Georges Braque: A Lifeby Alex Danchev
Together with Picasso and Matisse, Georges Braque is unquestionably one of the three great pillars of twentieth-century art. Here is the first full-length biography of this remarkable figure. A pioneer of modern art and founder of Cubism, Georges Braque was a creative genius and tireless innovator, constantly pushing back the boundaries of the possible. In this magisterial work, Alex Danchev taps a wide range of new sources to reveal the heart and mind of one who helped usher in the greatest revolution in the ways of seeing since the Renaissance and changed the face of modern art.
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GEORGES BRAQUEA Life
By ALEX DANCHEV
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2005 Alex Danchev
All right reserved.
Chapter One'Everyone has his own coffee grounds': The Apprentice
He was born at Argenteuil, on the banks of the Seine, a day trip from Paris, on 13 May 1882. He was reborn at Carency, on the battlefields of the Western Front, a cannon-shot from Arras, on 13 May 1915. The first occasion was trouble-free, so far as we know, but the second was savage enough for the veteran Braque to pass it off lightly, if he mentioned it at all. He had been left for dead on the field of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, his skull shattered by a piece of shrapnel. After dark, fortuitously, he was picked up by the stretcher-bearers, still unconscious but still breathing, just. For cases such as Braque's, trepanation was the recommended procedure. The drilling was done immediately, by Deladriere from Dunkirk. When it was over Braque lay in a coma for forty-eight hours. He came round on his birthday. It was 9.00 in the evening, exactly the time he was born. Recuperating, he remembered an absurdist exchange with a nurse: '"Are you the one who's been trepanned? Take off your shoes." Would you believe it, I was wounded in the head and they wanted to look at my feet.'
He nearly died in 1915. He nearly died again, of pneumonia, in 1947. Death came definitively on 31 August 1963, aftera lengthy period of incubation.
Georges Braque had more life and death experience than most. Of all this living and dying, he let slip remarkably little. The authorized version - 'his testament' - comes down to us in a series of interviews he gave to the writer Dora Vallier for the upmarket Cahiers d'Art, in 1954; or rather in Vallier's rendition of some twelve hours of talk (punctually each evening, 6.00 till 7.00), from the notes she took on her lap. Braque was always alert to the shades of names. It must have pleased him to have his thoughts gathered by a young woman with the same name as Cezanne's gardener, the noble subject of the inspiritor's last work. He vetted the text before publication, as he had stipulated, but altered nothing. He had already made himself crystal clear. In a mirror of his artistic practice, he was well rehearsed. He often worked in series, planting, grafting, pruning and training, before moving on, a process that could take many years. 'All the great artists have been great workers,' as Nietzsche knew, 'inexhaustible not only in invention but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.' So with Braque. His canvases are composts. His texts too. The account he gave to Vallier had been seeded in similar accounts given to his friend Jean Paulhan during the Occupation, and to the American curator of a large-scale retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1949. 'The artist is not misunderstood,' said Braque, 'he is poorly understood.'
The lack of talk is something very like deference to his wishes. In life, Braque gave off a strong sense of self-containment. He lived in the castle of his skin. Even as a young man he conveyed a strict injunction: no gossip. In Braque's circle the term was expansively interpreted. Gossip covered anything that did not count. 'What counted' and what counted for nothing was a favourite discriminator. The only thing that really counted, he sometimes professed to believe, was the work. Everything but the work was gossip. Life itself was gossip. 'Conceal thy life,' commanded Epicurus, and so Braque did. Hence the injunction. Inner life was off-limits, and private life should live up to its name. 'I thought that one could do good painting without attracting attention to one's private life,' sighed Cezanne. The same applied to Braque. His own was sacrosanct. It was an attitude neatly caught in retrospect by the distinguished writer-curator Jean Leymarie, who became his friend. 'There are no anecdotes,' Leymarie observed, sympathetically, of this white-out life. On further reflection: 'Of course, there are anecdotes. But they are secret.'
