“The Masters of Cubism” by César Vallejo (translated by Jason Weiss) is part of a forthcoming collection Selected Writings by César Vallejo, edited by Joseph Mulligan. You can read more selections translated by Weiss at Itineraries of a Hummingbird.
The Masters of Cubism
The Pythagoras of Painting
The greatest contemporary painter is a Spaniard from Málaga: Picasso. Next to Picasso and embracing a no less powerful artistic personality is another Spaniard from Madrid: Juan Gris. In Paris, the fame of both, at least among the elites of the vanguard, has helped in large part to impose the new painting which under the name of Cubism offers now figures so towering as Braque, Derain, Matisse, Marcoussis, whose works are being celebrated far and wide, that they can almost be considered classics already. I’ve just now finished reading an article by Sabord where he tells of his surprise on seeing how the cubist revolutionaries are starting to enjoy a popular and absolute consecration, as if they weren’t such revolutionaries. Every show of decorative models from Parisian shops is currently dominated by the motifs and drawings of Braque, Matisse, Gris, and naturally, Picasso himself. Generally, starting with the International Exposition of Decorative Arts in 1925, cubism has invaded the world of commerce to a resounding degree. Cubism has spread to furniture design, luxury goods, architecture, posters, the theater, etc. The famous and dazzling concert hall the Salle Pleyel has the most old-school polygons. The ads for the Cook Agency on locomotives haul along entire squads of geometry from les fauves. People get all caught up trying to locate the characters from Doctor Caligari among the truncated pyramids and the loony bin’s lack of perspective, etc, etc. The year 1923 marks the apex of Muscovite influence on decorative art in Paris. Upon this Russian prevalence of taste and heights followed the cubist prevalence of taste and depth, which has now reached its greatest scope. Okay, fine. To this irradiation of a new art, profoundly human and, above all, of its time, Picasso and Gris have contributed with ideas and works of the highest order. An overly patriotic Spaniard might claim that the current cubist prevalence in the Paris fashion industry is in the end a Spanish triumph, since cubism has Picasso and Gris for leaders.
But that’s not why one could think that cubism, on getting around and put within reach of commercial taste, is on the threshold of passing into the domain of the vulgar, that is, by that road it’s on the point of going up in smoke and disappearing, due to the superficiality and coarseness of its trajectory. The spread of cubism proves only that there breathes a broadly human content, a universal vitality. This spread is, at the same time, natural and logical. The great esthetic currents of history have had equal luck and the same consecration. The works of Picasso and his friends, like the marvels of the Renaissance, will pass into the category of celebrities, not for having descended to the majority of people but rather for having educated those people to the point of making them ascend toward the works and for enclosing there a cosmic rhythm. We must not forget that there is celebrity and celebrity. One thing is Paul de Kock and another is Victor Hugo.
Among the first creators of cubism, Gris has toiled away heroically. Hero against the recalcitrant public and hero against many sectarians of the school itself. Since his first paintings, Gris has shown a rigorous, mathematical sense of art, against the reigning celestinesque metaphysics. Gris paints in numbers. His canvases are real top-grade creations, brilliantly resolved. Beside other cubists more or less wavering from capitulation or disbelief, Gris preaches and carries out, from the dawn of the new esthetic, around 1908, an intransigent, red, vertical belief. Nothing of Bergsonism nor of empirical rationalism. Gris preaches and carries out a conscientious and scientific knowledge of painting. He wants the painter to know conscientiously what he is painting and to avail himself of a wise technique and vigilant practice, by which he may properly make use of his natural gifts. His work, in this way, is made of precision, of pure certainty, of Goethean infallibility. Without sinking in any narrow scholasticism. Gris always adjusts himself, like the sainted hermit Popes, to the severe and apostolic numbers. Because of that, the critics have called him the Pythagoras of painting and proclaimed him the initiator of what could be called “pure painting,” like the “pure poetry” of abbé Brémond. Such appreciations spring up of their own from the serene contemplation of his work, where he strictly practiced the doctrine upheld, shortly before his death, in his conference at the Sorbonne.
Gris has been perhaps the most rebellious painter in Paris. He was not the sort of artist who compromises out of hunger, or love of fame, or out of “lousy doubts,” as Apollinaire would say. Gris is always Gris, against aces and queens, even against time and against himself. And through this rigorous spirit of artistic austerity and through the scientific possession of his creative forces, without unconfessable fog or elaborate and complicit mysteries, Juan Gris will remain the most representative painter of our time.
[Variedades 1069. Lima, 25 August 1928.]