Cubism at the Metropolitan Museum.

Picasso’s “Nude with Raised Arm and Drapery” (1907), from the Lauder collection.

“Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection,” at the Metropolitan Museum, isn’t so much a show as an institutional organ transplant, instantly correcting the Met’s congenitally weak representation of the ur-twentieth-century art movement. It adds heft, both real and symbolic, to the museum’s current thrust into realms of the modern and the contemporary, soon to feature in the annexed former Whitney Museum building, on Madison Avenue. Last year, Lauder announced the gift of seventy-eight works by Cubism’s Big Four: Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger. They tell a comprehensive story of the early stirrings, arcane birth, and world-changing maturation of Cubism in Paris, circa 1906-24. Though mounted as a show, they seem like fixtures of a long-ripened permanent display, like the Cubist collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Center, in Paris. But many of the works are unfamiliar, and their aggregate is original—resetting an old impetus to grapple with a period of art that, probably for most of us, still dances beyond the grasp of cognizance. Cubism is hard. It was meant to be. That fact, coupled with the style’s subsequent penetration into all manner of visual and intellectual culture, assured it immortality. Sometimes I think that I don’t like Cubism, while knowing that that’s not a good enough excuse to ignore it. Cubism is artistic modernity’s master key.

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