NEW YORK - Is this work good enough to hang on a museum wall – and hang on that wall in perpetuity?” That’s the question Leonard Lauder says he began to ask himself in the mid-1980s as he was building what would become the world’s finest collection of Cubist art in private hands. Last year he promised all 79 of these works – 33 by Pablo Picasso, 17 by Georges Braque, 15 by Fernand Léger and 14 by Juan Gris – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is showing the gift in its entirety in the exhibition Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection, from 20 October to 16 February 2015. To extend the reach of the collection and stimulate scholarship in the area of Cubism and early modernism, the Metropolitan is simultaneously launching the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, the first facility of its kind at an encyclopaedic museum, supported by a $22 million endowment funded by trustees and supporters including Lauder.

leonard-lauderCollector and philanthropist Leonard Lauder.
© Andy Ryan/Corbis Outline

While the Metropolitan already had some very strong examples of Cubist art, its holdings were not comprehensive. “This collection will help to fill a gap in the Metropolitan’s collection and will allow the museum to tell a more complete story of modernism, in the context of 5,000 years of art history,” says Lauder, who first bestowed enormous generosity to the museum in 1984 with the gift of his collection of American modernist posters. “Having my Cubist collection at the Met will make it accessible to the greatest number of people.”

Since announcing the promised gift last year, Lauder has acquired Léger’s The Village and will continue to add superlative examples to the collection as opportunities arise, as he has done over time with the American poster collection. “Just because I give something away does not mean that my interest has ebbed or that I am not still committed to making the collection grow, even if it is housed elsewhere,” he says. “Whatever motivated me at the beginning still motivates me now.”

A collector since childhood (initially of travel postcards), Lauder bought his first Cubist work in 1976. By a decade later, he had tightened his focus to the four artists he considers the “essential” pioneers of Cubism and to works of both aesthetic and historic significance. “It takes a huge amount of willpower to be that rigorous because there are many wonderful things on the market,” says Rebecca Rabinow, curator of modern art at the Met, who is heading up the new research centre and co-organising the exhibition with Emily Braun, longtime curator of the Lauder collection. “No collector or museum would be able to reconstitute a group of Cubist artworks of this quality. They simply do not exist outside of public institutions today.”


armchair-picassoPablo Picasso, Nude in an Armchair, 1909.
© 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York.

The gift now allows the Met to tell the big story of the birth of Cubism with its many subplots. The exhibition includes two landscapes by Braque shown at the Paris gallery of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in the autumn of 1908, considered by scholars to be the first Cubist exhibition. The Lauder collection has nine paintings by Picasso from a key moment around 1909 when he was eyeing the great European artists who had come before him. “You see him on the verge of absolutely demolishing traditional perspective and rendering of space,” says Rabinow. A group of six collages from 1914 by Gris are interpreted, for the first time, in the context of the artist’s fascination with the murderous villain Fantômas from a popular crime fiction series of the time. “In the still life Book and Glass, with actual pages from volume four of the Fantômas series collaged onto it, you realise it could be a still life but it is also a picture of a headless man,” says Rabinow. “Gris does a lot with shape shifting and hidden meanings in these works.”

Beyond the exhibition, Rabinow and her colleagues are rethinking ways to exhibit the Cubist works in dialogue with the Met’s collections across different geographies and chronologies. This greatly appeals to Lauder, as does the scope of the research centre. It will award two two-year fellowships annually – the first two scholars began in September – and has built an online resource within the Met’s website that includes information on each work in the Lauder collection and an index with essays on historic collectors and dealers of Cubism. The site will grow beyond Cubism to encompass the first half of the 20th century. “The research centre will advance research, programming and publications that explore both how the early 20th-century avant-garde was informed by the art from different cultures and periods and Cubism’s enduring impact on art, design and architecture in the 20th and 21st centuries,” says Lauder.

“I think it’s fair to say that Cubism was the most influential art movement of the early 20th century,” says Rabinow. “It challenged a traditional way of looking at the world. That is something that obviously continues to this day.”

Hilarie M. Sheets writes about art for the New York Times, Artnews and other publications.