Friday, December 27, 2013

Georges Braque au Grand Palais

Georges Braque, L'Oiseau noir et l'oiseau blanc, 1960

There are very few painters, most of them from the first decades of the twentieth century, who remain consistent in their concerns across their lifetimes. Georges Braque is one of them. All of Braque’s formal and thematic concerns, as well as the way they are executed, appear and reappear throughout his career, often in different ways, often after a break of years, but they all return in some shape or form. In this, together with an artist such as Mondrian, Braque is the archetypal modernist painter. The current exhibition at the Grand Palais is an awe-inspiring confirmation of Braque’s place in modern painting.
Georges Braque, La Viaduc de l'Estaque, 1908
To give some examples of recurrent tropes and techniques: throughout his career, Braque painted in brown, grey and green, the colours of a modern world, at times with the green of nature dominating, even framing the image —such as in La Viaduc de l’Estaque, 1908. In the Analytical Cubist images, when form takes over the canvas as the subject matter and intention, green becomes laced through the fragments, barely perceptible, but unmistakeably tinting the grey and brown. The same could be said of the flowing curvilinear lines that shift around the canvas, sometimes defining the object and subject, at others decorating it, even when everything collapses in the Analytical Cubist paintings. There is always line, always, and the dynamic relationship between line and colour, in which line is often demarcating a form, is what holds Braque’s composition within the figurative. And then there are gestures, techniques, forms that recur years later, unexpectedly, often to meet different ends. For example, the brightly coloured staccato strokes, that we see in the Fauvist works such as the landscapes at Estaques reappear to create light and shadow in the Analytical Cubist paintings from 1910 onwards. Always, Braque seems to be thinking about the question of breaking down representation, and across his long career, he uses the same vocabulary, even if it looks different in its articulations as the years pass.
Georges Braque, La Plaine I, 1955-56
The surprise of this massive exhibition were the final works that I did not know, presumably because they are held in private collections. The absolutely exquisite “final landscapes” — somewhere between 20 and 22 cm in height and between 72 and 77cm in length — are horizontally dissected, like studies for the possibility of abstraction in thick, glossy, impastoed paint. These works are divine because they are pure paint as colour, more abstract than anything Braque has done up to this point, even more abstract than the Cubist works from forty-five years earlier. Their horizontality not only makes them unusual, but their relative intimacy exaggerates their reflectiveness, their quietness, and beauty. Similarly, the black birds on a sky pale blue background are sumptuous. Like all of Braque’s works, the birds are given enough form to be recognizeable as birds, and are abstract enough to be not quite representational. But it is the unusual blue, radiating light and simultaneously resembling the sky that makes these works so striking.
Georges Braque, Glass and Plate of Apples, 1925
In spite of what is said about  Braque’s paintings, particularly the Cubist works, even when everything falls apart on the canvas and the instruments, vessels and human figures become fragmented, shattered geometrical and compact volumes that emphasize the two dimensionality of the painted canvas, there is still form. It never disappears altogether, just as the green of nature that has played such a prominent role in the earlier paintings, never quite leaves the canvas. However Kaleidoscopic the images, we can always recognize form, even if only in a fragment, this fragment is enough to give us a clear sense of the figure represented. To give one example, in a work such as Violin and Candlestick, 1910, the violin is given dimensionality through the use of line, again, giving depth and volume to the otherwise flat surface. Line always constrains the movement of the paint inside the forms it outlines. Line always, ultimately, creates form on Braque’s canvases.
Georges Braque, Violin and Candlestick, 1910
I remember Annette Michelson telling me, quite definitively, that perspective really fell apart, once and for all, with the coming of World War I. Until I saw this exhibition, I think I have always believed her. But today, twenty years later, as I wandered this huge and comprehensive exhibition, I wondered. Certainly, as Braque’s work is here chronologically laid out, I saw how much of the collapse of perspectival space, the battle of figure and ground, actually came from the forward motion of the history of painting. Cezanne is everywhere in Braque’s still lives, the influence of skewed spaces, the use of painting techniques that break up the illusion of reality. And one could just as easily argue that Analytical Cubism is in fact the next step in the trajectory that sees houses painted from on high, looking down at them, a perspective that comes thanks to the invention of photography and airplanes. The brown blocks, green trees, tightly packed built environments are easily transposed to the formal organization of violins and vases.

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