Georges Braque

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1. Life and work

Source: Oxford University Press

(i) Early work and Cubism, before 1918

His family moved in 1890 to Le Havre, where his father had a painting and decorating business. In 1897 Braque entered the municipal art school, where he met and became friendly with Othon Friesz and Raoul Dufy. He joined them in Paris at the turn of the century and, after a year of army service, settled in Montmartre in 1902. He began to visit the Musée du Louvre, where he encountered van Gogh’s work, and that October he began to study at the Académie Humbert, where his fellow students included Francis Picabia and Marie Laurencin. The following year he studied briefly with Friesz and Dufy again at Léon Bonnat’s studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but academic training held little interest for him and was short-lived. In 1905 he saw the work of Derain and Matisse at the Salon d’Automne, and in the same year he became friendly with the sculptor Manolo and the writer Maurice Raynal, spending the summer with them on the Normandy coast. These two events were both important in his association with Fauvism; Raynal and Manolo were both fellow members of the Cercle de l’Art Moderne, founded in Le Havre in the spring of 1906. In March of that year Braque exhibited his works for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants. In the summer he painted in Antwerp with Friesz, producing such Fauvist works as Landscape near Antwerp (priv. col., see Russell, pl. 3), and he spent the following winter at L’Estaque, near Marseille. The German collector Wilhelm Uhde bought five of his paintings from the Salon des Indépendants of spring 1907. Around this time he first met Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and was introduced by Guillaume Apollinaire to Picasso.

In the autumn of 1907, first at L’Estaque and then back in Paris, Braque began his transition away from bright, Fauvist hues to a more subdued style, possibly as a result of the memorial exhibition of Cézanne’s work at the Salon d’Automne of 1907. This transition was given additional impetus by Braque’s visit, accompanied by Apollinaire, to Picasso’s studio in late 1907, where he saw the Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; New York, MOMA). While startling in its rawness in comparison to Matisse’s contemporary large figure compositions, Braque’s response was his Large Nude (1908; priv. col., see Mangin [Worms de Romilly], i, no. 5). In this important work Braque accepted the schematized structure, shallow space and subdued colour of Picasso’s work. Another trip to L’Estaque in the summer of 1908 led to his first fully developed Cubist paintings, a group of landscapes with buildings, one of the best known being Houses at L’Estaque (Berne, Kstmus.). These were exhibited at the Galerie Kahnweiler in November, having been rejected by the Salon d’Automne. Their exhibition gave rise to the first reference in print to Braque as a painter of ‘cubes’, which came in a review by Louis Vauxcelles in Gil Blas, apparently echoing a remark made by Matisse. However, the term ‘Cubism’ as a critical label has a misleadingly geometric implication and was not proposed by either Braque or Picasso.

Later in 1908 Braque took the traditional theme of Musical Instruments (e.g. Mangin [Worms de Romilly], i, no. 7) and treated it with the Cubist stylization. At La Roche-Guyon during June and August 1909 Braque painted five views of the castle (e.g. La Roche-Guyon: The Castle, 1909; Eindhoven, Stedel. Van Abbemus.). These consolidated the flat treatment of landscape space introduced at L’Estaque, with thinner, more liquid paints. The still-lifes executed in Paris the following winter, including Piano and Guitar, Violin and Palette (both 1909–10; New York, Guggenheim) and the volumetric Violin and Pitcher (1910; Basle, Kstmus.) are less diaphanous, and the latter is arguably Braque’s greatest Analytical Cubist dissection of form. The two violin images include trompe l’oeil representations of a nail with its shadow, which have been widely discussed in Cubist literature and which have been referred to as reminders of naturalistic illusionism in contrast to the new Cubist vision. In the winter of 1909–10 Braque and Picasso both had studios in Montmartre and saw each other daily.

Analytical Cubism reached its apogee in 1910–11 in increasingly painterly, nearly monochrome, brown canvases of still-lifes and, to a lesser extent, figures. One of the most important works of the period is the Portuguese Man (Basle, Kstmus.), begun in Céret in the French Pyrenees c. September 1911 but probably not finished until Braque returned to Paris in January 1912. In it he introduced stencilled letters and numbers in the upper part of the canvas, suggesting the backdrop of the café where the guitarist plays, yet pictorially these clean-edged letters sit on the surface. Braque’s interest in the human figure remained primarily formal, and he showed little concern or flair for portraiture.

