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: Institute Acquires Three Cubist Masterpieces


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The recent accession of Henri Matisse's fauvist painting, Boy with a Butterfly Net, strengthened the Institute's modern collection with a key work in the sequence of modern movements leading from the Post-Impressionist painters, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, to the major revolutionary schools of the twentieth century. The Institute is now happy to announce the accession of three additional outstanding works of art created between the years 1913 and 1917, which document important phases of what has probably been the most influential of all pioneer modern movements, Cubism. The three works are Roger de la Fresnaye's La Vie Conjugale, painted in 1913; Jacques Lipchitz' full-length bronze statue of a bullfighter, Matador, executed in 1914; and Juan Gris' Still Life, an oil painting dated 1917. La Fresnaye's La Vie Conjugale, and Gris' Still Life, enter the Institute's collection through the John R. Van Derlip Fund; the Lipchitz bronze was acquired through the John Cowles Foundation Fund.Cubism, which followed the intuitive experiments of the fauves with a more rational method of formal invention, and which broke completely with visual appearance as a guide to the representation of nature, had its beginnings about 1906. Its most important early influences were African negro sculpture and the work of Cézanne. In its effort to create a new language of formal expression, it went through two main stages: first, often called “analytic,” in which the external aspect of nature was progressively broken up and then practically abandoned by the free application of a kind of poetic solid geometry, very much under the influence of Cézanne's dictum: “you must see in nature the cylinder, the sphere, the cone;” and the second, a “synthetic” or reassembling phase, in which the severely simplified forms of the earlier period lose nearly all reference to the objects from which they were derived and assume a life of their own.The earliest stylistically of the three new works is the sculpture, Matador by Jacques Lipchitz. Though executed in 1914, a year later than La Vie Conjugale, it represents one of the first stages of the Cubists' analytic approach: the block or facet stage in which the outward form is cut or broken into facets, like a cut diamond, but in which the separated facets remained joined within the natural configuration of the subject. Next in the line of development is Roger de la Fresnaye's La Vie Conjugale. It illustrates one of the middle states of the “analytic” period in which the natural appearance of the subject can still be plainly recognized but in which details of specific forms have begun to be changed in a “counterpoint” pattern of straight lines and contours. Juan Gris' Still Life, on the other hand, is in the full tide of the “synthetic” development, its precise, flat forms more invented than derived, and contributing their independent life to an exquisitely fused and balanced composition which needs no reference to the external world for its artistic impact.Before describing these works in greater detail it may be well to outline briefly the artists' backgrounds. La Fresnaye was born in Le Mans in 1885. He studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and Académie Ranson in Paris and, becoming interested in the Cubists, exhibited with the Section d'Or group in 1912. During this period he had many discussions with his brother, an engineer in the Nieuport aircraft firm. La Fresnaye's work, Conquest of the Air in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, a huge cubist picture painted in the same year as La Vie Conjugale, was perhaps an outgrowth of their mutual interest in the larger connotations of science. La Fresnaye also travelled in Italy and Germany in these years. He died in 1925, and his precarious health having been undermined by a gas attack in World War I.John Lipchitz, one of the foremost living modern sculptors who now lives and works in New York, was born in Druskeniki, Polish Lithuania, in 1891. He went to Paris in 1909 and became influenced by the Cubists and negro sculpture in 1913-1914. The rapidity and brilliance with which he caught and assimilated the significance of Cubist innovations is seen to exceptional advantage in the Matador, one of the finest sculptures of the period. He produced his first “open” sculpture of twisted cast bronze strips in 1927 and has remained basically a cubist sculptor to this day, his work attesting the continued vitality of the style.Juan Gris, who was born José Gonzales, in Madrid, in 1887, attended the School of Arts and Sciences, Madrid, until 1906 when he went to Paris. There he joined Picasso and his circle, who lived in a dilapidated tenement on Montmartre, nicknamed the bateau lavoir—the floating laundry. It was a period in which Picasso was beginning to grow away from the emaciated figures of the blue and saltimbanque periods into a more confident style of classic breadth and repose. Gris lived a hard life, making illustrations for newspapers and hawking them from one editorial office to another. Influenced by Picasso, he exhibited in 1912 with the cubist painters of the Section d'Or and the same year, at the Salon des Independents. In the meantime, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler was watching his development. Becoming convinced that he had discovered an artist as “great as I had believed,” Kahnweiler contracted with him to buy the whole of his future production. The period between 1916-1919, according to Mr. Kahnweiler in his book, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, is one of the most fruitful and beautiful in the whole of the artists work, many considering it the peak of his development. In 