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In Braque’s Studio

After Henri Matisse’s death in 1954, Georges Braque came to be recognized generally as the greatest living French painter. Picasso as a Spaniard was hors concours; and indeed in a very real way this is what he had been since he had ridden so quickly to fame in the first decade of the century. But already, before this, in the minds of some Braque was considered an artist superior to either Picasso or Matisse. In 1945 Jean Paulhan, editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française and a minor collector, published an important book entitled Braque le Patron in which he stated, “Braque is the artist, without hesitation, whom I take as a Master.” Earlier, in 1932, he wrote to a friend, “Picasso makes so much noise that one loves Braque…for his silence, and finally because one imagines he knows so much more than the other.” Braque had long since been recognized internationally as a major artist, but his position in France was probably reinforced by the fact that when Matisse’s glorious late papiers découpés were shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1949, they were coolly viewed and were felt by many to show him falling off in old age. Although Picasso’s years with Françoise Gilot (1943–1953) saw his greatest activity in the fields of pottery and book illustration, his canvases of the time, with a few exceptions, did not rival in intensity those of preceding periods or of others that were to follow.

Ironically, Braque was awarded a state funeral in 1963—ironically because despite his elevated status he had become increasingly withdrawn in his later years and disliked and shunned public occasions. His catafalque was placed in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre; as Alex Danchev points out, this was appropriate in that it was oriented toward the church of Saint-Germaine-l’Auxerrois where Chardin, perhaps Braque’s favorite artist among his French predecessors, lies buried. The ceremony was conducted by torchlight, and although it was raining hard it attracted a crowd of several thousand. There were newsreel cameras present. Braque would have hated it all. A brass band played Beethoven’s Funeral March for the Death of a Hero. Braque loved music, both classical and popular, and he admired Beethoven; but the composer whom he had come to most revere in old age was Bach. As minister of cultural affairs André Malraux delivered a short oration which bore all the marks of being hastily scripted, possibly over a somewhat bibulous lunch.1 The following day Braque’s body was conveyed to Varengeville, in his native Normandy, and buried in its small country church, adjacent to what had long since been Braque’s second home; in 1954 he had designed the stained-glass windows which we see there today.

No writer on Braque can afford to ignore his family background, and Alex Danchev, in his new biography, has much to say about it. Braque was born in 1882 in Argenteuil, a small town on the banks of the Seine, much loved by the Impressionists. His father and grandfather had been peintres décorateurs, decorators who produced those effects of illusion—false marble, imitation wood-graining, and so forth—so dear to the French middle classes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Braque was apprenticed first to his father, and then, after the family’s move to Le Havre, to the firm of Rupalay et Rosney, famous for their trompe l’oeil illusions. Braque’s father was also a Sunday painter, mostly of landscapes, and in Le Havre father and son sometimes showed together in group exhibitions.

After Braque moved to Paris to be “finished” in the family profession he simultaneously took evening classes at the Cours Municipal of Batignolles and then at the Académie Humbert where he met Francis Picabia and the aspiring painter Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire’s mistress, who became a friend. Like every other artist with whom Apollinaire was connected, Braque agreed that the poet had little feeling or understanding for the visual arts. But Apollinaire championed Braque’s own painting, although he implicitly placed Picasso above Braque in the creation of Cubism, as countless fellow critics were to do. Braque was at this time a shy character, but personable, good-looking, tall, and athletic. He loved to sing and dance, and to box and fence. He made friends easily, yet there was always an aspect of his character that he kept to himself. It is revealing that in the two group portraits by Laurencin, of 1908 and 1909, which show her with Apollinaire and their mutual friends, Braque does not appear.

Despite an estrangement Laurencin remained loyal to Braque as an artist, always insisting that he was a better painter than Picasso. In the meantime Braque had long since settled down with Marcelle Lapré, a young woman introduced to him by Picasso, who was at home in bohemian circles and had modeled for Kees Van Dongen and Amedeo Modigliani (Braque used to get irritated when she expounded on the latter’s renowned beauty). She moved in with Braque in 1911 or 1912 and took his name although the couple did not get married until 1926. Theirs was to be the happiest of unions. Marcelle proved to be the perfect wife for a painter, supportive and understanding. They remained together until parted by death.

Braque had visited Paris and the Louvre on holidays while still a student at Le Havre, and once established in the capital he became familiar with Post-Impressionism. But his introduction to twentieth-century modernism came when he saw the controversial Fauve room at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. Braque entered the Fauve orbit in the company of Othon Friesz, an artist who failed to fulfill his early promise, and Raoul Dufy, whose subsequent ravishingly decorative canvases stood at the opposite end of the pole to Braque’s increasingly philosophical concerns. In comparison to the work of the original Fauves—Matisse, André Derain, and Maurice de Vlaminck—Braque’s Fauvism relied less on the primary colors in favor of a more orchestrated palette and shows a gentler, at times almost tapestry-like respect for the breakdown of the picture surface. The works he showed at the Salon des Indépendents of 1907 brought him some recognition and a small commercial success.