The injunction echoes down the decades. When interviewing the artist on his early life and times for the MoMA retrospective - forty years after the fact - the well-briefed curator of the exhibition took great pains to accommodate Braque's sensitivities by tiptoeing delicately round anything remotely personal. Non-events were ratified in the book of the show: 'If he had any youthful romances, they were of little importance.' In after-life, too, the story remained the same. In Argenteuil, which might have claimed him, the shabby 40 rue de l'Hotel-Dieu where he was born and where three generations of Braques lived on top of one another has been demolished. There is an obligatory Place Georges Braque - a pitiable corner where it is not advisable to linger - but what is unknown in Argenteuil is that his parents are buried under a plain stone in the town cemetery, in a plot acquired originally by Braque's mother and now registered under the name of Eugene Gosselin (1877-1929), the artist's brother-in-law, a businessman less conspicuous in life than in death, whose mission it was to teach Braque billiards. In Argenteuil, therefore, in the span of one short century, something has happened that might almost be called Kafkaesque. As the name of Braque began to grow it also began to disappear. By the time it was great it was all but invisible. When it comes to Georges Braque, public memory is patchy indeed. His birthplace is a blank spot.
What should they know of Braque who only Braque know? The authorized version of his pre-history, as Vallier puts it, is telescopic:
I've always had a feeling for painting. My father, a building contractor, liked to paint. My grandfather had also been an amateur painter. I was born in Argenteuil, at the time when the Impressionists were working there. Throughout my childhood in Le Havre, the Impressionist atmosphere prevailed ... My artistic education? I did it all by myself with Gil Blas [a satirical review]. My father had a subscription. I must have been about twelve, I had been struck by Steinlen and [Toulouse-]Lautrec, I remember, but it was Lautrec I liked the best. I spent my evenings copying - by the light of an oil-lamp - the illustrations in Gil Blas. I even had a craze for posters. Often I used to wait until dark and go and peel off the ones I liked and for a long time I kept one of Lautrec's ... I may still have it ... On Sundays, my father used to hitch the horse to the cart and go and 'do landscapes'. I used to go with him and watch him work ...
In class during drawing lessons I did nothing but barrack the teacher and mess around doing caricatures. There was nothing of any interest in my sketches, and even if there had been the teacher would not have had the wit to notice. It was scarcely any better at the [Ecole Municipale des] Beaux-Arts in Le Havre. I must have been about fifteen when I started going to evening classes. I've always hated official painting - I still feel very strongly about that ...
During that period I used to come to Paris in the holidays and it was then that I saw the Louvre for the first time. I remember, however, that I soon began to be more interested in the paintings in the Musee du Luxembourg. After leaving school at eighteen, I began my apprenticeship as a painter and decorator. I realized that I was not capable of winning a medal at the Beaux-Arts - which would have gained me exemption from military service - and my father decided to send me to Paris so that I could complete my apprenticeship, still because this would have made things easier with regard to military service ... They taught me to do mock marble, mock wood, but even so I stuck it out right to the end of the apprenticeship.
Braque was a Northerner born and bred. His forebears came from Haudivillers, near Compiegne, in the Oise, some 50 miles north of Paris. His great-grandfather, Pierre Braque (1740-1859), settled in Argenteuil in the 1840s. There he married Elenore Lequeux. They had four children: Frederic, a woodcarver; Toussaint, a locksmith; Jean, a joiner and cabinetmaker; and Amedee (1830-1903), Braque's grandfather, a house painter. Amedee Braque married Louise Botel. They had three children: Achille, a joiner; Lucien, a watchmaker; and Charles (1855-1911), Braque's father, also a house painter, later a prosperous building contractor, as indicated by his proud son. Charles Braque married a local girl, Augustine Johanet (1859-1942). They had two children: Henriette (1878-1950) and her younger brother Georges.
