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In Braque’s Studio

So was the dialogue between abstraction and representation begun, a dialogue that was to be central to almost all Braque’s subsequent production. With his invention of papier collé the “Synthetic” phase of Cubism, as opposed to its first or “Analytic” one, was launched, and once again Cubism was challenging received notions of visual perception. If the first phase involved looking at the external world in a totally new way, in part by dissecting or “analyzing” a subject from many different viewpoints, the second was as much concerned with new ways of constructing art, in which various collage elements, or painted compositional shapes deriving from them, could be “synthesized” into a work to produce new effects.

Both world wars affected Braque deeply and Danchev—a professor of international relations who has written acclaimed biographies of military figures—is predictably informative on the artist’s experience of them. In the first Braque was indeed a hero. Almost mortally wounded in the vicious fighting for Neuville-Saint-Vaast in May 1915, he was trepanned and sent back to Paris to convalesce. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre, first with bronze star, then elevated to “with palm,” and appointed Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. Understandably, during his continued convalescence and rehabilitation into civilian life Braque produced relatively little. Danchev gives space to the largest and most important of what might be described as the “rehabilitation” paintings, La Musicienne, of 1917–1918 (see illustration on page 68); at over seven feet high it was clearly Braque’s attempt to rival one of Picasso’s largest and most important wartime canvases, Seated Man (L’Homme accoudé) of 1916. Contemporary still lifes show Braque consulting the work of Juan Henri Gris and the sculptor Laurens.

As he detached himself from Picasso, Braque turned increasingly to Laurens for artistic friendship, and the Laurens family eventually became Braque’s heirs. But the split between the two creators of Cubism was never as radical as many writers have suggested, and Danchev records how their many encounters and visits to each other lasted throughout Braque’s lifetime. For Braque, convalescence had its positive side. He was meditating on what he called “the poetics of painting,” and in 1917 his “Pensées et réflexions sur la peinture” was published in Nord-Sud, the journal edited by his friend Pierre Reverdy, the critic who first recognized the achievements of Synthetic Cubism. Braque’s writing in this work—presenting a series of polished maxims about painting—reflects his natural affinities with Pascal’s Pensées and possibly the philosophical principles of Jansenism, the branch of Catholic thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that stressed the unknowability of salvation while rigorously insisting on total moral rectitude.

Danchev devotes little space to the paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, an omission that seems strange until we dig further into his motives for writing on Braque. He had clearly been deeply moved by “Braque: The Late Works,” an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, in his generous terminology “master-minded” by myself.3 His reluctance to engage with the work of the middle periods is perhaps owing to his book’s aims as a straightforward biography. Having established Braque’s role in the creation of Cubism and his evolution during the Cubist years, Danchev devotes much of the following discussion to delving into the artist’s mind. And this he does by investigating Braque’s involvement with contemporary writers and poets and simultaneous immersion into literature of the past.

The factual details concerning Braque’s life are not all that interesting. He was a wholly consistent and steadfast man who as he aged became increasingly a philosopher in paint. There was no secret life other than the internal one; there are no murky or sensational events to be exposed, no infidelities, and relatively little travel (almost all of which was in any case within France). He lived contentedly in his studios and in his domestic life, cared for by his wife and their housekeeper, the ever faithful Mariette Lachaud, who became also his studio assistant. His work simply evolved at a steady pace, and he gained increasing international recognition and fame, which for the most part, he chose to ignore.

By 1918 Braque had once again found a totally personal voice, and over the next decade he produced some of his most striking and accessible works. The series of upright canvases of guéridons (pedestal tables on three legs) confirmed his reputation as a major artist when they were shown at Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in 1919. Braque’s standing was further enhanced when he was invited to show eighteen works at the Salon d’Automne of 1922. The same year he moved to Montparnasse, which had almost completely supplanted Montmartre as the most vital artistic quarter of Paris. By 1930 he was sufficiently affluent to move to the house and studio built for him by the distinguished architect Auguste Perret, to his own specifications. The quietly elegant bourgeois structure stands just off the fashionable Parc Montsouris, on what was then the rue du Douanier, now the rue Georges Braque.

The works of 1918–1928 are characterized by their striking use of blacks. Although difficult to use, black could in Braque’s hands (as in those of Matisse) become a color and, because of its naturally recessive properties, also be an agent in creating space. The blacks also enhance the somber but rich and varied tonalities of still lifes superimposed on top of them, relieved by flashes of white and cream which Braque referred to as “foyers d’intérêt.” The compositions, rendered in flat, overlapping, and interacting planes, are still a development of Synthetic Cubist methods; but now Braque was becoming interested in using differently textured surfaces to differentiate the interacting compositional elements: for example, a single painting can make use of various marbling effects.

