Vincenc Beneš, Tram Number 4, 1912-13. National Gallery in Prague.

Vincenc Beneš, Tram Number 4, 1912-13. National Gallery in Prague.

Tracing the Rise of Cubism in Prague

Art historian Nicholas Sawicki studies how two early collectors of Cubism narrated the movement’s history.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

The predominant narrative about the rise of modern art can make it seem as though the movement was limited to major metropolitan areas, like Paris, New York and Berlin. It wasn’t, says Nicholas Sawicki. “Until very recently, the way we looked at the map of the art world of the early 20th century has been quite constrained, and hasn’t taken into account the many other centers where modernism emerged, which are really interesting in their own right,” he says. “Right now, we’re seeing a major reappraisal of that history, particularly within museums and public institutions, as well as in individual scholarship.”  

Sawicki, an associate professor of art history in the department of art, architecture and design, studies how modern art in the early 20th century developed in parts of Europe not traditionally seen as dominant artistic centers, with a particular focus on central and eastern Europe. Specifically, he examines how Cubism, one of history’s most radical and influential artistic developments, evolved in Prague, how historians and curators across the world have told the story of Cubism’s broader development, where that story might need diversification or expansion, and how to make it more accessible to more people.  

“Cubism is today still seen as a gateway movement for modernism, and rightly so,” Sawicki explains. “It had an enormous impact on the art world. But it’s also true that it developed in a far more open and unbounded way than we commonly accept. So there’s a lot at stake, I think, in further fleshing out and diversifying its history.”  

The Storytellers of a Movement

In spring 2019, Sawicki served as Distinguished Scholar at the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, he collaborated with museum colleagues on the digitization of modernist primary sources, and advanced his own research on two early collectors of Cubism who also narrated the movement’s history: the British-born collector Douglas Cooper, and Vincenc Kramář in Prague, who owned one of the largest collections of Pablo Picasso’s work before World War I. 

Douglas Cooper at his home in Argilliers, France, in front of Picasso works

Douglas Cooper at his home in Argilliers, France, 1954. Photograph by Robert Doisneau.

“In my work I’ve been looking at how stories of Cubism and modernism have been shaped in the past, especially at those points where what we consider to be the traditional story breaks down or branches off in another direction,” says Sawicki. “I’m interested in Cooper and Kramář for precisely that reason. At distinct moments in their careers, they posed what eventually became mainstream, rather conventional interpretations of Cubism, but also offered diverging, alternative narratives of its history that trended in a different, in both cases more international, direction.” 

Cooper, says Sawicki, through his collecting and curatorial work in the 1940s through the 1970s, defined what ultimately became the accepted story of Cubism in the post-war era. Sawicki is examining an exhibition that Cooper curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1970-71, “The Cubist Epoch,” which Sawicki says marked a shift in Cooper’s thinking. He began work on the project on a grant at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, which houses Cooper’s archive.  

In a lecture he delivered during his fellowship at the Met, Sawicki described “The Cubist Epoch,” an exhibition of nearly 320 works by 50 artists, [as] “the first major museum presentation anywhere to consider Cubism not as a merely Parisian phenomenon, but as an art form that ‘radiated across the world,’ to use Cooper’s words. And although its international reach mostly stopped at European and American examples, the exhibition mapped a range of countries and nationalities that seems remarkable even today—Czech and German, Dutch and Italian, Mexican, Russian and beyond. Cubism’s Parisian locus, with Braque and Picasso at the forefront, was well represented, but nearly two-thirds of the artists in the exhibition had built their careers elsewhere, beyond France.”   

Kramář, a Czech-born collector and art historian, in the teens and 1920s helped tell the story of Cubism’s history and development in both Prague and Paris. A prolific writer who wrote primarily in Czech, and based his publications on close observations of individual works, Kramář published Kubismus, the first detailed study of Cubism by an art historian, in 1921. At the time, Sawicki says, Cubism was a challenging movement to describe, even for experienced scholars and collectors. Sawicki is currently preparing the first English translation of the book.

“One of the interesting things about the early collectors, historians and curators of Cubism—given how radical and often perplexing the artwork was to viewers at the time—is that they were all wrestling with how to describe and tell its story,” says Sawicki. 

“Cubism, more than any other movement of the early part of the 20th century, unseated and thwarted most of the representational conventions of painting and sculpture that had been in place for hundreds of years. It moved art in a direction that in places seemed to near abstraction. It also developed a variety of techniques and practices that were completely new, like collage and the mixing of different media that were novel for that time. More than a century later we are still trying to gain a fuller understanding of it.” 

Vincenc Kramář at his home in Prague, standing in front of Picasso paintings

Vincenc Kramář at his home in Prague, 1950s.

Cooper and Kramář, says Sawicki, were trying to process this new art movement as well: how to exhibit it, how to write about it, how to talk about it. 

“They were asking, ‘How do we develop a language for talking about this new art form?’” Sawicki says. “‘What kinds of concepts do we need to refer to, to help tell the story of the artwork so that it can be shared with readers and audiences? And how do we recognize the complexity of Cubism, without simplifying its history?’”  

Broader Accessibility for All

The Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, says Sawicki, “is undertaking an ambitious initiative to partner with archives and institutions across the world, to help make primary source materials on modern art available to the wider public digitally.” 

The Research Center was established at the Met as a center for scholarship on Cubism and early modern art, in connection with a major gift of Cubist works to the museum by Leonard A. Lauder in 2013. Sawicki says that one of its aims is to “democratize access to historical information and materials” by making them available to a wider variety of people—and to do so in ways that “help to maximize what digital platforms allow us to do.” 

At the Met, Sawicki worked on the first installment of the Research Center’s Digital Archives Initiative—a transcription, translation and digitization of Kramář’s handwritten notes from Picasso’s first retrospective exhibition, held in Munich in 1913. Sawicki first came across the more than 40 pages of notes in 2001 while doing his dissertation research, and they are housed in the archives of the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.

“They’re just folded sheets of paper that he turned into a kind of notebook to hold in his hand while visiting the exhibition,” he explains. “The writing is really scrawled and very difficult to read. Occasionally, he made drawings that recorded the appearance of the artwork he was looking at.”

Sawicki worked with colleagues at the Met to figure out a new way to present this type of material that would make it “as rich with information and detailed as possible.” Just getting the materials online, he says, is not enough. 

“Many online platforms for modernist primary sources don’t provide the user with the context she or he needs to really make sense of the material. And they rarely explain how that original material was processed, which, it turns out, is an incredibly important piece of information. With digitized documents you often have the illusion that what you’re seeing online is the same as the thing you’d be seeing in an archive. But that kind of seamless neutrality simply doesn’t exist, and the process of digitizing primary documents is very involved. To make materials accessible digitally, we are constantly mediating and refiguring them in ways that distance them from the original,” he says. “With this project we wanted to take a slower approach to the material, and also to be more up front about what went into its digitization.”

Colleagues at the Institute of Art History in Prague transcribed Kramář’s writing and then the team produced a careful translation to English, along with notes to the reader to explain how they processed the materials “so that the reader understands the different layers of intervention that the material has been subjected to.” 

The result, says Sawicki, is “a rare glimpse of what an informed viewer in 1913 thought of Picasso’s art, as he stood in front of the artist’s work at his first retrospective exhibition. To have these materials now accessible for others to see and use is remarkably exciting. It’s one of the things that digital technologies enable us to do.”

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

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