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The Great Forgotten Modernist

Braque: The Late Works 6, 1997, and the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas, April 25-August 31, 1997

An exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 23-April

Braque: The Late Works

by John Golding, by Sophie Bowness, by Isabelle Monod-Fontaine
Royal Academy of Arts/Yale University Press, 141 pp., $40.00

Once the epitome of the British establishment, the Royal Academy dumbfounded the old guard some years ago by pioneering the rehabilitation of late Picasso. The Royal Academy is now courageously doing the same for late Braque, in a superb display of several dozen of his pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. And about time too. When I first published an article on Braque’s eight Ateliers1 in The Burlington Magazine some forty years ago, I assumed that they would take their place as the culminating achievements of Braque’s career: more explorative in their handling of space and more profound in their metaphysical concerns than all except his finest Cubist work.

Somehow fame eluded them. Even in France these amazing works are no longer perceived as having contributed much to modernism. However John Golding’s fastidiously orchestrated show, which comes to the Menil Collection in Houston in April, should go a long way toward correcting this misperception. People are beginning to realize that Picasso and Matisse are not the only artists of the School of Paris to have enjoyed a great late phase. Before trying to understand why Braque should have fallen from favor, let us take a look at these unfamiliar masterpieces, particularly the Ateliers and Billiard Tables and Birds.

Nowhere is the contrast between those former collaborators, Picasso and Braque, more apparent than in the work they each did in the shadow of death. Picasso, who never quite outgrew his birthright of black beliefs and superstitions, put his faith in his miracle-working paintbrushes and the death-defying images of carnality that they engendered: those Gorgons of his, mooning, pissing, fucking, masturbating with red-nailed fingers. However there was no exorcising mortality. Braque, who was an agnostic mystically obsessed with space, envisioned death as an infinite extension of this obsession. Had he not, as Golding writes in his masterly preface, invented “the space in which Cubist objects could live and breathe”? In the most haunting of his swansongs—the Bird pictures, which are less concerned with birds than the heavens above—one feels the artist slipping meditatively away into the empyrean. As he once said, “Avec l’âge l’art et la vie ne font qu’un.” (As one grows older, art and life become one and the same.)

Before considering Braque’s series of Bird paintings (1955-1962), which form the coda to the Royal Academy exhibition, we need to look at the Ateliers (1949-1956), which are its dominant theme. The subject matter of this series of eight large pictures is nothing less than painting itself, as practiced by the artist in the seclusion of his studio. The Ateliers are a microcosm of Braque’s hermetically private universe. There is no trace of a human presence, neither of his wife nor of his assistant; and although Braque’s spirituality permeates these paintings, he never actually manifests himself in them. Just as well, since his figures are less palpable than his evocations of space.

Braque’s Ateliers are true to their subject in that they are a distillation of the carefully contrived clutter in the studio on the top floor of his house in Montparnasse. This room was divided in half by a pleated, cream-colored curtain, in front of which numerous recent and not so recent works were arrayed on easels, tables, and rickety stands. Some of the paintings were barely started but already signed; some looked finished but lacked a signature; others dated back five, ten, even twenty years, but were still “suspended in time,” as the artist used to say. Braque liked to “read” his way into them “like a fortune-teller reading tea-leaves.” Sketchbooks (“cookbooks,” Braque called them) lay open on homemade lecterns. Pedestals contrived out of logs and sticks picked up on walks were piled high with materials: palettes galore, massive bowls bristling with brushes, and containers of all kinds of paint (some of it ground or mixed by the artist with sand, ashes, grit, even coffee).

On the floor were pots of philodendrons, which Braque liked because their leaves “rhymed” with the shape of his palette, also simplistic sculptures carved from chalk—fishes, horses, birds—which make fragmentary appearances in the Ateliers. Elsewhere a shelf was set with tribal sculpture, musical instruments, and the large white jug that figures in so many paintings. The subject of his work was thus the clutter that his work in progress entailed. Most of the above items reappear, not always very recognizably, in the Atelier paintings. But then as Braque explained to me at the end of his life:

You see, I have made a great discovery: I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence—what I can only describe as a sense of peace—which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. Ça, c’est de la vraie poésie!2

This accumulation was crucial to Braque’s modus operandi. Part of it had to be dismantled every summer and reassembled on a more modest scale in the studio of his country house at Varengeville in Normandy. Braque would roll up his canvases, stack them onto the roof of his car, and work away on them in his studio, or simply study them until he was ready to return to Paris in the fall. He took pride in the artisanal ingenuity with which he accomplished this feat. “Little or no rope,” he said. Braque also took pride in his skill at driving very fast cars. Speed was another of his obsessions in the studio as well as on the road.

The presence of an enormous bird in the Ateliers is less enigmatic than it might seem. It is not intended to be a “real” bird but a “painted” one, albeit one which detaches itself from its canvas ground. When Braque embarked on the series, there was a large painting of a bird in flight from the early 1950s (later destroyed) in the studio, and it is this image which appears in different guises in all but one or two of these paintings.

