Braque Nude Sacrifices, Abstracts Rival Picasso in Paris
Georges Braque was one of Pablo Picasso’s many victims.
He and Picasso were inseparable when they invented Cubism in 1908, so inseparable that they signed their canvases only on the back -- to demonstrate that this was a joint venture and that the question of who painted what was beside the point.
Nowadays Braque is regarded as Picasso’s sidekick rather than an artist of equal caliber. However the huge show at the Grand Palais, the first in Paris in more than 40 years, does its best to correct that perception.
In this, it succeeds brilliantly.
Like “Gothic” and “Impressionism,” the term “Cubism” originated from an insult. It was Matisse, sitting on the jury of the Salon d’Automne, who derided Braque as a painter of “little cubes.”
They were not Braque’s only contribution. He also invented, in 1912, the “papier colle,” a type of collage in which cut-out strips from newspapers and wallpapers were pasted on the canvas.
Picasso immediately adopted the new technique.
Their collaboration ended in 1914 when Braque enlisted in the French army. He was wounded in the head and didn’t resume painting until 1916.
From then on, their work took different paths. Whereas Picasso, in the words of his biographer John Richardson, continued to “play Pied Piper to the avant-garde,” Braque remained faithful to his pre-war style which matured into a freer, less austere variation of Cubism.
Their friends, too, split into two camps beating the drum for their respective champion.
In 1933, Gertrude Stein wrote in her “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” that Cubism was a purely Spanish concept which provoked an angry response from the Braque clan. In 1945, Jean Paulhan, editor of the influential Nouvelle Revue Francaise, enraged Picasso with a book titled “Braque le Patron” (Braque the Boss).
After World War II, the Louvre invited Braque to decorate the ceiling of the Etruscan room and honored him by holding the first show of a living artist. When he died, Andre Malraux, President Charles de Gaulle’s minister of culture, ordered a state funeral and delivered the eulogy.
Picasso, though, held the stronger hand. A confirmed leftist and member of the Communist Party, he was enthroned by the intelligentsia as artist of the century.
The Grand Palais show, which includes more than 230 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs, presents Braque’s work chronologically -- from his early Fauvist landscapes to the stylized birds of his later years.
Cubism, of course, occupies a place of honor, and if you have forgotten about the difference between its analytical and synthetic phase, the exhibition will refresh your memory.
Braque’s favorite theme was still lifes -- fruit, flowers, violins, pitchers, billiard tables. His colors are unobtrusive, and it is certainly no accident that he saw a connection between Cubism and camouflage.
In the 1920s, perhaps inspired by Picasso’s “Bathers,” he did some imposing nudes and “canephores,” women carrying sacrificial offerings.
In his country house in Varengeville-sur-mer near Dieppe, where he hid during the German occupation, he also painted a number of Norman landscapes. The last one from 1963, the year of his death, is an homage to van Gogh’s haunting “Crows Over the Wheat Field.”
His forte, however, was creating still lifes. Look at the studio series from the 1940s and 1950s, assembled here for the first time, and you’ll agree: They are his masterpiece.
The show runs through Jan. 6, 2014 and will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas (Feb. 16 to May 11, 2014). Information: http://www.grandpalais.fr/en
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on London art, John Mariani on wine, Lance Esplund on New York art and James Russell on architecture.