Thursday, November 24, 2011

Perceiving the Master in Braque

Georges Braque (1882-1963), Still Life with Guitar I (Red Tablecloth), 1936,
oil on canvas, 38 1/4 x 51 in. (97.2 x 129.5 cm),
Gift of R.H. Norton, 47.46
The Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

You won’t find a more revelatory exhibition than Acquavella Galleries' Georges Braque: Pioneer of Modernism. Forty-one paintings and papiers collés on loan from over seventeen American and European museums, foundations and private collections illuminate Braque’s achievements and the Cubist art movement he originated with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). This beautifully installed show spans Braque’s career from Fauvism through Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, to his mid-twentieth-century still lifes and studio canvases. It includes works never before on public view. Quite simply, this is the greatest U. S. Braque exhibit since the Guggenheim’s 1988 retrospective and, before that, the 1949 show at the Museum of Modern Art. *

Georges Braque (1882-1963) , Landscape at L’Estaque, 1906,
oil canvas, 23 5/8 x 31 7/8 in. (60 x 81 cm),
Merzbacher Kunststiftung, Küsnacht, Switzerland
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The Acquavella exhibit begins with five vibrant Fauvist paintings (1906-1907) whose colors are intensified by the muted earth tones of six Cubist canvases (1907-1914) nearby. They are all astoundingly pristine, as if painted yesterday. No reflective glass impairs the spectator's vision - a treat true for over a dozen other works on view.

Georges Braque (1882-1963), Houses at L’Estaque, 1907,
0il canvas, 21 1/2 x 18 1/8 in. (54.5 x 46 cm),
Private International Collection

By 1907, Braque had absorbed the lessons of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) whose Paris posthumous retrospective took place that September. Houses at L’Estaque, 1907, could not be more Cézanne-like. Its hillside of cascading earth-toned geometric shapes speaks profoundly of the elder artist’s influence. Paintings in browns and grays follow. Their flattened perspective, fragmented forms and multiple vantage points mark the evolution of Analytic Cubism.

When objects shattered into fragments appeared in my painting about 1909; this for me was a way of getting closest to the object....Fragmentation helped me to establish space and movement in space.
Georges Braque (undated)**

Georges Braque (1882-1963), Harbor, 1909,
oil on canvas, 16 x 19 in. (40.5 x 48 cm),
National Gallery of Art, Washington
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Of particular note are two 1909 harbor scenes where only a few elements - a hulk, mast or lighthouse - allude to the subject. Midline in the smaller, more abstract harbor canvas is a vertical mast. A bold compositional risk, the upright both splits the painting in two and anchors the composition.

"I felt dissatisfied with traditional perspective. Merely a mechanical process, this perspective never conveys things in full. It starts from one viewpoint and never gets away from it."
George Braque (1954)**

Georges Braque (1882-1963), Céret, Rooftops, 1911,
0il canvas, 34 3/4 x 25 1/2 in. (88.5 x 65 cm),
Private Collection

As Analytic Cubism matured, objects became so thoroughly examined and broken down that they ceased to be identifiable. Two paintings from private collections, Still Life with Metronome of 1909-10 and the 1911 Céret, Rooftops, are outstanding examples. Their fractured imagery attracts close scrutiny. Looking is akin to examining a multi-faceted gem.

To avoid a projection towards infinity I am interposing overlaid planes a short way off. To make it understood that things are in front of each other instead of being scattered in space..”
Georges Braque (1961)**

Georges Braque (1882-1963), Glass, Bottle and Newspaper, 1912,
charcoal and faux-bois wallpaper on paper,
18 7/8 x 24 3/8 in. (48 x 62 cm),
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Switzerland

Braque invented papier collé, a technique of pasting paper on paper. This form of collage is characteristic of Synthetic Cubism, the movement's second phase. For this viewer, Braque’s papiers collés are some of the most poetic works ever created. Using cut outs from newspapers, wallpapers, or cardboards, he formed pictures of layered flat planes, each stratum differentiated by forms, shapes, signs, and materials. They are simple yet complex, like haiku poems. Glass, Bottle and Newspaper, 1912, and Bottle and Musical Instruments, 1918, are among the highlights here.

...I began to concentrate on still-life’s [sic], because in the still-life you have a tactile, I might almost say a manual space....This answered to the hankering I have always had to touch things and not merely see them. It was this space that particularly attracted me....In tactile space you measure the distance separating you from the object, whereas in visual space you measure the distance separating things from each other. This is what led me, long ago, from landscape to still-life.
Georges Braque (1954)**

In his later paintings, Braque leaves landscapes behind and brings back some Fauvist color. Once again, objects are recognizable. Motifs from his earlier Cubist pieces remain, such as stringed instruments or a musical scores. These are cerebral works, although a palpable quality gives them a certain sensuality.

Georges Braque (1882-1963), The Billiard Table, 1944-52,
oil with sand and charcoal on canvas
71 2/4 x 38 1/2 in. (181 x 97.8 cm),
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jacques & Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 (1999.363.9)
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The show culminates with late 1930s through mid-1950s paintings of studio interiors, billiard tables, and still lifes. These large works of recurring subjects and themes masterly merge great complexity with complete control.  

Georges Braque (1882-1963), Gueridon, 1935,
0il and sand on canvas, 71 x 29 in. (180.34 x 73.66 cm),
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Purchase with the aid of funds from W.W. Crocker
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Table-top arrangements proliferate. Gueridon, 1935, The Yellow Tablecloth, 1935, Still Life with Guitar (Red Tablecloth), 1936, and The Mauve Tablecloth, 1936, entice with their similarities and differences. In these works, a table laden with objects is seen in a room with wainscoting and decorative patterned walls. In both the Mauve and Yellow Tablecloth canvases, an anthropomorphic half-shadowed bottle with a curlicue top occupies center position on a table’s uppermost area. The bottle seems to be looking at us through the picture plane.

Georges Braque (1882-1963), The Mauve Tablecloth, 1936,
oil canvas, 33 1/2 x 51 1/2 in. (85 x 131 cm),
Private Collection

The exhibition makes clear Braque’s remarkable accomplishments, as well as his impact on what was to come. Flat planes with their accumulation of the depicted and the real connect to the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, especially the latter’s Combines. In addition, the use of material from mass culture points the way to Pop Art.

The Austrian critic and art historian Dieter Buchhart curated the show and contributed essays to the accompanying catalogue, along with the scholars Isabelle Monod-Fontaine and Richard Shiff.

Although the exhibit takes place in a commercial gallery whose business is selling art, no work is for sale. The show is free and open to the public. Acquavella Galleries deserves much praise for making it happen.

Let's hope it won't be decades before we see more of this modern master.

*The Museum of Modern Art’s 1949 retrospective was done in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art where it was also seen. At that time, it was the largest Braque exhibition ever held in the United States.
**Source of artist statements: Famous artist, great painters quotes + biography, Braque.

Georges Braque: Pioneer of Modernism
October 12, 2011 - November 30, 2011
18 East 79th Street, Manhattan, New York
Monday - Saturday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

1 comment:

Kodanshi said...

One of my favourite painters of all time, and certainly my favourite Cubist. Thanks for such an excellent review!