Another precursor of the Ateliers is the storm-tossed barque of a Billiard Table (1947-1949), which appears on the cover of the Royal Academy catalog. A preparatory study reveals that Braque originally envisaged only one bird in this painting. Later, it proliferated into a flock of what may or may not be seagulls. These did not detach themselves from a canvas, as in the Ateliers, but from an expanse of patterned wallpaper. As a result they look as if they have mistaken the billiard table on which they are alighting for a nest and the balls for eggs in need of incubation. The billiard room quivers “as though the air was fanned by invisible wings” (as Lord Curzon said of Gladstone’s oratory3 )—invisible wings that generate what Braque called “tactile space.” Braque was upset by suggestions that the birds might have symbolic significance—a Picassoesque dove of peace, an ectoplasmic materialization of the artist’s inspiration, a sacred Egyptian ibis—or, silliest of all, that a real bird might have flown in through the window. These birds materialized on their own, Braque insisted. “I never thought them up; they were born on the canvas.”

Too bad the organizers of the show were unable to persuade the owner of the greatest of the monochrome Ateliers (No. IV; reproduced in figure 1 in the catalog) to lend it. For all its ambivalence, it reveals more clearly than any of the other ones how Braque uses his bird—in this case an image seemingly projected onto a curtain—to animate studio space; also how he uses the curve of its wings to rhyme with both palette and easel and thus suggest that an artist’s materials and utensils are part and parcel of his subject matter.

The absence of Atelier IV is more than made up for by the presence of Atelier VIII. (See illustration on next page.) Braque told me that he had put all the discoveries of his life into this painting. Its brilliant color, he said, was the consequence of working on stained glass windows for the church at Varengeville—a tribute to his wife’s piety, which he respected but did not share. He was so proud of Atelier VIII that he allowed me to publish it in an article in L’å?il magazine before it was finished; and, more to the point, allowed Douglas Cooper, the British collector, with whom I then shared a house in France, to acquire it for his great Cubist collection. Cooper saw the Ateliers as a long-delayed apogee of Braque’s Cubism.

Braque agreed to this arrangement because he was anxious that the painting, which he regarded as his masterpiece, should remain in France. Cooper gave him a promise to this effect—a promise that was not honored once the artist was dead. Braque also insisted that the sale (August 1955) be handled by his dealer, Aimé Maeght. This made for trouble. Cooper loathed Maeght—with reason. This most uncomprehending of dealers liked to reserve the best of the artist’s late works for his own collection. Cooper won the day by informing Braque that Maeght had so little feeling for his work that he thought Atelier VIII depicted two large red armchairs.

And so the painting ended up hanging over Cooper’s bed. Picasso, who was a frequent visitor to the house, never lost an opportunity to scrutinize it, in none too friendly a spirit. Each time this happened, I would try to get him to talk. “Comprends pas, comprends pas” was all Picasso would ever say, but it was very evident that he regarded the painting as a challenge. There were still things Braque could do and Picasso couldn’t. This evidently rankled. Sure enough, two years later, Picasso came up with a response—an oblique one that took the form of the most important of his variations on the greatest of all atelier pictures, Velázquez’s Las Meninas.4 Picasso did not draw on Cooper’s colorful Atelier picture but on one of the earlier monochrome ones. He envisioned Velázquez’s studio in the gray light of Braque’s.

There was a final interchange between the two painters which has not, so far as I know, been recorded. Picasso turned back to Braque in what would be his penultimate painting: a barely representational work misleadingly entitled Reclining Nude and Head. It depicts a recumbent figure (the artist?) in a contraption that partakes of both a coffin and a plow and is emblazoned with a cross. A rudimentary image of Jacqueline rises out of it. The resemblance between this work and Braque’s painting of a large rusty plow (see illustration on previous page) is certainly no coincidence. Braque’s observation that “the idle plough rusts and loses its usual meaning” evokes mortality, which is of course the theme of Picasso’s harrowing vanitas—an aged artist’s farewell to life as well as painting.

Both the Braque and the Picasso are identical in width though not in height; both have been worked and reworked and encrusted with a heavy white impasto like a fall of snow. The wheel of the two painters’ relationship would seem to have come full circle. People who like to repeat Picasso’s joke about Braque being his “ex-wife” should remember that Picasso referred to himself on occasion as “Madame Braque.” They should also remember that in later years Picasso took a far more passionate interest in Braque’s life and work than Braque did in his.

Braque’s late paintings confirm his preference for working in a variable as opposed to an unvarying light. He liked his studios to face south instead of north and his skylights to be veiled with thinnish, whitish material, which filtered the light and gave it a liquescent look. In this penumbra the artist would sit as if suspended, as hieratical as Christ Pantocrator in a Byzantine mosaic, his Ancient Mariner’s eyes fixed on his work. The monastic hush would only be broken when he got up to make a slight adjustment to this or that canvas. As a young man on my first visit to the artist’s studio, I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting.

