7 Jan 2014

Bracque, an overlooked master

Saying that the painting of Georges Braque is overlooked is perhaps stretching a point. But how many people would recognize his name, not to mention his rightful place in modern painting, alongside Matisse, Cézanne or Picasso? And yet he truly belongs there, as the magnificent recent show in Paris of his work has convinced me.

Georges Braque at the end of his long and very productive life

In the matter of painting, I feel that images usually speak louder than words. Still in some cases, words can be useful, if only to comment, put in context, or attempt to explain what one sees and understands. Because seeing, rather than looking, is all about feeling and understanding. A dog may be able to see a painting. But what it feels or reads into it is another matter and anyway it will not be able to express this, and thus communicate with us. Birds are perhaps another matter, as one Japanese scientist has attempted to prove here.

Georges Braque, born in 1882, lived quite a long life of 81 years and apparently hardly ever ceased working at his painting and other visual work, except during the First World War when he was seriously wounded as a soldier. The recent exhibition of his work in Paris, which has just closed at the Grand Palais, was extremely impressive for its sheer density, as well as its quality. Braque is, for me, a great and truly admirable artist. He just kept at it, whathever the path he was exploring at any time, working, often simultaneously, on several varaiations of the same theme.  After seeing the show, an acquaintance of mine made the remark that his painting is very masculine and that she did not like much of it. I am unsure whether one can qualify painting as "masculine" or "feminine", so I will rest on that one.  Is it really because I am masculine that I liked this show so much?

The Port of La Ciotat, 1907

His early works in this show were very much a part of the fauvist style, as in the above painting, and I did not find them, with a few exceptions, to be among the best examples of this movement that ushered in the 20th century. 

The viaduct at Estaque, 1908

His study of Cézanne then led him to a more rigourous approach, analyzing and simplifying forms and colours that, in turn, then led into the cubist style for which he, as well as his contemporary Picasso, are well known. This constitutes (visibly in the hanging I saw) a first major break in his approach. For one thing the sky disappears (last appearance I saw was in the painting above), never to reappear again. And with it the colour blue, at least for a long time. Braque became concerned mainly with form, with light acting at times a shaper of form. His pallet of colours also shrinks dramatically, from the bright primary and secondary coloured dots, lines and patches on a white surface (which lends its added brilliance) to the use of just three subdued colours in various shades : grey, ocre and green. 

Houses at Estaque, 1908

And then, at the height of his analytical cubist work, to almost monochromatic work, as below, but with very subtle use of nuances to provide volume to the very complex and imbrecated shapes.

Violin and candle 1909

Mandoline (1910?)

Braque seemingly came to the end (the limit?) of his cubist experiments with the almost abstract drawings and collages as below, which further retricted means to an austere use of a few elements, relying mainly on pencil or charcoal on paper and scarce introduced materials. To prevent these works from becoming totally detached from any form of recognizeable reality, Braque used subterfuges as "reality quotes", such as lettering or bits of newspaper or small parts of an identifiable object drawn.

Bar counter and glasses, 1912

Still life with tenora, 1913

I feel that, scrolling down these images much as walking through the exhibition (which was naturally far denser), one can follow the evolution of his work over the period that led up to the First World War. This terrible episode (Braque was a soldier and suffered a severe wound in 1915) was to produce a break in his work in many senses, I felt, looking at all this very impressive work, that Braque really blossomed after the war. The intense exploration and applied workmanship of this early period paid off later as he became much freer in his whole approach.  But I will resume the story in another article.

Braque the wounded soldier, 1915

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