In 1911 Kahnweiler commissioned The Fox (New York, MOMA), one of Braque’s first engravings, and about this time Braque began experimenting more significantly with other media and techniques and with new shapes, such as the circular canvas of Soda (1911; New York, MOMA). He also began to experiment with the application of paint, mixing it with sand (as in Still-life with Grapes, 1912; Paris, Gal. Louise Leiris), just as Picasso was introducing the use of Ripolin enamel. From 1912 Braque also began using a house-painter’s comb to introduce areas of imitation wood-grain into his paintings. In 1912, the year of Braque’s marriage to Marcelle Lapre, he and Picasso stayed at Sorgues, near Avignon, and began using pre-existing objects and materials in their paintings (as in Picasso’s Still-life with Chair-caning, 1912; Paris, Mus. Picasso), partly to preserve a connection with reality in their works and partly out of an apprehension that their works were becoming, or were being seen as, too abstract. There was also a desire to reintroduce colour into their increasingly monochrome canvases. In the same year, according to Rubin (1989–90), Braque produced the first Cubist paper sculptures, probably using them in relation to painting as part of an enthusiasm for popular culture. This led him to the technique of papier collé, first explored in Fruit Dish and Glass (1912; priv. col., see Mangin [Worms de Romilly], i, no. 150). The artificial wood-grain paper ( faux bois) that he stuck to paper on which he drew preserved the brown tonality of Analytical Cubism and acted as an integral part of the structure of the drawing, whereas Picasso’s experiments with collage at the same time played on the deliberate disjuncture of material and means of expression between the inserted material and the rest of the work. Braque experimented for more than a year with wood-grain effects, for example using them with oil paint, as in Fruit Dish and Ace of Clubs (1913; Paris, Pompidou), and employing such paintings as points of reference for papiers collés such as The Clarinet (1913; New York, MOMA). He began to experiment with newspaper cut into shapes, for example that of a guitar in Collage with Newspaper (1912; priv. col., see 1982 exh. cat., Braque: Les Papiers collés, p. 133), but it was not until the end of 1913 that he began using differently coloured paper to break away from the characteristic Cubist brown, for example in Pipe, Glass and Die (1914; Hannover, Sprengel Mus.), although even here he seems to have been more interested in quietly activating the white ground as a positive shape. Even at this stage, however, Braque showed comparatively little interest in introducing other pre-existing elements into his collages and preferred to draw the playing cards or pages of music that were often central to the composition. The austerity of Braque’s work, in particular, at this time and the relentless formal interest in the narrow range of recurrent subject-matter , together with his interest in the actual means of picture-making rather than in extra-pictorial associations, established his reputation as the most rigorous exponent of Cubism. The same formal interest in the work not only of Braque but also of Picasso contributed perhaps to the act that their enterprise somehow managed to appear more abstract than it was in their own minds. Thus there followed a whole generation of international artists, including Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, who observed Cubism at a certain remove and then explored pure abstraction. Perhaps Cubism’s greatest achievement, however, was its enshrinement of pictorial ambiguity through snatches of objects, word fragments and double meanings, and private and fanciful associations.

One of the important impulses of Cubism immediately before the outbreak of World War I was its focus on the boundaries of the conventional pictorial field. In early 1914 both Braque and Picasso included painted name labels within their compositions (e.g. Braque’s Music, 1914; priv. col., see 1949 exh. cat., p. 71). Their idea brilliantly encapsulated paradoxical characteristics: both the tableau objet concept and the relativity and limits of illusionism. While Picasso developed the witty device of the pasted paper ‘frame’, which mocked exhibition culture, Braque continued to experiment with variations on the rectilinear pictorial format, for example in his Still-life with Pipe (1914; Paris, Pompidou).

Braque was called up for military service in August 1914, and he was wounded in the head and temporarily blinded on 11 May 1915 at Carency. He resumed painting in late 1916, with only three works dated to that year. The following year he produced an impressive horizontal Still-life with a ‘false’ painted nameplate (priv. col., see Mangin [Worms de Romilly], ii, no. 8) and resumed the theme of the shaped canvas. Among a number of lozenge formats is the Glass and Ace of Clubs (1917; New York, Krugier Gal.), which is especially interesting because of the reappearance of the false nameplate, now used to set off an incised lozenge on top of an imitation stone rectangle possibly related, according to Jean Leymarie (see 1973 exh. cat.), to low reliefs by Henri Laurens. The unusual octagonal works of 1918, including the collage Guitar (Columbus, OH, Mus. A.) and The Goblet (Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), are also interesting, but more important, as a statement of Braque’s intention to resume the issues interrupted by the war, was the fine papier collé Clarinet (1918; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), which uses the stable, coloured, interlocking planes of pre-war Synthetic Cubism.

(ii) Work between the wars, 1918–39

In the winter of 1918–19 Braque began work on large-scale still-life compositions that continued to show an interest in the geometric austerities of Cubism but in which he also began to use richer, vivid surfaces. The impressive Café-bar (Basle, Kstmus.) was one of the first in a series of paintings of still-life subjects placed on the guéridon, the round-topped pedestal table in his studio that reappeared in his paintings for the next decade and that gave its name to this series. It was soon followed by Guitar and Glass: Socrates (1921; Paris, Pompidou), one of the early Fireplace series, in which the still-life is seen against a mirror on an elaborate mantelpiece. In both series the compressed objects are given complex patterning and outlines, and in both series Braque adopted an unusual vertical format (e.g. The Table, 0.73×1.8 m, 1928; New York, MOMA). In 1921 he executed a series of engravings for Erik Satie’s play with music Le Piège de Méduse.

