Skip to content

The Climax of Cubism
Curated by Joachim Pissarro
9 May – 27 September 2019

Helly Nahmad Gallery is pleased to announce The Climax of Cubism, an exhibition curated by art historian and theoretician Joachim Pissarro. 

The exhibition aims to shed light on the last and most fascinating phase of Cubism, which has yet to receive the scholarly attention it deserves. Cubism counts as one of the major aesthetic and artistic revolutions within the 20th century and, more largely put, constitutes a corner stone within the history of Modernism. The full narrative that tells us the story of Cubism (1907/8—1918/19) is however somewhat complex, and often obscured by the extraordinary number of competing artistic, often short-lived art movements that saw daylight during this fecund moment. The story of Cubism, however, boils down to three essential phases, each of which embodies principle components inherent in Cubism. Cubism begins approximately in 1907 at a time when Braque and Picasso begin to reduce the volumetric shapes of the objects perceived from nature. They pare down the diversity of shapes and volumes they perceive to a summary catalogue of, essentially geometric, volumes: nowhere was this more evident than in Braque’s Le Viaduc à l’Estaque and in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

The story of Cubism lasts for roughly a decade around the creation of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d‘Avignon in 1907 and ends roughly with the end of World War I. The reason why the story of Cubism appears a little complex and ambiguous to read is because from 1907 to 1918/19 witnessed the most incredible creative energies and blossoming of art movements ever. No moment in art history has seen such an effusive explosion of different art movements at the same time: Futurism, Neo- Plasticism, Constructivism, Suprematism, German Expressionism, Abstraction, to name but a few, all appeared within that particular period. As a result, it has been difficult to trace the narrative of Cubism within such a profusely complex period. 

The Climax of Cubism at Helly Nahmad Gallery is beautifully focusing on the last moment of this progression and, in turn, its final culmination, and enables us to re-consider an important, but often neglected, phase of Cubism: its full accomplishment, its final resolution. 

After the initial period of synthesization and contraction of the representation of reality into a set of volumetric drawn and painted forms, including the famous cubes (1908-1910/11), the second period, (approximately 1912/13 to 1914/15) sees the apparent dissolution of three-dimensional illusionist volumetric forms on the pictorial plane into layers of two-dimensional, and fairly simple planes of color, superimposed, or collaged on top of one another. This is the period of Cubism (known as synthetic Cubism) where one sees the blossoming of papiers collés, whereby triangular, rectangular, or rhombus-shaped pieces of paper, newsprint, are glued (‘collé’) onto a composition, similar to a card deck that would be spread out on a table top. This is the period that Cubism reaches the closest to Abstraction, and is often described as the ultimate moment in Cubism. 

But as the exhibition at Helly Nahmad reveals, the story and development of Cubism does not end there. The Climax of Cubism extolls the last and most fascinating phase of Cubism, not having received the full attention it yet deserves. This last moment in Cubism is sometimes referred to as Crystal Cubism. The term was coined by the influential French poet and art critic, Maurice Raynal, a very influential friend of the artists, and theoretician of the movement. 

Crystal Cubism ironically returns Cubism to its concern with three-dimensionality: it complexifies the pictorial equation left over from synthetic Cubism. By simply tilting forms and volumes again, Juan Gris, in particular, reinvents shapes that conjure up the prismatic shapes, that led Raynal to refer to this last phase of Cubism as Crystal Cubism. The work we are seeing for the first time together at Helly Nahmad’s gallery, are works by the topmost classical Cubists, Braque, Picasso, Gris, and Léger – all of whom, to various degrees, and in each his own rhythm, were impacted by this final phase of Cubism. George Braque’s Nature Morte à la Pipe (1919), for instance, offers an intricate cross-semination of a plethora of different geometric shapes that leaves us with the impression of a crystal, or some kind of kaleidoscopic chain of forms. Another major example is Le Joueur de Guitare (Arlequin à la Guitare), 1918 by Gris, whose composition jostles with pointed angles and rhombus shapes that yield a super-charged, fast- activated and energetic composition. Léger’s Étude pour le Remorqueur, 1917 is a study for one of the most important compositions in the artist’s career. It too, reflects Léger’s interest in prismatic and crystalline forms, also strongly evident in Picasso’s Guitare sur une Table, 1921. From complex, to even more complex, Composition au Journal 1914-15 displays a fascinating surface of forms that can be broken down into series of dodecahedrons, and forms an impressive composition of intertwined and quivering geometric units that play off from each other, and create an unending rhapsodic visual rhythm that holds up our fascination. 

This exhibition is an important homage to the last phase of Cubism, yet too seldom known or seen. Crystal Cubism possesses so much originality, strength and promises that greatly inflected and impacted the realms of plastic possibilities that saw daylight through the 1920s and beyond. 

Joachim Pissarro (b. 1959) is an art historian and theoretician. He has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and director of the Hunter College Galleries (CUNY) since 2007. He has taught at Yale University, Osaka University, and Sydney University. Pissarro has held curatorial positions at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The last two exhibitions he curated were Pissarro à Eragny at the Musée du Luxembourg and Olga Picasso at the Musée Picasso. The latter exhibition, Olga Picasso, traveled to the Pushkin Museum in Fall 2018, then to Museo Picasso, Màlaga in Spring 2019 and will open in CAIXA Forum Madrid in June 2019. His latest book, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics (Penn State University) co-authored with David Carrier, was published in 2019. 

For image and press inquiries please contact the gallery at