1917, when he painted Still Life, Gris was at his maturity and in full possession of the resources of an art which he had also mastered intellectually. He worked in Paris until his death in 1927.As his name implies, Roger de la Fresnaye was an aristocrat. Like those other aristocrats, Delacroix and Degas, he set very high standards for himself. Alert to every new idea and aware of the difference between the fashionable and the valid, he naturally responded to the influence of Cubism. He understood the discipline and research connected with the cubist language. Furthermore, he understood the possibilities for clarity and power which the new means of expression offered. Since he was not an innovator, this exceptionally talented painter has frequently been called a moderate cubist and vastly underrated as an artist. La Fresnaye's works indicate that he had a strong personality as well as an original approach. While others created the style, he helped to perfect it.Painted before the artist reached 30, yet a mature work, La Vie Conjugale portrays a bachelor, smoking and reading, surrounded by the amenities of an intellectual life. As the bachelor relaxes he dreams of the bliss of married life. A beautiful woman appears by his side, taking his arm. Thus, La Fresnaye used the bold language of Picasso to develop a very personal and romantic theme. The painting is a work of great finesse. The elements of a happy home life, books, papers, and other objects have been worked into a beautiful combination figure study and still life. The treatment of details, along with the highly refined sense of color suggest the best in the French tradition. A rhythmical arrangement of curves and angles holds the composition together, carrying the spectators eye around the painting.Jacques Lipchitz modelled his Matador in clay in 1914, the first year in which he created purely cubist works. However, he had been associated with the cubist painters since coming to Paris in 1909. Like them, he was deeply interested in emphasizing the underlying solid geometry of his subject. In addition to this, Lipchitz introduced into his work an effective series of patterns and a sense of movement. At first glance, the figure seems to combine both human and mechanistic forms. On closer examination, the surface treatment proves to be far from mechanical. Every angle from which the Matador is viewed suggests the controlled movement and ritual of the ancient art of bullfighting. It is this feeling of movement, more than any other feature, which removes the art of Lipchitz from Negro sculpture and recalls the influence of contemporary painting.The subject of this sculpture reminds us again of Lipchitz' close association with the Spanish painters, Picasso and Gris. The elegance of the work reflects his admiration for the painting of Gris, one of his closest friends at the time. It depends on careful arrangements for its final effect, as the case of the newly acquired Still Life by Gris. Although a profound student of the art of the past, nothing in Lipchitz' work suggests an archaeizing tendency—the imitation of older styles. The Matador is a gay and original work pointing the way to the sculptor's later developments in the handling of mass and movement.Immediately on his arrival in Paris, Juan Gris joined Picasso at his now famous studio at 13 rue Ravignan. Influenced by his colleague he gradually developed a somewhat austere, classical application of the cubist style seen as its best in the Institute's new painting, Still Life, of 1917. Pursuing his own inclinations with determination, Gris produced a series of still life subjects of great beauty, based on a painstaking arrangement of balanced elements. In the case of the Institute's Still Life, he has taken as his point of departure certain aspects of actual objects, the rectangular surface of a table, the curve of a violin, and the round shape of a vase, and rearranged them, as Chardin had done, into a balanced pattern on canvas. Despite the two dimensional nature of the picture, it is not flat or poster-like. Gris has created the illusion of three-dimensionality by the masterly draftsmanship and use of contrasting colors. The blacks, whites, and grays of the smaller objects make them appear to stand in relief against the browns, grays, and greens of the larger objects. In addition to this accomplishment, Gris, in his arrangement, has illustrated how these various objects appear from different angles, thus combining several possible views with both ease and order, while the individual forms carry a life of their own.Although La Fresnaye died in 1925, and Gris in 1927, their works continue to reveal two of the greatest talents of the present century. The acquisition of La Vie Conjugale and Still Life not only provides the Institute with two monuments of their art of outstanding value as reference points and inspirational sources for the abstract art of our time, but, along with the earlier purchases of Delaunay's Saint Severin and Table and Fruit by Léger, gives it an enviable representation of paintings associated with the most widely influential and perhaps most important movement of twentieth century art.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Jacques Lipchitz, Matador (detail), 1914. Bronze. The John Cowles Foundation Fund.
  2. Juan Gris, Still Life, 1917. Oil on wood, 28 7/8” x 36 1/4”. John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  3. Jacques Lipchitz, Matador, 1914. Bronze, 31 3/4” high. The John Cowles Foundation Fund.
  4. Roger de la Fresnaye, La Vie Conjugale, 1913. Oil on canvas, 38 1/2” x 46 5/8”. John R. Van Derlip Fund.
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Source: "Institute Acquires Three Cubist Masterpieces," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 18 (May, 1953): 86-91.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009