Braque's relatives are mostly lost to history, especially on the distaff side. The young tyro painted his mother, his maternal grandmother and his cousin Louise, and preserved the evidence, despite professing his apprentice work worthless and editing it even more ruthlessly than his apprentice life. As late as the 1950s he burned a life-size Portrait of the Artist's Mother, possibly the last vestige of his Toulouse-Lautrec period. It is interesting that the extant portraits concentrate on the women of the family: studies in availability, perhaps. These well-conducted women are mute. Braque gave them cameos, not speaking parts. (If that. His sister's space is void.) Nothing of their talk or temper survives in his reminiscence, evanescent as it is, save for the vague but intriguing suggestion that his mother may have been less reconciled than his father to their only son's determination not to pursue the logic of his hard-graft apprenticeship and join the family firm, but instead to brave the stew of Montmartre and find his own way to paint: to become an artist, not an artisan, if he could.
His mother is otherwise an unperson. His father, by contrast, benefits in the telling and emerges a little better defined. Charles Braque inherited from his own father both his trade and his avocation: the matching traditions of house painting and Sunday painting in which his son Georges grew up. 'They worked to keep my conscience clear,' the latter remarked to Jean Paulhan. One of his earliest memories was of his father telling him with pride that even Parisian artists came to paint Argenteuil, their home town, without ever mentioning what kind of painting they did. By the time young Georges could spell its name, Argenteuil and its riparian charms had been advertised, shockingly, by a new breed of open-air artists whose totem was a longhair called Claude Monet - a man in a crowd of eunuchs, in Zola's estimation. These artists practised Impressionism, a name coined in ridicule from one of Monet's paintings, his 'impression' of the rising sun. The name stuck; and so did the mud. To Charles Braque and his friends Impressionism was an offence, if not a disgrace, and they would have no truck with it. This reaction was not uncommon. At the Ecole Municipale des Beaux-Arts in Le Havre, where Georges Braque put in a fleeting appearance a few years later, the director solemnly informed his students that Impressionism had come too late for him.
Monet had been encamped at Argenteuil for much of the 1870s. One of the legends of Braque's childhood is that he caught the Impressionist-in-chief executing one of his scandalous scenes: Sunday at Argenteuil, as it may be, or The Boat Rental Area. Unfortunately the chronology fits no better than the psychology. The boy was not ready; and Monet had moved on. Confrontation or inoculation would have to wait. Georges Braque was in no sense precocious. What he did see was the construction of a mansion for a cultivated naval architect from Paris, Gustave Caillebotte, a stripling with bottomless pockets, advanced tastes in contemporary art, and remarkable foresight. It was the house rather than the contents that interested the Braques at the time; but the story had a sequel, at least for one member of the family. The naval architect left his collection to the state, which did not want it, but Gustave Caillebotte was not to be denied. His will provided not only for a permanent collection but for its exhibition, first at the Musee du Luxembourg (the national museum for living artists) and then at the last bastion of the Louvre itself. There followed a bitter rearguard action. Eventually, in 1897, a portion of the Caillebotte bequest was duly installed at the Luxembourg, in an isolation wing built for the purpose. The teenage Braque was not slow to investigate its contagious offerings. There were Monets, Renoirs, Pissarros, Manets, and, at the very bottom of the barrel, grudgingly accepted by the unenlightened functionaries of the state, two small Cezannes - Braque's first, or the first he registered. One of them was not so much an impression as a sensation of a small Mediterranean port that became a place of pilgrimage: L'Estaque.
Argenteuil, meanwhile, was losing its appeal, spoiled by progress and sacked by invading armies of Parisians bent on having a good time. 'Nature is going to quit its role of the mysterious, silent nymph,' lamented La Vie Parisienne. 'She is going to become an inn maid, to whom travelling salesmen pay rather poor respect. They take over the country as if it were a huge "guinguette", a cafe-concert larger than the one on the Champs-Elysees ... All these people come to feel the hills as if they were breasts, to tuck the forests up to the knee and ruffle the river as if the Sunday ritual was to give nature a charivari [a raucous serenade]. The mad Parisians have thrown nature into an uproar.' The mad Parisians may have been good for business in some quarters, but they did not do much for house painting. For Charles Braque trade was slow. Prospects were poor. He and his extended family decided to look elsewhere. In 1890, when their youngest was eight, they left Argenteuil for Le Havre.
