Room 207 Telefónica Collection. Cubism(s) and Experiences of Modernity

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From Constructive Cubism to “Plastic Rhymes”. 1918-1923

From the beginning of 1919 onwards – a little earlier in the case of some artists –, the powerful appeal of the “return to order”, of the new classicism, and of updated forms of certain figurative trends, led several cubist artists to rethink their position. This was behind Diego Rivera’s early departure and eventually extended to Jean Metzinger and María Blanchard.

But in spite of this dissidence, Cubism continued. The fragmentation and converging planes that characterised this later Cubism became a common element of cubist sculpture, as exemplified in the work of Jacques Lipchitz and Henri Laurens. On another level, artists like Albert Gleizes and Georges Valmier contributed to the convergence of Cubism and Abstract art, strengthening the sense of dynamism and the complex structure of surfaces, and trying to deduce the natural “laws” that govern the organisation of forms and colours.

Precisely at this point, the notion of structure became even more powerful in the work of Juan Gris, who approached his paintings as a “sensitive architecture” made up of rhythmic forms. In 1920, these interrelated forms on the surface of his works solved a tough cubist problem: how to respect the flat canvas while at the same time maintaining the visual identity of the objects that the paintings refer to, without distorting them.

The turning point – a “revolutionary” change in cubism – occurred when Gris shifted from orthogonal grids to curvilinear drawing. He began to make ideograms in which the outlines linked objects on the canvas through a series of evocative, musical arabesques. Critics coined the term “plastic rhymes” to describe these new works. And Gris used them in still lifes arranged in front of windows that brought to mind the link between art and nature, and subtly invoked synaesthesia appealing to all five senses. Significantly, Gris pushed the logic of representation in some of these compositions, and anticipated Surrealist solutions that would later be used by artists such as Magritte and Dalí. Interestingly, as Juan Gris was developing his “plastic rhymes”, Vicente Huidobro was producing and presenting his “painted poems” as a brilliant, original expression that completed the connection between the arts in cubist creative scenes.

Deviations from the Cubist Experience. 1919-1931

Juan Gris presented his “plastic rhymes” at the Galerie Simon in 1923, when the Dada movement was in its final stages and the scene was set for the advent of Surrealism. The first stage of abstract art, in its full, aniconic sense, had already developed in parallel to the second Cubism, and the cubist experience seemed destined to exhaust its own capacity to survive.

Nonetheless, Cubism continued in two ways. Firstly, by becoming the lingua franca of all things modern for a new generation of artists. And secondly by dissolving into Art Deco.

In any case, one of the properties of Cubism from the outset was its ability to spread and become a strategy for the projection of personal artistic solutions. There are numerous examples of this dynamic. Some of these are illustrated in the union between the Telefónica and the Museo Reina Sofía collection, including several works that substantially contributed to shaping Spanish modernity. These are complemented by various international works.

At the height of his work in Madrid, from 1919 to 1921, Rafael Barradas revived the cubist formula, but unlike the Parisian cubists he did so by taking Cubism towards Pictorialism and gesture. Salvador Dalí became fascinated by Juan Gris and introduced him to the Residencia de Estudiantes and to members of the Generation of ‘27. He then developed his early surrealist works, around 1926, “appropriating” Picasso’s language, although the “soft” guitars that appear in his “moonlight” paintings can also be read in works produced by Juan Gris at the same time. Some of these paintings by Gris are part of the Museo Reina Sofía collection, and show the scope of his work. They also illustrate the artist’s personal evolution towards figurative approaches influenced by Cubism, which he did not have the chance to develop further. Some of these late works have a classicist, almost metaphysical touch that could also be seen, around 1921, in Metzinger’s post-cubist works, and which Vicente de Rego Monteiro picked up years later in the singular synthesis of his relief-paintings. Also around that time, Manuel Ángeles Ortiz, who was then Picasso’s “disciple”, alternated between abstract Cubism and Neoclassicism and extended the dichotomy between them, hybridising the two formulas and subtly moving them towards the surreal.

And lastly, the most distant transformation – or better still, “transference” – of the cubist experience found its way to Joaquín Torres-García and his Universal Constructivism in the late twenties and early thirties. And it did so from the moment the Uruguayan artist recognised his “debt” to Juan Gris. Through that gesture, Juan Gris and Cubism established their place in the aesthetic consciousness of the best Latin American modern art.