In these works Braque makes his most overt display of his training as a peintre décorateur, a quality that accounts for their immediate appeal and has made them particularly sought after by dealers and collectors. The 1930s witnessed some of the most magnificently full and decorative still lifes of Braque’s, and indeed of the entire twentieth century. The color range is extended to include a spectrum of reds and roses and yellows, and the gamut of tonal variety in the pale fawns and up into the siennas and browns becomes ever richer. The wealth of pattern, some of it inspired by that found on Etruscan pottery, which Braque greatly admired, now often reads as a hieroglyphic, secret painterly script.

Another notable addition to the work of the Thirties is the liberal use of curves. These can be rendered in a linear fashion, and played off against angular pictorial elements to create new and complex spatial effects, and above all the “metamorphic confusion” that was becoming increasingly insistent in Braque’s aesthetic. Solid objects such as musical instruments deliquesce, while softer ones (napkins and fruits, for example) become hard and unyielding. Braque was becoming obsessed, too, by what he called “rhyming” shapes: a pulpy guitar echoes a curvilinear compotier, while the round fruit it contains picks up in turn on the sounding hole of the guitar. Many of the works painted toward the end of the decade, in their complexity and ambiguity, look forward to the deeper philosophical questions about different forms of reality that preoccupied him in his late career.

In 1928, while visiting Varengeville, near Dieppe, on the Normandy coast, Braque decided to build a second home there. He chose as architect Paul Nelson, an American who had studied in Paris under Perret. Nelson had a few heady ideas for the project, but Braque insisted on a spacious comfortable dwelling in the local architectural style, with the studio as a separate building beside it. A second, larger studio was added in 1949. The studios in both Paris and Normandy were filled with easels, some of them of Braque’s own making; he also carved his own palettes.

The easels were sometimes arranged in an arc so that he could study earlier work simultaneously with what was in progress. As opposed to most artists who prefer to work in a northern, unyielding light, Braque liked to paint in a soft, shifting one; his studio windows faced south and were equipped with long, relatively heavy muslin curtains which could control the flood of natural light. In his late years as his health failed, the studios were equipped with couches; his periods of rest were also intervals of study and profound meditation.

In an original and informative essay for the catalog of “Braque: The Late Works,” Sophie Bowness notes that Braque told John Richardson in 1957 that the French poets have been particularly helpful at adding to the general obscurity of art. The obscurity, suggestion, mystery, and metamorphosis Braque sought in his painting were all for him associated with poetry, and Bowness concentrates on the four contemporary major literary figures she sees as being most relevant to Braque’s art. The poet Pierre Reverdy was the oldest and closest of his friends; it was partly through Reverdy that Braque learned to express his own thoughts in condensed aphorisms. Also influential were the writers Jean Paulhan and Francis Ponge. In 1945 Ponge had been taken to Braque’s studio by Paulhan, who had known Braque for many years, and Ponge considered the visit to be one of the highlights of his life.

It was with Paulhan and Laurens that Braque was able to converse most freely on matters both aesthetic and personal. Braque gave Paulhan a painting of 1942, The Black Fish, which Paulhan treasured. Braque was to inspire some of Ponge’s poetry, and he collaborated with Ponge on the prose-poem “Cinque Sapates” of 1950, contributing five illustrations to go with Ponge’s deceptively simple, evocative, and magical language. René Char, another younger friend, wrote sensitively and empathetically on Braque and like Ponge accepted him as a mentor. The last and most important collaboration between Char and Braque, Lettera Amorosa, was published in 1963, just before Braque’s death. Yet despite his insistence on “poetry,” Braque used the word generically, and always asserted his allegiance to painting’s autonomy.

Danchev refers repeatedly to all these figures and he enlarges on the part they played in enriching Braque’s intellectual life. By his own admission, in his youth Braque had not been a great reader, but his early contact with Apollinaire had a considerable part in widening his literary horizon.4 During his career he was influenced by a growing number of writers and poets, from Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé to Baudelaire and Chateaubriand.5 In the early 1930s he illustrated Hesiod’s Theogony (in my view not altogether successfully); in conversation he compared Hesiod to Aeschylus and Sophocles.

