Picasso, the Avant-Garde, and Photography

Alfred Stieglitz opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in New York City in 1905. The Gallery was located at 291 Fifth Avenue, and was soon known simply as “291”. It was here that Stieglitz exhibited many artists whose works had never been seen by American audiences; Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Francis Picabia, and others, alongside photographs. This was a concept that was unheard of at the time. Stieglitz described 291 as “a laboratory, an experimental station, and must not be looked upon as an Art Gallery, in the ordinary sense of that term.”

The early 20th century saw a major transitional period in both painting and photography. Photography was slowly and painfully emerging from the shadow and shackles of painting imitation, the Pictorialist movement. The late nineteenth century was dominated by art photography consisting of sentimental landscapes, allegorical drama, and portraits that mimicked traditional studio paintings. While photography has never truly escaped Pictorialism, and one could argue that the movement is as strong as ever thanks to computer software and digital processing, it was during the first ten years of the 20th century that the seeds of the Straight photography movement were sown, evolving into what we now recognize as modern photography.

Picasso. Man Ray 1923(*)

The current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris (February 24th- April 25, 2010) surveys the pioneering role that Picasso played in the development of Cubism and his dialogue with Surrealism and other important art movements in the 1920’s and 30’s. The exhibit includes nearly 200 paintings, drawings and sculptures by Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Leger, Joan Miro, and many others who formed an international avant-garde group that came to be known as the School of Paris. The purpose of this exhibit is to highlight the impact Picasso and the avant-garde had upon the art world and cultural development at that time, including poetry, writing, and music. The exhibit includes photographic portraits of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and others who were part of the eclectic Parisian circle. Exhibit curator Michael Taylor uses a jazz metaphor in describing the interplay between the avant-garde, describing the improvisation and mimicry that takes place during a jazz session as similar to what was happening in Paris. Indeed, several important early Cubist paintings contain musical subjects; Braque’s Still Life (Violin) and Picasso’s Man with a Guitar, both from 1912. Cubism and Jazz share similarities in primitive and native roots, and both use simplicity and familiar forms to build complex structures.

Cubism represented a seismic shift in the way visual artists depicted the world around them ,“ said Taylor, the Muriel and Phillip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Forms were flattened, dissected and recomposed into various essential shapes and lines that were shown from multiple angles and viewpoints. No longer was pictorial fidelity to the natural world considered paramount to a painting’s success, as artists were now free to engage in a profound imaginative reordering of reality.”

While this exhibit makes a clear connection to the avant-garde’s impact upon painters, sculptors, writers, poets and musicians, it is surprisingly silent regarding the impact upon photographic artistic style. Perhaps this connection was considered too broad and /or potentially distracting to the necessarily tight constraints of this exhibit. There is a companion exhibit, Picasso in Context (February 24th- April 25, 2010) which explores the impact of Picasso and Braque on the fledgling American avant-garde, including works by Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Paul Strand. These works are paintings, and the exhibited works by photographer Strand are portraits of Picasso and Braque taken in the 1950’s. Students of photography history are left without answers to any questions regarding the impact that Picasso, and particularly Cubism , had on the changes that took place in modern photographic style during these years.

The Steerage. Alfred Stieglitz 1907

Stieglitz sailed to Europe in 1907, and during the voyage he made his famous image The Steerage. The negative was developed in Paris. Stieglitz considered this image to be among his finest photographs, and was proud to tell others that Picasso had praised it. Picasso was at that time painting his Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, a radical work with primitive influences and an abandonment of perspective. The image is flat and two dimensional, and is widely considered to represent the earliest development of both Cubism and modern art.

Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon. Pablo Picasso 1907

Stieglitz returns to the United States and for the next ten years presents the works of European and American modernists in his 291 Gallery. In 1911 Stieglitz presents the first American exhibit of Pablo Picasso’s work, and in 1914 he presents a joint exhibition of Picasso and Braque. From 1902 to 1917 Stieglitz published the magazine Camera Work, with early editions devoted primarily to the fine art pictorialism of photographers such as Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence H. White, and Edward Steichen. Highly romantic photographs that drew criticism for their hand applied, post production craft work that many felt undermined their artistic legitimacy. Gradually, the photographs presented in Camera Work came to retreat from the pictorialist styles and move in the direction of Stieglitz’s new found emphasis on what he considered to be true photographic themes and textures. Painting was changing drastically, with Cubism leading the charge. The “flattened, dissected and recomposed forms” of Cubist paintings could not be imitated by the Pictorialists. Photography could no longer follow in the shadow of paintings without appearing to be out of favor and fashion.

Porch Shadows. Paul Strand 1916

Stieglitz closed the gallery and Camera Work in 1917, but remained a staunch advocate for modern art. The final two issues of Camera Work featured the images of newcomer Paul Strand. Stieglitz found the work to be “brutally direct, pure, and devoid of trickery”. Strand’s images represented a new style of straight photography that rested on objectivity rather than subjectivity. We now see a flattened geometry, simplicity of shape and tone, the elimination of a horizontal reference, and even a freedom from the constraints of gravity. The images can be rotated sideways or even upside-down and they still retain visual interest. These photographs are landmark abstractions, gradually followed by modernist works by Stieglitz, Weston, Evans, Abbott, and eventually even Steichen. By the late 1920’s modernism dominated photography. Was it all Cubist-derived? Not entirely, of course. There were many other art “isms” taking place in the early 20th century that played their own role in shaping photographic modernism; Russian Suprematism (1915) and Constructivism (1919), Zurich’s Dadaism (1916), and returning once again to Picasso and Paris, Surrealism (1920). Yet it was Cubism that first reformed representation, and emphasized form before subject. Photographers were free to do the same, and thereby escape the shackles of painting.

Untitled (Paris). Lee Miller 1931


The History of Photography, Beaumont Newhall. MOMA, 1964
The Story of Art, E H Gombrich, Phaidon Books, 1950
Photography View: What Was Cubism’s Impact?, NY Times, 12.13.1981
The Contest of Meaning, Richard Bolton. MIT Press, 1992

(*)Image Credit, Portrait of Picasso:

Picasso, 1923. Man Ray (American, 1890 – 1976). Gelatin silver print. Image: 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches; Sheet: 14 1/2 x 10 15/16 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

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