In the two years following the completion of his monumental Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Pablo Picasso changed the game of artistic representation. Alongside his collaborator in the Cubist project, Georges Braque, Picasso worked within the traditional structures of art history in order to revolutionize the course of Modernism.
Although we can isolate the paintings that Picasso executed in Horta de Ebro, Spain, in the summer of 1909 as the opening chapter of the Cubist movement—and of High-Modernism itself—the works themselves grew out of Picasso’s hard-won development of pictorial language and are a reinvention of, rather than break with, centuries of art history. Examining the artist’s trajectory between 1907 and 1909, we see an artist at war with both perceived and actual rivals, ranging from Diego Velázquez and Paul Cézanne to Henri Rousseau and André Derain. Then in 1909, Picasso created an entirely new visual vocabulary and changed the course of Modernism forever.
The paintings that Picasso created in 1908 and 1909, the period leading up to the putative first cubist paintings such as Femme assise (1909), reveal a careful disassembling of the traditional system of signs that had dominated art historical discourse up through the 19th-century. The clear symbolism of Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods gave way by 1908 to a game of disassociation in which allegorical constructs are employed, but their connections to deeper meaning severed. Allegory in Western art until the end of the 19th-century often carried moralistic messages, with a reliance upon religious symbolism. In our efforts to view the advents of Modernist abstraction, and particularly Cubism, as a violent rupture with 19th-century precedents, we fail to adequately explain the subject choices Picasso employed in the development of the Cubist idiom. Content remained for Picasso a vital mode of expression, driving the formal ingenuity of the Cubist revolution.
Now, after more than a century of exhibitions and insightful scholarship, there is a danger that we might over-intellectualize Cubism. Seminal essays by scholars ranging from Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the most important dealer in Cubism at the time, to more recent insights by Leo Steinberg, William Rubin, Yves-Alain Bois and John Richardson, to name a few, have allowed us to trace the roots and implications of Cubism as a movement. But, as these scholars remind us, our parsing of the movement must not lose sight of the disorganized and revolutionary fervor at the root of the movement. It was a game of war for Picasso and Braque, not a philosophical treatise.
Yet any fear that these works might fall into a forgotten corner of art history is refuted by the consistent demand in the market for Cubist works. Over the past five years, 41 paintings, works on paper and sculpture created by Picasso between 1909 and 1914 have sold for a combined total of $99.7m. This includes the setting of a record price for a Cubist work at auction last June when $63.7m was paid at Sotheby’s for Femme Assise (1909), Picasso’s portrait of his lover and model Fernande Olivier.
When you consider the top prices for Picasso, both at auction and in private transactions, bright coloration and large scale are key factors. The artist has become a brand unto his own in the international marketplace, a monolithic arena that splinters into smaller markets based on chronology and medium. Typically, brightly colored portraits of his lovers and muses, Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter particularly, have dominated the higher end of the Picasso market in past years – nine of the top 20 works ever sold at auction fall into this category.
The artist’s Rose and Blue Periods, along with the 1930s and 1940s portraits, have given rise to the majority of top prices for the artist, both privately and at auction. Dora Maar au Chat (1941) sold in 2006 for $95m at Sotheby’s and the market hit a new height with the $179m paid for Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955) at Christie’s in 2015. With nearly a decade between their sales, these works signal the deep desire for large-scale, boldly colored paintings by the artist.
So, what led collectors to chase this 1909 painting of Fernande, which is painted in a limited range of tones – rich greens, browns and greys – of the kind that would come to dominate the Analytical Cubist works in the years that followed, from 1910 to 1912?
At this point last year, the art market projected uncertainty. A vote on Brexit was looming while a protracted presidential election raged on in the US and financial markets and currencies were in flux. These anxieties fed into the art market as collectors returned to places of art historical security: Picasso’s Cubist works provided that. The price for Fernande suggests a deep appreciation among today’s collectors for the roots of Modernism and indicates that tastes might be broadening to encompass more sophisticated and serious works.
It is worth noting that the appetite for works from this period re-emerged in earnest several years ago, notably with auctions of works from the Jan Krugier Collection at Christie’s in November 2013 and at Sotheby’s in February 2014. The collection was a sophisticated ode to a bygone age of collecting, but many of the works were met with enthusiasm from today’s buyers. The collection included several works from Picasso’s Cubist period such as Étude de visage (1909) – a small but powerful work on paper presenting a fragment of Fernande’s face which sold for £590,500—almost nine times its £70,000 low estimate.
Then, an auction of works from Marina Picasso’s collection at Sotheby’s in 2016 included a selection of 14 Cubist drawings, all but two sold, raising a total $1.5m. These were relatively minor works and many sold for multiples of their pre-sale estimates with competitive bidding.
What makes Picasso’s paintings of 1908 to 1909 so radical is their employment of traditional subjects even as they revolutionize representation. Picasso worked from within the constructs that had dominated Western art for centuries before him in order to disassemble them completely. In front of one of these paintings, the viewer feels the power of history mingled with fresh reinvention, and the result can be staggering.
The artist as cultural revolutionary appeals to today’s viewer, not just on the market but also at exhibition. Large crowds descended on the Met for the exhibition of Leonard A. Lauder’s comprehensive collection of Cubism in 2014-15, which had been compiled with focus and academic rigor and which Lauder has promised to donate to the museum.
Those lucky enough to tour the Shchukin Collection exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris before it closes, will see Picasso’s proto-cubist Trois Femmes (1908)—a work that leaves a strong impression. The transfixing presence of the figures, which reveal the debt owed to the African sculptures which had so inspired Picasso between 1907 and 1908, coupled with the sculptural sensation of the interlocking forms, positions this work as a pivotal moment between Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the Cubist project of 1909 to 1914.
It will be fascinating to see how the market deepens for Cubism in the coming seasons. In their overview of the cubist period (Picasso: The Cubist Years 1907-1916), editors Pierre Daix and Joan Rosselet include more than 520 paintings and works on paper from the period 1908 – 1914. The final number of works from the period is certainly well in excess of that. Though a good percentage of the works are now in public collections, we can expect at least another 50 works over the next five years, from small works on paper to collages and oils. Even over a century later, the urgency that led Picasso to create on such a prolific scale can be felt in the market supply.
It will also be interesting to see whether this re-appreciation for the revolutionaries at the root of Modernism extends to lesser-known names of similar movements including Orphism, Futurism and Dadaism. Will Sonia Delaunay and Sophie Taeuber-Arp find their audience? Will significant works by Umberto Boccioni appear on the market? And will the market for Picabia, with the current retrospective at MoMA, reach the height it merits? The war that Picasso and Braque launched with Cubism had its counterparts in multiple contemporaneous movements and the market has more to discover in these fruitful years of the European avant-garde.