But among the countless writers mentioned by Danchev, possibly the most important to an understanding of Braque’s philosophy in his later years, and hence to the formation of his late manner and aesthetic, was his discovery of the sages and mystics of the East: Lao Tzu, Confucius, Milarepa.6 He denied being influenced by Zen Buddhism but, perhaps unconsciously, it is there. To celebrate the liberation of Paris he gave a copy of Zen in the Art of Archery to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who acknowledges that it had a profound effect on him. Toward the end of his life Braque seemed to show these Eastern influences in his own thinking. “You see I have made a great discovery,” he said.

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 state of peace—which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a revelation. That is true poetry.

Although Braque was not much interested in politics, premonitions of war saddened and depressed him. Single skulls first appear in his work in 1937, and they persist throughout the war, often in the form of vanitas or memento mori. When the German forces advanced into France he stopped painting for a while. The Braques then fled south to Bordeaux, to find Paul Rosenberg, brother to Léonce, who had briefly established himself there and to whom they handed over a stack of Varengeville canvases to be deposited in a bank vault. Mariette, though frightened, was holding the fort in the Paris house in predictably staunch fashion. Braque had left instructions to destroy all his paintings should the Germans come knocking. Instead she removed them from their stretchers and rolled them, in preparation for a quick escape. (When Braque saw what she had done for him, he wept.) Eventually the Braques with Mariette and her mother headed south again to find sanctuary with the latter’s family in La Valade. After further peregrinations the Braques returned to Paris to find that the German officers stationed in the house opposite had in fact entered theirs, but the only object they had stolen was Braque’s much-prized accordion.

Braque resumed work. If his experience of the First World War had forced upon him a new, expectant self-awareness, the second encouraged a withdrawal into himself. His new interiors depict kitchens and bathrooms, the only rooms that it was possible to heat, however inadequately; they emanate a feeling of loneliness and isolation. The still lifes based in these interiors suggest that food was scarce; the depiction of a single fish partakes of the sacrificial, the coal bucket is empty, palettes look like skulls. The war paintings comment indirectly and movingly on the human condition in adversity, on man’s ability to endure, to perform basic daily functions under extreme privation. Braque, like Picasso, had become a symbol of dignified resistance to the occupation.

The final twenty years of Braque’s activity as a painter were dominated by three series of predominantly large canvases: the Billiard Tables, executed between 1944 and 1952, the Ateliers or Studios of 1949–1956, and the last valedictory Bird paintings that succeeded them. All of them in different ways enlarge on Braque’s lifelong obsession with pictorial space—space that had by now taken on a metaphysical character. The idea of painting billiard tables might at first seem strange, particularly since there were no billiard tables in either of Braque’s houses and his prowess at the game was questionable. But the idea of confronting and inscribing large, massive and intractable horizontal surfaces onto upright two-dimensional supports must have come as a particular challenge.

The last painting of the series is the largest and most daring. The table’s contours, bisected and cracked upward, shift and sway, and the whole subject has, as it were, been put out to sea. Here Braque has reached what he called “le climat,” a state in which all forms and space become malleable. The billiard cues, now vestigial, continue to invite the spectator to pick them up and strike the balls. The dado, on the wall behind, weaves through the table, and above it multiple and prominent boomerang shapes sweep forward, and read like a flock of birds. They advance in the same measure that the table and the floor beneath it recede. The deliberate, metamorphic ambiguity of the imagery, and the creation of a complex space that seems almost to liquefy before our eyes, into which we visually feel ourselves plunging, associates this picture with his subsequent Studio paintings. It is to these that Danchev makes most frequent reference.

The pivotal part that Braque had in the creation of Cubism must always count as his greatest achievement; through it he succeeded in influencing the course of twentieth-century art. But within the evolution of his own art, which was on the whole remarkably free from outside visual influences, the late Ateliers must be regarded as his supreme achievement. Braque’s friend Jean Leymarie in a relatively recent book refers to them as “les ateliers symphoniques.” Studio I of 1949 stands apart from the main body of the series, and can be regarded as an introduction or frontispiece. It is relatively small compared to the succeeding pictures and its iconography is limited. To the bottom left is an ornate, traditional frame, referring perhaps to painting of the past. Next to it is an unframed canvas, Braque’s own Pichet noir et citrons, at the time nearing completion; this is painting of the present. Behind it, placed on a stool or chair, is another picture depicting a single jug; despite the rightness of its placing it looks flat and unfinished and may be an unconscious reference to painting of the future.

