Make It New
BMA shows how Max Weber brought modernism to America
Published: March 6, 2013
Max Weber: Bringing Paris to New York
At the Baltimore Museum of Art through June 23
A hundred years ago last month, modern art burst onto the American shore with the famous, or rather infamous, Armory Show. Or so the story goes. Max Weber: Bringing Paris to New York, the stunning new show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, complicates this story just in time.
Weber, who went to Paris in 1905 and discovered Cézanne, studied with Matisse, and befriended Picasso and Rousseau, returned to New York in 1909, a full four years before the Armory Show. He began to exhibit at the true crux of modernism in America, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291. (He also contributed an essay to Stieglitz’s journal which influenced Guillaume Apollinaire, the incomparable French poet and founder of modern criticism.)
His solo show at 291 received the same critical vitriol later heaped upon the Armory Show, with one critic calling his work “rude sort of Aztec symbolism which seems to be without significance to any soul but himself,” and another writing that “no one is going to believe, however, that nature alone ever made anybody so bad an artist as all this. Such grotesquerie could only be acquired by long, perverse practice.”
Long, perverse practice indeed. By the time the Armory Show came around, Weber, like a prototypical hipster, refused to contribute anything at all, demonstrating how far ahead of the curve he was. His work up through this period, indeed, offers a crash course in early modern art as he embraced the fauvism of Matisse, the analytical cubism of Braque and Picasso, the jarring angles of Cézanne, the disjointed bodies of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and the rough-hewn stained-glass flatness of Rouault (this latter especially in the highly American “Burlesque #2”).
And the thing is, he’s pretty damned good at all of them.
The show’s first room contains important aspects of Weber’s Paris years: either works he created in Paris or was influenced by while he was there—including some he bought from his big named buds and brought home. There is a sublime little Cézanne “Bathers” that greatly influenced Weber; a beautiful little Rousseau (by the way, that’s Henri Rousseau, not Jean-Jacques; just like this is Max Weber, with a w-sound, like the grill, and not Max “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” Weber, pronounced VAY-bur); a Picasso still life which had been all but lost for many years; and Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” which proved so hugely influential on Weber.
But it is really Weber’s own work that is the star of this show. The pieces in this first room primarily help prepare us for what will come. We see his transition from a diligent draftsman in an early nude drawing to a modernist in the school of Matisse. “Apollo in Matisse’s Studio” presents a statue of Apollo seen from the rear, the white marble of the god’s body alight with fauvist pinks and greens and a portrait of Matisse himself, drawn in quick, simple lines that demolish the shaded labor of the earlier drawing.
The exhibit’s second room, containing the works completed after Weber returned to New York, is the truly essential part of this exhibition, and one we are lucky to have. Weber’s “The Bathers” from 1909 shares qualities with outdoor female nudes by Matisse, Cézanne, and Picasso, but in my opinion Weber’s women by the sea are superior to all but Cézanne’s. The flesh of the woman in the foreground is succulent—both lean and plump—and exquisitely rendered as she looks out onto the swiftly shifting sails in the sea.
“Avoirdupois,” the sole example of analytical cubism in Weber’s oeuvre, is not as great as Picasso’s and Braque’s definitive cubist works, but it is nevertheless a fascinating piece that could withstand hours of contemplation. Rendered in the beige, browns, and grays that define Picasso’s work of this period, Weber’s piece functions almost as a Monty Python-esque art machine. It’s discordant and dissolving planes overlap in space and time to create a sense of a cranking, weighing motion. The exhibit’s curator and perhaps the world’s only expert on Weber, Percy North also points out that the piece is a joke. The French word printed on the canvas, avoirdupis, refers to a scale, and in the left-hand side of the canvas, we find a bowl of what appear to be peas, pois, being weighed.
This piece alone would be worth traveling some distance to see, but “Interior of the Fourth Dimension” is the one truly monumental piece in the show. In this work—represented here both as an oil painting and a watercolor study, never before seen together—Weber combines cubist and futurist techniques to try to create a “fourth dimension” (the subject of the essay that influenced Apollinaire as well). In the center, we see a bulbous curve rendered with the Braque-like gray and beige desecration of the Impressionist daub, while on either end cool blue-gray towers of colliding spatial planes rise vertiginously toward the center.
Do yourself a favor and don’t just look at this painting head-on. Position yourself to the right of the painting so you can get it at an angle, and the space suddenly opens up and overwhelms you, revealing the painting’s subject—the dynamism of New York City.
This masterpiece containing both space and time was completed in 1913 and may have been Weber’s answer to the Armory—his “fuck Europe! If cubism, futurism, and the lot are about movement, forget Paris, look at our booming metropolis.” In fact, we may say that, with this painting, the American Century truly began. Which means that it should be ending . . . yep . . . about right now.
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