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Braque and Picasso: Odd Couple : MOMA retrospective focuses on the collaborative birth of Cubism.

Today an epic exhibition opens at the Museum of Modern Art. Called “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism,” it chronicles the birth of the century’s most original and influential style in nearly 400 works. The event certainly ranks with the museum’s landmark Picasso retrospective and its examination of Cezanne’s late paintings.

It’s an astonishing show on many counts, not least of which is the fact that, after all these decades, it is the first in-depth sounding of the legendary collaboration between Picasso and Braque, then young Turks in their mid-20s. In larger cultural terms, it sets one wondering how an art becomes classic when, in the beginning, knowledgeable observers regarded it as a sham and a deception.

I was mulling this over after flying in from Los Angeles for a press preview when the fates stepped in with an absurd and disturbing object lesson.

It was raining hot water as I hurried back to the hotel after dinner. A young man stopped me, apparently to ask directions. He appeared ordinary but spoke oddly, as if retarded.

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He held out a bank safety deposit envelope that turned out to contain three coins packaged as you see them in collectors shop windows. The incident was too intricate to recount here in detail but it involved my telephoning the presumed owner of the coins, her refusal to deal with the street person and the offer of $1,000 reward (which I did not want) if I would return the coins.

The finder demanded $100 claiming he was homeless and needed money for a place to stay. I gave him $80--all I had--and returned to the hotel to assure the owner all was well.

After interminable ringing, a man answered to inform me that the number was a public phone on the street.

I had been seamlessly had. The adroit caper was distressing (and weirdly amusing) in many ways, not least of which was its resemblance to an artwork. It was like a piece of street theater or a chapter in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” No wonder people so often confuse art with an audacious rip-off.

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Like real con men, Picasso and Braque were risk-takers--intransigent and subversive of convention. Like real con men they were out to create a seductive myth. They lived at least in part in the image of the outsider artist established by the 12th-Century outlaw poet Francois Villon and carried on by Artaud and Genet. The difference between the artist and the swindler may not even be so much one of morals or ethics as one of accuracy. The real con man uses artful guile to deceive, the artist uses it to get at the truth. Sometimes the distinction is not immediately apparent.

By 1906, Picasso was considerably famous for pictures of circus nomads and street derelicts. That year he painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a work so shocking he became a pariah even among his peers. Ironically, it was inspired partly by two ancient Iberian stone heads bought from an acquaintance. It turned out they’d been stolen from the Louvre.

Today “Les Demoiselles” acts as the revered iconic frontispiece of MOMA’s remarkable exhibition (to Jan. 16). It was brilliantly organized by William Rubin, the museum’s former chief curator of painting.

The show demonstrates an unforeseen logic in the artists’ intuitive quest. As we go through the galleries the works seem more and more like like a jazz duet, each player making riffs inspired what the other has just played, stopping for each other’s flashy solos and joining again to weave a whole that has remarkable direction and integrity.

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As collaborators, the artists were the Odd Couple par-excellence. Their shared catalogue chronology begins in 1906. Picasso’s photos show the Spaniard small, demonic and charismatic. His chronicle is punctuated with drama. He fears being embroiled with the law over the theft of the “Mona Lisa” and his stone heads from the Louvre although he is perfectly innocent. An artist friend commits suicide after a night with Picasso, punctuated with booze and opium. He breaks with his mistress for a new love. When working out of town he sneaks from village to village to avoid the old girlfriend and assorted hangers-on. Just one cliff-hanger after the next.

Braque was big, handsome, athletic and so laid-back they called him “the gentle giant.” He boxed, cycled and played the accordion. His vitae is as sleepy and professional as a dentist’s. He goes to Ceret to paint, back to Paris to enter the salon, off to Le Havre for another show. Somewhere along the line he meets the girl he’ll marry and that’s that. Except of course for playing his part in forging the style of the century.

