Taken aBraque

[Words by Stephen Scobie]

(1)

​​His farmhouse in Normandy

​​foursquare and stone

​​like an apple

​​orchard

​​wall 1

(2)

​As soon as I learned that the Grand Palais in Paris was going to host a major retrospective of the work of Georges Braque in the autumn of 2013, I knew that I had to drop everything and go. It was, after all, the first major retrospective of Braque in Paris for over thirty years.2 It would be the first time that the complete series of nine paintings named Les Ateliers, the Studios, had ever been shown together in Paris (for some of these paintings, the first time they had ever been shown in Paris at all, even singly). This was a major event.

​I have been in love with Braque ever since the winter of 1975-76, when I was staying in Paris with my late wife Maureen, and I used to spend long gloomy afternoons in the basement of the Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,3 communing with the dark splendours of his 1920s still lifes, and with the deep and glorious mystery of his billiard tables. In 1997, I travelled to Houston, Texas, for the monumental exhibition of his late work at the Menil Collection. So I scarcely came to Paris this November as a neutral or unbiased spectator.

​But that “bias” was born out of instincts – visual, theoretical, aesthetic – which I still trust. To go into the show in a spirit of determined skepticism, distrust just for the sake of it, would be simply perverse. So, well before I left, I tried to write out what my biases were, to give them even a deliberately exaggerated and provocative form. The following section, scrupulously not edited or altered, though at times it is rashly overstated, is what I wrote here in Victoria, several weeks before I set foot in the Grand Palais.

[Essay by Stephen Scobie]

(3) ​Preliminary polemic argument on Georges Braque

For almost five years, between 1909 and 1914, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso conducted the most extraordinary collaboration in the history of modern art. They saw each other every day; they absorbed each other’s work; they fed and built on each other’s involvement in what would come to be known as Cubism.

​And each of them had a characteristic image for that collaboration.

​Picasso, with a typically sexist disdain, said “Georges Braque – c’était ma femme” – Braque, he was my wife. Thus acknowledging the partnership, but relegating Braque to a minor, subsidiary role. Kind of like the cook in the kitchen.

​Braque was more accurate and more generous: “C’était un peu comme la cordée en montagne” – it was a little like being roped together on a mountain.

​Braque’s modesty here – “a little” – speaks volumes. For those with eyes to see, Braque is never the partner. He is always the leader. Picasso is the showman, the exhibitionist. Braque is the painter.

​Picasso came to Cubism through primitive painting, via the spectacular psycho-drama of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Braque came the slow way, through a patient study of Cézanne. That’s where the eye comes in.

​There are some things in art history which just cannot be taught. You see it, you feel it. You stand in front of a painting and it just hits you. It may be something to do with the tension of the composition, the lines of force inside the rectangle – or maybe the colour, the vibration of tone – but it declares itself. It jumps off the wall at you. You know that this is painting at its ultimate.

​It happens time after time with Cézanne. You recognize its inheritor in Braque. (And with Matisse in the decade of the 1910s.)

​Picasso, he could fool around. He was a genius at improvisation. His greatest gifts were in portraits – a Picasso portrait was always

definitive. But even then, it was showmanship. When it came to the serious work of painting, there was only Braque.

​The major innovations, like papiers collés, always came from Braque. Picasso seized them and ran with them. Braque stayed with them and made something serious out of them.

​Picasso, in the analogy of a painter friend of mine, Wayne Thom, was always a sprinter. He could go in any direction, very fast. But Braque was the long-distance runner.

​This is abundantly clear in the later work. After 1914, Picasso lost his way. In one sense, he was prolific; he poured out works of “genius,” several times a day. But they were going nowhere. They were merely product. They had become either sexist boasting or political propaganda.

​The later Braque, however, grows and grows in stature. Look at the majestic still lifes of the 1920s. The incredible series of Billiard Tables. The vast, mysterious views of the Studios. Nothing in late Picasso even begins to compare.

​Here there is gravity and depth. Here there is a sober consideration of what painting means. Here there is the conclusion of a life’s work. This is what I hope to see this fall at the Grand Palais: even from the gauche experiments in Fauvism; through the grand enterprise of Cubism; into the measured gravity of the later work – if you want to know what it means to be a painter in the 20thcentury, look at Georges Braque.

​There really is no one else.

PS: Let’s put it another way. Look at Jean-Luc Godard and Bob Dylan. Both of them started out as Picasso. Both of them grew up to be Braque.

