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When war broke out in 1914, Georges Braque enlisted at once and left for the front. His wife Marcelle was promptly arrested as a spy. “What is your husband’s profession?” demanded the police. “He is a painter,” she replied. “No Madame,” came the answer, “he is a cubist!”
The cubist rather than the painter has always overdefined Braque. In prewar France, cubism – invented by Braque and Picasso but championed by the German-Jewish dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler – was reckoned a Teutonic plot to undermine French civilisation. In fact, its shattering of traditional perspective liberated the Ecole de Paris to lead painterly innovation for half a century. How Picasso used, adapted, reworked cubism in that time is modern art’s most familiar story. How Braque did so is its least known.
The Grand Palais’ Georges Braque is the first retrospective of the artist for 40 years and is unlikely to be surpassed. It offers perfect-pitch insight into Braque as the quintessential French painter, both heir to the classical tradition and precursor of postwar abstraction, and an artist whose inventive power was matched among his contemporaries only by Matisse and Picasso. With this show, Braque, third man of modernism, comes into his own.
Before Braque was a cubist, he painted Fauve landscapes in rowdy pink-purple hues and looped forms. Among glowing canvases opening this exhibition is the abbreviated “La Petite Baie de la Ciotat” – opposing yet balanced carmine/olive/gold pointillist marks, seeming to float on water – which Braque loved, sold in 1907 and repurchased in 1959, and several architectonic structures where L’Estaque’s geometric houses and blocky hills already reference Cézanne.
By 1908 Braque had met Picasso and was editing his L’Estaque views to exclude detail and build multifaceted compositions of prisms, triangles, diagonals. The compacted, monochrome stacks of “Maisons à L’Estaque” comprise the first cubist landscape – centrepiece at Braque’s inaugural solo show, where a critic, disparaging the “little cubes”, launched cubism.
In 1912 Braque stole another march on Picasso: pasting strips of faux bois wallpaper, simulating woodgrain, he suggested a table in a composition depicting a fruit bowl and glass. “Compotier et Verre” was the first papier collé. An ironic allusion to Braque’s decorating apprenticeship (his father and grandfather were housepainters), it opened provocative pictorial possibilities: industrial mass production entered high art; an object could be represented by its equivalent rather than an image.
During these years, Braque recalled, he and Picasso were “roped together like mountaineers” as they investigated a pictorial space allowing “a multiple vision of the world, offering all the facets of things simultaneously”. The pair worked so closely that they could not always tell apart their own sober, grey/fawn paintings of musical instruments and bottles fragmented into interpenetrating planes. Among top examples here, the Guggenheim’s “Violon et palette” and “Piano et mandore”, Leonard Lauder’s “Nature morte à la mandore et au métronome”, the Museum of Modern Art’s “L’Homme à la guitare” are all hermetic, airless, mysterious. Later, as in the Pompidou’s “Nature morte au violon”, stabbing white dashes unify the canvas. “I have discovered an indestructible white, velvet on the brush. I’m abusing it,” Braque told Kahnweiler.
The standard account of cubism is that Braque contributed conceptual measure and calm, Picasso the tension of physical sensation. That ignores what a material, textural painter Braque is. Severely injured in 1915, he regained momentum in the 1920s with return-to-order still lifes – “La cheminée”, “Guitare et bouteille de marc sur une table” – meditating on the relation between bowls, goblets, mandolins, vases and the spaces between them. The overlapping, transparent planes, curvilinear rhythms and supple arabesques controlled by what Braque called “the rule that corrects emotion”, recall Chardin’s classical equilibrium. To Duncan Phillips, who bought “La Table ronde” (loaned here), Braque, “no longer restrained from rich sensuous painting”, now had “the best style in Europe and ... cubism finally justified itself by producing works of art at once architectural and lyrical”.
“But how to describe his paintings?” cried Giacometti. “How to speak about the sensation provoked in me by the vertical, slightly out of kilter vase and flowers on a grey ground?” Braque was sphinxlike: “I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one reaches this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence ... Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.”
As the political climate darkened, Braque retreated into a sort of Proustian interiority, yet he always reflected the times. Late 1930s ornamental silhouettes on gold backgrounds in the claustrophobic “Femme à la palette” and “Le Duo”, descended from Greek vase figures, are allegories of creation – the painter, the pianist – countering a destructive era. “Les Poissons noirs” and other wartime fish still lifes speak of hunger, subdued violence.
For “La Poêle” (1942-43), a monumental stove glistening coldly, with empty coal bucket and skull-shaped palette alongside, Braque mixed ash with paint to give body to an icon of deprivation under the Occupation. “How can a great painter like you work in the cold?” demanded visiting Nazi officers. “We will provide you two lorry-loads of coal.” “No thank you,” replied Braque diplomatically, “if I accepted I should no longer be able to speak well of you.”
This show unravels beautifully how Braque’s late series evolve into one another. The table-top still lifes prepare for the vertiginous postwar Billard and Atelier series revisiting cubism’s deconstruction of space and interplay of forms. A broken vertical axis in early “Billards” makes the billiard table appear to crack and fold; in the 1947-49 rendering, the entire table metamorphoses into a giant pair of wings, rhyming with background bird motifs.
In some of the great “Ateliers” – exhibited together for the first time – a white bird, simplified like a cut-out, presides over interiors that are at once evanescent and dense, grainy. Playing on different degrees of material presence, Braque here dislocates, superimposes, hollows out, dissolves objects so that they seem to exist in waves of time, like memories.
When the birds get canvases to themselves, in Braque’s final series, the background becomes yet more aggressively textured.
In “A tire d’aile”, Braque caked the sky in so many layers of bluish-grey impasto that the picture could not be lifted; paradoxically, the clouds are thickly tangible while the black bird, flying through them like an arrow to pierce an enigmatic massed black form, is thinly painted, light as air. A painting of death? Braque denied symbolic intent but, on a study for this work, he wrote: “Without respite, we will chase after our destiny.” No 20th-century painter did so more seriously or thrillingly.