It was an opportune decision. Fin-de-siecle Le Havre was bursting at the seams, with a fast-growing population and a rush of new building. Demand for high-class painters and decorators was nearly insatiable. In order to get started, the new arrivals went into partnership: Driancourt and Braque, 33 rue Jules-Lecesne, another house demolished, this time involuntarily, by the carpet bombing of 1944. Briskly the business took off. Within three years Charles Braque was his own boss, with a loyal crew, a certain fingerprint, a growing reputation, and a burgeoning self-esteem. Soon it was said that every new property of consequence in Le Havre had the decorative stamp of Braque & Co. Forty years on, when the theatre director Armand Salacrou (a local boy made good) set about restoring the Villa Maritime, a demi-palace on the esplanade, under an aberrant coating of spinach-green paint he discovered the trademark of Charles Braque - unstinted mock wood, in yellow and brown. Salacrou, who knew his Braques, had a swift sense of deja vu. It was as if the workmanship of one generation had been framed in the next. For Armand Salacrou, these 'astonishing decorations' resembled nothing so much as the canvases-to-be of Georges Braque.
Charles Braque painted pictures too. For a Sunday painter, he was a serious one. If his highest aspirations were never quite fulfilled, filially they were far exceeded. How children dance to the unlived lives of their parents, observed Rilke wisely. Braque pere took lessons from Theodule Ribot, whose stronger-voiced confederate Eugene Boudin was the one who encouraged the young Monet out of the studio and into the field, believing that 'everything painted directly and on the spot has a strength, a vigour, a vivacity of touch that can never be obtained in the studio'. Ribot and Boudin were pre-Impressionists. They ventured something, within bounds. Their idol and inspiration was Corot - Boudin considered Corot and Millet 'the two greatest individuals of our time' - for the luminescent silvery-grey that seemed to seep through his paintings, but above all for his delicacy, his maturity, and his outdoorsmanship. ('But where, monsieur, do you see that splendid tree you've put there?' Corot, taking his pipe from between his teeth and without turning round, points with the stem at an oak behind them.) Ribot and Boudin were both professionally versatile, a lesson well learned by the Braque succession, but what they liked to do best was paint seascapes at Honfleur and Trouville, just along the coast from Le Havre. 'It is a consolation for us to see that in spite of our advancing years we are still holding our own against the unruly and daring young people who do not want to do the same as their predecessors and who perhaps are getting a little carried away in their fracturing of colour and light.'
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Meet the Author
Alex Danchev is the author of several acclaimed biographies. He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and is a contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He is a professor at the School of Politics at the University of Nottingham. He lives in England.
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With the back matter of three short appendices, lengthy notes, lengthy bibliography, and index starting on page 280, this makes the text less than 300 pages. Danchev's biography on this early modernist artist relates his influence on contemporary artists and on modern art as well as influences on him mostly through Braque's relationships with others. The treatment is not a probing psychological study, nor an aesthetic critique and evaluation but rather concentrates on aspects of Braque's everyday life--his friendships, his trips, his habits. Braque's long and fertile relationship with Picasso was central to Braque's creativity. Danchev also spends time on Braque's marriage to Marcelle Vorvanne, giving her a mini-biography of her own. Another important relationship for Braque was with Jean Paulhan, one of the editors of 'Nouvelle Revue Francaise,' who 'became [the artist's] greatest tribune and celebrant.' Paulhan wrote about Braque's painting, '[I]t is without doubt that his work is at all times strangely complete and sufficient...[with the ultimate] feeling of a delay enjoyed, and an obligation fulfilled.' Such observations from others in Braque's life are not only illuminating and stimulating in themselves, but accrue to cast light on the complexities and enigma of Braque--as with any historically significant artist--and his paintings several of which are shown in color plates. Danchev has written other biographies and is a professor in the School of Politics at the U. of Nottingham.