“Painting is not an art where anything goes.”
In 1977 the Fraser government struck a lethal blow to Australia’s reputation as an art-collecting nation when it torpedoed the purchase of Georges Braque’s painting, Nu debout (1908) (AKA. Grand Nu). The National Gallery of Australia had a price – $1.5 million – and an export permit, but the Coalition were wary of the scandal generated four years earlier when Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952) was bought for $1.3 million. The same politicians had portrayed that landmark acquisition as a symbol of the Whitlam government’s extravagance, and were now wary of being seen as hypocrites.
Instead they will go down in history as the philistines who deprived this country of what would have been the most important international painting in any of our public collections. With hindsight the asking price seems laughable. In 2008 the Art Gallery of NSW paid $16.2 million for a small Cézanne painting that is no more than average in the context of the artist’s work.
Such thoughts were unavoidable as I stood in front of the Grand Nu, which is given great prominence in the Georges Braque retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. It has been 40 years since the Parisians took a long look at Braque (1882-1963), who remains the most underrated of modern masters. This is partly a function of a reserved, undemonstrative personality. Whereas Picasso was always a showman, and Matisse the leader of the pack, Braque charted his own methodical course in the privacy of his studio.
To his admirers Braque had a natural dignity and self-possession that seemed almost superhuman, and there were many attempts to explain that quality. His friend, Francis Ponge, portrayed the studio as a garage and Braque as a mechanic, contemptuous of virtuosity, concerned only with getting each piece “back on the road”.
This devotion to the work instead of the career is one of the reasons Braque is arguably the great ‘painter’s painter’ of the twentieth century, even though he never produced an abstract picture and rejected all forms of symbolism. Braque drew his inspiration exclusively from observable reality while putting his gleanings through the most rigorous and radical transformations. “We must choose,” he said. “A thing cannot be real and realistic at the same time.”
The Grand Nu is a key work in Braque’s career. It is nothing less than his response to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), one of the most revolutionary pictures ever painted. It is generally considered the central work in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Braque claimed that his first meeting with Picasso took place in front of that notorious canvas, when he visited the Spaniard’s studio with the poet, Apollinaire. The Demoiselles had shocked and dismayed Picasso’s friends, but Braque saw “an unswerving determination, an extraordinary yearning for freedom.”
It was the beginning of the most famous partnership in modern art. In the years that followed the artists would be “roped together like mountain climbers” in Braque’s famous phrase, in the invention of Cubism. Art history tends to give the lead role to the flamboyant, hyper-productive Picasso, but Braque was there first. His biographer, Alex Danchev, has no doubts: “If an ism can be said to be invented by a person, then Cubism was invented by Georges Braque.”
The fateful moment came with Braque’s solo exhibition of November 1908, at Kahnweiler’s gallery, with a series of landscapes of the southern French town of l’Estaque. Braque had travelled south in search of Cézanne’s country, and had absorbed his lessons more completely than anyone before him. If Cézanne had reinvented pictorial space, Braque took that revelation to another level.
The reduction of nature to geometrical shapes was too much for many commentators, including the critic, Louis Vauxcelles, who is credited with inventing the “cubist” tag. He had already given the Fauves their name in the Salon d’Automne of 1905, when he described a small sculpture surrounded by “wild beasts”.
Braque had flirted with Fauvism for couple of years after realising he was temperamentally incapable of painting anything without some kind of distortion. He appreciated the boldness of Fauve colour but was never accepted by Matisse and his peers as anything more than a camp follower. His Cubist paintings revealed a startling originality that forced a change of opinion.
Despite their obvious differences, Braque and Picasso recognised each other as kindred spirits. The German critic, Wilhelm Uhde, portrayed Braque as a calm, calculating Frenchman and Picasso as a nervy, excitable Spaniard, but there was a shared willingness to explore uncharted territory. During the heyday of analytical Cubism these two antithetical personalities became almost interchangeable. They shared ideas, styles, motifs, even recipes. Years later, both artists had difficulty distinguishing their own work of that time from the other’s.
It could be argued that the vital spark was Les Demoiselles, which took its lead from the African masks displayed in the Musée d l’Homme. Yet Braque seemed to get this out of his system with the Grand Nu and another large figure painting, now lost. With every other innovation over this period, Braque was there first. He made the first paper sculptures in 1911, and the first collages in 1912. Where Picasso was fast, Braque was slow. Even their private lives were studies in contrast, as Picasso went from one woman to another, while Braque remained with his wife, Marcelle, from 1912 until his death.
The First World War was a turning point in the relationship between the two artists. Braque went to the battlefields and became an officer in the French army, while Picasso avoided the conflict as a Spanish national. When his skull was fractured by an enemy shell in May 1915, Braque was trepanned to relieve the pressure. Having almost died he spent months in recovery, painting again as soon as he was able.
In the years that followed, rifts would open up between those artists and writers who had gone to war and those that had escaped. The worst contempt was reserved figures such as Derain, who accepted sponsored trips to Germany, and were now branded as collaborators.
Picasso had not collaborated with the Germans, only with the Ballets Russes. This had propelled him into a different social circuit, far from the Bohemian digs of his Cubist period. The friendship and rivalry with Braque was never the same, although they remained in touch. “Picasso used to be a great painter,” said Braque, “now he is merely a genius.”
While Picasso leapt around between styles during the 1920s-30s, Braque refined the discoveries of Cubism. His large still lifes of these decades, from Guitar and fruit bowl (1919) to The Round Table (1929) are sombre, beautiful works incorporating a suprising variety of colours and textures. One need only look at the academic Cubism of Albert Gleizes and André Lhote – both so influential on Australian artists – to see that Braque is on another plane.
Right up until the end of his life, when he paints a series of small, naturalistic landscapes, there is never a moment when one could say Braque definitively abandoned Cubism. What happens is that the rudiments of a style disappear, leaving only an individual vision. The Cubist idea is still present in the complex Atelier paintings of the 1940s-50s, which form one of the most breathtaking rooms in this impressive exhibition.
Braque was the most formal of artists, as fastidious with his own appearance as he was with his paintings. He was a boxer, a cyclist, a musician, and enough of a philosopher to have a pamphlet of his aphorisms published.
Although he had a strong ethical sense, Braque was not a joiner or a propagandist. It would have been unthinkable for him to become a member of the Communist party, as Picasso did in 1944. In terms of religion he was more drawn to Zen Buddhism and the Tao te Ching than the Catholic Church.
Although he had contempt for symbols, Braque found powerful visual signs to convey his thoughts and feelings. During the occupation, for instance, he painted a series of skulls. Less melodramatic and far more influential were pictures such as The Black Fish (1942), in which a still life of two fish on a plate spoke volumes about the gloom and ignominy of the nation. The dead fish suggest poverty and stasis, yet Braque’s compositions are utterly seductive. When these works were shown in Britain, an epidemic of fish painting followed.
Braque’s favourite motif in his later work was a bird in flight – an image of perfect freedom that hovered over his studio interiors, and found expression in pictures such as Black bird and white bird (1960), which appears on the cover of the catalogue. This painting is a masterpiece of simple, effective design: black and white bird silhouettes set against two large semi-circles of pink and yellow. There is no story, no hidden meaning. It is one of the most surprising works by an artist who believed in rules, but only those he set for himself.
Georges Braque; Grand Palais, Paris, September 18 – January 6, 2014
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 12, 2013