The genie in the bottle of the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Facets of Cubism” (up through April 16) is Paul Cézanne, whose 1898-’99 Self-Portrait with a Beret greets you as you enter the Rabb Gallery. It was Cézanne who by crunching planes as if they were geological plates warped space and time and opened the door to artistic relativity. “Facets of Cubism” depicts some of the early efforts of those who plunged through, most notably Picasso but also Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Henri Laurens, Jacques Lipchitz, and Juan Gris. In a press release for the show (there is no catalogue), MFA director Malcolm Rogers states, “The birth of Cubism is arguably the most important event in the history of modern art,” and it’s unarguable that without Cubism we would not have modern art as we know it, but one could also liken the birth of Cubism to the fall of the Tower of Babel and the fragmentation of the artistic community into mutually unintelligible languages, from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Mark Rothko’s color fields and beyond. Picasso had the ability to communicate in any artistic language, and his initial Cubist efforts emulated Cézanne in probing reality and art’s depiction of it, but soon the concept became too hard — or too easy — for him and he turned elsewhere. Cézanne, like Bellini, kept his genie bottled up and his works bursting with tension. Cubism, having popped the cork, enjoyed a bubbly explosion of creativity before the fizz dissipated.
It’s just as well, then, that Picasso gets the lion’s share of “Facets of Cubism,” almost half of the show’s 70-odd works, which add loans from private collections to the MFA’s own holdings. His 1907 Head of a Woman (a study for Les demoiselles d’Avignon) and 1908-’09 Head of a Man attest to the influence of African masks; the 1909 sculpture Head of a Woman, which depicts his then-mistress Fernande Olivier, looks like a Cézanne portrait in three dimensions. The two-dimensional Cubist representation of reality was a more demanding endeavor, and in his 1910 Portrait of a Woman Picasso pushes it about as far as it would go, the figure diffracted into multiple planes and even dimensions and hovering on the verge of dissolving into abstraction. It’s Picasso’s genius that he’s nonetheless able to make her as distinctive as Bellini’s Caterina Cornaro. But his 1911-’12 Standing Woman and the 1913 Man with Guitar say more about the artist’s personality than his subjects’, and the 1912 Still Life with a Bunch of Keys suggests that Picasso is about to invent sudoku. The early Cubist Braque (and Raoul Dufy, though he’s not represented here) likewise qualifies as a Cézanne disciple with his 1908 The House at La Roche-Guyon, the repetition of shapes giving order to the chaotic perspective, whereas his 1912 Fruit Dish and Glass, with its incorporation of wood-grain wallpaper, seems more of a David Copperfield illusion. Even the pumping cylinders of Léger’s Still Life (1913) and The Factory (1919) and the cut-and-paste of Gris’s Still Life (1915-’16), part of a series of illustrations for Cubist poems by Pierre Reverdy, seem little more than decorative. The artist who took Cubism beyond Picasso was Joan Miró in his three seminal early-’20s landscapes: The Farm, The Tilled Field, and Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), where visual puns and paradoxes rise to the level of poetry. And even he couldn’t sustain it: the language of his World War II magnum opus, his Constellations series, is that of a private dancer.
On the Web:
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: http://www.gardnermuseum.org/
Museum of Fine Arts: http://www.mfa.org/