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
Until Braque’s death in 1963, he and Picasso remained frenemies, meeting occasionally for meals, observing each other’s work with suspicion. Visiting an exhibition of Braque’s painting, Picasso remarked that it was “well hung”. Braque returned the damning faint praise, saying that Picasso’s ceramics were “well fired”.
Braque was the anti-Picasso, seemingly void of the unbridled sexuality that permeates the Spaniard’s work. Picasso was fiery; Braque self-contained. “I love the rule that corrects emotion,” he wrote in 1917. Picasso was fast; Braque slow. Between 1912 and 1914, Picasso created 300 papiers collés; Braque 57. Braque often took years to complete a painting.
The French academician Michel Déon has written of Braque’s “radiant goodness” and “supreme honesty”. Braque, steeped in oriental philosophy, believed less was more. “You take something out and everything becomes more beautiful, more true,” he said. “You add something and it’s ruined.” Like Chardin in the 18th century, Braque was a painter of silence.
Braque emerged from his long convalescence with La Musicienne (1917-1918), whose quiet majesty evokes comparisons with Renaissance madonnas. A face is barely suggested, with a pair of eyes behind a burka-like mask. Two hands, one holding what appears to be the handle of a sword, and what may be a foot, are the spare suggestions of a woman’s figure. La Musicienne mixes wallpaper, wood and tapestry motifs, and introduces colour to “synthetic” – more legible – cubism.
After the first World War Braque renounced avant-gardism to recentre his oeuvre on still lifes and landscapes, the staples of classic French painting. He painted fruit bowls, and devoted himself to the silent poetry of quotidian objects.
When the Nazis occupied France, Braque withdrew to his home at Varengevill, on the coast of Normandy. He painted skulls, crucifixes, rosary beads and fish: symbols of Christ. Muted anxiety suffuses his canvases, which are dominated by black, such as in Les Poissons noirs (1942).
Braque said he went deep into himself in his Ateliers series (1949-1956). “In painting them, a sort of jubilation took hold of me. I was in the happy state of someone to whom the harmony of things is revealed.”
The bird, Braque said, “summarises all my art”. In his paintings inanimate objects sprout swans’ necks and wings, take flight.
À tire d’aile (Swiftly), painted between 1956 and 1961, has been interpreted as a premonition. Four decades before September 11th, 2001, a black bird resembling an airliner flies into a black tower, against a pale blue sky. On the margin of a study for the painting, Braque wrote: “Without respite, we chase after our destiny.”