With Met Museum Show, Professor Emily Braun Reveals a New Side of Cubism
A radical idea that grew out of a Graduate Center seminar led to a critically acclaimed exhibition.
Distinguished Professor Emily Braun (GC/Hunter, Art History) has curated several significant art exhibitions, but just before opening her latest show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, she experienced unusual butterflies.
The show, Cubism and the Tromp l’Oeil Tradition, co-curated with Elizabeth Cowling, was a risky proposition, she said. It introduces a new view of Cubism. The curators assert that the Cubists borrowed heavily from a style of still-life painting that relied on verisimilitude and other illusions to “deceive the eye” or trick the viewer into confusing painted objects — grapes, curtains, violins, even other paintings — with the real things. The premise that Cubism, which ushered in abstract art, adopted the styles of an old-fashioned and even unfashionable art form is radical. Even though Braun knew she and the exhibition team had the scholarship to back up their ideas, she still worried about how the show would be received.
As evidenced by reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review, and the Brooklyn Rail and the weekend crowds, the show, which grew out of a Graduate Center seminar, has been a critical and popular success. “There are many different ways of looking at Cubism, and this builds on those too,” Braun said. “But it was — I hate to use the term — gratifying to see that the thesis was accepted. Repeatedly people say, ‘It changed the way I see things.’"
Signature Cubist collages by Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso, made primarily between 1912 and 1914, hang in the same rooms with prime examples of trompe l’oeil still-life paintings from the 1600s through the 1800s. Throughout, the curators show the parallel ways in which the two art forms incorporated illusions, jokes, references, and altered perspectives. A companion catalog delves even more deeply into the influences of trompe l’oeil art on Cubism.
The Art of Illusion
The Cubists are known for introducing collage into fine art, and in the very first Cubist collage, Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), Picasso employed trompe l’oeil. He incorporated into the work a piece of oilcloth machine printed to resemble the rattan used in chairs. In this sense, the curators write, “he wittily imitated an imitation.”
That same year, Braque created the first Cubist papier collés (pasted papers) when he affixed strips of imitation wood-grain wallpaper to his drawings — another illusion within an illusion. Braque, who came from a family of artisanal housepainters, taught his fellow Cubists how to mimic wood, marble, and stone in their art.
“Make no mistake,” Braun said, the Cubist works “don't look like trompe l'oeil, except when you see certain passages.” But, she said, the Cubists were referencing the trompe l'oeil tradition.
Both trompe l’oeil artists and Cubists played with contradiction as well as deception. One 17th-century trompe l’oeil painting, Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with Flower Garland and Curtain, depicts a dazzling bouquet of flowers that, in real life, could not have bloomed at the same time – a contradiction masquerading as reality. The bouquet is partly obscured by a shimmering blue curtain like the ones 17th-century Dutch collectors used to protect valuable works of art. The illusion is that the artwork is a painting within a painting.
In trompe l'oeil art, "there’s a lot of play with thresholds, fake frames, objects that come over the base of the picture, pulled-out drawers that beckon the hand,” Braun said. The exhibition explores how the Cubists incorporate these motifs in their art.
In an exhibition room titled “Origin Stories,” hangs a 1665 trompe l’oeil masterpiece, The Attributes of the Painter, by Flemish painter Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, showing in realistic detail a painting and a sketch of that painting as if they were hanging on the wall of the artist’s studio, surrounded by the painter’s brushes, palette, bottle of oil, and maulstick (used to support the hand holding the paintbrush).
Nearby, the curators show how Juan Gris adapted this painting-within-a-painting concept in his Cubist collage Violin and Engraving (1913) by pasting an actual 19th-century engraving into the work. Gris uses other trompe l’oeil techniques of painting a frame for the engraving and the nail from which it hangs as if it were artwork on the wall of his own painting. The Gris and Gijsbrechts paintings look nothing alike, yet they share a sense of teasing and deception. Both styles of art raise questions, Braun said, about what is a forgery and what is real or original.
An Exhibition Emerges From a Seminar
Braun first spotted the connections between Cubism and trompe l’oeil when she co-curated The Met’s 2014 exhibition of the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Cubist art with Rebecca Rabinow, who was then the Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Modern Art and the Curator in Charge of the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at The Met. Braun, who has been curating Lauder’s renowned art collection since graduate school, said she and Rabinow noted the use of trompe l’oeil wallpapers and other parallels in the Cubist works. “We noticed the checkerboards, the play with illusionism in certain passages, and the repeated use of gaming metaphors: game boards, playfulness, the play with words,” she said.
In 2015, she and Rabinow led a seminar at the Graduate Center, funded by the Mellon Foundation, on trompe l’oeil theory and practice. “That’s where we dug deeply into this tradition and then, even more so, we began to see how the Cubists were referring back to this, just at the moment when they’re taking apart the tradition of Western illusionism.”
Last fall, Braun taught another Mellon-funded seminar connected to the exhibition on still life and curatorial practice. Students from the Graduate Center and Hunter College learned from Braun and four Met Museum curators and one conservator about different periods of still-life painting; she and Cowling each gave a class on the logistics of organizing an international loan exhibition.
Braun praised the Mellon Foundation’s generous support for the seminars, which give students immersive museum experiences. “How good it is to be able to come into a museum and see what the curators do and work with the objects as opposed to just seeing them as simulacrums on the screen,” she said.
An Insider’s Guide to Curating
Braun, who has been an adviser to alumna Stephanie Huber (Ph.D. ’22, Art History) and Ph.D. candidate Samantha Small (Art History) who are now fellows at The Met, shared advice for aspiring curators. “Get that experience early on as a research assistant or curatorial assistant for an exhibition,” she said, “so you see how things are put together. It's really like a film production. It's got enormously complex logistics and there's a big team.” She added that you have to like to work collaboratively, and you have to do the intellectual work that requires solitude, thinking, and writing.
“The strongest curating,” she said, “comes from a strong art history background — knowing how to study objects as material things, knowing their history, their biography, understanding how images relate to one another, working with conservators for your interpretations.” She added, “You have to be clear in communication, which does not necessarily mean to compromise on your ideas. It just means you have to express complicated ideas effectively. And that's a real challenge, but a wonderful thing to be able to do.”
Braun and her fellow curators spent seven years planning the current exhibition, which was scheduled to open in November 2020 and then canceled due to the pandemic. The show was rebooted three months later and opened in October 2022 with most of the institutions agreeing to lend their artworks. “In this unbelievably tumultuous time of our lives to have it finally realized … that was the biggest triumph,” Braun said.
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