Braque retrospective highlights importance of modern French master
George Braque (1882-1963) was part of a double act that founded the first completely new art movement of the 20th century — Cubism.
While he is sometimes overshadowed by his early collaborator, Pablo Picasso, “George Braque: A Retrospective,” currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, points the spotlight squarely at the Frenchman.
It is a beautifully spacious exhibition, giving the viewer plenty of room to really sit back and ponder the works — that seems to be Braque’s motivation, especially in the Cubist works on which he built his reputation. The viewer is challenged to see not only the object presented, but also how that object — and by extension, ourselves — relates and fits into the world.
It is his contributions to Cubism that cemented his reputation, but his early career was heavily influenced by the Fauves, including Henri Matisse and André Derain. The Fauves, or “Wild Beasts,” as they were named by critic Louis Vauxcelles, took the influence of Impressionism and ramped up the color to produce vibrant landscapes and still lifes. The broad paint daubs offered an immediacy that was fresh, and the Fauves refused to be confined to natural representations of color,
There is almost a synesthetic approach to color, arbitrarily using it to create a feeling or emotion which is not confined to the reality of the image.
On the evidence presented here, Braque was the equal of his Fauve contemporaries. One suspects that, if he had not moved on, he would be recognized as a significant exponent of the style. That these paintings are largely overlooked is a testament to his later innovative brilliance.
While Fauvism was founded in the very early 1900s it is considered a transitional movement for many artists. The influence of Paul Cézanne was still a major influence on the young artists and Braque’s subsequent work referred back to the master. Cezanne looked at nature in terms of geometric shapes that point to the center of the image. These fundamentals would stay with Braque as he progressed.
When he was 25, Braque saw some paintings by Picasso and visited his studio with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Picasso was working on “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” his groundbreaking portrait of a group of prostitutes, which re-interpreted Cézanne’s “The Bathers.”
The visitors were shocked — and Braque loved it.
“Grand Nude,” 1907-08, is Braque’s response to what he saw in Picasso’s studio. One can clearly see the first inklings of Cubism in the two men’s work. One initially sees the figure standing, yet when one really starts to examine the figure it is clear she is reclining. The head and shoulders are large, suggesting perspective. The background includes what might be a sheet on which she is lying. The nude herself is twisting as if she is turning.
Braque is playing with our sense of reality, forcing us to examine the validity of our linear perceptions.
While Braque is still using rough brushstrokes, he has abandoned the bright colors in favor of browns and greys.
It was not long before Braque and Picasso embarked on “Analytical Cubism,” the process of breaking an object down to shapes and planes.
“Violin and Pitcher” (1909-1910), is constructed with a series of planes, yet the objects are still clearly identifiable. By the time we get to “Man with a Guitar,” 1911-12, the image is simple a mass of disturbing shapes as opposed to symmetry and harmony. One no longer sees a clearly defined subject. The man is in there somewhere — as is the guitar — but it requires the viewer to work to see him. And there is no guarantee that what one sees is what it appears to be. Braque’s brushstrokes are now small and dense, and the composition is a pyramid, suggesting perspective. The images were meant to come out of the frame toward the viewer.
Braque wrote, “Traditional perspective gave me no satisfaction…It never allows one to take full possession of things. It operates from a single viewpoint, which is never abandoned.”
By now, the image is almost exclusively monochromatic, as he believed color would distract from the analysis of the form.
The paintings titles cleverly instruct the viewer as to what they should be looking for, but the fact that the objects are hard — or impossible — to find keeps the viewer more engaged.
In an old “Star Trek” episode, Captain Picard explains to an alien race that the one thing guaranteed to keep humans interested is a mystery. Braque keeps our attention by asking us to solve the puzzle of the deconstructed image.
By deconstructing the object, Braque attempts to show us the “whole” thing, resulting in a work that is intellectually stimulating but also confusing and challenging.