(4)

​​there is no such thing

​​as abstraction

​​abstraction is not a thing

​​but painting

​​deals in things

​​things you can see

​​a painting is what I make

​​of the things I have seen

​​so that you see

​​something new

​​abstraction is nothing

​​it may be new

​​but it is nothing new

​​there is nothing

​​you cannot paint

​​but you cannot paint

​​nothing

​​there is nothing new

​​under the sun

​​there are only the things

​​you have all seen before

​​I make you see again

​​for the first time

​​new

(5)​

​So, how did the real thing measure up? Did the exhibit satisfy my expectations?

​Oh yes it did, it really did. The experience was, even physically, let alone emotionally,overwhelming: over 200 paintings, not to mention photos, letters, old museum catalogues. It took me three hours to walk through it. The paintings were carefully displayed against neutral grey walls (not the hideous black walls that have plunged theImpressionists at the Musée d’Orsay into funereal gloom), well spaced, well arranged.

​What a delight to see the juxtapositions of paintings of similar if not identical motifs (houses at l’Estaque, the château at La Roche-Guyon) hanging side by side. Paintings housed in museums and private collections from all over the world, here returned to each other, like separated siblings staging a family reunion. I remember particularly one wall of four 1920s still lifes (Cat. 120-1234), on loan from museums in Prague, New York, Zürich, and Paris; I had previously seen at least three of them, separately, but to see them all together was a revelation.

​Braque himself was deeply ambivalent about a retrospective exhibition. Late in his life, according to Alex Danchev in his exemplary biography,5 Braque thwarted a proposal for a major show; according to Jean Cassou, “it was not so much the verdict of others that he dreaded, but rather his own.” Placed or re-placed alongside each other, judged in their own company, would the paintings hold up?

​At the Grand Palais, finally, fifty years later, the question could be answered. They held up. All the paintings held up.

​“To hold” is a recurring phrase in Braque criticism. In French it is simply “hold,” tenir, without the assistance of the English pronoun “up.” It is in that sense that I here use it in a translation of a famous anecdote by the great French poet and critic Pierre Reverdy:

​​In 1917 I met him in the Midi, close to Avignon, and one day, as we were walking across the field from Sorgues to the ​hamlet where I was living, Braque was carrying, at the end of a ​stick passed over his shoulder, one of his own canvases. We came ​to a halt. Braque laid the painting down flat, among the pebbles ​and grasses. I was struck by something and I said to him: “It’s amazing how that holds against the real colours and the rocks.” People have said to me, since, that the most important thing ​was ​to know whether it held even against famine. Today I ​answer. ​Yes, it has held, and against many other things as well, for ​paintings are afraid of nothing.

​It was still true in the Grand Palais in autumn 2013, a hundred years later. It held. Les toiles n’ont peur de rien.

(6)

​it was

he said

like being

a little

it was a little

he said

like being

like being roped

he said

it was

a little like being roped

together

together

like being roped together

he said

it was a little like being

roped together

on a mountain

(7)

Alex Danchev is not a neutral biographer. He is, first and last, a Braque partisan. Yet even at his most extreme, I find it hard to disagree with him:

​​If an ism can be said to be invented by a person, then ​Cubism was invented by Georges Braque. It was Braque who

​painted and exhibited the first Cubist pictures. It was Braque

​who established Cubist motifs. It was Braque who created

​Cubist space. It was Braque who demonstrated Cubist

​techniques. It was Braque who accented Cubist language.

​It was Braque who set the tone. And it was Braque who led a

​second revolution – the move into 3-D, making the first paper

​sculptures in 1911 and the first papiers collés… in 1912.

​​​(Danchev, p. 48)

​Way to go, Alex. You tell ‘em.

(8)​

​Even Braque’s most ardent supporters and partisans will readily concede one point: one overwhelming gap in his painted vision of the world. (And one which is even more obvious in a comprehensive retrospective, as at the Grand Palais.)

​Braque never could portray the human body. His figure paintings are always clumsy (some deliberately so, as in the 1908 Grand Nu, Cat. 35; others unfortunately not), or else highly stylized (as in the arabesque drawings of figures from Classical mythology). But there is never any sense of comfort with the body. And in the whole of Braque’s work, there is not a single memorable human face.

​For some viewers, this is a major problem, and a decisive argument for Braque’s inferiority to Picasso (whose skill at portraiture was always uncanny). On the other hand, there are many great artists who also avoided the portrait. Turner. Monet. The great Canadian artist David Milne. And of course any artist whose major mode was abstraction. You don’t look at Rothko for portraits.

