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Georges Braque is one of the best-known and least-understood painters of our century, a paradigmatic modernist who only now, more than a quarter-century after his death, is beginning to be evaluated accurately. Characterized variously as radical innovator or elegant stylist, as serene classicist or temperamental individualist, as Picasso's sidekick or as the grand old man of French painting, Braque has lacked neither attention nor admiration. Since at least the 1920s he has been regarded as an essential figure in the evolution of art in our time. Art history texts and museum installations have underlined his role as a vital collaborator in the modernist adventure, stressing, in particular, his intimate relationship with Pablo Picasso during the formative years of Cubism. The two artists' works are hung side by side more often than not, and the phrase "Picasso and Braque" recurs as though it stood for a single being. Braque himself may have encouraged the idea when he said that he and Picasso were "roped together like mountain climbers" during those crucial years, and there are famous stories told by each artist about mistaking the other's work for his own. While this has assured Braque's place in the history of twentieth-century art, it has made him seem less interesting and less important in his own right, and his real individuality and real strengths have not always been fully appreciated.
Conversely, if being linked with Picasso has in some ways diminished Braque, his position in his later years as elder statesman of French painting sometimes led to his work's being esteemed beyond its worth. Braque is unquestionably one of the giants of modern painting, but heproduced many failed or weak pictures, often at the same time that he was making masterpieces. Problematic works occur more frequently toward the end of his life, when he was ill and feeble, but it is undeniable that at intervals after the late 1910s he produced ingratiating but second-rate works--pleasant but distinctly minor still lifes, tentative sculptures, uninspiring prints--that undiscriminating collectors have nonetheless found attractive. Acute eyes have always been able to distinguish between Braque's best and lesser works, but the uncritical acceptance of secondary efforts has done little to enhance his reputation. Yet when Braque fails, he does so primarily in relation to the high standard set by his own finest work, and it is by his own highest level that he must be judged.
Braque is so clearly one of this century's great painters--quite apart from his historical importance--that it is sometimes difficult to remember that he never laid claim to the popular imagination. He was a quintessentially unspectacular artists' artist who led a life of exemplary dullness. There was no familial resistance to his wish to be a painter, no years of acute deprivation or struggle for recognition, no flight to exotic parts, no severed ear. Instead, there are charming anecdotes about his sturdy good looks, his prowess as an amateur boxer, his strength and athleticism. He is reported to have been a good musician, a singer with a pleasant voice, and an accomplished, enthusiastic dancer. Photographs and the recollections of his contemporaries bear out these legends. Braque's dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, remembered that he boasted of being able to "play Beethoven symphonies on the accordion."
Perhaps even more than his musical ability and his strength, Braque's looks seem to have impressed everyone. Kahnweiler described him as tall, "very handsome," and "a complete dandy." "In those days," Kahnweiler recalled, "he used to wear very simple blue suits with a special cut, which I never saw on anyone but him. He also had black, square-toed shoes that did not have a thick sole, which he said came from Abbeville. Like Max Jacob, he had a black string tie, and he wore all this with a great deal of chic." Gertrude Stein's companion, Alice B. Toklas, recalled that when she first met Braque, his robust appearance and carefully chosen workman's clothes "reminded her so much of an American cowboy that she always had the impression he could understand English, and so was careful in what she talked about." Braque remained impressive. People who knew him in his old age remember him as "the best looking man in Paris," with his clear-cut features and silver hair.
From recollections and anecdotes a portrait emerges of a cheerful, energetic artist, but the persona suggested by Braque's paintings is rather different. He appears to be intensely serious, disciplined--especially in comparison to the mercurial Picasso--relentless in his determination to see his paintings through to the end, meticulous about the physical quality of his pictures. In interviews Braque often said that he "always had a feeling for painting," insisting that he never chose to be an artist but came to it inevitably. "I never had the idea of becoming a painter any more than I had the idea of breathing," he once said. Yet curiously, he seems to have been anything but a natural, neither a virtuoso draftsman nor, at first a notable colorist. Despite this apparent lack of early distinction, Braque was encouraged by his family, and by the time he was twenty-two, he had declared himself a full-time artist. Two years later he was exhibiting in the 1906 Salon des Independants for the first time, and a year later, in his second appearance at the show, he sold all six of his submissions. By the time of his first one-man show, at Kahnweiler's new Paris gallery in 1908, Braque was already part of the circle of artists and writers we now regard as creators of some of the most advanced and provocative art of the early twentieth century--individuals whose work helps to define what we mean by modernism. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a rapturous introduction to Braque's exhibition catalog. In spite of Apollinaire's and Kahnweiler's enthusiasm, Braque's commercial success at the 1907 Salon des Independants was not repeated (nor would it be for many years), but he had already begun to attract the attention of a few enlightened observers.
Just as Braque's early years lack the struggles of the misunderstood artist celebrated in fiction--except, of course, for private, self-imposed aesthetic struggles--so, too, is novelistic romance lacking. There is no succession of discarded mistresses in his history, no litigious offspring. Braque married Marcelle Lapre when he was thirty and they remained together, childless, until the end of his life, more than half a century later. All but the first dozen years of their married life were spent in the substantial house and studio, designed by the architect Auguste Perret, that Braque had built on a quiet cul-de-sac (now called rue Georges Braque) near the Parc Montsouris, in Montparnasse. Summers were spent at their house in Varengeville, on the coast of Normandy.
