Braque, Gris and Léger: Cubism and its Titans in Switzerland in 1933
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
In 1933, two Swiss institutions staged the first major retrospectives devoted to three Cubist titans: Georges Braque graced the walls of the Kunsthalle in Basel, while Juan Gris and later Fernand Léger appeared at the Kunsthaus in Zürich. The three monographic exhibitions followed on from the success of Pablo Picasso’s first museum retrospective at the Kunsthaus in 1932. Intending originally to exhibit the work of Braque and Léger at the same time, the museum’s director, Wilhelm Wartmann had then been persuaded to limit the display to Picasso alone, placating Léger with the promise of his own one-man show the following year. Braque, still fuming at his exclusion, capitalised on the rivalry between two neighbouring cities and exhibited his work at the Basel Kunsthalle instead.
If, by the 1930s, the impact of Cubism as a twentieth century creative development had been felt worldwide, the careers of Braque, Gris and Léger, and, of course, Picasso, had blossomed in France. Why, then, were two Swiss institutions the first to inculcate their oeuvres into the historical canon of twentieth century art? In answering that question, this paper will trace the different interests and individuals that collided in the realisation of the 1933 retrospectives: the artists, for whom a monographic exhibition represented a crowning point; the international collectors, who lent works, hoping to increase their value; the museum directors, who harboured international ambitions for their institutions; and the art critics, who determined the success of those efforts. Of particular interest here will be the role of Christian Zervos, the editor of the Paris-based Cahiers d’Art. Influential in the planning of the shows, it was Zervos who dedicated a special issue of his review to each artist on the occasion of their retrospectives in 1933, thus ensuring their wider, contemporary diffusion and historical longevity.