Impressionist & Modern Art

Rhythm & Form: Cubism's Love Affair with Music

By Sotheby's

Ahead of the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 20th June, in which two Cubist works by Jean Metzinger and Jacques Lipchitz will be offered, we look at the idiosyncratic approaches to the theme of music in the work of both artists.

The years following the First World War marked a blithe period of creativity and artistic experimentation, particularly in Paris. Inspired by the perspectival investigations of Paul Cézanne, who was challenging traditional modes of representation through experiments with colour and line; artists sought dynamic new ways of recording the world around them.

Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Georges Braque are widely acknowledged as the founders of Cubism.  However, this radical new philosophy of vision rapidly became central to the practice of a number of artists; each of whom would have a unique answer to the formal complexities associated with flattening multiple perspectives into a single picture plane.

Musical instruments had been a central motif of the Still Life genre from the Renaissance to the Dutch Golden Age. Many of the leading figures of the Cubist movement would have first studied draughtsmanship in these very works in academies and art schools during the late nineteenth century. When instruments first began to appear in Cubist works, their presence was conspicuously figurative. In line with the protean development of the Cubist aesthetic however, the curvilinear geometry of guitars and violins was gradually unfolded, and began to be rendered more harmoniously with the elements which surrounded them.

Conceived in 1919, Arlequin à l’accordéon was the first sculpture created by Jacques Lipchitz after the armistice that ended the First World War. This full-length sculpture of a standing harlequin playing the accordion belongs to an important series of seated and standing figures which the artist was working on at the time. Lipchitz’ characters represented a pantheon of romantic archetypes from the worlds of art and theatre, including bathers, musicians and the iconic duo of Pierrot and Harlequin from the Comédie Italienne.

Cézanne depicted Pierrot in his paintings of the late 1880s, and both characters appear throughout Picasso's œuvre, particularly in his works of the Blue Period. It was Lipchitz’ meeting with Picasso in 1914 that would forever change the direction of his work. Whilst the figures of Pierrot and Harlequin were not uncommon subjects among the Cubists, Lipchitz was one of the few artists to successfully render them in sculpture. The natural angularity of the accordion seems to lend itself particularly well to the cubist project, making the present sculpture particularly remarkable for its compositional harmony. Lipchitz himself owned a large collection of instruments, notably guitars and mandolins, which appear with much greater frequency in the hands of the figures he produced during this time.

Lipchitz Jacques (1891-1973). Paris, Centre Pompidou-MNAM/CCI-Bibliothèque Kandinsky . MV2553. Fonds Marc Vaux / RMN-GP


Also offered for sale on 20th June is Violon et flûte, a rare and important work by Jean Metzinger, painted circa 1918. In addition to exemplifying the musical fixation of Cubism, the multitude of forms and colours in the composition lays bare the great simultaneity of perspectives which was prized by its practitioners. The fragments of linear sheet music find an echo in the intricate pattern of the tablecloth with which they are framed, and the depth of a recessed background is given immediacy with bright panes of light and shade.

With Albert Gleizes, Metzinger co-authored the seminal Du Cubisme published in 1912. This was the first text on the Cubist movement, and featured works by Paul Cézanne, Fernand Léger, Marie Laurencin, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. In it, Metzinger declared: "To establish pictorial space, we must have recourse to tactile and motor sensations, indeed to all our faculties. It is our whole personality which, contracting or expanding, transforms the plane of the picture." Metzinger’s text laid the theoretical foundations for a pivotal exhibition held in 1911 at the Salon des Indépendants, considered to be the first Cubist exhibition.

These works, while shattering the codified formal ideologies of painting and sculpture, also capture the essence of a city brimming with creative innovation and flair. The Dutch-French painter Kees Van Dongen was a contemporary of Metzinger and Lipchitz, and was renowned for his singular, bold colourism which resists any canonical reading of modernism. Peopled with an eclectic and vibrant chorus of characters, Van Dongen’s Chanteurs de rue, painted circa 1950, will also be offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale. Scattered with animated faces caught in song, the work seems to distil the melody of a distinctly urban modernity; a tune which would find expression throughout the divergent forms of European Modernism.

CLICK HERE to view the full sale catalogue. 

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