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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 30 OCTOBER 2013 — The Grand Palais in Paris is currently hosting an impressive exhibition of the works of Georges Braque (1882-1963), the French painter, sculptor and engraver who rejected all the accepted academic conventions, becoming known as the founder of cubism. In chronological order, this highly ambitious venture presents some 250 works from each period in his art, from his early experiments with Fauvism in 1906 to his last series of birds, birds which for him became the link between sky and earth, between the infinite and the human condition.

Born near Paris in 1882, Braque and his family moved to Le Havre where he attended the Ecole Municipale des Beaux-Arts before returning to the French capital at the age of 18 where he studied at the Académie Humbert. It was there he met Marie Laurencin and Francis Picabia, the first of the friendships he was to forge with other artists throughout his life. A fervent admirer of Paul Cezanne, he nevertheless discarded impressionism after discovering the colourful, vibrant paintings of Henri Matisse, André Derain, Vlaminck, Manguin and Marquet, at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. The following year, swept along by the Fauvist movement, Braque went to live first in Anvers and then in the little port of l’Estaque, near Marseilles, in the South of France.

Liberated from what he called the greyness and sadness of Paris, he painted different versions of the port, using intense, vivid colours, and depicting blazing skies and turbulent, troubled waters. Exalted by the special light, his paintings of landscapes gained in luminosity with their exuberant vegetation and the twisted, swirling trunks of trees coloured pink and purple. Public success!  After selling 6 of the paintings completed there, Braque moved along the coast to La Ciotat, the setting of one of his most remarkable works, the Petite Baie de la Ciotat, a painting both brilliant and subtle but which, in spite of all it owed to fauvism, "did not roar". 

Georges Braque: Femme nue assise, 1907
© Adagp, Paris 2013


The flamboyant Femme Nue Assise also belongs to the same extravagant period. This magnificent painting, however, is more structured than earlier canvases, and one begins to feel that all the heat, brilliance, wind and water of the South was beginning to pall. A meeting with Picasso was to deal Braque’s brief adventure with fauvism the death blow.

It was the French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who introduced Braque to Pablo Picasso, already an established artist at that time. The Spaniard was at work on his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting which was to profoundly mark the young artist; a close friendship was born, leading to a controversy in the art world even today: who was at the origin of cubism? 

Rejecting realism, Braque considered that cubism gave "a multiple vision" of the world, and an exhibition of his paintings at the end of 1908 is said to mark its official beginnings. Le Viaduc à l’Estaque, completed in the summer of 1908 and followed by such revolutionary masterpieces as Maisons à l’Estaque, and Arbres à l’Estaque, owes, however, more to the influence of Braque’s first love, Paul Cezanne, than to Picasso. In these paintings, the houses have been reduced to geometric forms and the trees to diagonals to form a structured, harmonious ensemble. But despite a certain lyricism, they did not find favor with the critics who described Braque as "a very daring young man, reducing everything to little cubes".

Georges Braque: Le Viaduc de l’Estaque, début 1908
huile sur toile ; 72,5 x 59 cm
Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, dation, 1984
© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CC
, Dist.Rmn-Grand Palais / Jacques Faujour
© Adagp, Paris 2013

Braque shattered the homogenous form between 1908 and 1917, cancelling out traditional perspective, reducing colour to shades of grey and beige where the presence of subjects was only vaguely suggested. More intellectual, they were harder on the eye and the imagination than his earlier works. Five versions of Le Chateau de la Roche-Guyon  exist, each more and more abstract. Structure was so distorted and perspective abandoned, that the Chateau eventually became a mere cluster of fragmented walls and dislocated roofs. The ochres and greens in the paintings recall those in the work of Cezanne.

Georges Braque: Le Château de la Roche-Guyonété, 1909
huile sur toile ; 73 x 60 cm
Villeneuve-d’Ascq, LaM Lille métropole musée d’Art moderne,
d’Art contemporain et d’Art brut
Donation de Geneviève et Jean Masurel, 1979
Photo: P. Bernard.© Adagp Paris, 2013

In 1912, Braque moved still further, producing Compotier et verre, the first papier collé, a pasted paper work. Having seen wallpaper trimmings with patterns of fruit and flowers and wood grain in a shop window, he had bought a roll of paper and cut three pieces off it, gluing them to a piece of drawing paper and then connecting the pieces by lines drawn in charcoal. He then wrote BAR at the top, and ALE near the bottom. A bunch of grapes, a fruit bowl and a table complete the picture.

Georges Braque: Compotier et verre (Premier papier collé), 1912
fusain, papier faux bois collé sur papier
62,8 x 45,7 cm
The leonard A.Lauder Cubist Trust
© The leonard A.Lauder Cubist Trust
© Adagp, Paris 2013

The "papier collés" marked the final stroke in destroying traditional perspective and conventions, bringing a new sensibility to painting.