Contrast notwithstanding, the two heavily egoed men were irresistibly drawn together until, as Braque said, they were joined like two mountain climbers, seeing each other daily for endless talks and observations of progress. They struggled together to reach the same summit even without quite knowing what their goal was. Artists are like that. They go with the feeling they are “onto something.” It turned out to be the art that would act as a metaphorical definition of our culture and resonate through literature, architecture, music and the objects of daily use.

In the beginning, Braque was interested in the art of Cezanne, Picasso was into African as we see in the first galleries. Braque, outgrowing his beginnings as a Fauvist, painted landscapes at L’Estaque, searching for Cezanne’s structure. Picasso, still smarting from the rejection of “Les Demoiselles,” pursued the African quand meme . The exhibition includes such rare and powerful treats as the 1908 “Three Women” from the Hermitage. (A contemporary called it “a hideosity.”)

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By hindsight and excellent curatorial guile we see an unexpected link. Both Cezanne and African art have to do with structure, which has to do with analysis. That’s one important piece of our metaphor. This has been the analytical century par excellence from the probings of Freud to the anatomizations of science and philosophy.

One of the great beauties of the work is its intense seriousness. Picasso was never more sober and consistent, Braque never more intelligent and free of decoration. Analytic Cubism with its sharded space and silver-brown coloring has the moving gravity of Beethoven or an equation in higher physics. Cubism discovered relativity. Its space is ambiguous, exciting and curiously true to life.

In one painting Picasso introduced the motto, “Our future is in the air.” He called Braque “Wilbourg"--short for Wilbur Wright. Everybody knows the story of how Gertrude Stein compared Cubism to both military camouflage and aerial photography. When you look at Picasso’s portrait of Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer’s head is like the Wizard of Oz. It seems to float closer and further without changing sizes.

Cubism predicted the idea of a world culture by becoming an art that frankly could not be anything but art--like African art, like Oriental art. It predicted accordion-folded time and space that today brings the latest massacre in Beirut closer than the corner bistro.

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It didn’t leave out the bistro. Both artists used the commonplaces of studio and cafe to make an epic art out of guitars, absinthe bottles and daily newspapers. They painted private jokes to each other and carried on amicable and productive rivalries--as when Picasso, challenged by a Braque innovation, lettered “The Battle is Joined” into one work. He also made compositions that served as valentines to his mistresses. So the dynamic duo even hinted at Pop Art.

The question of which of them “really” invented Cubism misses the point. Could Simon have done it without Garfunkle, Lewis without Clark? It was an authentic dialogue where each inspired other. Rubin is sure that Braque invented the papier colle but gives collage to Picasso, making a slightly crabby distinction. Picasso acknowledged his debt to Braque when he wrote, “I’m using your latest papery and powdery procedures.”

So much said, it has to be admitted that just about every time a work really grabs you here it is Picasso’s. Braque’s natural Gallic taste and restraint suffer except in the occasional masterwork like “Le Portugais"--a triumph of elegant probity. Picasso is so forceful we come near to missing Braque’s compositional innovation in works like “Man with a Violin” which predicts overall abstraction.

Unlike the garden variety con job, real art has no goal but to tell as much of the truth about the essence of its maker and his times as it can manage.

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The Picasso-Braque odyssey ended in 1914 when the Gentle Giant was called up for military service in World War I. Even before that Cubism had started to lose density in collage. The method allowed a suppleness of composition that brought out Braque’s elegance and allowed Picasso to move into rich planar sculpture, but the galleries containing these works have a certain weary, rococo flimsiness.

Cubism held up for decades and it will be a long time before anything touches it as art, but to tell the truth the show has something of the flavor of a period piece, classics of a bygone time. Ah, but what a time it was.

Then a “bogus act of artistic charlatanism” could turn to pure poetic gold.

In our odd present, when art art has become a commodity and adroit cynicism a virtue, a slick street-corner scam can feel telling and relevant, like an artwork. That’s a bad omen.

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