Before He Was a Cubist, Picasso Was an Invertebrate

A headline from The New York Times on April 14, 1914.

Somebody paid nearly $64 million for Picasso’s “Femme Assise” at Sotheby’s in London on Tuesday. It was the highest price ever paid at auction for a painting made by an Invertebrate.

You may know the Invertebrates as the Cubists.

Under the headline “The ‘Cubists’ Dominate Paris’ Fall Salon,” The New York Times reported in October 1911 that they were “a school of artists who believe that the right way to paint persons and things is to paint them in cubes, squares, and lozenges.”

The article explained that “when they first burst on the astonished gaze of Paris and the rest of the universe they were known as the ‘Invertebrates.’ That was in 1905. On recovering from its first fit of amazement at the astonishing productions of the ‘Invertebrates’ the public promptly dubbed them the ‘Wild Beasts.’ Now they are ‘les Cubistes.’”

“Whatever their name, they continue to paint pictures before which descriptive adjectives retreat in disorder,” the article says. “They slap colors, apparently in haphazard fashion, on their canvases, draw back a step, slap on another assortment, and then calmly label the sensational result ‘A Woman.’”

The article turned to the American artist, critic and humorist Gelett Burgess to describe the Cubist gang, heavily excerpting from an essay he had published in The Architectural Record introducing this art movement to Americans.

Burgess, it may be recalled, is the versifier who gave us this:

I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.

The Times quoted Burgess’s description of Picasso, “the only one of the crowd with a sense of humor,” in his telling.

“Picasso is colossal in his audacity. Picasso is the doubly distilled ultimate. His canvases fairly reek with the insolence of youth; they outrage nature, tradition, decency. They are abominable.

“You ask him if he uses models and he turns to you a dancing eye.

“‘Where would I get them?’ grins Picasso, as he winks at his ultramarine ogresses.”

It took no time at all for the Cubists to catch on. In 1914, they were showing at a gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York. In an article under the headline “Guides are Needed at Cubist Art Show,” The Times wrote:

“The visitor has to be very ‘arty,’ to use a cubist word, to know that a few cubes of bright paint are really Joseph Stella’s impression of a scene in the window of a Fifth Avenue corset shop. In fact those in charge of affairs did not have the information until late in the day. It was about the same time that there was some excitement because it was discovered one of the paintings had been hung upside down.”

Two months later, New York society held a Cubist Ball at the Biltmore hotel. “It was such a ball as has never been seen before in New York,” The Times account said. “The ballroom had one huge decoration, a Cubist ‘painting’ that covered one end of the room and formed a background for the dances”; “colored lights were thrown on the dancers to produce cubist and impressionist effects in color.”

It’s possible that some of the participants tried out a dance invented in 1913 by a French poet. “It is called the ‘Muachorie,’” The Times reported that year, “and is supposed to represent the geometrical ideals of the Cubist.”

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