Studio II, also of 1949, introduces the true series. It consists of eight works and occupied Braque through to 1956. All of the Studios are of horizontal format, except one that is markedly vertical and the last one, which is just off the square and differs from the others in having a somewhat apocalyptic air. Yet the series as a whole is remarkably homogeneous, despite the distinctive character of each canvas. These are paintings of the utmost gravity. They radiate a sense of calm and are designed for lengthy contemplation. In each the entire space of a large studio has been accordion-pleated up onto the picture surface to produce spatial sensations hitherto unknown to art. The space, though dense, is comprehensible—it envelopes us completely and reassures us. There is a sense in which the paintings are foundries in which space is melted, folded, bent, and shaped.

Space is now what Braque would have described as truly “manual”; our eyes touch it, handle and fashion it, and we experience it in a manner comparable to that of diving into and through a large tank of water or a swimming pool. Because of the studio objects—palettes, easels, brushes, and plaster casts of classical female heads—these pictures comment on the very act of painterly creation. In all but one a mysterious, gigantic bird is impaled on a canvas that is, by implication, standing on an easel. Simultaneously these mythical creatures appear to glide forward effortlessly; in doing so they, too, inform us of the metaphysical processes contained in a painter’s working space. “Braque was less concerned with birds, as such,” Danchev writes,

than with the miracle of winged flight; that is, with movement in space, progress through a resistant medium. “The bird is a summing up of all my art,” Braque told Alexander Liberman as they contemplated The Bird and Its Nest. “It is more than painting.” “It has a hypnotic power,” said Liberman. “That’s it,” Braque responded immediately. “It’s as if one heard the fluttering of wings.”

In Studio V a real bird has flown in and perched on top of an easel, while its large, shadowy counterpart floats behind it.

The bird paintings have attracted a considerable body of literature and controversy. Some critics simply cannot take them. Hilton Kramer has written, “In these pictures it is not their hermeticism that I find problematic but just the opposite: their unwonted simplification and vacancy.”7 Yet it is precisely these qualities, if one takes vacancy actively, to mean the conscious search to empty things out, to explore a space made blank, that I find so moving. But I would agree that there is a very real way in which they defy critical analysis. In 1938 Braque wrote to Leymarie about his fascination with the spatial implications of the flight of birds. Later, in conversation with John Richardson, Braque talked about how he was inspired by the sight of pink flamingos of the Camargue taking flight over a lagoon, flapping low across the marshy territory below. Attempting to convey the meaning of these works, a critic can only take refuge in what Braque once said: “Only one thing in art is valid, that which cannot be explained.”

Many commentators, including Danchev, have drawn parallels between Braque’s last works and the aristocratic, often hermetic verse of Saint-Jean Perse, whose L’Ordre des Oiseaux, published in 1962, included color etchings by Braque. Perse’s ode to birds was written mostly before he met Braque, but was subsequently dedicated to him. Danchev reproduces a photograph of the first meeting between painter and poet, with Paulhan in attendance; it shows Perse silhouetted against The Bird and Its Nest of 1955, a work Braque regarded as a personal talisman. Braque and Perse never got to know each other well, yet there was an instant rapport between them. Of Braque Perse said, “For my part, I saw nothing but nobility; and this distant flash of a dream that seemed to describe, uninterruptedly, a progression of inalienable things.”

  1. 3

    The exhibition subsequently traveled to the Menil Collection in Houston, April 25 to August 31, 1997. See the review in these pages by John Richardson, “The Great Forgotten Modernist,” March 27, 1997.

  2. 4

    Toward the end of his life, in 1962, Braque edited a volume of Apollinaire’s poetry, entitled Si je mourai là-bas, extracted from Poèmes à Lou, accompanied now by woodcuts of his own.

  3. 5

    Through Marcelle, an avid reader, he also began reading novels by Stendhal and Dostoevsky. Somewhat unexpectedly he dipped into Sade. He read Melville (Moby-Dick) and in Danchev’s words he was “much taken with Melville’s delight in the unexpected reversibility of things.” He tried Aldous Huxley and Dickens (in translation; his English was somewhat rudimentary).

  4. 6

    Braque must have known the work of Brancusi, who according to some considered himself a reincarnation of Milarepa, an eleventh-century Tibetan mystic. A book on Milarepa by his disciple Raschung Pas, translated and with a helpful introduction by Jacques Bacot, came out in 1925. In the Thirties Braque read Father Hue’s Travels in Taratary, Thibet, and China, 1844– 1846, an account of the missionary’s pilgrimage to Lhasa, seat of the Dalai Lama, published in 1851.

  5. 7

    Kramer was taking exception to the treatment of these paintings in my introductory essay to Braque: The Late Works, in The New Criterion, March 1997.

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