The Cubists, at that awkward age bridging turn-of-the-century industrialism and Einstein's theory of relativity, painted simultaneous multiple viewpoints exploring the illusion of reality. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque led the way. The goal was, Braque wrote, "to expose the Absolute."
Cubists are less famous as printmakers. The 140 works in "The Cubist Print," opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art's East Building, also concern multiple meanings and shifting planes. Their power and tension jangle.
Picasso's and Braque's etchings and drypoints comprise the first of the show's eight sections. Similarities are evident, particularly in the 1911 to 1912 prints, "Still Life with Bottle" by Picasso and "Fox" by Braque, where the artists are forging a common Cubist vocabulary.
In the next room, Jacques Villon's prints boast larger, looser, noisier but clearer images. "Yvonne Duchamp, in Profile," a 1913 drypoint, portrays the seated woman in endlessly shifting facets. The multitude of planes and swimming air molecules are echoed nearby in another spectacular print, "Yvonne Duchamp, Full Face."
A touch of surrealism accents works by Louis Marcoussis; his portraits of Cubist poet Guillaume Apollinaire emit collage-like fragments of words and lettering. Jean- Emile Laboureur's more whimsical fine line works, including a round-faced self-portrait missing a mouth, build on the early Cubist experiments.
The exhibit includes two wood-engravings by Henry Moore and Villon's graphic studies of the bust of "Baudelaire" by his brother, sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon.
A final grouping of interpretations of Cubism range from total abstractions by Kasimir Malevich to floating families by Marc Chagall. Pochoir prints (hand-colored stencils) of compositions by Picasso and color aquatints by Villon (after paintings by Braque and Metzinger) are examples of the form's brighter offshoots. Some of these works are difficult, most are unsettling, but they are intentionally so. Ultimately, this is realism.
THE CUBIST PRINT -- At the National Gallery East Building, opening Sunday, continuing through Jan. 3.