Although Braque became more and more withdrawn, he welcomed visitors from the outside world—welcomed them, as hermits do, without ceremony or curiosity. Unlike Picasso, he did not mind having people around when he was painting. One afternoon in 1956, he let me stay for a couple of hours while he worked on A Tir d’Aile (In Full Flight): his eerie painting of a streamlined bird crashing into a cloud as if it were an F-16 breaking the sound barrier. (See illustration.) For weeks, Braque told me, he had been adding layer after layer of pigment to the grayish-blueish sky to give it an infinite tactile density. In the end he could no longer lift the canvas on or off the easel. Compared to the immensity of the sky, the bird and the cloud have the substance of shadows. Braque had apparently been reading about black holes: hence, the concept of the cloud as a black void with a gravitational force that nothing can escape. The dark cloud might also signify the imminence of death, as Isabelle Monod-Fontaine suggests in her catalog essay, “The Master of Concrete Relationships.” By the late 1950s, Braque was in very fragile health. Mortality held fewer fears for him than it did for Picasso; if anything it challenged him, as here, to bring le néant within his grasp, and to that extent within ours.

Five years later, after he first exhibited this painting (Tate Gallery, 1956), the artist decided—to my mind mistakenly—that it “was too easy on the eye” and would benefit from “the creation” of what he called “a rupture.” So he added the image of another, much smaller, bird in a frame to one corner of A Tir d’Aile to simulate the way it used to lean against the painting in the studio. (It is typical of Braque that virtually the only time he pinpoints the species of one of his birds, as he does here, he gets it wrong: the smaller bird is called The Duck, but it could well be a snow goose.) The inclusion of this so-called Duck was also, I think, inspired by a postage stamp of a bird in flight, which Braque had recently designed. And its placement, like a stamp—though in the bottom left-hand corner of A Tir d’Aile instead of the top right one—hints that this representation of flight could, conceptually at least, be airmailed. Braque claimed that he had “given [A Tir d’Aile] a more unusual existence.” So he had, but at the expense of its former integrity.

Apropos the incursion of real birds into his paintings, Braque told me about a visit he had made in May 1955 to an ornithologist, Lukas Hoffman, a son of his patron, Maja Sacher, and in those days a neighbor of mine. Hoffman, who was an heir to the Hoffman Laroche fortune, presided over a vast bird reserve in the Camargue. Besides visiting his ornithological station at the Tour du Valat, I used to help a friend round up the herds of black bulls and white horses that graze the surrounding salt marshes. This made it all the easier for me to enter into Braque’s excitement at the flocks of flamingos around the Etang du Vaccarès suddenly taking off in clouds, “like dust from a beaten carpet” (as Evelyn Waugh once put it); or at the apparition of a heron flapping across the marshes, as shown in the large Bird Returning to its Nest. According to the catalog, Braque began this work—of all the late paintings the one that meant the most to him—on Easter Sunday, 1955, that is to say before his visit to the Camargue. When he gave me an oil study for it, he said that it was done afterward. He could not forget how, on that still, gray day, the sky seemed to reflect the lagoons rather than the other way round, and the birds seemed to swim through the air. Nor could he forget the clouds of mosquitoes.

Why have these great paintings never received the acclaim they deserve? Picasso is partly the reason. After 1925, he continued to blaze a revolutionary trail, whereas Braque settled down to a discreet, unbohemian existence. At the behest of his dealer Paul Rosenberg, he devoted himself to painting still lifes of the utmost tactile beauty, in which the bloom on a peach, the grain of a table top, or the gleam on a jug are not so much simulated as evoked so sensuously that the beholder is tempted to reach out and touch them. Hence their appeal to discriminating bourgeois collectors of the Fourth Republic; hence also their lack of appeal to modernists who set little or no value on such traditional qualities as belle peinture—qualities that Piccasso had long since spurned. In more recent years Braque’s preoccupation with le néant has meant that, as Monod-Fontaine admits in her catalog preface, it is intellectually smart in France to gloss over the late work. Braque’s ineffable painterliness provides far fewer handles for structuralists to grasp than Picasso’s infinite fund of images.

In America there has been a similar lack of response. When I first came to New York in 1960, I was struck by the uniformity of the collections I visited, the uniformity of exclusions as well as inclusions. In those days Alfred Barr, director of MOMA, dictated modernist taste; and an excellent job of it he did. The only trouble was that his followers were too awed to question either his predilections—the supremacy of late Monet, for instance—or his indictments of late Gris or late Braque. Braque was said to have petered out—eclipsed by the glory of his Cubist past. As a result, virtually no collectors or museum curators bothered with Braque’s later work, which is why there is only one of the Ateliers—the least typical—and none of the Bird paintings in an American collection, public or private. Let us hope that this revelatory exhibition will change perceptions on both sides of the Atlantic, and that Braque will emerge, after forty years, as the great Modernist that Modernists forgot.

  1. 1

    Braque repainted Atelier VII and renumbered it as No. IX, so there are in fact eight, not nine, paintings in the series. See John Richardson, “The Ateliers of Braque,” The Burlington Magazine, June 1955.

  2. 2

    From my interview in The Observer, December 1, 1957, p. 16.

  3. 3

    See Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 5.

  4. 4

    This was first pointed out by David Sylvester in an essay he contributed to the catalog of the Tate Gallery’s “Late Picasso” show, June-September 1988.

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