​And Braque, by and large,6 recognized his own limitations, and stayed within them. One, or rather two, possible exceptions are two remarkable canvases from 1942 (Cat. 165, 166), both of which show a male figure, seated, with his back to the painter and the viewer. One is holding a guitar, one is painting at an easel – two figures, that is, of the artist himself, seen here as a man who has turned his back on the world, turned away from portraiture, turned away from all communication. They are powerful images of solitude and alienation. The fact that both were painted in Paris at the height of the Nazi occupation is certainly relevant, but need not be a limiting factor in their interpretation. For once, or twice, Braque’s awkwardness with the human form is profoundly expressive.

(9)

​​everything that is not

​​in his paintings

​​the war

​​the head wound

​​the blindness

​​three years without working

​​out of this to come back

​​again to the tables

​​piled fruit in bowls

​​and shadows bisecting the light

​​what his language calls

​​dead nature

​​and mine for once more accurate

​​still life

(10)

​It is often said of Braque that he paints not only things but the spaces in between things. Not literally, of course: that is still a bottle and that is still a lemon, and that is the tabletop they share. But the painting also succeeds in making the space between the bottle and the lemon sensible – in every sense of that word.

​We sense the bottle and the lemon, they are discreet and tangible objects in the world of our senses – sight, touch, taste – and yet they also “make sense,” their presence and utility are immediate, practical, reasonable, sensible. And the painting appeals to our sensibility, that trained or untrained instinct for visual appropriateness and pleasure. One does not reason one’s way into a Braque painting; one senses the way inside; and the result will be eminently sensible.

(11)

​​cutting the paper

​​into shape

​​drawing a line

​​across two planes

​​combing the paint

​​to make it wood

(12)

​Braque’s work makes use of some techniques which might unkindly be called mere tricks or gimmicks – things like mixing sand into the paint to produce a granular surface texture, or using a comb to give an impression of the grain in wood. And sometimes, especially in their adoption by Picasso, the primary effect is indeed gimmicky: a witty and whimsical playing with the conventions of representation.

​But Braque was always more serious about them. Many of these “tricks” were in fact the “tricks of the trade” of his father’s profession as a decorative house-painter, and Braque accorded them the respect and dignity due not only to a father but to a craftsman, a professional.

​Take, for instance, the “gimmick,” used in many later paintings but perhaps most notably in Le Billard (1944, Cat. 173), in which the voluteoutlines of the tops of the curved struts of the easel are included in the painting. In one sense, it is a play upon the literalness of the representation: asthe painter looked at the subject over the top of his easel, the easel itself would still be a part of his visual field. But convention would eliminate any trace of its presence in the painting itself.7 Just as early Cubist paintings included both front and back of the object represented, Braque here gives a more complete, a more “realistic” view of what lies in front of his eyes.

​But the presence of the easel is more than just a clever play on the conventions of easel painting: it also becomes an integral part of the composition, and an element which binds together the multiple overlapping levels of depth. Just as the billiard cue stretches over several levels of depth recession, the curve of the easel is both a transparent screen in front of the viewer and the shape of a circular dish, supporting a vase of flowers, which appears to rest on a sideboard behind the billiard table.

​It is the easel “gimmick” which ties together all the levels of the painting, and reconciles their spatial incongruities into a pictorial harmonious whole.​

(13)

​​I prepare my colours myself

​​he said

​​I do the crushing of them

​​like a good cook using

​​only fresh herbs

​​the aromas of colour

​​mortar and pestle

​​strong

​​in his gentle hands

(14)

​The exhibit at the Grand Palais for the most part observes a strict chronological order, demonstrating both the succeeding phases of Braque’s career and its deep underlying continuity. But right at the end, there is a twist. It may be due to the physical layout of the available rooms in the Grand Palais, but it also seems to make a deliberate thematic statement.

​Of the last three rooms in the exhibit, it is the first which is devoted to his “last” paintings. After a lifetime of still life, these final canvases return at last, like Odysseus coming home, to landscape. Their most characteristic format is a long, narrow, horizontal rectangle, with the paint thickly encrusted, and, in the majority of cases, unsigned . The sky broods, and the fields burn, with the intensity of Van Gogh. These paintings put the horizon back into the horizontal.