The shift from the imitation of humble wood c. 1912 to the imitation of marble in the Fireplace series (e.g. the Marble Table, 1925; Paris, Pompidou) shows a change of mood underlying Braque’s work in the 1920s and a new taste for luxuriant and decorative material. He also reintroduced the figure into his work about this time in the form of a series of paintings of semi-draped Canéphores or ceremonial basket-bearers, which he began in 1922 (e.g. Nude Woman with a Basket of Fruit, 1926; Washington, DC, N.G.A.). These represented in part a response to Picasso’s new classicism, but they were in no way imitative of Picasso and were partly intended as tributes to Ingres, Corot and Renoir, reflecting Braque’s response to the ‘return to order’, which sought to re-establish values lost in the chaos of the war. In 1924 he designed the décor for the Ballets Russes production of Les Fâcheux and in the same year he signed a contract with Paul Rosenberg’s Galerie de l’Effort Moderne, Paris, the major promoter of Cubism in the 1920s, after having been represented by Kahnweiler in the pre-war period. The new-found sensuous lyricism of this period did not, however, prevent Braque from reassessing the possibilities of Cubism in such works as The Guéridon (1928–9; Washington, DC, Phillips Col.).

In 1929 Braque visited Dieppe and the Normandy coast of his youth, deciding to build a studio, designed by Paul Nelson, near by at Varengeville-sur-Mer, where he spent many summers. He began to paint small-scale landscapes again (e.g. Dieppe Beach, 1929; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.), and the already evident new interest in colour, decoration and ornament increased in such still-lifes as the Blue Mandolin (1930; St Louis, MO, A. Mus.). In some cases rhythmical patterns of lines served as an ornamental background to strongly curved outlines of shapes, as in the Clay Pipe (1931; New York, MOMA). This new concern for linear elements led Braque to study Greek vase paintings in the Musée du Louvre, which stimulated his interest in Classical subject-matter, and to a period of graphic work culminating in a commission from Ambroise Vollard to illustrate Hesiod’s Theogony with 16 etchings (1932). In his paintings, however, he continued to concentrate on texture and ornament, enriched with such new colours as the dominant pink of the Pink Tablecloth (1931–3; Provincetown, MA, Chrysler A. Mus.).

Around 1936 the focus of Braque’s paintings began to shift from the still-life to wider interior views. Into ornately decorated rooms he introduced impersonal, flattened figures, as in Woman with Mandolin (1937; New York, MOMA) or The Duet (1937; Paris, Pompidou). The new mood suggested by his use of brighter colours was offset, however, by a series of macabre vanitas still-lifes, linked to the theme of the artist’s studio, that he began in 1938 (e.g. Vanitas, 1939; Paris, Pompidou), possibly in despair at the approach of World War II. He also built a sculpture studio near his house at Varengeville and began experimenting with sculpture about this time, producing simple and playful, if rather two-dimensional works such as Horse and Cart (bronze, 1939–40; Paris, Pompidou).

(iii) Late work, from 1940

Following the German occupation of Paris in June 1940, Braque went to Limoges and then the Pyrenees, but in the autumn he returned to Paris, where he remained for most of the war. After a year of artistic inactivity, in 1941 he began painting again. His work during the occupation was characterized by a series of stark interiors, such as Washstand at the Window, and still-lifes dominated by sombre colours, such as the Black Fish (both 1942; Paris, Pompidou). He still persevered, however, with earlier innovations, such as the false frame and title plaque of My Bicycle (1941–60; priv. col., see Descargues, Malraux and Ponge, p. 191). In 1944 he returned to Varengeville and embarked on a new series of spatially complex interiors (e.g. the Billiard Table, 1945; Paris, Pompidou). Seven paintings in this series were completed by 1949. Soon after the end of the war Braque began to explore colour lithography, beginning a close association with the master printer Fernand Mourlot and his new dealer, Aimé Maeght. In 1949 he also finished five of a new series of Studio paintings (e.g. Studio II; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein–Westfalen), a series that he extended to nine by 1956. All but one of this series are large in scale, the exception being the first, Studio I (1949; Paris, Guerlain priv. col.), which is in some ways the finest: it centres on the elemental figure–ground relationship of a white vase on a black ground, complicated by the fact that the vase seems to rest on a second picture-within-the-picture of a black jug and fruit bowl. In 1953 he was commissioned by Georges Salles to decorate the ceiling of the Henry II (or Etruscan) room in the Palais du Louvre with the bird motif that had already appeared in the Studio series. The next year he finished a design for stained-glass windows for the church in Varengeville (in situ). His output of graphic work continued, including colour lithographs such as Leaves, Colour, Light (1953–4) and colour etchings such as Amaryllis (1958), one of his most lyrical works. The earlier bird motif was now transformed into a number of images of flight in such paintings as Bird Returning to its Nest (1955) and On the Wing (1956–61; both Paris, Pompidou). There was also a series of narrow horizontal landscapes (1955–8) with wide painted frames (e.g. Field at Colza, 1956–7; Paris, M. & Mme Claude Laurens priv. col.). By the end of the 1950s the densely worked and textured surface that had become characteristic of Braque’s style had begun to influence younger artists such as Nicolas de Staël. Braque became chronically ill in 1959 and left unfinished his last canvas, the Weeding Machine (1961–3; Paris, Pompidou).

Lewis Kachur

From Grove Art Online

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