Braque’s career was to take an altogether different path when he accompanied Apollinaire to visit Picasso in his studio in the Bâteau Lavoir in the late autumn of 1907. He had already met Picasso earlier in the year but he was now confronted in the studio by the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which was to affect so much subsequent painting. Though shocked by it Braque responded to the picture immediately, and he recognized more intelligently than any other artist that its real significance lay in the fact that Picasso had broken violently with the single-viewpoint perspective of Renaissance and post-Renaissance art. Braque began a large three-figure composition entitled La Femme (subsequently lost or more likely destroyed), implying by the title that the picture shows the same woman in different positions and from different angles. Another large multiple-viewpoint rendition of a single nude (1908) survives and is now in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. His art had changed direction completely.

Danchev is not a didactic or aggressive writer. His style is supple and he bends it, perhaps unconsciously, to suit his arguments. Nevertheless he asserts, “If an ism can be said to be invented by a person, then Cubism was invented by Georges Braque.” This is an argument that has been made before, perhaps most cogently by the late William S. Rubin, verbally at least, although vestiges of it can also be picked up in the footnotes to the catalog to the magnificent “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” exhibition mounted at MoMA in 1989. Walking around the exhibition with him while it was still being hung he confided in me that he had modified his views and now thought it best to accept both artists’ assertions that they had worked together as equals in what was to be a unique artistic partnership. If Picasso’s approach to adopting the multiview perspective that was central to Cubism was more incisive and daring than Braque’s, it was Braque who invented the space in which Cubist objects and figures could live and breathe. In one of the most revealing statements Braque ever made, he said:

There is in nature a tactile space, I might say even a manual space…. This is the space that fascinated me so much. Because that is what early Cubist painting was about, a research into space.

And it is true that although Braque became quintessentially a painter of still lifes, it is by studying Braque’s landscapes of 1908–1909 that we can most easily find our way into understanding the high, and to me, at least, infinitely mysterious Cubist pictures that were produced by both Braque and Picasso during 1910–1912, the moment when their collaboration was closest.

During the spring and summer of 1908 Braque executed a series of landscapes at L’Estaque, on the Mediterranean. Braque’s earlier L’Estaque paintings, dating to the autumn of 1907, are strongly Cézannesque; he had been bowled over by the Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d’Automne of 1907, and Cézanne was to remain the most revered of his immediate predecessors. The new L’Estaque paintings show not so much a change of direction as a sharpening of means and an attempt to find new ways of exploring pictorial space: color is limited, and the contours of forms are more broken so that they flow into each other and their surroundings (the painters called this device “passage”). In this group of paintings objects depicted no longer stand behind one another but rather climb upward over the picture surface.

The paintings were rejected by the jury of the 1908 Salon d’Automne but were shown at Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s new gallery that November, and they helped give Cubism its name. The first of the new L’Estaque paintings anticipate the paintings executed by Picasso at La Rue-des-Bois in the early autumn of 1908 and strongly resemble them.2 The legendary collaboration was about to begin and Cubism had been born, although it didn’t reach its first point of full development until the following year. Braque himself always insisted that his Still Life with Musical Instruments of June 1908 was his first truly Cubist picture (see illustration on page 70). It shows a close-up view of three instruments and a sheet of music all intertwined and pressed forward to meet the spectator’s grasp. Braque kept the picture with him until his death.

Given Danchev’s desire to assert Braque’s supremacy in the creation of Cubism, it is perhaps surprising that he doesn’t make more of the fact that through the invention of papiers collés in 1912 Braque ushered in the second major phase of the movement. Picasso and Braque had been working together that summer in Sorgues, in the south. Danchev rehearses the well-known but revealing story of how the idea of papier collé came to Braque when he had seen a roll of imitation wood-grained paper in a shop. He bought some immediately, but shrewdly waited for Picasso’s return to Paris before incorporating three strips of it into a work entitled Fruit Dish and Glass; he was by now used to Picasso seizing his inventions and pushing them to more extreme conclusions. In Fruit Dish and Glass as in so many of Braque’s subsequent Cubist works, pencil marks indicate where flat abstract compositional shapes were to be placed. Subsequently subject matter, rendered either in charcoal or in oil paint, was superimposed over the composition and integrated into it.

  1. 1

    Malraux declared that the funeral vindicated the ignominious burials of Modigliani and Van Gogh. Quite apart from the fact that neither of these artists was French (although they did both die in France), the concept has little or no meaning.

  2. 2

    Picasso might have seen the early works of Braque’s second Estaque series if Braque had had some of them shipped up to Kahnweiler’s gallery in Paris.

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