Braque is back: French cubist finally escapes Picasso
The inventors of cubism were inseparable for seven years, then remained frenemies, observing one another’s work with suspicion. A Braque exhibition in Paris considers his work on its own merits
Georges Braque. Photograph: Getty Images
Les Poissons noirs (1942), Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne. Copyright Adagp, Paris 2013
L’Oiseau noir et l’oiseau blanc (1960), Cliché Leiris, Paris. Copyright Adagp, Paris 2013
‘Was Picasso the misfortune of Braque?” asks Brigitte Leal, the commissioner of the splendid Georges Braque retrospective at the Grand Palais. Picasso’s advocates were so fervent, his fame so overpowering, that Braque appeared doomed to play second fiddle.
Fifty years after Braque’s death, and 40 years after the last Braque retrospective at the Orangerie, the Grand Palais has brought together 238 of his paintings, engravings, sculptures and drawings. Unlike Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism at MoMa in New York in 1989, this exhibition considers Braque’s oeuvre on its own merits.
The two artists were born seven months apart in 1881 and 1882. Both moved to Montmartre in 1904. In 1907 the writer and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire took Braque to Picasso’s Bateau-Lavoir studio. Braque was so jolted by the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which he compared to a man spitting petrol flames, that he painted his own massive, muscular Grand Nu in response.
For seven years they were inseparable. “Despite our very different temperaments,” Braque recalled, “we were guided by the same idea. We saw each other every day. During those years Picasso and I said things to each other than no one will ever say again.Things that would be incomprehensible, and which gave us such joy. We were like mountaineers roped together.”
In revolt against the Impressionists, who had abandoned form for the sake of light and colour, and the fauves, who amplified colour to unprecedented intensity, Braque and Picasso reduced their palettes to shades of grey and beige to give all to form, breaking it down into countless facets. Their canvases were so similar that they were sometimes unsure who had painted what. Thus cubism was born.
It was Braque who painted the first Cézanne-like cubist landscapes in 1908, after he had been “seized” by a Cézanne retrospective. In the first “analytic” phase of cubism, Braque and Picasso teetered on the brink of abstraction. It was Braque who pulled back by introducing stencilled letters and numerals as a link with reality. In 1912 Braque invented the papier collé (a type of collage), including three scraps of wallpaper in Compotier et verre.
When the first World War started, Braque volunteered. “I took Braque to the train station and I never saw him again,” Picasso said metaphorically. In 1915 Braque received a shrapnel wound to the head. He lost consciousness for two days, was temporarily blind when he woke up, was trepanned, and could not paint again until 1917. He felt he had been overtaken by those who, like Picasso, continued to create during the war.