Except for one dreadful incident when he served in World War I, Braque's life was devoid of conventional drama. Having suffered a severe head wound, First Lieutenant Braque was left for dead on the battlefield. Rescued by stretcher bearers the next day, he remained in a coma for several days, recovering consciousness on his birthday. He is reported to have lost his sight temporarily, and from then on there were no more stories about Braque's extraordinary strength (although there is a photograph of the painter standing on his head, at the beach, in 1924). For undergoing this ordeal Braque was awarded the Croix de Guerre and made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur.
The greatest adventure of Braque's life was the six-year exchange with Picasso, which generated some of the most innovative and beautiful paintings in all modernism. The other significant moments in Braque's long life tend to be formal and stately, such as receiving first prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition of 1937 and at the Venice Biennale of 1948. Major exhibitions of his work toured Europe and the United States during his lifetime, and a retrospective exhibition even went to Tokyo, long before the Japanese became significant consumers of modernist French art. Special issues of important art magazines were devoted to his work. Toward the end of his life he was invited to decorate the ceiling of the Louvre's Salle Henri II, where the Etruscan collection was then displayed, and at seventy-nine Braque became the first living artist ever accorded a one-man exhibition at that august museum. When he died in 1963, at eighty-one, Braque was granted state honors at his funeral; Andre Malraux, the minister of culture, delivered the funeral oration in the Cour Carree of the Louvre.
Braque thought long and hard about his art and about art in general, but the writings he left are masterpieces of the elliptical that conceal more than they reveal. His introspective notebooks, with their epigrammatic texts and shorthand drawings, are almost Oriental in their economy. When the first section was published, in 1948, Rebecca West commented, "Nothing in these notebooks, however, sheds the slightest light on Braque's private life, his passions, his ideas, his fantasies." There are no heartfelt letters available to outsiders (if, indeed, they exist), no private journals that make us privy to hidden agonies.
Interviews prove only slightly more illuminating, yielding provocative but often tantalizingly oblique replies. Speaking of the time he and Picasso reintroduced color into Cubism, after years of working in near monochrome, Braque once said: "I don't want to pretend that this was a discovery: on the contrary, this independent impact of color had already been sensed by painters, but we gave it all our attention. We made it our point of departure, but as soon as we got down to work, all calculation had to cease--and that's the only reason our painting is alive. It ceased being speculative and became real . . . I have often reflected upon all that and I find it very difficult to grasp it all."
Braque demands to be judged by his art, not by his life. In a single-minded pursuit of excellence, he devoted himself to the making of thoughtful, deeply felt images, and--like many of the best artists of his time, like Picasso, like Henri Matisse, like Pierre Bonnard--he trusted the results to speak for themselves, without benefit of theory or explication. In his notebooks he wrote: "In art, there is only one thing that counts: the thing that you can't explain." Treading the boundary between the verifiable and the inexplicable, between perception and conception, Braque changed art irrevocably. Under the tutelage of his pictures and those of like-minded colleagues such as Matisse and Picasso, artists and viewers alike came to value invention as highly as they did faithful depiction and to accept the reality of the art object as equal to the reality of anything in the existing world.
Despite the enormous implications of these notions, Braque's own investigations were deliberately limited. It is not that he was unadventurous. In terms of materials and techniques he was only too willing to experiment, testing the possibilities of a great variety of media, as European artists tend to do. He worked in plaster, bronze, and a range of graphic techniques; he designed theater decors and costumes, stained glass and jewelry. The results are, at best, mixed, usually lacking the sense of deep engagement that characterizes even his lesser paintings. (His sculpture is better left ignored.) In spite of his curiosity about other approaches, Braque was first and foremost a painter, someone who always thought in terms of moving a more or less fluid substance across a surface.
The aesthetic territory that Braque chose to explore was relatively narrow, especially compared to the limitless field claimed by Picasso, who restlessly tried and discarded new approaches throughout his career. Unlike Picasso, Braque remained faithful to the possibilities of Cubism for most of his life. For Picasso, some aspects of Cubism became part of a manner, rather than formal imperatives. Braque, on the other hand, seems to have regarded Cubism as an infinitely flexible and variable language capable of accommodating everything he could possibly wish to say--rather like French itself, with its unbreakable rules and precedents that nonetheless allow writers to speak in individual voices. Braque may have stayed within self-imposed boundaries during his long and productive life as a painter, but he did so with a seriousness, a lucidity, and an intensity that make his best paintings unforgettable. As he wrote in his notebooks: "Limited means produce new forms, inspire creativity, make a style. Progress in art does not consist in reducing limitations, but in knowing them better."
|1||Early Life and Work||15|
|3||Braque and Picasso||29|
|5||The 1920s and 1930s||61|
|6||Salons, Studios, and Birds||77|
|Notes on Technique||105|