Brown on Antliff and Leighten, eds. (2008)

Antliff, Mark, and Patricia Leighten, eds. A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Pp. 690. ISBN-13 978-0-226-02110-2

It is rare for a critical anthology of primary sources to have the potential to alter the way in which a reader conceives of the relevant subject. However, Antliff and Leighten’s thoroughly researched and thoughtful Cubism Reader achieves precisely that. The editors draw on a wide range of documents, including artists’ writings, journalism, government documents, correspondence and a variety of specialist art publications of the period. This not only helps to locate cubism and its critical reception in areas beyond the artistic and the literary narrowly construed, but also challenges assumptions that have dominated political analyses of cubism’s critical reception. By broadening the range of commentaries from writers on the political Left, the anthology re-evaluates the idea that cubism found little support amongst artists and writers with Leftist or anarchist leanings. In addition, the broad geographical remit of the documentation highlights the wider European basis of cubism as well as the transatlantic exchanges that influenced its practice and critical reception.

In their Introduction, the editors locate the aims and scope of the collection against what has been one of the most influential sources of material relating to the cubist enterprise, namely, Edward F. Fry’s Cubism of 1966. While acknowledging the important role played by this earlier anthology, Antliff and Leighten distance their approach and choice of material not only from Fry’s formalist assumptions, but also from the hierarchy of artists that dominated the critical assessment of cubism throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Complementing challenges to this hierarchy as developed in the work of more recent art historians influenced by new approaches to the writing of social and art history, the Cubism Reader draws out the range of innovations and contributions to the development of the movement made by a diverse range of artists whose exhibition practices ranged beyond the artistic circles of Paris.

Decisions as to the temporal scope of an anthology such as this are inevitably difficult. The editors explain their decision to restrict the selection of documents to those produced prior to the First World War in order to minimize the number of commentaries that responded primarily to historical pressures or that reinterpreted pre-war cubism in light of radical changes in the European socio-political climate. While the history of cubism presented by the anthology remains, therefore, an unfinished story, the editors’ decision to end their collection at 1914 has a justifiable rationale.

The documents in the collection are organized chronologically rather than thematically. While this may pose some difficulties for readers with little knowledge of the various authors, it does permit the unfolding of a narrative through the chronological development of set of aesthetic and critical ideas. Furthermore, as each document is accompanied by a brief commentary by the editors that provides both context and analysis, a coherent framework is established within which the reader can place the various writers and their theses. The inclusion of a limited number of black and white reproductions of key works, photographs of individuals and installations, brings life to the various materials. However, the book is not well served by the reproduction quality of the images.

Of considerable use to both specialists and newcomers to the subject, this anthology adds not just to the critical debate about the emergence, development and reception of cubism, but encourages a new critical understanding of the movement’s significance in the realms of visual art, literature and beyond.

Kathryn Brown
University of Kent
Volume 37