The nicest thing about "The Cubist Print," which opens today at the National Gallery of Art, is its Cubist structure.
The story that it tells -- of the founding and the fade-out of the Cubist revolution -- is one we think we know just about as well as the Cubists knew the cafe's, the coffee cups and newspapers they so loved to paint. This show, like much Cubist art, is a little gray, but nonetheless it startles. Like the 140 pictures in it, it asks us to examine the thoroughly familiar from unexpected viewpoints, in unexpected ways.
"The Cubist Print" begins, as of course it must, with Georges Braque and Picasso, Cubism's co-founders. All their Cubist prints are here. They met in 1907. "We were like two mountain climbers roped together," Braque later recalled. Starting from the base camp established by Ce'zanne, they formed a partnership so tight that the viewer is hard pressed to tell their works apart.
Both Picasso's "Still Life With Bottle" (1911) and Braque's "Fox" of the same year show pyramidal booze bottles splintered and exploded. Both prints hint at cafe' life, at table tops, decks of cards, and the round rims of glasses. Both their bottles have been labeled. Their only striking difference is that Picasso's once held brandy, while Braque's contained gin.
Their story is not new. The Braque-Picasso axis has been as carefully examined -- from the inside and the outside, the bottom and the top -- as the table tops and bottles they so daringly portrayed. But they weren't the only Cubists. And they were not the movement's most prolific printmakers, as this show makes clear. Perhaps its greatest virtue is the attention that it pays three lesser Cubist artists whose admirable graphics are still too little known.
They are Jacques Villon (1875-1963), Louis Marcoussis (1878-1941) and Jean-Emile Laboureur (1877-1943). Each has been provided here with a little one-man show.
If the Braque-Picasso relationship is the most amazing in the history of modern art, that of Jacques Villon and his artist brothers -- the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon and the thinker Marcel Duchamp -- is not far behind. There is something harsh and raw about most innovative Cubist prints, but those of Villon (he was born Gaston Duchamp) are almost always lovely. Even when he speaks in a language newly learned, he seems to speak in verse. The faceted and sculptural portraits of his sister, engraved in 1913, are as full of affection as they are of exploration. The young Picasso sometimes dips into the strident, but Villon seems incapable of abandoning the sweet. What Picasso's eye attempts to shatter, Villon's seems to stroke. His masterpiece "The Dinner Table" (1912-13), with its straight lines and its dancing curves, is among the most compelling pictures in this show.
Marcoussis, born in Poland, is perhaps best known for losing out, in love, to the young Picasso (who, in 1911, threw over Fernande Olivier for the girlfriend of the Pole). Marcoussis, it is true, was not a major master, and not much of a painter, but his early Cubist prints -- particularly his poignant portraits of Guillaume Apollinaire -- have a kind of dreamy charm.
Jean-Emile Laboureur was astonishingly facile, and his prints are very funny. His Cubist pictures, like cartoons, may be read at first glance. The portraits he produced of British and American soldiers during World War I are wonderfully light-hearted. They prefigure Art Deco.
This show is full of shifts. It begins with little surveys of worthy individuals, but then it changes tack. The formal conventions of Cubist syntax, its shatterings of space, its scatterings of perspective, have been discussed so often it is a bit of a relief to see them ignored here. This show, half way through, begins to focus our attention not on artists, but on themes.
The subject matter of Cubist art has been too little studied. Half of Picasso's Cubist prints, and 80 percent of Braque's, are still lifes. Though they sometimes salt their pictures with in-jokes and with saucy puns, they return, as if obsessed, to newspapers, guitars and images of table tops. It is, therefore, a pleasure to find whole sections of this show devoted to such subjects as cityscape and sculpture.
Many early modernists represented here were in love with engineering and with soaring man-made structures. Robert Delaunay was as fond of the Eiffel Tower as Paul Klee was of spires; the American John Marin portrays grain elevators; Jan Matulka chooses skyscrapers; a twirling barber pole is enough for Stuart Davis. Suddenly this show, which began in tightest focus, opens to embrace artists as diverse as Henry Moore, Marc Chagall and Kasimir Malevich. Not all the artists represented qualify as famous. This conical exhibit offers, as it opens, unfamiliar images by such far-from-famous artists as the Czech Josef Capek, the Dutchman Lodewijk Schelfhout, and the Portuguese Amadeu de Souza-Cardoso. By the time we reach the last room, this exhibit has surveyed Cubism's ascent, Cubism's decline, prints made by such sculptors as Duchamp-Villon and Alexander Archipenko, and an extraordinary range of printmaking techniques.
One of these is pochoir, a technique for making colored prints by stencil, long considered trivial. Should a pochoir print, made by unknown artisans, be seen as an original work of art? Maybe yes, and maybe no, but the pochoir prints displayed here nicely map the region between earnest early Cubism and the gaiety of Art Deco.
"The Cubist Print" was organized by Burr Wallen of the University of California, Santa Barbara. He had help from Donna Stein, who contributed to the catalog, and from the Gallery's Andrew Robison. They chose the images on view, many of them rare, with originality and care. Their show, in the East Building, closes Jan. 3.