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 and Sophie Bowness and 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…

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