitation. The letters RNAL are remnants of the word "Journal."  Both Picasso and Braque also pasted actual newspaper fragments in some of their collages. Other painted fragments in Still Life with Grapes refer to a playing card, a pitcher, and a guitar.

Some individual works in the show have interesting aspects that go even beyond the painting, itself: For example, Picasso’s rich and mysterious Still Life from 1937 gives no hint of what would soon consume his energies: our canvas is dated just one day before the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica—a subject that Picasso would take on fully in his epic painting that has today become a monumental commentary on the universal horrors of war.

The most recent painting in this gallery, Roy Lichtenstein’s Violin, shows that cubism continues to be influential in our time. Lichtenstein continues in the tradition of Picasso and others who made still-life paintings that include stringed instruments like guitars and violins. But his painting mimics cheaply printed mass reproductions in which the Ben-Day dots are visible. The crisp patterns of stripes and stenciled-in dots are meant to look anonymous and mechanical, even though they are hand-painted. 

This exhibition title

Naming exhibitions can be a tricky business. But for me, the title Fracture brings to mind at least two references: first of course is the cubist fracturing of solid form in painting. I think also of a fracture—or break—with earlier painting traditions. Finally we might even consider the fact that painters after the cubists used the cubist style to make yet another great break: to go beyond abstraction of the visual world, to make completely non-representational (non-objective) art.

Gwen F. Chanzit is curator of modern art and the Herbert Bayer Collection & Archive. Among her projects last year was Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s. She hopes you'll stop by Fracture soon.