The war, when Braque was sent to the front and badly wounded in May the following year, brought a halt to his work, and he didn’t start to paint again until 1917/1918, with pieces such as La Musicienne, the last masterpiece of the period, when he began to use colour again, often in large blocks.

A series of still lives marked the years between 1919 and 1929, prolonging a period known as "synthetic cubism", and featuring musical instruments such as guitars and violins as well as scores, motives going back to the time when Braque played the flute, and entertained his neighbours with tunes on the accordion and the violin, stories which cast some doubt on later descriptions of him being a quiet, solitary, rather secretive man. Colour slowly crept back into his work with renewed luminosity. Fruit dishes, (a tribute to Picasso and his apples?), a pedestal table, a fireplace, a bottle of wine, Braque completed a harmonious series of gentle, refined paintings, where he claimed that his interest lay in the space between the objects.

Georges Braque: La Musicienne, 1917-1918
huile sur toile ; 221,4 x 112,8 cm
Bâle, Kunstmuseum BaselSchenkung
Dr. h.c. Raoul La Roche, 1952
© Basel, Kunstmuseum
© Adagp, Paris 2013

Grand interieur à la palette, an abstract painting with surrealist overtones, is a canvas painted in 1942, in the middle of the Occupation.  An artist’s palette in the centre of the work is a metaphor of painting, and is surrounded by a geometry of planes, curves and broken lines. Here, the ochres and greens have been broken by the black of the wall in the background; it is a work which paved the way to his later, magnificent series of works of interiors including Le Salon, Le cabinet de Toilette, and Le Poele, paintings of his furniture and the everyday objects he saw around him, but whose interpretation on canvas in 1944 earned him the accolade of the world’s greatest living painter.

Atelier, painted in 1949, portraying the white silhouette of a vase on an unbroken black background placed on top of a black vase on a grey table, shows his progression to playing around with appearances, and this particular work of art was just the first of 8 variations dealing with the same theme. There are no doors, windows or people present, and the more one studies these works, the more one is moved by the beauty of the poetry and sensitivity behind them.

1950 to 1960 saw a radical change in Georges Braque’s work. He became captivated by the movement of birds, and in 1953,  André Malraux, the French Minister of Culture,* invited him to add to the decoration of the Louvre, the first time a modern artist had been invited to do so. Braque produced three majestic paintings of birds for the ceiling of the Henry 11 room, home to the Etruscan collection, but insisted that although he was inspired by the birds, it was less the subject matter that interested him as the colours and their forms, "the construction of pictorial fact", he pointed out.

The exhibition closes with a series, not of birds, but of landscapes painted on the cliffs of Varengeville-sur-mer in Normandy, where he had bought a house in 1929. These landscapes are horizontal, but horizontal pushed to the extreme so that they almost appear as a band. Some of them have no sky or flowers, but are simply masses of intense colour, created with a knife rather than a brush and not intended to copy nature, but to be at one with her. Of great interest also were the five display cases filled with documents and photographs, many by Man Ray and Cartier-Bresson, which throw light on Braque’s collaboration with Picasso, his closeness to Eric Satie, and his affinity with many poets** and important intellectual figures of his time.

The scope of this exhibition is immense, for in covering his entire lifetime from Fauvism to the end of his career, one sees how Braque’s work oscillated between adventure and method, rigour and emotion. He never told stories, preferring to reinvent what he saw and felt before him. He is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, and this excellent exhibition, the first grand retrospective of his work in forty years is one that demands a visit of at least several hours to begin to appreciate the enormity of his contribution to art today.
*Malraux subsequently commissioned Marc Chagall to paint a new ceiling for the amphitheatre of the Palais Garnier in 1964.

** Braque also became known as the painter of the poets from around 1945, illustrating many books, particularly those published by Maeght. Of particular interest are the two published in collaboration with the French  poet, Pierre Reverdy, Une aventure méthodique, 1950, and La Liberté des mers 1959. Two other important book illustrations were for Lettera Amorosa by René Char, 1963, and for L’Ordre des Oiseaux by Saint John Perse in an edition published on Braque’s 80th birthday in 1962.

The exhibition, which continues in Paris until 6 January 2014, will subsequently be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas in America from 16 February – 11 May 2014.

Georges Braque
Through 6 January 2014
Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais
75008 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 44 13 17 17

Headline image: Georges Braque: Great Nude (1907 - 08)
© Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN)

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Impressionist exhibition Éblouissants Reflets (Dazzling Reflections) at the Musée des Beaux-arts de Rouen in Normandy.

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