Friday, March 14, 2014

Meet Braque in Houston

For those of us who could not travel to Paris, a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a chance to discover or rediscover Georges Braque. A shorter version of the exhibition that just took place at the Grand Palais, Georges Braque: A Retrospective is a collection of carefully selected works, each meaningfully displayed to bring the visitors on a journey of the artist's career. The first room is filled with landscapes from L'Estaque, along the littoral or the surrounding countryside and views of the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. Influenced by Cezanne and Fauves like Derain, these were made in 1906, 1907 and the bright expressionist colors, yellows, violets, oranges, will never be seen on Braque's palette again. Rapidly, the same landscapes take subdued tones and become populated with solid masses defined by sharp lines. The transition to Cubism is subtle, but perceptible through a series of landscapes from L'Estaque again, made at a later date in 1908. A primitive figure Grand Nu, 1908, unlike Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, did not make waves through the art world, but  introduces a new chapter marked by the close relationship with Picasso which lasted till the onset of WWI. The next paintings, landscapes and still lifes, define Analytic Cubism characterized by multiple points of view, where the object becomes fragmented and its pieces rearranged to create three dimensional works in dark browns, greens, black. Built from the inside out, the paintings become vertiginous and crowded without ups or downs, sometimes whirling in circular motions. Instruments are a recurrent theme reflecting Braque's interest in music particularly Bach which can explain not only the subject but also the rhythmic lines and patterns in his paintings. Abstraction seems to be around the corner. Taking another turn, in 1912, Braque adopts a flatter style with simpler geometric shapes cut in paper then glued or collages. Trained as a house painter, he introduces pieces of false wood, false marble, calligraphic letters, numbers, shaped canvasses and veers to a more figurative phase later called  Synthetic Cubism, a period cut short for Braque who was conscripted in 1914. His intertwined path with Picasso during these six years makes it difficult to dissociate their works usually displayed side by side in museums and for once, we can meet Braque without Picasso. Their paths will diverge for good at the onset of WWI. Braque is seriously wounded in 1916, temporarily blind. His paintings reappear in 1917.

The second part of the exhibition is about a new Braque. Colors are back, even reds but dark and muted, and the artist slowly leaves Cubism behind. Following the fashion, he produces a series of  Neo-classic Canéphore in the 1920's. His series of Ateliers or Billiards, are showing dark overcrowded interiors without windows. In 1923, when asked by a journalist what he thought of Cubism, the artist answered: "I do not know what it is." He is accepted at the Salon d'Automne in 1922, represents France at the Venice Biennale. But I cannot see life in the heavy still lifes, 1930-1940 and the late figurative landscapes appear muddy, tormented and "silty" per Braque. It may be a broad and superficial judgment but I found the post-war paintings as a whole lacking dynamism, somber, depressive, neurasthenic to use a fashionable word at the time. Braque's fame is at its highest in the 60's and the French government gave him national funerals. Shortly after, the art world proceeded to forget him.
The exhibition is an overdue resurrection of Braque's legacy, minus the sculptures and drawings which I understand were part of the show in Paris. A well-balanced walk through the artist's periods with short didactic comments to introduce rapidly evolving periods of Cubism, it is also the occasion to see post-WWI paintings, understand a painter who has been lost in the shadow of Picasso, give him back his place in the history of a movement prelude to Constructivism, Futurism and remind the world of his contribution with his collages still inspiring contemporary artists.
One can wonder what would have happened if Braque had not gone to war.

photographs were not allowed
photographs from Google images

"Violin and Pitcher", 1910
"Fruit Dish and Cards", 1913
"Black Bird and White Bird", 1960

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