In the Grand Palais, they inhabit a small, semi-circular room; but they are not the end of the story the exhibit has to tell. In the next room, we enter Braque’s studio, in the majestic series entitled Les Ateliers. By the looks of it, Braque’s studio was magnificently cluttered; “The Studios” are not. They are dense agglomerations of iconic objects (busts, vases, stoves, palettes) crammed into a dense and accumulated space. Dominating most of them, starting with #2, and hovering in indeterminate air, are the vast mysterious shapes of birds.

The birds may have begun as paintings of birds – paintings within paintings, hanging on the studio wall. But the rectangular frame surrounding them soon disappears. As Wayne Thom puts it:

What fascinates me is the loss of that framing rectangle. I suspect that it simply excused itself and left the scene. It knew that its presence was inhibiting the life of the painting…. The rule that corrects emotion is something that only the painting itself can reveal to the artist and the process is necessarily slow and faltering. It is his absolute obedience to that process and the strict obliteration of ego that it demands that most impress me about Braque .

So the last room of the exhibit – the largest room, the lightest room (the room with the most windows letting in natural daylight) – open, uplifting, delighting in light – the last room belongs to the birds.

Ah, the birds. Braque’s birds. Not always blackbirds (some of them are white), but definitely a species all of their own. Braquebirds.

About the origins of these birds, Braque himself was both literal and evasive. “In one of these Studios,” he said, “the bird arrived naturally to perch on the top, a complete surprise.” Or elsewhere: “They are simply birds, species unknown” (quoted in Danchev, pp. 248, 246).

One thing is clear: the birds are not symbolic. They have no assigned or implied meanings. They carry none of the “significance” of Picasso’s pretty little peace doves. In some ways (by no means all) they resemble the creatures in The Birds, by Alfred Hitchcock (who was a great admirer and collector of Braque). Not in the sense of malevolence – Braque’s birds would never attack – but in the sense of being utterly other, beyond any reasonable explanation, beyond any attempt to recuperate them into an allegory, or a morality.

They hover in the dense air of the timeless heavens; they never flap their wings, they glide. They return to their nests. They are at home in empyrean blue, yet they also invade the interior space of his Studios, and hang there: vast, silent, unknowable, mysterious.

The mystery is not that they have any “hidden meaning” – they are not symbolic – but that their very existence is a resistance to any easy reading of “meaning.” They are themselves, that is all. There is nothing to say “about” them. They just are.

The windows are open in their room of light.

(15)

And then the exhibit is over. As Llewyn Davies says at the end of the Coen brothers’ great film, “That’s what I’ve got.” You buy the catalogue and some postcards. You collect your stuff from the cloakroom, and step out into the thin November Paris rain.

(16)

J’aime la règle qui corrige l’émotion
– Georges Braque

 

I love the rule

which corrects the emotion

I love the emotion

which corrects the rule

 

I love the rule which corrects

the emotion I love

corrects the rule

 

I correct the emotion

which loves the rule

I rule the love

which moves the correction

1 This poem, like those in sections 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 13, and 16, comes from a sequence of poems on Georges Braque which I wrote in 1978. The sequence won a Special Award in that year’s CBC radio Literary Competition, and was published in Exile. It also appeared in a privately printed booklet, les toiles n’ont peur de rien (Edmonton, 1979).

2 The French neglect of Braque is another topic, too vast for this article, and requiring an author far more fully versed than I am in the politics of the Parisian art establishment. But I was astonished, when I arrived in Paris, to find that there were absolutely no subsidiary exhibitions: not one small gallery (at least of those advertised in Pariscope) displaying even a poster, let alone a lithograph. Is it simply the idolatry of Picasso, whose late works, in all their easy banality, are considered more commercially viable than Braque? Or is it a late hangover from Gertrude Stein, who remembered Braque mainly as the man whose long arms made it possible for him to hang paintings in awkward positions on her walls?

3 See Hobo #13 for my account of the recent theft from this museum, whose spoils included one Fauve painting by Braque, a painting whose absence hung over the otherwise splendid display of Fauve Braque in the first room of this exhibition.

4 The numbers refer to the exhibition catalogue.

5 Alex Danchev, Georges Braque: a Life (Penguin, 2005), pp.266-7.

6 There is one dreadful painting, by far the worst in the exhibition, Cat. 144, in which Braque disastrously tries to copy Picasso’s distortions of body and face.

7 It is like the moment in Godard’s La Chinoise where the film shows, in a mirror-reflection shot, the camera filming the scene. The apparatus of reproduction is always present, but convention excludes it from the frame, except in moments of deliberate self-reflexivity – Godard showing his own camera, Braque displaying his own easel.

8 Personal e-mail. My thanks to Wayne for some very helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.