Cubism Bonanza

04.10.13

It’s Nearly Official: The Met Is the World’s Great Museum

With a huge gift of Cubist works, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art may now have the best collection in the world. But don’t believe that $1 billion price tag, writes Blake Gopnik.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has always been a contender for World’s Greatest Museum, and last night it may have won the title.

At 6:55 p.m., the Met announced that cosmetics tycoon Leonard Lauder, son and heir of Estee herself, had given the institution a collection of 78 important Cubist pictures that he has bought over the last 40 years. The trove include works by giants such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque as well as almost-as-greats such as Fernand Leger and Juan Gris. (The Met has released exhaustive details on the gift.)

Cubism was “invented” in Paris around 1908 by Picasso and Braque; their world-smashing, space-wrenching, light-twisting vision arguably launched the second most important movement in the history of Western painting. (The first came with the birth of Renaissance realism, either around 1300 or 1425, depending how you count.) The Met has always had a yawning gap in its early Modernist holdings, compared to what it has in Rembrandts and Cezannes and every kind of ancient art. Now it doesn’t. So it rules.

Here’s who doesn’t rule: Leonard Lauder. I don’t understand why collectors get the kind of praise and attention they do, unless it’s because of universal sycophantism. Collecting is just shopping, and when you have close to infinite wealth, and the money to pay for the best advice, nothing could be easier. Any decent curator with a few billion dollars in her pocket could build a collection like this with her eyes closed. (Or maybe I should say without breaking a sweat.) And of course it’s worth remembering that Lauder only has his pockets so full because the thousands of people who work for him don’t; give those workers a bigger slice of the American dream, such as they used to have, and Lauder starts hogging less of it – to spend on things like fabulous Cubist art.

The true heroes of yesterday’s announcement are the Met’s curators and their new-ish leader, Thomas Campbell. While managing the tricky courtier’s task of coddling a billionaire donor, they’ve also managed to play aesthetic Robin Hood, getting art from the rich and giving it to the rest of us poor slobs. They redistribute artistic wealth, and the wealthy don’t seem to mind.

While I’m bashing money, I might as well pop the billion-dollar balloon that’s been floating through the press since the Lauder announcement was made. If these Cubist pictures are really only worth a billion dollars, as various sources (but not the Met) have been claiming, that averages out to a measly $13 million each – about the amount you might pay for a middling contemporary painting by a collectors’ darling like Peter Doig. With truly great, historic works now going for as much as a quarter-billion dollars, Lauder’s Picassos and Braques are either worth way, way more than a billion, or they’re way less good than people are saying. (Critics won’t get a chance to see them en masse until a Met show that’s planned for the fall of 2014.) Or actually, given the timidity of most art collectors, the Lauder pictures could be great and way undervalued for the simple reason that the earliest, toughest, most uncompromising – and most important – Cubist works have always been too challenging for the market to price them correctly.  They’re small and dark and confusing, so they look lousy over a sofa; Picasso’s saccharine Blue and Rose period works, or his later girlfriend portraits done in bright colors and swoopy lines, work way better as décor, so they sell for more.

Which brings us to a new challenge that the Lauder gift presents to the Met. The greatness of these early Cubist artworks lies in all the rules that they break, and in the abject failure that they’re constantly courting. (I’ve even argued that failure is their greatest virtue.) The biggest mistake would be to turn them into safe, Old Master-ish treasures, ripe for the automatic oohs and ahs and isn’t-it-beautifuls that we now give to Rembrandt and Rubens and even Cezanne. (All those masters also deserve better than such cliches.)

If Lauder had given his pictures to the Museum of Modern Art, they’d at least be in constant company with tough video and performance art and their other challenging heirs, reminding us of the modern aggression that they represent. I’m happy Lauder’s treasures are heading to the Met, to keep company with mummies and marbles and “Madame Cezanne,” but hope they don’t get defanged once they’re there.