In 1912, Braque introduced a technique that is now standard, but at the time was revolutionary — collage. Papier collé is specifically the use of paper on paper. Braque saw some wood grain wallpaper in a shop, bought it and took it home where he pasted it down and drew around it. The term “Synthetic Cubism” grew out of this technique, which he developed in partnership with Picasso. If one looks at the work the two men produced during the Cubism period, it is hard to determine whose work is whose.
Braque came from a familial line of house painters who specialized in “trompe l’oeil” — fool-the-eye painting. They could make a simple wall look like marble.
“Still Life with Tenora,” 1913, features a strip of wood grain wallpaper and a portion of a newspaper with sketched lines. If one looks closely, it appears to be a standard still life. Yet there are intersecting shapes and shadows that suggest it is not flat. And is this a round table viewed from above — more shifting of the perspective? Despite the simplicity of the rendering, it is also complex. The image seems to show a musician’s table, abandoned temporarily. Maybe the musician has been practicing before settling in to read the paper. There is much more here than meets the eye — it suggests a moment from a story we are not privy to, yet also suggests a mundane slice of life.
Braque wrote, “Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself.”
He adds that poetry is found in that harmony, and one finds an “intellectual non-existence…what I can only describe as a sense of peace.”
The everyday objects that make up the still life fascinated Braque throughout his life. Long before Pop Art, Braque saw the artistry in the commercial, often including packaging along with the newspapers and wallpaper collages.
Kurt Schwitters took the collage and extended it even further, using the detritus of everyday life to create his abstract collages.
Braque’s collaboration with Picasso ended when he was conscripted into the army in World War I. He wrote “The things that Picasso and I said to one another during those years will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them anymore. It was like being roped together on a mountain.”
In 1915, Braque received a head injury in battle and was temporarily blinded. He was trepanned and was in recuperation for a long time. When he returned to painting in 1916, he re-introduced color into his work.
In 1925, Braque painted three paintings of mantelpieces. These images are large verticals and not only incorporate distorted perspective of Cubism, but also draw on the family business. Each piece features painted marble. The paintings explore not just the objects, but also the space between the objects which, he said, make up the subject.
The paintings feature multiple objects placed in the same interior, although the angles change in each. Different light sources affect the contrast.
The bold shapes and colors are reminiscent of Matisse’s work.
During the 1930s and through World War II, Braque painted a series of dark interiors. He and his wife Marcel, whom he met when he was 26 but did not marry until he was 44, moved to Paris during the war. He was not overtly political, but the fact he chose to stay when many of his contemporaries moved to England or America was an act of bravery.
In “The Duet,” 1937, two women sit in a room, one playing the piano, the other reading a newspaper. The painting is split almost in two with light and dark. The newspaper headline reads “Debauche.” Is this a room at a brothel, with the two women representing the immorality of war? Or are they two women waiting for the return of their men from war? The light and dark could easily represent the split in French society at the time.
Braque’s later works focused on birds, including collages and abstracted paintings (echoing the designs of Matisse’s late paper cutouts). “In Full Flight” (1956-61) is an interesting hybrid of styles. The approximately 4-feet by 5–feet canvas features a bird that looks more like a plane than the fluid, curving birds of his other works. It seems to be flying into a giant dark void — or is it a large black machine? Braque has mixed sand into his paint so that the surface is cracked and knobbly.
The piece is far from the contained interiors and still lifes of his earlier work. It is as if he is acknowledging the modern world that he knows he will not see. What the future is, he cannot know. For him it is a void. Yet, in the bottom left-hand corner, a white bird, added later to the canvas, appears to break out of the darkness and is flying into the blue.
By the end of his life Braque’s reputation was assured; he was the first living artist to be exhibited at the Louvre, and he was awarded a state funeral when he died. This retrospective clearly shows why he is so revered.
Like his birds, Braque’s style flew far from the detailed analysis of his cubist works, casting a new perspective on the art of the 20th century.
He deserves his place in the pantheon of great modernists.
“Georges Braque: A Retrospective” is on display through May 11. A bilingual book containing all of the images from the exhibition is available in the museum shop and is great value at $24.95 (the full catalog is available in French only).
MFAH is located at 1001 Bissonnet in Houston.
For more information, visit www.mfah.org.