The Van Abbemuseum collection includes a small but high-quality ensemble of works from the beginning of the twentieth century. They were acquired in the 1950s to put the contemporary art in a historical context.
By getting to know work by such artists as Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Delaunay and Kandinsky, who were already famous, the public would be better able to understand the art of their own age – that was the thinking. Today these paintings are among the classic works of modern art. They show how radically painting broke with tradition at the start of the last century. This short text discusses the works that are on display in this room.
Cubism was developed in Paris by the Spanish-born Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and the Frenchman Georges Braque (1882-1963). In this room two paintings with very different subjects show the extent to which their collaboration led to a similar manner of painting. Both artists start from a subject from reality that is among the classic genres: a landscape and a portrait. Braque’s landscape is a rock with houses built on it. Picasso’s portrait is of Fernande Olivier, his partner at the time. Both artists analyse their subject, dissect it into facets and combine these facets into a new whole. This way of working in the first phase of Cubism is known as analytic Cubism. The accent is on form. Colour is secondary. The early Cubists limited their palette mainly to greys, browns and ochres. But the great change is that the canvas is no longer regarded as a ‘window on the world’, but as a flat surface on which colours and forms are given a place as autonomous elements. The echoes of this revolution long resounded in twentieth-century art.
The Russian painter Marc Chagall (1887-1985) moved to Paris in 1910. There he met a number of Cubist painters. They depicted their three-dimensional subjects in several aspects on the flat picture plane. The influence of this ground-breaking movement in painting is evident in ‘Hommage à Apollinaire’ (1911-1912) in the way in which Chagall divides the figures and the circle form into fragments, before joining them together again in a new way. Chagall is, however, more exuberant in his use of colour than the Cubists. His admiration of the avant-garde art of his day is reflected in the title of this painting and the heart with the names. Apollinaire was a leading art critic and champion of the new art forms that evolved in Paris early in the twentieth century. Canudo, Cendrars and Walden are also people who helped to promote this contemporary art. But Chagall’s painting also has a deeper meaning. Man stands at the centre as the midpoint of time and space. The circle in ‘Hommage à Apollinaire’ can be thought of as a globe and also, because of the numbers, as a clock face. The personal aspiration of everyone must be to restore the original harmony between man and the universe, which was disrupted at the time of the Fall, symbolised here by the apple. The disintegration into opposites and the striving to reunite them is expressed by Chagall both thematically and formally. He brings together Adam and Eve, warm and cool colours alluding to day and night, and the sun and moon to create a painting that depicts a traditional theme in a new, contemporary manner.
The French painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) was one of the advocates of Cubism. In ‘L’équipe de Cardiff’ (1913) he does not proceed from one main motif, but interweaves different motifs to produce a dynamic whole. Here again we see a circle that links the composition: the big wheel. Delaunay’s painting is based on a photo of the Cardiff rugby team in a French sporting magazine. He combines this motif with several new feats of technology of the time: the Eiffel Tower and the aeroplane. With his inscriptions he alludes to advertising signs. ASTRA was the name of an aircraft factory, but it is also Latin for ‘star’. The words MAGIC PARIS evoke the attractions of the French capital. All in all, the subject is very contemporary: Paris as a bustling city, full of new things and entertainment. Several studies in the collection show how Delaunay composed the elements of his painting.
The painting ‘Blick auf Murnau mit Kirche’ by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) portrays a very different landscape than that of the Braque painting in this same gallery. It is the village of Murnau, nestled in the hills of Bavaria. A church and a few houses can be discerned in the painting, as well as trees and hills. Kandinsky does not paint his subjects true to nature. He leaves out details, especially in buildings; large shapes are painted freely, without the restrictions of real architecture. The church tower, for example, leans quite a bit. His choice of colours is also very liberal. The colours are a lot brighter than those of a real landscape. Moreover, Kandinsky does not link a colour to a specific shape or object. He puts different colours next to each other in a single large shape, where sometimes they contrast and sometimes they flow into each other. This way of painting would also lead to abstract art.