In 1989 William S. Rubin, curated what must be considered one of the greatest 21st century exhibits at the MOMA, entitled Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism. To this day I think of this show when teaching my management and leadership students about synergy.
In a landmark article titled Artists’ Circles and the Development of Artists, sociologist Michael P. Farrell describes the synergistic circle of French artists, including Monet, Manet, Degas, and Renoir, who pioneered Impressionism. Monet and Renoir often painted next to each other in the Barbizon woods. For a time, their work was so similar that Monet had to look at the signature to tell whether a particular canvas for sale in a Parisian gallery was his or Renoirs.
Another of these historic creative dialogues occurred early in the twentieth century and gave birth to a new means of painting and creating art. George Braque and Pablo Picasso through an intense creative dialogue gave birth to Cubism. While previous art movements (Impressionism and Post Impressionism) began to evolve into flatter forms, Picasso and Braque were more radical in their approach.
While earlier artistic movements were based on expression of emotion, Cubism focused on an intellectual experiment with structure. Picasso’s and Braque’s early Cubist forays were enhanced by their constant discussions; they saw each other almost every day, constantly debating their revolutionary new style. Their influence on one another was so complete that they even began to dress alike, in mechanics’ clothes, and jokingly compared themselves to the Wright brothers (Picasso even called Braque, ‘Wilbourg’).
Braque later described the intensity of their creative influence as that of “two mountaineers roped together.” In 1907 the year in which Picasso painted, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that many art historians consider the first twentieth century work, the synergistic energy between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had reached its zenith.
Gifted individuals working alone can waste years pursuing useless lines of inquiry producing little or nothing. A collaborative action group can act as a check, a sounding board, and a vote of confidence. In the case of Picasso and Braque, dissecting the others mind allowed them to elevate their artistic conscience to revolutionize how we relate to art and everyday objects. In fact the cubist ideology espoused by Braque and Picasso effectively set the course for art in the twentieth century.
Over the years, art historians have relegated Braque as minor or inconsequential character in the development of Picasso’s artistic style. His painterly style is assumed to be predictable and fundamentally incapable of altering the way we see and feel. However, as the show took great pains to demonstrate, Braque’s remarkable flexibility and artistic innovation influenced Picasso’s conception of art. The most prominent artistic development of the century was unthinkable without Braque and Picasso continuously pushing the other to elevate his art. Like Henry James said, “Every man works better when he has companions working in the same line, and yielding to the stimulus of suggestion, comparison, and emulation. Great things have of course been done by solitary workers; but they have usually been done with double the pains they would have cost if they had been produced in more genial circumstances.”
Synergy has become one of these unspecified, new-agey words that sometimes means very little. We often hear people talk about the “synergy of collaboration.” Braque and Picasso give this term an empirical reality. The sharing of ideas. The almost unconscious dialogue, as if two were riding parallel surfboards on the same wave, each calling out to the other as they move ahead.
The synergy of collaboration is exactly that. It doesn’t mean enmeshment. It doesn’t mean altruism. It means an awareness that the other is present in engaging in dialogue. Each rides their own board, but each is conscience that their are both moving forward. Braque and Picasso have much to teach in the world of leadership…and so do Matisse and Picasso, but that’s a different story (…that I’ll talk about next week).